While the Eye of Horus may be a more prevalent Egyptian symbol, especially when it comes to modern tattoos, the winged solar disk is also a symbol that many ancient Egyptians – and modern tattoo enthusiasts–would recognize.
One God Among Many
From the beginning, Horus was a falcon-god, often depicted with a man’s body but with the head of a falcon. Taking up his rightful place in the pantheon of ancient Egyptian gods, he was a direct descendant of the most ancient of gods, Atum, “the very old one,” the primeval being, but is probably most well known as the son of Osiris and Isis.
As early as 3,000 BC, Horus was a god for peoples in many smaller communities within Egypt and had special names depending on the particular region: Harwer or “Horus the Elder,” Har-si-ese or “Horus the Son of Isis,” and Harakhte or “Horus of the Horizon.” However, by the time that Upper and Lower Egypt were united under one pharaoh, the falcon-god Horus had become synonymous with kingship. It was the name from the Behdet (now known as Idfu or Edfu, a town on the west bank of the Nile in Aswan), however, which was especially favored in later inscriptions – the Great Winged Disk, or literally, “the Great Flier.” The union of heavenly and earthly in one symbol was thus complete since the falcon was the ruler of the sky and the pharaoh was the ruler of the earth.
Lord of Heaven
In one story, the sun god Ra was visiting the environs near Edfu and Horus joined him as he barged down the Nile. But with his mercilessly keen eye, Horus was able to observe certain enemies plotting against Ra. He immediately took to the air as the Great Winged Disk and attacked those enemies, until he and Ra prevailed at last. Ra then commanded Thoth, the great scribe to the gods, “Thou shalt make this winged disk in every place in which I have rested, in the places of the gods in Upper Egypt and in the places of the gods in Lower Egypt.” Throughout ancient Egypt, Horus was seen as the spreader of the light of the sun, as well as the vanquisher of darkness and evil. Through his constant mythic struggle with his treacherous uncle Seth, he represented symbolically the conquering of the enemies of Egypt. In fact the heavenly Horus was not only victory personified, as well as the sun, but also a star and sometimes the moon.
The Great Winged Disk
The solar disk portion of this tattoo symbol obviously represents the sun, but not simply the sun in some astronomically factual manner. To early peoples the world over, including ancient Egypt, the sun was sovereign, mighty, and all-seeing. It was the giver of life and also the source of light and wisdom, making it one of the most widespread and powerful of all symbols. Flanking the solar disk are the uraei. The uraeus, double in this case, is the rearing cobra of Buto, the goddess of Lower Egypt, nurse to Horus when he was an infant, hiding him in the swamps of the Nile delta from murderous Seth. When worn on the crown of the pharaoh, the uraeus endowed him magical powers as it threw flames out towards his enemies. Above all, however, it represented supreme authority. Finally, the outstretched wings are taken directly from Horus, the falcon-god, and they represent not only him but the sky in which the sun rests.
Thus the Great Winged Disk is a fusion of solar and kingly dominion. It unites Ra, Horus, and the pharaoh and it represents the protection that they extend over their kingdoms, especially as they attempt to preserve the balance of powers in their constant struggle for the forces of light.