The ancient Egyptians lived in a society that is considered to be one of the most fascinating in human history.
The people of that time gave credence to both the physical and spiritual aspects of their culture in the form of symbols, architecture, art, mythology, and mystical objects that were used to bring protection and fortune.
These symbols played a key role in passing cultural knowledge from one generation to the next, as they were written in the form of hieroglyphs on temple walls and obelisks, and used in ancient religious rituals involving both the living and the dead.
One such hieroglyphic symbol is the Eye of Horus (The Egyptian Eye), which is arguably the most recognized symbol in ancient Egypt. The Eye is named after one of the most powerful and influential Egyptian gods that made up the Ennead, Horus.
In this guide, we will focus on the various mythological aspects of the eye and why ancient Egyptians held it in such regard. To understand this, we will discuss the following:
Table of Contents
- Who is Horus?
- The Eye of Horus
- What is the Meaning Behind the Eye of Horus?
- Who is Ra?
- The Eye of Ra
- The Difference Between the Eye of Ra and the Eye of Horus
- Facts & Myths About the Eye of Horus
- What Does the Eye of Horus Symbolize?
- The Mathematics of the Eye of Horus
- The Eye of Horus Hieroglyphic
- Summary of Ancient Egyptian Symbols
- Modern Uses
- Frequently Asked Questions
Who is Horus?
He is one of the most renowned and beloved gods of the Ennead, the nine deities in Egyptian mythology worshipped at Heliopolis.
Horus is the God of Sky and representations from ancient Egypt show him as a man with the head of a falcon. In some hieroglyphs and artistic renditions, he is depicted as the falcon itself.
The ancients believed that Horus’s right eye depicted the sun, while his left eye depicted the moon, meaning he had dominion over all of heaven.
The origin of Horus is found in the myth of Osiris and Isis, which is widely known as the most famous myth of ancient Egypt. Osiris and Isis are represented as the male and female forces of the universe respectively in the eyes of the ancients.
The Egyptians believed that Osiris was the eldest son of the Goddess of the Sky, Stars, and Cosmos, Nut, and God of the Earth, Geb. He was the ruling king of Egypt and married one of his sisters, Isis, as was the Royal custom at that time.
Their marriage resulted in a son, Horus, the Sky God. Besides, Isis, Osiris had two other siblings, Set and Nephthys.
The myth goes that Set — the god of chaos, discord, envy, fire, desert, storms, and trickery — coveted Osiris’s throne and to that end, committed fratricide and became the new king, bringing chaos and disorder to Egypt.
Additionally, Set did not just stop at murdering his elder brother; he also dismembered him into 14 pieces and scattered them across the land. This was done to prevent his body from passing into the underworld, because according to ancient Egyptian beliefs, one’s body needed to be embalmed and entombed so that it could enter the underworld and be judged.
Isis went on a quest to recover Osiris’s dismembered parts, accompanied by her son, Horus, her sister Nephthys, and Nephthys’s son, Anubis. The four were able to locate all of his pieces and Isis was able to resurrect him.
Osiris’s spirit then transmigrated to the underworld, Amenti, and ruled the dead there. Henceforth, he became the god of the Underworld, also known as the God of Transition, Resurrection, and Regeneration.
Meanwhile, Isis raised Horus on her own. When Horus reached adulthood, he sought revenge from Set for killing his father and sundering his parents apart. Horus fought Set, his uncle, in a series of battles, and was gradually able to defeat him.
This heroic fight has become a metaphor for the battle between order and chaos and illustrates the eternal struggle between the virtuous, sinful, and punishment. Once Horus gained the throne, he restored Egypt back to prosperity and progress.
The Eye of Horus
During the fight between Horus and Set, both the gods sustained heavy injuries; Horus’s eye was ripped out and Set lost a testicle. The latter is used to indicate why the desert, which is represented by Set, is barren.
