Eye of Horus: story and history of the Myth
Brief explanation of what the Eye of Horus is and its significance in ancient Egyptian mythology
The eye of Horus (or eye oudjat) is an essential symbol of Egyptian mythology.
The Eye of Horus, also known as the Eye of Ujdat, is one of the most famous symbols of Ancient Egypt. Its origin dates back to a battle between the god Horus and his uncle Set. During this fight, Horus lost his eye. Its determining role in the fight between Horus and Set as well as its presumed protective virtues make it a flagship emblem of ancient Egypt.
The Eye of Horus became a symbol of: healing, protection, regeneration, eternal life and victory of good over evil. This symbol also has its importance in mathematics. Discover then what the meaning of the Eye of Horus really is.
The Legend of the Eye of Horus : Overview of the story and its origins
The myth of Osiris is the most elaborate and influential religious story in the mythology of the ancient Egyptians. It relates the assassination of Osiris as well as its political consequences. Elder son of Geb and Nut, Osiris reigns over the country with Isis, his sister and his wife. Inventor of agriculture and religion, his reign is beneficial and civilizing.
His life comes to a tragic end when he is murdered by Set, his younger brother. The murderer usurps the throne and during this time, Isis restores the dismembered body of her husband by mummifying it. The martyrdom of Osiris earns him the right to enter the world of the Beyond, where he becomes the sovereign and the supreme guarantor of the laws of the Maat. In his new kingdom, his authority is based on an army of demons capable of reaching the earthly world and inflicting deadly epidemics.
The rest of the story focuses on the character of Horus, born from the posthumous union of Isis with Osiris. The young god is at first a vulnerable child protected by his mother. Later, as a teenager, he is Set's rival for the throne. The conflict, often very violent, ends with the triumph of Horus. By re-establishing the dynastic order after the unjust reign of Set, the enthronement of Horus completes the process of the resurrection of Osiris. The myth, with its complex symbolism, justifies the Egyptian conceptions of royalty and succession. It also allows us to understand the conflict between order and disorder, between life and death.
Who is Horus ?
Conception of Horus
Having succeeded in overcoming death, Osiris is able to engender Horus. The Texts of the pyramids present without false modesty the carnal act: "Your sister Isis came to you, happy of your love. After you placed her on your phallus, your seed sprang up in her ".
This physical relationship, described in human terms, is not, however, on the earthly plane but in the night sky. Osiris, assimilated to the constellation Orion, transmits his essence to Horus (the star Sirius) through Isis, the constellation of the Great Dog.
A passage in the sarcophagus texts, of difficult interpretation, seems to indicate a completely different version of the story. Isis is said to have been impregnated by a lightning bolt that frightened the gods : "The lightning bolt strikes, the gods are afraid. Isis watches, pregnant with the works of her brother Osiris; she rises, the abandoned woman ".
In the New Kingdom, mating is engraved on the walls of the funerary temple of Sety I at Abydos (19th Dynasty). Osiris, in erection, mates with Isis transformed into a bird placed on the phallus. The mating takes place in the tomb of Osiris, which indicates that Osiris already reigns over the Douat, the mysterious kingdom of the dead.
The same scene is already represented in the XIIIth dynasty in the form of a basalt cult statue. Discovered in 1899, it had been installed in a corner of the tomb of King Djer (First Dynasty), a place then considered by the Egyptians to be the true tomb of Osiris.
Horus in the marshes
In Egyptian stories, Isis, who is pregnant, hides from Set, for whom the unborn child is a threat.
She takes refuge in the dense swamps of the desert. She finds refuge in the dense papyrus thickets of the Nile Delta, near the city of Bouto48. This place is called Akh-bity in Egyptian and means "papyrus bush of the king of Lower Egypt ".
The Greco-Roman authors call this place Chemmis or Khemnis. However, in the myth, the actual location of this swamp is less important than its nature. The place is a symbol of isolation and safety. In these thickets, Isis gives birth to Horus and raises him.
Hence, this place is also called the "nest of Horus". In iconography, the image of Isis nursing her child is a very frequent motif. Numerous small statuettes show the young god in the guise of a prince, suckling the breast and sitting on his mother's lap. According to some magical texts, the image of Isis as a child is a very common motif.
