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Evolution of the Dragon, by G. Elliot Smith, [1919], at


In attempting to understand the peculiar functions attributed to the eye it is essential that the inquirer should endeavour to look at the problem from the early Egyptian's point of view. After moulding into shape the wrappings of the mummy so as to restore as far as possible the form of the deceased the embalmer then painted eyes upon the face. So also when the sculptor had learned to make finished models in stone or wood, and by the addition of paint had enhanced the life-like appearance, the statue was still merely a dead thing. What were needed above all to enliven it, literally and actually, in other words, to animate it, were the eyes; and the Egyptian artist set to work and with truly marvellous skill reproduced the appearance of living eyes (Fig. 5), How ample was the justification for this belief will be appreciated by anyone who glances at the remarkable photographs recently published by Dr. Alan H. Gardiner. 1 The wonderful eyes will be seen to make the statue sparkle and live. To the concrete mind of the Egyptian this triumph of art was regarded

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not as a mere technical success or æsthetic achievement. The artist was considered to have made the statue really live; in fact, literally and actually converted it into a "living image". The eyes themselves were regarded as one of the chief sources of the vitality which had been conferred upon the statue.

This is the explanation of all the elaborate care and skill bestowed upon the making of artificial eyes. No doubt also it was largely responsible for giving definition to the remarkable belief in the animating power of the eye. But so many other factors of most diverse kinds played a part in building up the complex theory of the eye's fertilizing potency that all the stages in the process of rationalization cannot yet be arranged in orderly sequence.

I refer to the question here and suggest certain aspects of it that seem worthy of investigation merely for the purpose of stimulating some student of early Egyptian literature to look into the matter further. 1

As death was regarded as a kind of sleep and the closing of the eyes was the distinctive sign of the latter condition the open eyes were not unnaturally regarded as clear evidence of wakefulness and life. In fact, to a matter-of-fact people the restoration of the eyes to the mummy or statue was equivalent to an awakening to life.

At a time when a reflection in a mirror or in a sheet of water was supposed to afford quite positive evidence of the reality of each individual's "double," and when the "soul," or more concretely, "life," was imagined to be a minute image or homunculus, it is quite likely that the reflection in the eye may have been interpreted as the "soul" dwelling within it. The eye was certainly regarded as peculiarly rich in "soul substance". It was not until Osiris received from Horus the eye which had been wrenched out in the latter's combat with Set that he "became a soul". 2

It is a remarkable fact that this belief in the animating power of the eye spread as far east as Polynesia and America, and as far west as the British Islands.

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Of course the obvious physiological functions of the eyes as means of communication between their possessor and the world around him; the powerful influence of the eyes for expressing feeling and emotion without speech; the analogy between the closing and opening of the eyes and the changes of day and night, are all hinted at in Egyptian literature.

But there were certain specific factors that seem to have helped to give definiteness to these general ideas of the physiology of the eyes. The tears, like all the body moisture, came to share the life-giving attributes of water in general. And when it is recalled that at funeral ceremonies emotion found natural expression in the shedding of tears, it is not unlikely that this came to be assimilated with all the other water-symbolism of the funerary ritual. The early literature of Egypt, in fact, refers to the part played by Isis and Nephthys in the reanimation of Osiris, when the tears they shed as mourners brought life back to the god. But the fertilizing tears of Isis were life-giving in the wider sense. They were said to cause the inundation which fertilized the soil of Egypt, meaning presumably that the "Eye of Re" sent the rain.

There is the further possibility that the beliefs associated with the cowry may have played some part, if not in originating, at any rate in emphasizing the conception of the fertilizing powers of the eye. I have already mentioned the outstanding features of the symbolism of the cowry. In many places in Africa and elsewhere the similarity of this shell to the half-closed eyelids led to its use as an artificial "eye" in mummies. The use of the same objects to symbolize the female reproductive organs and the eyes may have played some part in transferring to the latter the fertility of the former. The gods were born of the eyes of Ptah. Might not the confusion of the eye with the genitalia have given a meaning to this statement? There is evidence of this double symbolism of these shells. Cowry shells have also been employed, both in the Persian Gulf and the Pacific, to decorate the bows of boats, probably for the dual purpose of representing eyes and conferring vitality upon the vessel. These facts suggest that the belief in the fertilizing power of the eyes may to some extent be due to this cowry-association. Even if it be admitted that all the known cases of the use of cowries as eyes of mummies are relatively late, and that it is not known to have been employed for such a purpose in Egypt, the mere fact that the likeness to the eyelids

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so readily suggests itself may have linked together the attributes of the cowry and the eye even in Predynastic times, when cowries were placed with the dead in the grave.

Hathor's identification with the "Eye of Re" may possibly have been an expression of the same idea. But the rôle of the "Eye of Re" was due primarily to her association with the moon (vide infra, p. 56).

The apparently hopeless tangle of contradictions involved in these conceptions of Hathor will have to be unravelled. For "no eye is to be feared more than thine (Re's) when it attacketh in the form of Hathor" (Maspero, op. cit. p. 165). If it was the beneficent life-giving aspect of the eye which led to its identification with Hathor, in course of time, when the reason for this connexion was lost sight of, it became associated with the malevolent, death-dealing avatar of the goddess, and became the expression of the god's anger and hatred toward his enemies. It is not unlikely that such a confusion may have been responsible for giving concrete expression to the general psychological fact that the eyes are obviously among the chief means for expressing hatred for and intimidating and "brow-beating" one's fellows. [In my lecture on "The Birth of Aphrodite" I shall explain the explicit circumstances that gave rise to these contradictions.]

It is significant that, in addition to the widespread belief in the "evil eye"—which in itself embodies the same confusion, the expression of admiration that works evil—in a multitude of legends it is the eye that produces petrifaction. The "stony stare" causes death and the dead become transformed into statues, which, however, usually lack their original attribute of animation. These stories have been collected by Mr. E. S. Hartland in his "Legend of Perseus".

There is another possible link in the chain of associations between the eye and the idea of fertility. I have already referred to the development of the belief that incense, which plays so prominent a part in the ritual for conferring vitality upon the dead, is itself replete with animating properties. "Glaser has already shown the anti incense of the Egyptian Punt Reliefs to be an Arabian word, a-a-nete, 'tree-eyes' (Punt und die Südarabischen Reiche, p. 7), and to refer to the large lumps … as distinguished from the small round drops, which are supposed to be tree-tears or the tree-blood." 1


52:1 "A New Masterpiece of Egyptian Sculpture," The Journal of Egyptian Archæology, Vol. IV, Part I, Jan., 1917.

53:1 In all probability the main factor that was responsible for conferring such definite life-giving powers upon the eye was the identification of the moon with the Great Mother. The moon was the Eye of Re, the sky-god.

53:2 Breasted, "Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt," p. 59. The meaning of the phrase rendered "a soul" here would be more accurately given by the word "reanimated".

55:1 Wilfred H. Schoff, "The Periplus of the Erythræan Sea," 1912, p. 164.

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