According to one version, Set tore out Horus’s eye and — like he did to Horus’s father — ripped his eye in six parts and threw them away.
In another version, it was Horus himself who tore out his eye to bring his father back to life. This illustrates why the Eye of Horus is considered to be a symbol of sacrifice.
After Horus lost his eye, it was restored magically. Some versions claim that Hathor, Goddess of the sky, fertility, beauty, and women, reconstructed his eye. Hathor is also believed to be Horus’s consorts. Others state that it was Thoth, the God of wisdom, magic, and moon, who gave Horus back his eye.
Thoth depicted in Baboon form holds the Eye of Horus.
Walters Art Museum / Public domain
At this point, the Eye was called “Wadjet,” “Wedjat,” “Udjat” and “Wedjoyet” which translated to “whole and healthy.” Since it is widely believed that it was Horus’s left eye which was gouged out, it represented the waxing and waning of the moon.
The days in which there is no moon in the sky illustrates the time when Horus’s eye was ripped out, before being restored every lunar month.
What is the Meaning Behind the Eye of Horus?
Based on this famous myth, the Eye of Horus became a sacred symbol of sacrifice, healing, regeneration, wholeness, and protection in ancient Egypt.
As such, its symbol was often carved into amulets and jewelry made of gold, silver, porcelain, lapis, wood, and carnelian, to ensure health and protection of the wearers and offer them prosperity and wisdom.
It was also carved into funerary monuments to offer the souls of the departed safe passage to the underworld and the afterlife. The eye is also used as a hieroglyph and represents fractional calculations.
Who is Ra?
Ra was the god of the sun, also known as the creator God, from whom the other gods emerged.
Records state that he would travel across the sky on his solar barque and in the night, would pass through the underworld on another barque, so that he could vanquish the evil serpent Apopis and be born again for a new day.
As a creator god, he is believed to have risen from the ocean of chaos and then engendered the eight other gods in the Ennead.
The oldest mentions of Ra came from the Second Dynasty (2890 –2686 BC). However, by the Fourth Dynasty (2613 to 2494 BC), Ra became closely associated with the pharaoh, which in turn was seen as an incarnation of Horus.
The two became closely linked and many syncretisms were formed between Ra and other gods, including Ra-Horakhty (Ra, who is Horus of the two Horizons).
He also became linked with Atum (the creator god of the Ennead in Heliopolis) and came to be known as Atum-Ra. By the Fifth Dynasty, pharaohs held the title of “Sun of Ra” and from then on, “Re” became part of the name they took when the new ruler ascended the throne.
The Eye of Ra
The myth of the Eye of Ra began when Ra, who was believed to be the actual Pharaoh of Egypt during that time, perceived the people forgot to respect him and his rule.
They would break laws and make sarcastic comments at his expense. The sun god was furious at the insult and decided to show mankind the errors of their way by sending an aspect of his daughter, the Eye of Ra.
The Eye of Ra is described as a powerful, destructive force that was associated with the fiery heat of the sun and was born to subdue Ra’s enemies.
It is represented by the disk of the sun and is sometimes believed to be an independent entity, associated with a number of other Egyptian gods, notably, Bast, Hathor, Sekhmet, Tefnut, Nekhbet, and Mut.
It is believed that Ra plucked her from the Ureas, the royal serpent on his brow — a symbol of royal authority and protection — and sent her to Earth in the form of a lion. There, the Eye of Ra waged a bloodbath and massacred thousands of humans until the fields became red with blood.
When Ra saw the extent of carnage his daughter wrought, he feared she would kill everyone and commanded her back to his side. However, the Eye of Ra was filled with blood lust and turned a deaf ear to his pleas.
So Ra poured 7,000 jugs of beer, stained with pomegranate juice, to look like blood all over the fields. The Eye of Ra gorged on the blood and became so drunk she went to sleep for three days. When she woke up, she had a terrible hangover. And this is how mankind was saved from her.Learn more about the Eye of Ra:
The Difference Between the Eye of Ra and the Eye of Horus
The Eye of Ra is similar to the Eye of Horus and represents many of the same concepts.
