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verso journal

In praise of the eye

    31 · 03 · 2019

MYTHS, SUPERSTITIONS AND ARTWORKS

Since the beginning of human history, eyes have inspired painting, poetry, science and philosophy. In this issue of Verso Journal, we pay tribute to them by taking a closer look at some myths, superstitions and artworks focused on the eyes.

The importance of the eyes for humans cannot be overstated. Eyes give us access to the world and make us visible to each other. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her poem "Mad Girl's Love Song": ”I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. I lift my lids and all is born again”. Eyes are both windows and mirrors. Without them, we would not be what we are. 

As the most expressive feature of the face, our eyes convey a wealth of information and emotion. They signal whether a fellow being is friendly, flirty or just plain angry. We take good care of our eyes because we know their value. We enhance them with makeup to make them more accommodating, alluring and enigmatic. 

“THE ALL-SEEING EYE REPRESENTED GOD’S PRESENCE EVERYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE.”

THE ALL-SEEING EYE

One eye symbol that reappears in many cultures and religions is the all-seeing eye. Depicted as a single eye enclosed by a triangle, the all-seeing eye represents God’s presence everywhere in the universe. 

You may have seen this mysterious symbol somewhere - for instance on the reverse side of the 1 dollar bill placed above an unfinished pyramid with thirteen steps. In conspiracy circles, the all-seeing eye on the bill is assumed to indicate the influence of Freemasonry in the founding of the USA. Other modern examples featuring the all-seeing eye are the Estonian 50 krooni banknote (now withdrawn from circulation), the original AOL logo, and the CBS logo.

THE EVIL EYE

One superstitious belief with a long history is that certain persons can cast spells with just a glance. They have the so-called evil eye. 

This idea reappears in everything from the malevolent gaze of the ancient Egyptian god of chaos, Apep, and the Greeks' belief in the petrifying gaze of the mythical creature Gorgon to Irish folktales of men able to bewitch horses with a single stare.

THE LUCKY CHARM - A REMEDY AGAINST THE EVIL EYE

To counteract the evil eye's curse, ancient cultures crafted amulets with a blue eye to be worn as lucky charms. Sometimes called a Nazar, the eye amulet was (and still is) used to protect its wearer against the evil eye. 

The earliest examples of eye amulets go back to 3.300 BC. Excavated in Tell Brak, one of the oldest cities of Mesopotamia, these enigmatic charms were made in alabaster as abstract idols with incised eyes. In ancient Egypt, the eye of the god Horus was a symbol of protection, healing power and rebirth. To secure safe travel across the seas, the Egyptians painted eyes on their ships - a striking use of the eye as lucky charm, indeed.

TWITCH OF THE EYE

Involuntary spasms of the eye have generated a quite unusual superstition in Chinese folklore. There the eye twitch is regarded as a prediction of life-changing events like childbirth or a death in the family. But the superstition is more elaborate than that. For instance, eyelid twitches that occur at 4 AM mean that happiness will soon arrive. And if the same action takes place at noon, then disaster might strike. 

“TO HAVE A SET OF EYES WITH DIFFERENT COLORS IS NO DOUBT UNIQUE AND THE EFFECT IS OFTEN MESMERIZING.”

GHOST EYES

To have a set of eyes with different colors is no doubt unique and the effect is often mesmerizing. This condition, which is not necessarily a disease, is called heterochromia. Usually, it is a genetic trait. Actors Mila Kunis and Christopher Walken are some publicly known people with this eye condition.

Heterochromia has birthed superstitious beliefs in many different cultures. Some Native Americans call this condition "ghost eyes”. They believe that a person with irises of different colors possesses sight into both heaven and earth. In Eastern European pagan cultures, heterochromia is interpreted as a sign that an infant´s eye has been exchanged with the eye of a witch.

EYES ON CANVAS

Unsurprisingly, artists have played around with eyes and gazes, often to captivating effect, from Leonardo Da Vinci's 1506 portrait "Mona Lisa” and Rembrandt’s self-portraits to Picasso’s ”Portrait de femme (Marie-Thérèse)” and Jeff Koons’ ”gazing ball” artworks. In 18th century Britain, lovers sent painted eyes set inside jewelled brooches and golden charms to each other. Known as eye miniatures, these small gifts were secret tokens of love. Public displays of affection were not considered appropriate at the time, so to send an eye miniature was a smart way to make sure your sweetheart knew how you felt.

... AND ON THE SCREEN

Movies would not be what they are without eyes. Their presence on the screen is essential to cinematic storytelling as they affect and guide the viewer's perception.

A device employed many times over in the history of cinema is to fill the screen with an eye. At the opening of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965), the close-up of Catherine Deneuve's wide-open eye gives us a hint of her paranoid state of mind. Other famous examples are the character Marion Crane's open dead eye at the end of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s ”Psycho” (1960) and the astronaut's eye in Stanley Kubrick’s ”2001: A Space Odyssey” (1969). 

Ridley Scott’s ”Blade Runner” (1982), opens with an extreme closeup of an eye that reflects the futuristic industrial landscape in the film. When a few seconds later the closeup is cut together with a shot of the Tyrell Corporation's pyramidal headquarters, we are back in familiar mythological territory. It's a nod to the Egyptian all-seeing eye that tells us that Tyrell is the new pharaoh in town (a fictive 2019 Los Angeles). And Tyrell himself is soon revealed to have an obsession with eyes, represented by his favourite pet: a lifelike artificial owl with retroreflective sight organs.

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