There are many cultural, religious, philosophical, and cultic uses of the symbol of the “all-seeing eye,” which is also called the “Eye of Providence.” Some suggest that the all-seeing eye is based on the “Eye of Horus” from ancient Egypt, although similarity in symbolism does not necessarily connote similar meaning. The basic representation is that of a lidded eye with “glory,” or beams, emanating from it in all directions. The European Christian version also includes a triangular frame around the eye. Generally speaking, the all-seeing eye is a symbol of an omniscient entity—usually a deity—that can see all.
Most Americans are familiar with the all-seeing eye because it appears on the reverse of the dollar bill. There, as part of what is labeled “The Great Seal,” the Eye of Providence appears as the capstone of an unfinished pyramid. The base of the pyramid is inscribed with “1776” in Roman numerals. Beneath the pyramid is a banner reading “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (Latin for “New Order of the Ages”). Above the pyramid are the words “Annuit Cœptis” (Latin for “Favors Undertakings”). The idea on the Great Seal, then, is that the Eye of Providence has shown favor to America in its founding of a new era of history.
As a symbol, the all-seeing eye is found throughout the world from the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia, to hieroglyphic texts. It is used as a talisman or protective charm in many cultures, particularly those which subscribe to the existence of the “evil eye,” against which the “all-seeing eye” is believed to protect. In Mexico, the ojo de venado is a shamanic amulet used in this fashion. Although the symbol itself is not used in Buddhism, Buddha is referred to as the “eye of the world” in certain Buddhist texts.
In popular culture, J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Sauron in The Lord of the Rings is referred to as the Red Eye, the Lidless Eye, and the Great Eye. Peter Jackson’s depiction of Sauron in his Lord of the Rings film trilogy is that of a fiery eye that watches all of Middle Earth. Such a depiction is easily confused with a twisted use of the “all-seeing eye” mythology. The film industry has also given us National Treasure, in which the “all-seeing eye” was supposedly used as a symbol of Free Masonry by America’s Founding Fathers. However, the use of the eye in an unfinished pyramid was never a Masonic symbol, and the all-seeing eye was not used in Free Masonry until 1797, years after the design for the Great Seal was finalized.
While Christianity makes use of many symbols (the cross and the fish being the most common), they were never imbued with any special power. The symbols remain pictures that remind us of basic Christian truths, and that meaning makes them important but not inherently powerful. In European Christian contexts, particularly in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the so-called Eye of Providence within a triangular frame was used as a symbol of the Trinity. The eye itself could be considered a symbol of God’s omniscience.
So, the all-seeing eye is an icon that can mean different things to different people, depending on the context. Some see the symbol as a representation of the Trinity; others take it as a representation of a more general Higher Power or Providence; still others see it as a Masonic icon, a conspiratorial sign of the Illuminati, or a good-luck charm.