Eye of Ra (Right Eye)
- Related to the Sun
- Symbol of protection
- Symbol of power
- Symbol of good luck
- Represents fertility, birth and femininity
- Represents aggression and danger when provoked
Eye of Horus (Left Eye)
- Related to the Moon
- Symbol of protection
- Symbol of power
- Symbol of wellbeing and health
- Symbol of sacrifice
- Used to ward off evil
- Used as a measuring system
The ancient Egyptians often called the sun and the moon the “eyes” of gods. For instance, the right eye of Horus was referred to as the sun, while his left eye was referred to as the moon.
However, in Egyptian mythology, many concepts are fluid, so at times, Egyptians called the moon the Eye of Horus, and called the sun, the Eye of Ra.
Like the sun, the Eye of Ra is the source of light and heat and is closely linked to the element of fire. It is also associated with the red light of the dawn and the morning star that signals the arrival of the sun.
Since the sun brings the new day, so the life-giving powers of the Eye of Ra were celebrated in many rituals. Conversely, its violent aspects were invoked while protecting the pharaoh, holy places, or the common people.
Both The Eye of Horus and The Eye of Ra offer great protection, however, it is the way this protection is demonstrated that separates the two. It is also generally believed that while the left eye symbolizes Horus, the right eye symbolizes Ra.
Facts & Myths About the Eye of Horus
The Eye of Providence shown on the Great Seal of the United States, shown here on the reverse side of the US $1 bill.
de:Benutzer:Verwüstung / Public domain
The eye of Horus was seen as an omnipresent, omniscient symbol of protection by the ancient Egyptians. Due to this, there are many facts and myths associated with the eye:
- The ancient Egyptians believed the eye was not just a passive organ of sight but also represented protection, action, and anger. It is believed that the ancient Egyptians painted the Eye of Horus on the bows of their ship before they set off for perilous voyages. The Eye was meant to guide and protect the vessel on its journey through uncharted waters and keep malevolent forces at bay. This may be why the Eye of Horus is also linked with the “Evil Eye” symbol.
- The ancient Egyptians believed that the pharaoh was the embodiment of Horus, a personification of heavenly forces designed to be their rules by virtue of his divine blood. As such, the pharaoh was often referred to as “Living Horus,” and it was believed that at the time of a pharaoh’s death, the spirit of Horus would pass from the deceased to the heir. This illustrates why the Eye of Horus was so often displayed on royal vestments and in royal courts.
- The Eye of Horus was also used in funeral ceremonies. The ancient Egyptians believed the hieroglyph was a symbol of divine protection and represented the will of gods over the mortal realm. It was also meant to be the guiding eye for the pharaoh to make his journey to the underworld. Some of the most elaborate and precious funerary amulets were excavated from sarcophagi and the pyramids were even designed in the form of the Eye of Horus.
- It is believed that the variation of the Eye of Horus is the Eye of Providence found in the Great Seal of the United States, notably on the dollar bill. It is also associated with the Freemasons, though Egyptologists say associations with them are quite problematic.
- The stylized “RX” symbol which is prominently used by pharmacies (you may have seen it on the bottom of prescription slips) is also believed to have its origin in the Eye of Horus, due to its association with healing.
What Does the Eye of Horus Symbolize?
A gold ornament of The eye of Horus. From the Ptolemaic Period (305 BC–30 BC). Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0
Since Egyptian mythology is fluid, the Eye of Horus has come to symbolize many things. The shape of the eye itself is quite complex and has given rise to different interpretations.
The symbol of the Eye of Horus is a highly stylized eye and an eyebrow. The dual lines extending from the bottom of the lash represent the markings on the falcon symbol of Horus.
The Eye comprises of an arched eyebrow line that tapers into a straighter horizontal line at the top.
