Insects & other Arthropods David A Kendall   BSc PhD
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Dung Beetles - and the Sacred Scarabs of Ancient Egypt

Class: Insecta
Order: Coleoptera
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.

Hercules Beetle (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)

hercules beetle

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:

Aphodius fimetarius
(5-8 mm long)
Copris lunaris
(15-25 mm long)
Geotrupes vernalis
(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:

Scarabaeus sacer
(actual size 25-30 mm long)
Adult beetle rolling its ball of dung
to a suitable place for burial

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):

Neb - kheperu - re
which means
'Lordly - manifestations of - Re'
('Re' being the sun-god)


(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.

Order Coleoptera

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Copyright © 2010 David Kendall Last revised May 2010