The Watchful Symbol of the Eye By Sinthia Cousineau
Symbols are visual expressions of a universal idea. This paper will focus on the different symbols associated to eyes. Eyes are not only the most important of sensory organs but it is also a very strong symbol. It is a symbol that often appears in many of my own artworks over the years and even in some of the art workshops for the symbolic imagery class. It is a popular symbol associated with focus, clarity, vision, prophesy, omniscience, presence, intelligence, perception, observation, awareness (Allain, 2014). Regarding the etymology of the word “eye”, it originates from the Germanic word “augon” and the Old English word “eage”. The eye has been a very popular symbol since ancient times, first appearing with the ancient Egyptians’ Eye of Horus (Wilkinson, 1999). Other popular symbols involving the eye are the evil eye, the eye of providence, the eye of Fatima, and the eye of the peacock. The eye of Horus is one of the earliest known symbols of the eye. The eye of Horus represents good health, protection and royal power. It is also known as the “Eye of Ra”, the Egyptian God of the Sun. It is meant to also represent the right eye of a falcon, to relate to the sky god Horus (Wilkinson, 1999). Allain (2014) states that the right eye of Horus is a symbol of power and relates to the sun, while the left eye of Horus relates more to the moon. The two eyes together represent the universe. Allain (2014) describes another Egyptian hieroglyph which is one that describes the God Osiris, with a depiction of an eye over a throne which is significant for meaning the “place of the eye”. According to the Egyptian mythology, the God Horus gave his eye as a gift to Osiris to help him govern the underworld. In Buddhism the eyes represent spiritual perception and the ability to see with the soul a reference to “second sight”. Buddha’s third eye is a symbol for both wisdom and enlightenment. It is depicted as a pair of eyes with a small dot between them that represents the third eye, a popular symbol of spiritual awakening. Allain (2014) describes how in Buddhism and Hinduism, the third eye also known as the eye of wisdom is situated on the sixth chakra of a divinity and can symbolize awakening. The ancient Romans depicted the evil eye in their mosaics as well as in the poetry of the famous Roman, Virgil. Also popular in Greco-Roman culture was the mythology of the peacock which was identified as the gods Hera (Juno) whom was given credit for the creation of the peacock from Argus who had a hundred eyes so the bird has a hundred eyes seen on its tail feathers. These eyes were meant to symbolize the stars and the vault of heaven. This in turn symbolizes all-seeing knowledge (Allain, 2014). The eyes of the peacock are another popular symbol in my artwork. Alain (2014) mentions the Greek myth of the Giant Argos who was reputed to have one hundred eyes. Of his many eyes, there was fifty that remained constantly open. When he died Hera disposed of his eyes on the feathers of her sacred animal the peacock. Alain (2014) also mentions eye symbolism in relation to another giant in Greek mythology, the Cyclopes. The Cyclopes is describes as a brutal giant with only one eye located in the middle of his forehead. It is sometimes symbolized as a sign of diminished conscious. In essence it is a sign of weakness and is a popular Greek Myth featured in the Odyssey, the story of how the Greek King Odysseus encounters the Cyclopes Polyphemus on his journey back home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. Polyphemus is a Greek God and a Cyclops, the son of Poseidon. He is often symbolized with one eye in the middle of his forehead, which can also be considered a symbol for blindness, since he eventually get s defeated by Odysseus who blinded him (Powell, 2012).
Figure 1: “Peacock and tail of eyes” by Sinthia Cousineau (Egg Tempera)
In Norse mythology, the God Odin sacrifices an eye in order to achieve enlightenment and was given runes. In artwork the one eye depiction of Odin is meant to symbolize the gift of knowledge of the stars. When Odin was on his quest for knowledge, at the roots of the Yggdrasil tree he stumbles upon the Well of Urd guarded by Mimir a shadow figure who had knowledge of all things due to drinking the water of the well. Odin gouged one of his eyes and dropped it into the well, as a sacrifice so that Mimir would offer him a drink from the well. In this myth, the eye is a symbol of enhanced perception (Bauscahatz, 1982). In North Africa and the Middle East there is a symbol similar to the evil eye. In Islamic culture this symbol is the Hand of Fatima, named after one of Prophets Mohammed’s daughters. This symbol is known as Hamsa, depicting a hand with an eye located in the center of it. It is a symbol commonly associated with protection, healing and good luck. If the eye is painted red with the blood of a sacrificed animal and then hung on a doorway of pregnant women, it is meant as a symbol to increase fertility and increase the chance of a healthy pregnancy (Allain, 2014). During the Christian era, especially the renaissance an image of an eye surrounded by a triangle was meant to represent the Christian Trinity of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit. In Christianity there is the Eye of providence otherwise known as the all-seeing eye of God. This symbol represents an eye surrounded by multiple rays of light and enclosed by a triangle. You find this symbol on the American one-dollar bill and it represents God watching over humanity, hence divine providence which gives it the name of the eye of providence. You find this symbol on the reserve side of the great seal of the United States. On the collaborative symbols activity we did in our symbols class, my group members and eye used scribbles to inspire the creation of symbols which we then cut out and combined into a narrative story we titled “the divine ignorance”. On this collective piece I drew the eye of providence above my teammate’s symbol of a mountain. This eye was surrounded by rays of light like the eye of providence (Alain, 2014).
