The Egyptian eye for nature

In his application of Jungian analysis to Egyptian civilization, Michael Rice lauds the ancient Egyptians for their skill in drawing, accompanied by their keen eye for and love of nature. It's easy to see these combined in several small limestone panels from the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC. Some panels have human images, but others show a falcon, a crocodile, and other animals, such as this bird:

Fragment: A young bird in low relief. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Soft limestone H: 11.0 W: 10.7 D: 1.7 cm Egypt
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.59

The description from the gallery's web page explains:

Fragments such as this one carved in low relief have been identified as "sculptor's trials" or "sculptor's models," and were used in Egypt from the Third Dynasty to Ptolemaic times. The reliefs were used to aid sculptors in instructing apprentices about the canonical Egyptian grid. The models are often "framed" by L-shaped borders, which could have been used as depth measures. The human subjects of the sculptor's models were most often idealized versions of royal heads with headcloths or uraeus crowns. The animals used in hieroglyphic writing (the alphabet and royal titularies) were most commonly modelled.

Some of the models apparently also have edges incised at regular intervals, suggesting that they could have been overlaid with a grid, and the image then used to make larger or smaller copies by working with a different size grid.

Rice, M. (1997). Egypt’s legacy: The archetypes of Western civilization 3000-30 BC. New York: Routledge.

Image and description copyright © Smithsonian Institution.

Visions of Horus

When a god has more than a dozen different identities and takes on a part-animal form, I think Eric Hornung (1996/1970) again summarizes the challenges well:

Evidently a single image is not adequate for the metalanguage, which depends on continually changing combinations of many signs. The outward form of these signs is not decisive. The Egyptians are not concerned to give them as pleasing a form as possible, but to show what they wish to express.... We may feel that the mixture of the animal and the human is grotesque, but we should recall the saying of Christian Morgenstern: 'The material manifestation of God is necessarily grotesque.' (p. 257)

I consider myself among the graphically challenged, but I'm content with the way this image conveys the majesty of Horus as sky god as well as the immediate, concrete presence of Horus in the world, incarnate in the Egyptian king, both centered on the locale of the Temple of Edfu, where the annual drama of Osiris, Isis, Horus, and kingship was reenacted each year. It was tedious to do masking and transparency in OpenOffice Draw, which was the tool required for this assignment. The original images were all public uploads from Flickr, from photographers MykReeve and Lenka P and illustrator flondo. (I'd like to see flondo draw Hathor for Horus to hook up with!)

Hornung, E. (1996). Conceptions of god in ancient Egypt. (J. Baines, Trans.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (Original work published 1970)

The measure of a god

I came seeking the Eye of Horus,
that I might bring it back and count it.
I found it [and now it is] complete, counted and sound,
so that it can flame up to the sky
and blow above and below ...

When I ended my last post with the thought that "the observer (me) must choose a place to stand to take the measure of the falcon-headed god," little did I know that the chief symbol of Horus itself is a measuring tool. The six individual shapes that comprise the eye of Horus are the signs used by the ancient Egyptians for fractional portions -- 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, and 1/64 -- of the hekat, a standard unit of grain or flour.

What does the eye of Horus have to do with a unit of measure? The eye plays a central part in the story of how Horus ruthlessly fought against his uncle, Set (or Seth), who had killed Horus' father, Osiris. Horus bore qualities amalgamated from his identity as the sky god, his right eye representing the sun and his left eye, the moon. Seth ripped out Horus' left eye and tore it into six pieces. Thoth, the god of mathematics and the moon (which also appears to shrink and grow by fractions each month), magically restored Horus' eye, and the chief gods granted Horus kingship over a united Egypt.

The role of the sound eye of Horus as a symbol of healing and wholeness was reinforced by another myth in which Horus brings the restored eye to his father, Osiris, who consumes it as an offering meal and is regenerated. The Horus eye appears frequently on tombs and temples as a protective sign and offering. Tutankhamen's mummy was found to bear a gold, lapis lazuli, and glass eye of Horus amulet, which the pharaoh may have worn in real life.

The resemblance of the healing eye of Horus, with its fractional component shapes, to the form of the letter R is given by some as an explanation for how the Rx sign came to be associated with prescriptions from Roman times until the present day. Even more interesting is the suggestion that the Egyptians may have recognized that the geometric series 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 ... converges toward but never reaches unity, thus bridging the finite world of weights and measures with the infinite world of the gods and strengthening the role of the eye of Horus as a symbol of order.

To learn more about the eye of Horus, check out these articles:

Hymn of Thoth from the Coffin Texts, III, 343, as cited in Rundle Clark, R.T. (1959). Myth and symbol in ancient Egypt. (London: Thames and Hudson), p. 225.

Horus eye fraction image by Benoît Stella licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license versions 2.5.

Pick a Horus, any Horus

Trying to make sense of the Egyptian myth of Horus, my first question was, "Which one?" E. A. Wallis Budge listed 15 different Horus gods in his The Gods of the Egyptians (1904), and George Hart's A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses (1986) lists 14!

Happily, I'm not the only one baffled by this profusion of overlapping deities. The nature of Egyptian polytheism has been a challenge to scholars since classical times. I'm reading Erik Hornung's Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt (1970, trans. 1981 by John Baines) and am grateful for his citation of this passage from Philippe Derchain's Le papyrus Salt 825 (1965), which suggests that it's possible to think of the Egyptian deities in a way that is completely different from Western monotheism or Greek polytheism:

A god is combined with another and becomes a new being with new characteristics, and then at the next moment separates into a number of entities. What he is remains hidden, but his luminous trail can be seen, his reaction with others is clear, and his actions can be felt. He is material and spiritual, a force and a figure, he is manifest in changing forms that should be mutually exclusive, but we know that within all this something exists and exercises power.

Derchain's extended simile from particle physics is intentional. The answer to "Which Horus?" may be "Who's asking ? When? Where? Why?" as the observer (me) must choose a place to stand to take the measure of the falcon-headed god.