"This is Horus who came forth from the Nile”
(The Pyramid Texts)
Throughout the ages the eye has been used metaphorically to explain various metaphysical, spiritual and cosmological models and theories. Alchemists, Cabbalists, and Christians, to mention some, used it frequently. Their literature and art abound with eyes and vision. A few examples:
Zohar, one of the two most important Cabbalistic scriptures (written down as we know it during the thirteenth century, but quoted in another text already in the second century AD) says:
"[...] the eye of man [is] an image of the world and all the colours in it are arranged in circles. The white in the eye corresponds to the ocean, which surrounds the whole world on all sides; a second colour is the mainland, which the ocean surrounds, or which lies between the waters; a third colour is the middle region: Jerusalem, the centre of the world. But a fourth colour, the vision of the whole eye itself [...] is Zion, the midpoint of everything, and visible within it is the appearance of the whole world."
And here, the cosmic eye according to the same source:
"Here, two eyes once more become one [...]. By its changing gaze all things are nourished [...]. If this eye closed for a moment, nothing could exist anymore. For this reason it is called opened eye, upper eye, sacred eye, sovereign eye, an eye that sleeps not nor slumbers, an eye that is the guard of all things, the continuous existence of all things."
The two eyes becoming one is further elaborated upon by Meister Eckhart (1260?-1328?) in Deutsche Predigten und Traktate:
"The eye in which I see God is the same eye in which God sees me; my eye and God's eye that is one eye and one seeing and one recognising and one loving."
Another expression of a cosmic eye, by Dionysios Andreas Freher (1649-1728):
"Alfa and Omega, the eternal beginning and the eternal end, the first and last. Unground without time and space. Chaos. Mirror eye of eternity."
In so called "visionary optics," a distinction is made between three forms of eyes and corresponding forms of vision: the eye of the flesh, the eye of reason, and the eye of mystical contemplation. This metaphysical tradition can be traced at least as far back as to St. Augustine. Jacob Böhme, a German shoemaker who lived around 1600 and became a very influential thinker, claimed that knowledge could be gained only "with the eyes in which life gives birth to itself in me." Böhme strongly influenced Newton.
"It is like an eye that sees and yet guides nothing in seeing that it may see, for the seeing is without being [...] Its seeing is in itself." (J. Böhme)
Correspondences have always been appealing to the mind. We saw how Zohar compared the eye to the world. With the white as the Father, the iris as the Son, and the pupil as the Holy Spirit, the eye is a symbol of the Trinity. A (comparatively) more recent example of correspondences is found in "A Blue Book" by Swedish author, painter, and universalist August Strindberg (1849-1912), a late Alchemist.
"The heart is based on the curve of the diaphragm, but the axis is in inclined at an angle of 23 degrees, like the axis of the earth against the path of the sun. [...] The eye shows the same adjustment and inclination towards the earth's axis or the sun's path, for the optic nerve is situated 23 degrees beneath the yellow patch which resembles the sun and receives the image on the aperture of the iris."
But where did it begin? Is there a first eye symbol? Yes, to some extent I think there is. All the three traditions mentioned above (Alchemy, Cabbalism, Christianity) owe a lot to old Egypt. There we have the oldest known eye symbol, the Eye of Horus, still used in Egypt today to ward off evil. This most certainly is the model for e.g. "God's All-Seeing Eye" and the "Cosmic Eye."
The Indian tradition of the third eye is something entirely different, which we will discuss at another time.
Buddha is sometimes referred to as the "Eye of the World", but that, I think, is more related to originally Indian symbolism than to the Western (from Egypt derived) tradition.
"I shall see the Gods and the Eye of Horus burning with fire before my eyes."
(The Pyramid Texts)
The Eye of Horus, sometimes the Eye of Ra, then the sun, moving over the sky as an all-seeing eye, was also called Wadjet [or Wedjet, Uatchet, Uto, etc.]. Wadjet was a goddess in herself; of knowledge, justice and the royal cobra.
The mirror eye is called the Eye of Thoth, and it symbolises the moon. The two eyes are sometimes confused in literature.
Together the two eyes symbolise the solar and lunar forces, the complete complementary duality of cosmos, similar to Chinese yin and yang. Both together stands for the total power of Horus.
The story behind is that Seth tore out one of Horus's eyes, which was later replaced by Thoth by magical means. There are other stories about this eye, how it was given to Osiris in the underworld, etc. But we leave it at that for now.
(This article is based on material previously published in TMA/Meriondho Leo and in my e-book “From Vision to Visual Music”, 2017.)
Copyright © 2009, 2012, 2017, 2021 Meleonymica/Mictorrani. All Rights Reserved.
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