Eyes and Mythology
Because eyes and vision play a fundamental role in the human experience, eyes make powerful symbols. Eyes feature prominently in a number of different myths around the world. Read this blog post to find out how eyes are represented in those various mythologies.
Odin (Norse Mythology)
Odin, also called the Allfather, was the chief god in Norse Mythology. Although Odin features in creation myths, some historians also speculate that Odin might have been a famous warrior whose fame eventually garnered him a legendary, godlike status among his people.
In Norse mythology, the gods are not perfect nor omniscient. Odin sought wisdom relentlessly, but that wisdom came with a cost. In one myth about Odin, he travels to a mystical well that contained wisdom-enhancing water. The well was guarded, however, by a mysterious being called Mimir.
Mimir required a sacrifice from Odin to drink from the well: Odin’s eye. With a seeming lack of hesitation, Odin took out one eye, and Mimir permitted him to drink. While the interpretation of any myth can vary, it seems clear that Odin-who would remain one-eyed for the rest of his life, despite his status as a god-sacrificed one type of vision for a more important vision.
Argus (Greek Mythology)
This giant from Greek mythology has a much different distinguishing feature from the Norse god Odin-Argus was covered head to toe with eyes. Some versions only give Argus four eyes (two extra eyes in the back of the head), while others mention over 100 eyes.
Argus was tasked with guarding a prized nymph named Io from would-be thieves. We can only imagine that he was given this task because of his impressive ocular capacity. Unfortunately for the guardian giant, he was slain by Zeus’s son Hermes after falling asleep.
The tale of Argus reminds us that vision can only get us so far-we need to be mentally alert and wise to assess problems as well.
The Graeae (Greek Mythology)
Also referred to as the Grey Sisters, this trio of sisters from Greek mythology all shared one eye. Most siblings get used to sharing, but passing an eye back and forth takes the concept to a whole new level. As daughters of Phorcys and Ceto, they were relatives of the infamous Gorgons.
When Perseus needed to know how to kill Medusa (a Gorgon), he stole the Grey Sisters’ single eye and offered it back in exchange for information. This story contains intriguing symbolic possibilities-maybe associating vision or sight to a scarcity of information.
Medusa (Greek Mythology)
Speaking of Medusa, this monster from Greek myths had legendary eyes as well-or at least a legendary gaze. Anyone who looked into Medusa’s eyes would turn to stone. Unlike her sisters, Sthenno and Euryale, Medusa was mortal and could thus be killed. Eventually, Perseus tracked down Medusa and slew her, with the aid of a mirrored shield that allowed him to avoid Medusa’s stare.
Medusa’s death might have actually been a relief to her. Some versions of Greek mythology depict the three Gorgon sisters as beautiful maidens that were turned to monstrous creatures because of the sea-god Poseidon’s pride. Medusa’s ugly, serpentine hair and the curse of her powerful gaze forced her into a lonely existence. Her deadly stare reminds everyone about the sheer power that eyes provide. The Hitosume-KozÅ (Japanese Mythology)
These mythical Japanese spirits mostly resemble childlike Buddhist monks, except for the fact that they each possess only one enormous eye.
While many Japanese yokai (the Japanese word for supernatural creatures) are dangerous to humans, the hitosume-kozÅ seem to be harmless.
Most stories about hitosume-kozÅ involve people walking late at night and being spooked by these mythical phantoms. Similar monsters exist in other myths, with the Cyclops from Greek myths as a well-known example. These types of creatures might represent how important the eyes are to humanity-because they only have one eye they seem startling and foreign, even if they are otherwise humanlike.
The Eye of Horus (Egyptian Mythology)
A familiar symbol from Egyptian myths, the Eye of Horus is sometimes called Wadjet or the Eye of Ra. The symbol can be found on funerary amulets and crowns and in hieroglyphs. Horus, the ancient Egyptian god of the sky, was typically represented as a falcon. For this reason, the Eye of Horus depicts the markings of a falcon around a human eye.
Ancient Egyptian mythology pits Set, the god of violence and disorder, against Horus. In one battle, after the death of Horus’s father, Osiris, Set gouged out Horus’s eye during the fray. After Horus recovered the eye, he attempted to use it to restore his father to life. Consequently, the Eye of Horus represents restoration, sacrifice, and protection.
As you can see, eyes are a compelling symbol in many distinct mythologies. Eye symbolism persists, even in modern myth. For example, the recent Marvel superhero movies feature Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who lost an eye. But even while eyes retain some of their mystical appeal, modern doctors understand the human eye better now. Read through our other blog posts to learn more about vision and eye conditions.