Eye of Ra – Origin Story, Meaning & Importance
The Eye of Ra, also known as the Eye of Re, is a powerful symbol in ancient Egyptian mythology and religion. It holds significance as a symbol of protection, divine power, and the watchful and sometimes wrathful nature of the sun god Ra.
The origin story, meaning, and importance of the Eye of Ra are deeply intertwined with Egyptian cosmology and religious beliefs.
The Eye of Ra has its roots in the mythological narratives of the ancient Egyptians. One of the most well-known myths involves the god Ra, who created the world and ruled as the sun god.
In this myth, Ra’s eye takes on both benevolent and destructive aspects.
The story goes on to say that Ra’s eye, often represented as the sun, grew angry with humanity’s disobedience and turned into a lioness or a fierce goddess. This transformed eye, known as the “Eye of Ra” (in some cases, the “Eye of Horus”) set out on a rampage, causing chaos and destruction.
In time, Ra realized the consequences of his eye’s wrath and sought to bring it back under control.
Meaning and Importance
The Eye of Ra carries several layers of symbolism and meaning.
The symbol is often invoked as a protective amulet to ward off evil and provide safety. It is believed to offer the wearer divine protection against harm and danger. This feature of the eye is usually depicted as a lioness or a uraeus (i.e. a stylized, upright form of cobra in ancient Egypt).
The eye represents the incredible power and authority of the sun god Ra. It serves as a reminder of his control over creation and the forces of the universe.
Also, the symbol embodies duality and balance. It can switch between benevolence and aggression, creation and destruction, highlighting the concept of harmony and equilibrium in the cosmos.
In some contexts, the Eye of Ra is associated with healing and restoration. This aspect is linked to the myth of the healing of Horus’s eye, which was damaged during a conflict with Seth (Set) and later restored by Thoth.
According to scholars and some Egyptologists, ancient Egyptians saw the Eye of Ra as a celestial symbol. They believed that it was connected to both the sun and the moon. The eye’s waxing and waning can be seen as a metaphor for the phases of the moon, while its fiery nature ties it to the sun’s light and energy.
Finally, the myth of the healing and restoration of the Eye of Ra reflects themes of renewal and rebirth. This symbolism is closely tied to the cycles of nature and the regeneration of life.
How the Eye of Ra is a feminine counterpart to the sun god Ra
It’s important to mention that the Eye of Ra was often depicted as a feminine counterpart to the sun god Ra and is associated with both protective and destructive aspects.
This is perhaps one of the reason why another name of the Eye of Ra is Udjat Eye, a reference to the Wadjet, the Egyptian goddess of protection.
Basically, the eye goddess assumes roles as both mother and sibling, as well as consort and daughter of the sun god. Together, they participate in the creative cycle, where the sun god generates a renewed version of himself, symbolized by the rising of the sun at dawn.
In addition to its association with the goddess Wadjet, the Eye of Ra was believed to be the personification of a number of Egyptian goddesses, including Raet-Tawy, Sekhmet, Mestjet, Bastet, Hathor, and Mut. Basically, it was common for goddess that had felid forms to be associated with the eye.
What the above means is that the Eye of Ra often exhibits independence and agency beyond its connection to Ra.
It can act as a separate goddess with her own motivations and actions. This independence highlights the complexity of Egyptian mythology, where deities can be interconnected yet distinct entities.
This duality of Ra reflects the ancient Egyptian concept of balance and harmony within the divine realm.
The radiant disk of the sun
The Eye of Ra is often equated with the sun itself, represented by the radiant disk of the sun. Just as the sun provides light, warmth, and life, the Eye of Ra embodies similar qualities and is associated with light’s life-giving and illuminating properties.
Colored in yellow or red, the disk-like sun emblem generally featured on heads of ancient Egyptian solar deities, including Ra and Horus.
It’s been suggested that the sun disk was believed to be the sun barque Ra and his protective deities sailed in every day, moving across the sky into the underworld (the Duat) and then rising again at dawn.
Eye of Ra and the Eye of Horus
Scholars have drawn a lot of similarity between the Eye of Ra and the Eye of Horus. First of all, both Ra and Horus were seen as sun deities in ancient Egypt.
In the myths, the Eye of Horus is believed to be the left wedjat eye, while the Eye of Ra is the right wedjat eye (or udjat eye).
Similar to the Eye of Ra, the Eye of Horus symbolizes protection and healing. According to the myths, the falcon-headed god Horus gifted it to his father, Osiris, the god of vegetation and afterlife. It’s said the Eye of Horus is what sustains Osiris in the afterlife.
This explains why Egyptian funerary rituals heavily used the symbol. As a matter of fact, it was one of the most frequently used symbols on amulets.