According to some magical texts, during Horus' young years, Isis is constantly on the move, with the accomplices of Set on her tail. Sometimes she meets ordinary humans who are not aware of her identity. She then calls upon them to help her.
This is a rather unusual circumstance, as in other Egyptian myths, gods and humans do not experience this proximity. As before in the myth, during the quest for the tatters, Isis is often rescued by other deities, notably Thoth or Ra who protect her son Horus in his absence.
According to a magic formula engraved on the Metternich Stele, seven scorpions travel with Isis and serve as her escort. When a rich woman refuses to help the goddess, the scorpions take revenge by stinging the woman's son, necessitating the intervention of Isis to heal the innocent child. This story conveys a moral message that the poor can be more virtuous than the rich and illustrates the just and compassionate nature of Isis.
At this point in the myth, hidden in the swamps of Chemnis, Horus is a very vulnerable little child in many dangers. The magical texts used by the doctors make Horus' childhood the mythological basis for their effectiveness. If Horus could be saved, any Egyptian can be saved too.
The young god is the victim of every conceivable ailment, from a scorpion sting to a simple stomach ache. The magical narrative is tailored to the illness the spell is intended to treat. Most often, the child-god is bitten by a snake, reflecting the Egyptians' fear of these reptiles.
Some texts go so far as to indicate that these hostile creatures are the agents of Set. Depending on the circumstances, either Isis uses her own magical powers to save her child, or she cries out to other deities such as Ra or Geb to heal the victim. Just as Isis is the archetypal mourner in the first part of the myth, during Horus' childhood she is the ideal devoted mother; her efforts towards her son being beneficial to every Egyptian patient.
During the first millennium BCE, Horus was very popular in his child form. This fact translated into a multiplicity of divine names, of which Harpocrates "Horus the Child" and Harsiesis "Horus, son of Isis" are the best known.
Osiris and Isis breastfeeding Horus
Horus' fight against Set
The Two Fighters
The next phase of the myth begins when Horus comes out of childhood and starts to challenge Set to ascend the throne of Egypt. The confrontation between the two gods is often violent.
The pyramid texts already mention their conflict. Several expressions link the two deities in a binomial by calling them the "Two Gods", the "Two Lords", the "Two Men", the "Two Rivals" or the "Two Fighters". We learn that Horus and Set bicker and injure each other; the first losing his eye, the second his testicles.
The rivalry of Horus and Set is depicted in two opposite ways. In some passages, Horus is the son of Osiris and the nephew of Set and the murder of Osiris is the starting point of their conflict. Another tradition, probably the most archaic, presents Horus and Set as brothers.
In the New Kingdom, their rivalry is part of a legal process before the Ennead, the assembly of the principal Egyptian deities. It is indeed up to the gods to decide who should inherit the kingship. According to the papyrus of the Adventures of Horus, it is Ra, the solar god and creator, the primordial initiator of royalty. Other deities also play important roles in the process. Thoth acts as a conciliator in the dispute or as a scribe for the divine judge. Isis, as a caring mother uses her cunning and magical power to help her son who is often put in a bad position by Set.
According to the Stone of Chabaka, the judge in this trial is Geb who, as the father of Osiris and Set, occupied the throne before them. In later texts, the conflict is imagined as a civil war in which two rival armies are involved. This is the case in the Papyrus Jumilhac where the two gods have many supporters behind them.
Such is also the case in the version of Plutarch where it is even specified that Osiris returns from the Underworld to train his son. During several days a great battle takes place from which Horus comes out victorious.
In the Adventures of Horus, the judicial process is punctuated by several violent or sporting confrontations. However, on several occasions, the two gods also try to appease each other. They then call upon various other deities to arbitrate their dispute.
In order to determine the winner, their jousts take on different aspects; a boat race or a test of apnoea under the appearance of hippopotamuses. Horus beats Set several times. The former is supported by Isis and most of the other deities. However, the dispute drags on for 80 years, largely because the judge, Ra the creator god, favors Set. At the time of the apnea contest, at one point, Isis tries to harpoon Set so that their rivalry finally ceases.
