The Eye of Ra is an ancient Egyptian symbol loaded with potent symbolism and historical significance. The female counterpart to the Egyptian sun god Ra, the eye of Ra was an extension of his powers, yet also acting as an independent entity with its own attributes. Sometimes called the “eye of truth,” Egyptians believed the eye could see anything, giving it an overwhelming sense of authority over mankind. The symbol appeared in various forms of Egyptian art, including hieroglyphs, carvings and amulets as a stylized human eye resembling that of a falcon, with a teardrop falling from it. Let’s dive in and take a closer look at the symbol’s magical significance in ancient Egypt.
The Female Counterpart to Ra
The eye of Ra was the sun god’s female counterpart, and it often took the form of the divine female goddesses in his life, including Hathor, Sekhmet, Bastet, Uadyet and Mut. This meant the eye could leave Ra’s body in the form of another and dole out punishment with the sheer power of its rays. In one myth, Ra sent his eye in the form of Sekhmet to earth to issue a terrible punishment upon mankind for disobeying his rule. Taking her lioness form, Sekhmet harnessed the power of the Eye of Ra, rampaging across the people of the earth on a violent killing spree until Ra tricked her into drinking too much beer that made her pass out.
The female energy contained within the Eye of Ra can be compared with the Egyptian belief that the sun was a symbol of growth, fertility and birth, likening it to the female body. In one of Ra’s originary tales, the tears that fall from his eye become the first people on earth, signifying the great potency the ancient Egyptians placed on this symbol as the primary source of all life.
A Profound Symbol in Ancient Egypt
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The Eye of Ra had profound significance in ancient Egypt, due to their belief in its omnipotent authority and power. It was commonly carved onto the doorways or entrances of temples, as evidence of its all-seeing gaze. Egyptians also believed it could repel negative energy and restore harmony, and pharaohs used symbols of the eye as a form of defense against enemies. Egyptians often wore the Eye of Ra on jewelry, talismans or amulets, believing it gave wearers the ability to repel negative energy. The symbol also appeared on funerary art and inscriptions, as Egyptians believed the eye could protect the delicate soul on its journey into the afterlife, keeping it safe from harm.
A Protector and Violent Force
On one hand the Eye of Ra was seen as an almighty force of protection that could ward off impending danger, keep people safe, bring balance and order into the universe, and offer its incredible healing powers. Yet as a fierce protector, the Eye of Ra also had the power to instill great fear into ancient Egyptians, who believed it could bear witness to acts of evil or depravity, and issue out violent and destructive forms of punishment. This duality can be read as a comparison with the way Egyptians both revered and feared the sun, with its life-giving, and devastatingly damaging properties.
The Eye of Ra and the Eye of Horus
While the Eye of Ra is remarkably similar to the Eye of Horus, each has their own distinct meanings. The Eye of Ra is often the right eye, most commonly related to the sun, while the Eye of Horus is more commonly the left eye, with many links to the moon, although the names of each are sometimes used interchangeably. In some depictions, the Eye of Horus was adorned with additional mathematical Egyptian markings which made reference to the damage that occurred to Horus’ eye during a battle with his uncle Set in one well-known myth. When seen together, the two eyes represent the underlying symmetry and order of the universe; indeed, in many myths the Egyptians saw the two celestial forces as inextricably intertwined, the two ‘eyes’ that counterbalance one another.
The Eye Has a Distinctive Shape
The distinctive, stylized shape of the Eye of Ra, with its curling adornments, was designed to resemble the eye markings of a falcon, a greatly revered bird in ancient Egypt. This links the eye with Ra himself, who was often represented in art as a man with the head of a falcon. Today, the Eye of Ra continues to appear as a motif throughout popular culture, in jewelry, tattoos and other forms of art, admired as much for its striking emblem as its deeper, profound symbolism.
By Rosie LessoManaging Editor & CuratorRosie has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly and Scottish Art News. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can enrich our experience of art.