Solar Eye of Ra and the Lunar Eye of Horus
When ancient Egyptians gazed up into the heavens and saw the sun and moon, they formed a belief that the sun and moon were the eyes of the gods. They associated the sun to the Eye of Ra, while the moon was associated to the Eye of Horus.
Alternatively, it was believed that the sun and moon represented Horus’s right and left eyes, respectively.
Mentioned prominently in the Pyramid Texts – ancient Egyptian funerary texts that date to the Old Kingdom era (c. 2686 – c. 2181) – are the concepts of the Eye of Ra and the Eye of Horus.
How was the Eye of Ra depicted in ancient Egypt?
Being a powerful symbol, the Eye of Ra was often depicted in ancient Egyptian art and iconography. Its visual representation can vary in style and detail, but there are common elements that help identify the symbol. For example:
- The Eye of Ra is represented as an eye, usually with a distinctive design that sets it apart from a human eye. It may appear more stylized or elongated, emphasizing its divine nature.
- In most cases, the eye was depicted within the context of a sun disk, emphasizing its connection to the sun god Ra. The sun disk may have rays radiating outward, symbolizing the sun’s light and energy.
- The Uraeus, a cobra symbol often associated with Egyptian royalty and divine power, may be present atop the eye or sun disk. This serpent motif reinforces the idea of protection and sovereignty.
- In some ancient Egyptian artworks, the depictions combine human and animal features. It may have features of a human eye with additional elements like the markings of a falcon or the body of a lioness. These features highlight the dual nature of the eye as both nurturing and fierce.
- The Eye of Ra is often depicted in specific colors that hold symbolic significance. The eye may be colored red, gold, or another vibrant hue that represents the sun’s fiery energy.
- In some depictions, the Eye of Ra is shown with wings, further emphasizing its protective nature. The wings may be outstretched as a symbol of guarding and sheltering.
The revitalizing and regenerative aspect of the Eye of Ra
With Ra being the embodiment of the sun as well as the Eye of Ra serving as his feminine counterpart, it does not come as a surprise that some artworks had Ra depicted inside the sun disk. This was perhaps a reference to sun disk serving as some sort of celestial womb from which Ra emerged every morning.
It was believed that Ra was reborn at dawn, emerging from the sky (i.e. the goddess Nut). And at sunset, Ra’s masculine aspect sails into the body of the goddess Nut so that he can be reborn the following day.
Ra’s daily birth was seen as a cosmic event that revitalized not just the gods but all creations.
Basically, Eye of Ra serves as both the womb and mother of the growing Ra. And come sunset, the eye becomes the wife of the adult form of Ra. Ra is thus everything to himself – daughter, son, consort, mother, and father.
The Eye of Ra – the entity that vanquished the forces of chaos
In civilizations of the past, even spanning millennia, the immense power and sometimes devastating nature of the sun were well recognized. The ancient Egyptians were intimately acquainted with this reality.
The sun god Ra and his aspect known as the Eye of Ra played integral roles in these dynamics. While they were credited with nurturing growth on the land, the ancient Egyptians also perceived their potential for destruction.
For instance, they held the belief that the Eye of Ra possessed the ability to release arrows against evil forces (example Apep or Apophis – the embodiment of chaos and darkness) that threatened the pharaoh and the land.
This particular formidable aspect of the eye, often symbolized by the uraeus (a stylized, upright cobra in ancient Egypt) or a lioness, was deemed necessary to uphold the delicate balance of the universe and preserve cosmic order (i.e. maat).
In the myths, Eye of Ra – in the form of deities like Hathor and Sekhmet – accompany Ra on his daily ride through the underworld. There, the Eye of Ra stands guard to protect Ra from any form of malevolent force that is thrown at the sun barque.
In one account, the Eye of Ra spits out fire that incinerates forces like Apep every night. Regardless Apep manages to regenerate come dawn, and the cycle begins all over again.
This concept emphasized the dual nature of the sun’s influence – both life-giving and potentially disruptive – as an essential force in the Egyptian worldview.
Ra and Atum
As Ra is himself a creator god, the Eye of Ra was associated with the Atum, a primordial god in ancient Egyptian religion. It was believed that Atum, a creator god, created himself before going on to create the first deities – Shu and Tefnut. As a result, the Eye of Ra was sometimes known as the Eye of Atum.
Relationship between the Eye of Ra and the uraeus
As stated above, the uraeus is a symbol of protection and royalty. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the uraeus was associated with the Eye of Ra.
According to the myths, long before the Atum’s creation of the world, his two children – Tefnut and Shu – left his sides and ventured into places beyond the waters of Nu. It was believed that Nu is the personification of the primordial waters from which everything, including Atum, emerged.
Heartbroken by his children’s departure, Atum (in some cases Ra) sent out his only eye to bring them back home. The eye successfully completes its tasks, and Shu and Tefnut are reunited with their father.