Unfortunately, she hits Horus instead of Set. Her second blow of spear reaches Set in the posterior. The latter begs his sister to release him, which she does. Mad with anger, Horus cuts off his mother's head by a sudden movement of the sword.Very quickly, Thoth uses his magic and replaces the human head of Isis with that of a cow.
This episode is the etiological origin of the headdress in the shape of cow horns that Isis commonly wears in the images that represent her. Panic-stricken, Horus flees. In the desert, he is caught by Set who blinds him by enucleating him.
Out of pity, Hathor gives the young victim back his sight. These unfortunate episodes are hardly mentioned by Plutarch. He makes little of them because he considers them too odious (On Isis and Osiris).
Diodorus of Sicily reports that Isis "invented the remedy that gives immortality: she not only brought back to life her son Horus, who was killed by the Titans and whose body was found in the water, but she also gave him immortality.
Birth of Thoth
An episode of the Adventures of Horus evokes Set's homosexual tendencies.
One night, while the two gods are lying in bed together, Set attempts a sexual assault on Horus. In Set's mind, the rape of his nephew is intended to degrade his rival in order to remove him from the throne.
Homosexual desire is one of Set's major characteristics. God of chaos and confusion, his sexuality is violent and blind, active and passive. Already the Pyramid Texts evoke the unbridled sexuality of the two deities; Set and Horus sodomizing each other.
In a mythological tale from the Middle Kingdom discovered at Kahoun, Set praises the beauty of Horus' buttocks and wants to have sex with him. Horus accepts on the condition that Set gives him some of his divine power. The meeting puts Horus in danger, because in the Egyptian tradition, sperm is a powerful and dangerous substance, similar to poison.
According to some texts, Set's semen enters Horus' body and hurts him. In the Adventures, Horus thwarts Set by catching Set's semen in his hands. To cleanse Horus of this defilement, Isis cuts off Horus' hands, throws them into the Nile and then gives him two more.
To take revenge on Set, Isis puts Horus' sperm on a lettuce leaf which Set eats without realizing it. Set's defeat is evident when this seed appears on his forehead as a golden disk. Having been impregnated with the seed of his rival, he gives birth to the lunar disk.
Quickly, Thoth seizes the disk and places it on his head. However, according to allusions in the Pyramid Texts, it is Thoth himself who is the product of this unusual union; the lunar god being "the son of the Two Rivals".
The Eye of Horus
In their struggle for power, Horus and Set inflict mutual mutilations on each other in battle. According to the Pyramid Texts, Horus injures or steals Set's testicles and Set plucks out one of Horus' eyes. In the Adventures of Horus, Set tears out both of his eyes.
According to various passages in the Book of the Dead, Horus' left eye is torn into several pieces. For Set, the mutilation of the testicles means a loss of virility and power. In the mind of the Ancient Egyptians, the loss of the eye of Horus has a great symbolic meaning. The Udjat or "Eye of Horus" represents a wide variety of theological concepts.
One of the major roles of Horus is to be a celestial deity. In this role, he is pictured as a gigantic falcon. His right eye is the sun and his left eye is the moon. The theft or destruction of the left eye of Horus is thus equated with the darkening of the moon during its phase cycle or during eclipses. The mutilation of Horus is a temporary injury and the lost eye is regained after 14 days.
Many deities intervene in the healing process like Isis, Thoth or Hathor. The restoration of the eye of Horus in its integrity represents the return of the moon to full luminosity, the accession of Horus to the royalty, and many other aspects of the Maat such as the funeral offerings to be delivered to the deceased.
In the Pyramid Texts, the healing of Horus' eye by Thoth is followed by the healing of Set's testicles. It is a question of saying that the two gods reached the appeasement and the conclusion of their rivalry.
Resolution of the conflict
As with the other episodes of the myth, the resolution of the conflict between Horus and Set differs according to the textual sources. According to the Stone of Chabaka, the judge Geb divides Egypt into two kingdoms. He entrusts Lower Egypt to Horus and Upper Egypt to Set. However, in retrospect, Geb changes his mind and gives the whole kingdom to Horus.
