In today’s post, we will be discussing one of the most prominent ancient Egyptian symbols, the Eye of Ra. Here is everything you need to know about the symbol including various symbolisms and meanings behind it, the myths regarding its origin as well as the differences between the Eye of Ra and the Eye of Horus.
Who is Ra, the Egyptian God?
Before we dive into the symbol called the Eye of Ra, let’s introduce ourselves with the god himself. To begin with, we should mention that there are four myths of creation, depending on which major Ancient Egyptian city you turn to: Heliopolis, Hermopolis, Memphis or Thebes.
Ra/Re, who is associated with the god Atum, is perhaps the most important god in the creation myth of Heliopolis. He is the first god, the father of the famous Great Ennead family.
This includes the children of Ra: Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture); their children, Nut (sky) and Geb (earth); and their children Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys.
Myths regarding Ra, as with most Ancient Egyptian deities, are derived from the Pyramid Texts, dating back to the era of the Old Kingdom, the Book of the Dead, the Coffin Texts, the Book of the Heavenly Cow as well as various papyruses such as “The Myth of the Eye of the Sun”.
The Eye of Ra and Ra Becoming The Solar God
According to one myth, Ra became old and weary of ruling on Earth. Nun, the oldest of the Egyptian gods and the father of Ra, ordered Nut to turn into a cow and carry Ra to heaven.
Thus, Ra became the Sun God, with the solar disk seen often as his ‘Eye’ looking over the world of the mortals. Ra, without surprise, also meant “sun” in Ancient Egyptian.
A well-known tale involves Ra’s entourage with his sun boat, mandjet, travelling across the earth, lighting the whole world during the day. At night, he plunged into the netherworld with his evening barque, meshetet, visiting the twelve gates each time.
Every night, Ra had to defeat, in the underworld, the giant serpent Apep, who embodied chaos that endangered order and harmony (Maat). Similar to the myth on the Eye of Horus, it is said that Apep would swallow the Eye of Ra or his barque, creating the phenomenon of eclipses.
With sunrise, it was believed that Ra was revitalised and reborn. This is only one of the many versions that regard the Eye of Ra as the feminine counterpart of the god.
It is envisioned that the god is either born from or with Nut, the sky goddess, presenting her as his sister and partner.
As the night dissipates, the daybreak signals a day at its infancy while the sunset marks the end of its maturity. It is a cycle of regeneration and reproduction, a theme that is common in Egyptian myths.
The Eye of Ra and The Wrath of Sekhmet
Egyptians viewed the sun as a source of life but also a carrier of drought and deadly desert heat. As such, you will notice that while Ra might be revered as a saviour, he can also become a catastrophic force.
For this reason, the Eye of Ra is viewed as being distinct from him, with its own master sometimes failing to control it.
This brings us to Sekhmet, a solar warrior goddess, often seen as the embodiment of the Eye of Ra. Frequently regarded as his loyal daughter, she brings a brutal and vengeful aspect to Ra’s rule.
One myth describes how Ra sent Sekhmet in the form of his consort, Hathor, on earth to kill those who conspired to rebel against him.
However, Sekhmet’s bloodlust would not be quelled, beginning a rampage on all humanity. To stop her, Ra flooded the fields with beer mixed with red ochre to look like blood.
Sekhmet drank the mixture and became intoxicated after which she returned to Ra in a calm, pacified state of mind.
The Eye of Ra: Finding Shu and Tefnut
A different myth involves the children of Ra, Shu and Tefnut getting lost after they wandered away. Ra plucked one of his eyes out and sent it to search for them.
When the eye returned with the children, Ra had replaced it with a different eye. The eye became jealous, so Ra turned it into a uraeus (a serpent representing the goddess Wadjet) and wore it on his forehead.
In different versions, the eye often detaches herself from Ra or rebels against him, in the form of Hathor, Tefnut or Mehir. Thoth, as the god of arbitration, or other gods, like Ahnur, are sent after the eye to appease her and return her to Ra peacefully.
As the eye meanders about, it brings havoc to distant lands, like Libya or Nubia. The absence of the eye was also used to explain eclipses as well as natural disasters.
Some historians also believe that the feminine aspect of the eye also reflects the Ancient Egyptians’ view on women. A woman could be a walking contrast: passionate and loyal as well as furious and dangerous.
The Eye of Ra vs Eye of Horus
Some experts view the Eye of Ra and the Eye of Horus as different sides of the same coin, according to New Kingdom findings. Both symbols can be represented by the wedjat eye.
This is a combination of a human and a falcon eye, symbolising the healed eye of Horus that was stolen by Set and later healed by Thoth.
The Eye of Ra would, in this scenario, represent the right solar eye while the Eye of Horus would depict the left lunar eye.
Similarities could be seen between the two stories, as in both cases Thoth appears to remedy the situation, either by retrieving or healing the gods’ eyes. Apart from this, on the other hand, there are substantial differences between the two symbols.
The Eye of Ra could also be depicted as a solar disk surrounded by cobras, such as “the Hathor of Four Faces”. It is associated with female goddesses and the destruction that can be unleashed by them.
On the other hand, the Eye of Horus is not seen as a separate deity. The Eye of Horus is a symbol of the falcon god’s lucidity; how he, in contrast to his dethroned father Osiris, can see the evil intentions of Set and confront him.
For a more detailed comparison between the Eye of Ra and the Eye of Horus, please read our extensive article here.
The Eye of Ra’s Meaning and Role in Ancient Egyptian Life
The Eye of Ra, as we have deduced from the varying myths mentioned, can take different meanings.
It can symbolise the sun, rebirth, royalty, femininity and fertility. But it can also bring about aggression and destruction if challenged or disrespected.
This is one of the reasons why Ra was one of the most revered gods of Egypt. By the 5th dynasty, in fact, he had become the head of the pantheon. Temples were raised in his honor in Heliopolis, where his cult was located, as well as in other regions of Egypt.
The forms of the pyramids, ben-ben, staircase, mound and obelisk were all solar symbols used in Ancient Egyptian iconography.
Pharaohs used amulets with the Eye of Ra on them for self-protection and to veer off evil. Some also called themselves “the Son of the Sun”, by taking names like Ramses.
His name was used in curses aimed to stop the course of the sun or in spells that wished to bring justice or restore order in a situation of chaos.
This wraps up our post on the Eye of Ra, its meaning and origin. If you liked reading it, you will probably enjoy reading our detailed article on the Ankh, the Egyptian symbol of eternal life also known as the Key of the Nile. Thanks for reading!