Figure 2: “The Divine Providence”
Christianity also views the eye as a symbol of the all-knowing and ever present God. The ancient Christian scripts quote the following: “The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous and preserve knowledge, and he over throwth the words of the transgressor” (Ferguson, 1954 p.46). The eye when depicted inside a triangle, in the renaissance period was meant to symbolize the Holy Trinity. And when surrounded by radiating rays of light and a circle, it symbolizes the infinite holiness of the Triune God. When a pair of eyes is depicted on a platter, in the Christian world it is a symbol to represent St. Lucy. St. Lucy was blinded and with the help of God miraculously restored her sight. Lucy was the daughter of a noble in Syracuse and had many suitors who were captivated by her beauty. She was a Christian condemned to die for her faith. One of her suitors was so smitten by the beauty of her eyes, he could find no rest. Lucy, fearing that her eyes were causing har, to the young man, tore them from her head and sent them to him. This young man was so overcome by remorse and impressed by her courage that he too became a Christian (Ferguson,). In this context the eyes of Lucy on a platter symbolizes devotion to faith. When symbolizing eyes in relation to dreams, the eyes become instruments of intelligence and are associated to vitality. They are sources of understanding and attachment, relating mostly to a strong bond. Going blind in a dream could symbolize an inability to find someone you love. In a dream when your eyes hurt it could be associated with inability to see justice in a situation This type of dream can be associated with news of sickness in a loved one or child. If one dreams of having their eyes ripped out it is associated with death in the family. There are many interpretations dreams feathering eyes, but generally it is associated to a warning of some kind (Coupal, 2018). When looking back into my own artwork created in either my art therapy workshops or on my own time. I can often identify the symbol of the eye hidden within the art. "Two simple but central methods that bracket the artmaking experience: our intention, in which we state our inquiry as an active desire to receive something, which then guides our artmaking; and our witness, a writing practice through which we engage with and integrate what has appeared in our artwork" (Allen, 2005). According to Allen, the intention witness process invites inquiry, in which one should raise questions about why they created there artwork and too look deeper for personal meanings. It is considering this that I will now attempt to analyze my own artwork and the potential meaning for why I often depicted the symbol of the eye. How does the symbol of an eye relate to my life? Well it has always been a common theme in my artworks over the years. Mainly it shows up in the form of a crying eye in the sky or the multiple eye of a peacocks features, and even eyes on the petals of flowers. For me personally the eye is a strong symbol of being watched, which may be linked to the strong social anxiety I endured in my early twenties. Growing up I endured a lot of bullying and negative comments due to my weight, and it resulted in a fear of people. So I developed strong social anxiety, and the main fear for anyone suffering from social anxiety is a fear of negative judgement from others, hence being watched. I always felt that people only saw my appearance and never the true-self, who I was as an individual. I often feel like I am always being watched and judged by others solely based on my physical appearance. Therefore a lot of my artwork features the symbol of the eye. Mostly they are individual weeping eyes. The crying eye is very commonly features in most of my drawings from the period of my life were I felt most alone and depressed. To me a crying eye represents great pain. In some of my past artworks I represented myself crying tears of blood to represent the worst type of emotional pain. Eyes are therefore associated in the emotions of sadness. So I tend to use the eye as a symbol depicted as “crying an ocean” as a reference to my own great sadness. It is like a window watching over my own internal world. It is symbolic for how I felt I have cried so much in my life that if I were to add all the tears I have ever cried I would be able to create an ocean with just those tears.
Figure 3: ‘’Crying Eye’’ by Sinthia Cousineau
Figure 4: “Crying in Loneliness” by Sinthia Cousineau
When I tried the Florence Cane scribble activity I had to use my non-dominant hand to do a quick scribble of three separate sheets of paper. On one of them I saw a symbol of a moon which I colored in green and then later I felt the need to incorporate an image of eyes within that scribble drawing. The eyes were drawn in blue to represent the colors of sadness. My name Cynthia is associated to the Greek goddess of the Moon. When looking at the image I see eyes watching the moon, which is associated to the feeling that I have of always being watched or judged.
Figure 5: Florence Cane inspired Scribble.
Eyes are also a popular symbol associated with social anxiety disorder, otherwise known as social phobia. This disorder is described as an intense, irrational fear of evaluation, humiliation and social interactions. It is the most common of anxiety disorders. As someone who has personally suffered from this disorder for several years I often incorporate imagery associated with my phobia in my own artwork. This disorder can really limit a person’s ability to interact with other members of society, so those suffering from it fear negative judgement and being watched by others (Nevid, 2009). Hence, a watchful eye represents the anxiety itself that is associated with the disorder. One of my drawings which I titled the anxiety flower depicts the anxiety that a person with the disorder would experience. In the drawing multiple eyes surround a flower which represents life. It represents how a person with social anxiety is always feeling surrounded by watchful eyes.
Figure 6: “Social Anxiety Flower” by Sinthia Cousineau
In one of the art technique workshops, I used figure painting to create an expressive artwork. I used primarily green and yellow paint. The symbol of the eye had once again emerged in the artwork. In the artwork itself several green eyes are stemming out of a chaotic spiral. Green is a symbol of jealousy and life. The spiral is associated with vital energy. My interpretation of this artwork is that in my life I always felt anxiety and chaos rising from negative energy associated to the jealousy of others. I feel others are jealous of me because I am tall and noticeably thin, and that they solely focus on my exterior appearance and not my inner being. Although they are physical traits beyond my control I constantly feel judged by jealous eyes, which enhances my own anxiety (Allain, 2014).
Figure 7: “Expressive finger-paint” by Sinthia Cousineau
To conclude the eye has been a powerful symbol with many possible meanings throughout human history. This symbol is common throughout most cultures and has a universal meaning that relates to divinity. It represents the knowledge of divinity in many religions from the Norse God Odin to the God of Christianity. It is a popular symbol in mythology such as the Greek mythology of Polyphemus the one-eyed Cyclopes. It is a symbol of divine nature as can be seen with the eyes of the peacock’s tail, which symbolize the stars of heaven. In terms of my own art it is a powerful symbol to depict social anxiety and fear of being watched or judged as well as a symbol of great sadness.
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