Since then, the two rivals live in peace and have ceased their quarrel. According to the Papyrus Jumilhac, Ra orders Thoth to resolve the quarrel. After examining all of Set's evil deeds, Thoth entrusts the kingdom to Horus and drives Set into the desert. In anger, the latter mounts an army against Horus. All the gods join forces against Set and, after a bloody battle, Set is finally defeated and taken prisoner, held captive in the sky in the form of the constellation khepesh "the leg" (Great Bear).
Appeased, Horus and Set are the guarantors of the union of the Egyptian kingdom. Throne of Sesostris I, XIIth dynasty, Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
According to the Adventures of Horus, Set accompanies Ra in the solar boat and daily repels the serpent Apophis; Horus takes his rightful place on his father's throne. The divine decision that Set is in error corrects the injustice created by the murder of Osiris.
The final defeat of Set completes the process of Osiris' recovery in death. According to the sarcophagus texts, Set is condemned to carry Osiris' body to his tomb. In the royal funeral, the new king performs the rites for his deceased father by giving him food offerings to sustain him, including the Eye of Horus, which in this setting represents life and abundance.
The defeat of Set and the victory of Horus, allow Osiris to be fully revived in the afterlife. Thus, Osiris is deeply involved with the natural cycles of death and renewal, such as the annual growth of crops, in parallel with his own resurrection.
The Eye of Horus Journey until Nowadays
Throughout Egypt's long history, the country has been conquered and colonized by different empires, each leaving its mark on the land and its people. Despite these changes, however, the Eye of Horus has persisted as a potent symbol of Egyptian culture, continually undergoing transformations to fit the changing cultural contexts of each era.
One of the earliest examples of the Eye of Horus being adapted by a foreign power is during the reign of the Greeks, who conquered Egypt under Alexander the Great in 332 BC. The Greeks were fascinated by Egyptian culture and religion and sought to incorporate elements of it into their own practices. They saw in the Eye of Horus a symbol of divine protection and used it as a symbol of their own power and authority.
Following the Greek conquest, Egypt was then conquered by the Romans in 30 BC. The Romans were also interested in Egyptian culture and religion and sought to incorporate it into their own practices. They saw in the Eye of Horus a symbol of power and protection and used it as a symbol of their own imperial might.
Over time, the Eye of Horus continued to be adapted and reinterpreted by successive generations, including the Christian and Islamic empires that came later. Despite these changes, however, the symbol continued to be a potent and enduring emblem of Egyptian culture, representing the deep cultural legacy of the ancient civilization.
Today, the Eye of Horus continues to be used in spiritual and religious contexts, both in Egypt and around the world. Its resilience and ability to adapt to changing cultural contexts is a testament to the enduring nature of cultural symbols and their ability to transcend time and space. As historians, it is important to understand the historical context and cultural significance of symbols like the Eye of Horus, as they help us to better understand the complex history and legacy of ancient civilizations.
Q: Which eye did Horus lose?
A: Horus lost his left eye. His uncle Seth pulled out Horus’s eye and cut it into six parts.
Q: How did Horus get his eye back?
A: Hathor found the eye of Horus and returned it to him.
Q: Where did the Eye of Horus come from?
A: The Eye of Horus is derived from the myth of Isis and Osiris.
Q: How was the Eye of Horus made?
A: The Eye of Horus was made into an amulet and crafted from a blue-green ceramic called faience.
Q: What does the Eye of Horus do?
A: It is related with vision (particularly the power of seeing between the afterlife and the realm of the living), bodily integrity, and health protection. Because of the eye's curative function, the Egyptians saw it as a sign of protection from evil, in addition to its other connotations. It protects the person when worn as an amulet around the neck. For the deceased, to keep the embalmed body from disintegrating
Q: In Greek mythology, is there an Eye of Horus?
A: The Eye of Horus is not a part of Greek mythology. But there is the greek eye, a protective eye that descent from the eye of Horus myth evolution.
Q: Where was the Eye of Horus found?
A: The Eye of Horus was not found in a specific location, but it was a popular symbol in ancient Egypt.
Q: When was the Eye of Horus made?
A: Amulets shaped like the Eye of Horus have been around since at least 3000 B.C. These were sometimes constructed of a blue-green porcelain known as faience and were sometimes referred to as wedjat eyes, a term derived from the Egyptian meaning "made complete," which is appropriate for the Horus eye.
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