However, the eye was taken aback when it found out that Atum had regrown another eye. Not wanting any enmity to develop between himself and the first eye, Atum elevated it to a higher position by placing it on his forehead.
The above explains why the uraeus (i.e. “rearing cobra”) was used as a head ornament of the Egyptian pharaoh. Thus, the uraeus formed an important part of the pharaoh’s crown. This made the Eye of Ra an important symbol of the pharaoh.
The Destructive Aspect of the Eye of Ra
In one account of the myth, it’s said that Ra had gotten frustrated with mankind’s transgressions against not just his authority but the principles of Ma’at as well. The sun god unleashed the Eye of Ra, who took the form of Sekhmet (The Destroyer of Rebellion). The goddess descended upon the earth and began exacting a heavy punishment on humanity for their transgression against Ra.
The myth goes on to say that Sekhmet went berserk. In the form of a lioness, she killed every one of Ra’s conspirators, leaving the land of Egypt in a pool of blood.
Sekhmet’s insatiable craving for blood caused her to vent her anger on the innocent. Ra then began to suspect that Sekhmet was on a mission to annihilate every life on earth.
To curb Sekhmet’s rampage, Ra hatched a strategy. He instructed the people of Egypt to tinge the Nile with red dye, quite possibly derived from pomegranate. He also instructed them to pour abundant quantities of beer into the river. This concoction transformed the river’s appearance into that of blood. Mistakenly perceiving the river as blood, Sekhmet leaped into it and consumed it with fervor. As a result, she became intoxicated and, in a reflective state, transformed back to Hathor and returned to Ra.
How is the Eye of Ra a companion to the pharaoh?
As a matter of fact, Egyptian pharaohs were seen as the human manifestations of Horus during their reign. And after death, the pharaohs descended into the afterlife to become the manifestation of Osiris. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Eye of Ra and Ra himself would be seen as a companion to the pharaoh.
The Eye of Ra – a progenitor of human beings
It’s believed that when Tefnut and Shu were reunited with Ra (or Atum), the sun god shed a tear. And out of that tear came forth the first humans. In a different account, it is the Eye of Ra that sheds tear. This would mean that the Eye of Ra was the creator of humans. However, this doesn’t really make any difference considering the fact that ancient Egyptians saw the Eye of Ra and Ra as the same entity.
The wandering/rebellious eye
In one of the myths, the Eye of Ra is filled with so much jealousy after the world is formed that she leaves Ra’s side. With the eye no longer available to protect and offer Ra is regenerative powers, Ra grows very weak. His enemies capitalize on the eye’s absence and hurl evil arrows at him.
The eye wanders aimlessly in the foreign lands and the desert regions for many, many years. In some accounts, she transforms from a cat into a fire-breathing lioness and begins to commit evil.
Ultimately, Ra is reunited with his eye and is able to push back the forces of evil once again. Depending on the version of the story, either Thoth (god of wisdom) or Anhur (a warrior god) is credited with bringing the eye back.
The above story has been interpreted by scholars as the ancient Egyptians’ view of solar eclipses. Also, the return of the eye was believed by Egyptians to usher in the inundation of the Nile, a time of growth.
The Egyptian deities associated with the Eye of Ra
The first and obvious associate of the Eye of the Ra is Horus, the falcon-headed sky and sun god. Other solar deities like Atum and Atum-Ra were also associated with the eye.
The Eye of Ra was not only associated with solar deities, but it was associated with deities that took feline form, including the likes of Mut, Sekhmet, Bastet, and Mestjet.
Also deities that took serpent form – like Wadjet, Meretseger, Renenutet, and Weret-hekau – were associated with the eye.
Deities like Hathor, Neith, Nekhbet, Anuket, Satet (Satit), and Mehet-Weret were also linked to the eye.
Furthermore, Ma’at – the goddess of order, truth and justice – was associated with the eye. In some accounts, Ma’at is seen as the daughter of Ra.
Egyptian queens seen as the manifestation of the Eye of Ra
The notion of the solar eye assuming the roles of mother, consort, and daughter of a deity became an integral part of royal ideology. Pharaohs embraced the identity of Ra, while their partners were seen as the manifestation of the eye goddess.
The above explains why sun disks and uraei were also incorporated into the headdresses of queens during the New Kingdom era.
Protection in this life and the afterlife
It was believed that the Eye of Ra offered protection beyond the land of the living. This is evident in the belief of how Ra is protected in the underworld. It also means that individuals that die get to receive protection from the eye during their journeys into the afterlife.
READ MORE: List of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses
The Eye of Ra holds a profound place in ancient Egyptian religious practices and iconography. It’s a potent emblem that represents the complex interplay of cosmic forces, deities, and the intricate balance of creation and destruction in Egyptian cosmology.