Eye of Horus

Symbolic eyes to ward off evil...

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Eye of Horus Wedjat amulet

Even in ancient times 'Horus' should be considered as an amalgamation of the primitive falcon god Heru-Ur (identified with the sky, the sun and hence with light and seeing) and Horus the son of Osiris and Isis. There was also a third god, Horus the Child (Harpa-Khruti). This composite 'Horus' was frequently identified with the king himself and stood for power, protection, virtue and filial devotion. In hieroglyphics Horus is usually represented by a winged sun disc.

The Eye of Horus amulet was the second most popular of the seventy-five known types after the scarab beetle. Most surviving examples are made of faience (paste and quartz fired in a clay mould) and such amulets were placed on mummies or in parts of buildings. Various patterns exist; some early examples bear projections representing the body legs and tail of the sky god. A right eye is taken to symbolise the sun, a left eye the moon, and such udjats (or wedjats) frequently occur in facing pairs. The symbol might also be painted on a tomb wall or coffin, in which case the twin wedjats may be interpreted as providing eyes for the dead - the means for the mummified deceased to see the rising sun, the symbol of resurrection.

During funerary ceremonies the Eye of Horus was frequently invoked in the important Ritual of Opening the Mouth. The origin of this practice lies in the story of Horus restoring his father to life. A conflated version of the story drawn from the Pyramid texts, chapter XVII of The Book of the Dead and later Greek accounts would proceed as follows. Osiris, father of Horus, was lured to his death when, trying out a coffin for size, the lid was closed by his adversaries. Horus avenged the crime in an epic battle with Seth (or Suti) during which he was blinded, losing his eyes, whilst Seth lost his testicles. The Eye of Horus landed on the wing of Thoth who spat on it and restored it to health before returning it to its owner. In an act of supreme filial devotion Horus thereupon opened the mouth of Osiris and fed the eye to him, bringing him back from the dead.

Scholars now believe that the Egyptians had a fair understanding of eye complaints, although the medical and scientific knowledge was forever bound up with religious practice and healers were considered to be sacred figures. In their use of plants and other substances, healers in ancient Egypt were, in effect, substituting representative materials for the magic powers of certain gods. Although Horus is apparently not mentioned in any ancient medical text the Eye of Horus is cited and illustrated in many medical and non-medical papyri. It is mentioned 252 times in the Pyramid Texts. In at least one instance the eye is described as green, though it may also be said to be black or white.

Clemens Alexandrinus (lived c. AD 200) tells us that the Egyptian priests had 42 canonical books, the last six of which dealt with medical topics and one of which was specifically concerned with ocular disease. The Ebers Papyrus (discovered in 1872) proves that the Egyptians recognised several eye conditions and had treatments for them. The medication for conjunctivitis ('dripping eye') was recommended for application with the feather of a vulture.

From the time of the Old Kingdom, and probably before, msd'mt (antimony) imported from the East was used as an eye paste on the eyebrows and margins of the lid. It is important to realise that apart from the cosmetic enhancing effect of making the eyes appear larger and brighter, the application of eye paste had a medical purpose. According to Discorides (c. AD 60) use of eye paste could cleanse the eye of impure substances or prevent ulcers. In his Natural History, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder observed that eye paste constricted and cooled the eyes as well as dilating the pupils so as to accentuate their beauty.

In dry sandy climates the threat of eye disease was forever present and the Eye of Horus, a potent symbol and believed means of protection can be traced in the papyri, relics and monuments of Egypt over a period of a few thousand years. Examples may be seen today in the British Museum and other collections across the world. That belonging to the British Optical Association Museum was included in the Egyptian exhibition held at Stevenage Museum from the 19th May to the 8th December 2001. It is probably the oldest item that the museum possesses.