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Dung Beetles - and the Sacred Scarabs of Ancient Egypt
|Dung beetles or Scarabs were venerated,
embalmed and sculpted by the ancient Egyptians,|
and also symbolised in their hierogyphic
writing - but why? . . . . . .
Scarabs belong to the family of beetles called Scarabaeidae
(Order Coleoptera). The family is split into two main groups - the dung
beetles or scarabs proper and the plant-eating
chafer beetles. Scarabs include the bulkiest of all insect - the
giant Goliath and Hercules beetles (Goliathus and Dynastes
species, repectively) found in tropical areas. These and many other
scarabs are notable for the extraordinary and often very large horns that
develop on the head and thorax, particularly in the male beetles.
(Dynastes hercules) - male - up to 18 cm long, including the very large horns,
and found in tropical parts of Central America - one of the many exotic so called
'rhinoceros' beetles, most of which are plant-feeding scarabs like the chafer beetles.
From an old illustration by Oliver Goldsmith (1840)
Most scarabs, especially the dung beetles, are stoutly-built insects
with remarkable strength, often with broad, powerful legs bearing strong spines as an
adaptation for burrowing in the soil. They crawl and walk about without much agility, in
a rather clumsy and ungainly manner, but most species are strong and active flyers. The
three European dung beetles illustrated below show the general range of body-form found
among the less exotic dung-feeding scarabs:
(5-8 mm long)
(15-25 mm long)
(10-20 mm long)
|(Copris lunaris is called
the Horned Dung Beetle, and Geotrupes vernalis is the Dor Beetle)|
Dung beetles, as their name suggests, live on animal dung
(mainly that of herbivores such as rabbits, sheep, cattle, elephants, etc.)
- they feed on dung in both the adult and larval stage. Some dung beetles
simply live and breed in the dung heaps left by animals, but others bury the
dung in some way or other before eating it or laying their eggs. Most of
the dung-burying species excavate tunnels under dung heaps and than haul
down bundles of dung into these underground chambers where the adult
beetles feed and lay their eggs. This scavenging activity provides a
useful service by removing the dung from the soil surface and hastening
its break down in the soil.
Perhaps the best known of the dung-burying scarabs are
the 'dung-rollers' which carry dung away from dung heaps before burying it.
These beetles use their rake-like head and front legs to scrape up the
dung, which is then shaped into a ball and rolled along with the hind
legs until a suitable burial site is found. Species of the genus
Scarabaeus, which occur throughout Southern Europe and North
Africa, are fairly typical of the 'dung-rolling' scarabs:
(actual size 25-30 mm long)
Adult beetle rolling its ball of dung
to a suitable place
The species illustrated above (Scarabaeus sacer) is
commonly called the Sacred Scarab, because it is general agreed among egyptologists
that the veneration of the scarab beetle in ancient Egypt came originally from the
ball-rolling habit of this species (although this ancient worship was eventually
extended to all scarab beetles).
The Sacred Scarab in Egyptian Mythology
According to their ancient texts, the Egyptians believed
that the scarab beetle came into being spontaneously from balls of dung and
they associated this with their religious ideology of self-creation and
resurrection. Thus, the scarab beetle was worshipped under the name
Khepri (meaning 'he who has come into being' or 'he who came
forth from the earth'). As a self-created deity, Khepri became
synonymous with the creator-god, Atum, of earlier times.
Furthermore, in the same way that the scarab beetle pushed a ball of
dung before it, the Egyptians imagined that Khepri rolled the sun
(the solar 'ball') across the sky from east to west each day, and so they
also regarded Khepri as a form of the sun-god, Ra (or
Re). Hence, the scarab became an important symbol of creation,
resurrection and everlasting life in the religious mythology of ancient
Egypt. Small jars and coffins containing dried (mummified) scarabs were
often placed in Egyptian tombs as part of their ancient funeral rites
to ensure eternal resurrection (ref. 1).
Large statues of scarab beetles were probably a common
feature in ancient Egyptian temples - a colossal scarab statue is still
preserved in situ beside the sacred lake in the temple of Amun at
Karnak, and a similar colossal scarab carved in granite can be seen on
display at the British Museum in London.
The sacred 'sun' scarab, giving light and warmth, became
a popular symbol in everyday life and small amulets (or seals) in the form
of scarab beetles were produced in large quantities, either carved in stone
or moulded in glass or faience (a ceramic material made from crushed
quartz). The flat underside of such scarab amulets was often decorated
with geometric patterns or hieroglyphic inscriptions (as shown in the
picture below). Scarab amulets were sometimes set into elaborate pieces
of jewelry, but more often they were pierced for threading on a simple
cord necklace. There were also special unpierced funerial-type scarab
amulets, like the so called 'heart scarab' shown below. These were placed
with the mummified bodies of deceased people in their coffins and tombs
as a symbol of resurrection and new life (ref. 2).
'Heart Scarab' amulet (left) carved in stone
and unpierced - a funerial amulet usually placed on the chest of a mummified body
under its swathing of bandages (circa 900 BC, 45 mm long).
Scarab amulet (right) carved in stone and
pierced longways for wearing on a necklace - the flat underside of this example
is inscribed with three hieroglyphs depicting the dwarf-god, Bes, with
tail and plumed head-dress - a protective deity to avert evil, especially
during childbirth (circa 500 BC, 35 mm long).
In Egyptian hieroglyphic text, the scarab symbol was used not only to
represent the name of the creator-god, Khepri, as would be expected from the above
mythology, but also to represent the word kheprer - meaning 'the flying beetle' or
'Sacred Scarab' itself - and the word kheper (or kheperu) - meaning 'become(s)'
or 'manifestation(s) of...' (ref. 3). The scarab hierogyph often appears in the prenomen (one
of the five titles and names) adopted by the Egyptian Pharaohs. A typical example
is the prenomen of the famous boy-king, Tutankhamun (ref. 4):
|PRENOMEN OF TUTANKHAMUN|
Neb - kheperu - re
'Lordly - manifestations of - Re'
('Re' being the sun-god)
MORE ON SACRED SCARABS PLUS OTHER SACRED INSECTS & ARTHROPODS OF ANCIENT EGYPT
(1) W.A. Ward, 1978, Studies on Scarab Seals Volume 1 Pre-12th
Dynasty Scarab Amulets, Aris & Phillips, Warminster.
(2) I. Shaw & P. Nicholson, 1995, British Museum Dictionary of Ancient
Egypt, British Museum Press, London.
(3) E.A.W. Budge, 1978, An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary
Volumes 1 & 2, Dover, New York.
(4) J. Rose, 1985, 'The Sons of Re': Cartouches of the Kings of
Egypt, JR-T, Warrington.
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