Below it is an almost-parallel line that denotes the top of the eye. Another arched line below it connects to the horizontal taper of the top of the eye.
Between them is the iris or pupil, which is often colored blue. Off-center towards the right is a vertical line that mimics a teardrop and this is often simply known as the “tear.” The last element of the eye is a long curved line that starts from where the tear originates, extends to the left and ends in a curlicue.
Although the physical representations are easy to see, the Eye of Horus has deeper meanings incorporated into every line and it follows precise laws. In fact, the shape of the eye is significant to human neuroanatomy.
- One of the names of the Eye of Horus is the Eye of Mind, which can be illustrated by the eyebrow which was believed to denote thought and wisdom.
- The pupil represents the sense of sight.
- The triangular shape that is made up of the space between the pupil and the inside of the eye symbolizes the sense of hearing.
- The triangular shape that is made up of the space between the pupil and the outer corner of the eye symbolizes the sense of smell.
- The curving line that ends in a spiral denotes the tongue and the sense of taste.
- The tear represents the sense of touch.
Intriguingly, the shape of the Eye of Horus also closely resembles the anatomy of the brain.
The eyebrow is identical to the corpus callosum, the pupil is identical to the interthalamic adhesion, the triangular shape that corresponds to hearing is identical to anterior transverse temporal lobe and posterior transverse temporal lobe, the triangular shape that corresponds to smell represents the olfactory trigone, the tear represents the somatosensory pathway and the curling line represents the taste pathway.
The Mathematics of the Eye of Horus
One of the most fascinating things about the shape of the Eye of Horus is that the six individual elements of the eye (as Horus’s eye was ripped into six pieces by Set) represent mathematical equations.
Each of the pieces is translated into a fraction unit of measurement known as the heqat, one of the oldest Egyptian measuring systems used to quantify grain, beer, and bread. Today, 1 heqat equals to 4.8 litres.
Each part of the eye corresponds to the fraction and their whole comes up to 1 heqat. Based on the corresponding senses, the fraction values are:
- ½ heqat corresponds to the outer triangle of the eye
- ¼ heqat corresponds to the pupil
- 1/8 heqat corresponds to the eyebrow
- 1/16 corresponds to the inner triangle of the eye
- 1/32 corresponds to the curling tail that represents taste
- 1/64 corresponds to the tear.
If you add the numbers, it makes 63/64, which means the fractions do not total to 100 percent, but only 98.43 percent.
Some Egyptians believe that since Thoth replaced Horus’s eye, the missing fraction was withheld by his magic. It could also mean that nothing is perfect.
The Eye of Horus Hieroglyphic
The Eye of Horus (The Egyptian Eye) is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph which is depicted in a number of relics and artifacts. In ancient Egypt, the eye was represented by seven different hieroglyphs, but most commonly the “ir” or “ir.t” which stood for “take action,” or “one who does.”
This means the eye was not considered to be a passive organ but rather a key instrument that provided protection from malefic forces or was an agent of action. In some cases, the eye also represented wrath, as is the case of the Eye of Ra.
Since Egyptian hieroglyphics are fluid and many concepts of the Eye of Ra overlap that of the Eye of Horus, this could also mean that the latter also represented wrath.
Most commonly though the Eye of Horus hieroglyph was used as a protective symbol and as a guide to the underworld, as evident by the gold amulet discovered in the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen. Because of its protective powers, the Eye of Horus was worn by the living and dead alike.
Summary of Ancient Egyptian Symbols
The ancient Egyptian society was largely illiterate and the sacred symbols served the vital purpose of passing on the key values and customs of the culture, from generation to generation.
The common man may not be able to read the literature that recounted the stories of the gods but would take a look at the symbols on the temple walls and would know their history.
The three most common symbols in Egyptian history are the Eye of Horus, the Eye of Ra (explained above) and the “Ankh” (explained in the FAQ section below). Some other ancient Egyptian symbols which have high importance are described below:
The Djed is a pillar-like symbol with a broad base tapering as it goes up and crossed with four parallel lines near the top. The symbol is the reference to the god Osiris and is associated with stability, eternal life, and resurrection.
Hence, the symbol was often carved into amulets and put at the spine of the mummified bodies to help the deceased soul pass into the afterlife.
The Was Scepter
The Was scepter, an Egyptian symbol of power and dominion.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Public domain]
The Was Scepter is a symbol of a staff topped by the head of a canine, possibly Anubis, though in earlier times it was a totemic animal like a dog or a fox.
The symbol depicts power and dominion and is often displayed in various versions of hieroglyphs and is associated with many gods. For example, Ra-Horakhty’s Was Scepter was blue representing the sky while that of Ra was represented with a snake, the symbol of rebirth.
In the funerary context, the Was Scepter was responsible for the well-being of the dead and hence was often included in sarcophagi decorations.
The Scarab Beetle is a very important symbol in Egyptian iconography. As the Sun God rolled across the skies, transforming bodies into souls, the scarab beetle would roll its dung into balls and lay eggs in them — hence completing the cycle of life from death.
Because of this, the Scarab Beetle came to be the symbol of the heavenly cycle of regeneration and rebirth.
The Tjet symbol, associated with the Goddess Isis
Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0]
The Tjet, also known as the “Knot of Isis” resembles the Ankh with a pair of arms at the side. The symbol is associated with the goddess Isis and has been interpreted as the fold of a woman’s dress or the female genitalia.
The symbol represents welfare, life, and protection and is often paired with the Ankh, hence offering the dual security of both Isis and Osiris. In ancient funerary context, Tjet amulets were placed on the neck of mummified bodies for protection against malefic forces.
The Shen ring is a stylized circle of rope with a line tangent to it. The symbol is believed to represent completeness, eternity, infinity, and protection.
Goddesses Isis and Nekhbet are often depicted kneeling with their hands resting on the Shen, while Horus with Outstretched Wings has a Shen grasped in each talon.
Hekha and Nekhakha
Hekha and Nekhakha, also known as the Crook and the Flail are two of the most famous symbols of ancient Egypt. The crook stands for kingship while the flail represents the land’s fertility.
They were associated with Osiris and became an icon of pharaonic authority and affirmed their legitimacy as kings.
Ourborus stands for infinity.
The Ouroboros is an ancient Egyptian symbol which depict a snake or a dragon eating its own tail. The skin-sloughing process of the snake represents transmigration of souls while the snake or dragon biting its tail symbolizes fertility.
Hence, the symbol stands for infinity and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Today, the Eye of Horus is a very popular choice for a tattoo as it is considered a symbol of good luck and protection.
Eye of Horus pendant.
Jon Bodsworth / Copyrighted free use
Ancient Egyptians believed the Eye contained magical properties as it was restored magically. Hence they used to wear jewelry made from gold, carnelian, and lapis, carved with the eye. Today, many people still wear the symbol either a fashion statement or to protect themselves from the evil eye
An Australian cosmetic brand by the name of “Eye of Horus Cosmetics” has taken inspiration from this mythical symbol. The brand is made for every woman and designed to “Awaken the Goddess Within” and is famous among celebrities and beauty bloggers.
Many streetwear brands are emblazoned with the Eye of Horus and denote it as a “pagan” symbol.
Uses in Magic
Even today, the eye of Horus remains very popular among occult believers. The eye is believed to be a symbol of protection, health, healing, and rejuvenation.
However, this sacred symbol is believed to be adopted by the Illuminati, a secret society, which allegedly conspires to control global political affairs. In many versions, the Eye is depicted inside a triangle which may symbolize elemental fire or mimics the All-Seeing Eye.
Because of this, the Eye of Horus is now erroneously associated with power, manipulation, obscurantism, oppression, and absolute control over knowledge.
Cover art from the “Eye of Horus” computer game.
In 1989, Fanfare created an “Eye of Horus” computer game for Amigas. The player is Horus who must find the pieces of his father, Osiris, and assemble them to vanquish Set.
The missing pieces are located inside labyrinths in which hieroglyphs come alive and try to thwart the player. In the game, Horus also has the ability to transform into a hawk and fly over his opponents to complete his mission.
Books are written on the Eye of Horus
Book Cover – from the book “The Eye of Horus” by Carol Thurston.
One of the most famous books written on the subject is “The Eye of Horus” by Carol Thurston. The book is set in the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt and in present-day Texas and Colorado.
One half of the book involves the daughter of the former queen of Egypt, Nefertiti and the other involves modern-day researcher, Kate, who investigates a mummy of a young woman who was embalmed and buried with a man’s skull between her legs.
Interestingly, such a mummy is displayed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
General Use as a Protective Symbol
Even though the ancient Egyptian civilization is no more, many mythologies and beliefs of the time still persist. For example, fishermen in Mediterranean countries continue to paint their fishing boats with the Eye of Horus for protection.
Frequently Asked Questions
The ankh, also known as the key of the Nile, the key of life, or crux ansata, is another extremely popular symbol from ancient Egyptian times. It is shaped like a teardrop sitting on top of a T shape.
The hieroglyph represents the concept of eternal life, which is similar to some concepts about the Eye of Horus. Some Egyptologists say it is similar to the knot of Isis or tyet, the meaning of which is also hidden.
Egyptian gods associated with death are frequently depicted carrying an ankh in each hand with arms crossed over their chests. They may also hold it up to the nose of the deceased to breathe in eternal life.
There are also artistic depictions of pharaohs participating in purification rituals with the gods pouring water over their heads, in which the water is represented by chains of ankh and was (the symbol of dominion and power). It illustrates the close connections of the pharaohs and the gods in whose name the kings ruled.
In Thelemic rituals, the ankh is viewed as a union of the male and female, but ancient Egyptian data does not support this interpretation.
The Eye of Horus is not just magical; it also corresponds to the neuroanatomical features of humans.
If the Eye is superimposed over the median cut of the brain, each of its six parts relate to six essential areas of the human brain, i.e. the corpus callosum, the interthalamic adhesion, anterior transverse temporal lobe and posterior transverse temporal lobe, the olfactory trigone, somatosensory pathway, and the taste pathway.
The Eye of Horus has been known by many names and is closely associated with the “Third Eye,” “the Eye of the Mind,” and the “Eye of Truth and Insight.”
Therefore, Egyptologists also believe that the Eye of Horus may be the precursor of the other significant eyes that have appeared in other cultures. Most notably, Shiva, one of the gods in Hindu theology, is always represented with a third eye on his forehead which represents the crown chakra and provides perception beyond simple sight.
In Buddhism, the Buddha is referred to as the “Eye of Truth” or the “Eye of the World.”
In the myth of Osiris and Isis, it is specifically stated that Horus’s left eye, which represented the moon, was ripped out during the battle with Seth.
Therefore, this myth refers to the cycle of the moon and the period in which no moon appears is believed to be the days when Horus’s eye was torn out, before it reappears every lunar month.
The original symbolism of the Eye of Horus has been revealed to the modern world through early Egyptian texts and hieroglyphs that have survived millennia in the Nile desert.
The Eye of Horus is a deeply religious symbol, though the concept of “religion” during the times of ancient Egypt was vastly different from the present-day Western concept.
Religion did not have a separate distinct role in a secular society but was fully integrated in the routine lives of the common people, nobility, and kings, not just priests.
As such, the symbol of the Eye of Horus has appeared on inscriptions, amulets, jewelry, and sculptures of Egyptians through the ages, irrespective of class.
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- Karim ReFaey (2019) The Eye of Horus: The Connection Between Art, Medicine, and Mythology in Ancient Egypt
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