Ancient Egypt and Archaeology Web Site

2005-mar-11 744Scarab and Pectorals

During and following the New Kingdom, scarab amulets were often placed over the heart of the mummified deceased. These "heart scarabs" were meant to be weighed against the feather of truth during the final judgement. The amulets were often inscribed with a spell from the Book of the Dead which entreated the heart to, "do not stand as a witness against me." An alternative use for the scarab was as a ‘broad sheet’ carrying news and royal information to the regions, for example many of Amenhotep III’s scarabs with news of heroic events, marriages and even building lakes have been found throughout the Egypt’s neighbouring countries, the Mediterranean, and the Levant.

Several species of the dung beetle, most notably the species Scarabaeus Sacer (often referred to as the sacred scarab), enjoyed a sacred status among the Ancient Egyptians. Dung beetles live in many different habitats, including desert, farmland, forest, and grasslands. They do not like extremely cold or dry weather. They occur on all continents except Antarctica. Dung beetles eat dung excreted by herbivores and omnivores, and prefer that produced by the former. Many of them also feed on mushrooms and decaying leaves and fruits. They do not need to eat or drink anything else because the dung provides all the necessary nutrients. The larvae feeds on the undigested plant fibre in the dung, while the adults do not eat solid food at all. Instead they use their mouthparts to squeeze and suck the juice from the manure, a liquid full of micro-organisms and other nutrients (as well as the body fluids from some unlucky animals such as dung-feeding maggots that sometimes get trapped between their mandibles).

The hieroglyphic image of the beetle represents a trilateral phonetic that Egyptologists transliterate as Xpr and translate as "to come into being", "to become" or "to transform". The derivative term Xprw is variously translated as "form", "transformation", "happening", "mode of being" or "what has come into being", depending on the context. It may have existential, fictional, or ontologic significance.

Young scarab beetles emerged spontaneously from the burrow were they were born and Ancient Egyptian drew a parallel to the daily re-birth of Ra (the sun god) and they worshipped the beetle as "Khepera" (which translates to "he was came forth") the god of the rising sun. The creative aspect of the scarab was associated with the creator god Atum. The ray-like antenna on the beetle's head and its practice of dung-rolling caused the beetle to also carry solar symbolism. The scarab-beetle god Khepera was believed to push the setting sun along the sky in the same manner as the beetle with his ball of dung. In many artifacts, the scarab is depicted pushing the sun along its course in the sky. The ancients believed that the dung beetle was only male in gender, and reproduced by depositing semen into a dung ball. The supposed self-creation of the beetle resembles that of Khepri, who creates himself out of nothing. Moreover, the dung ball rolled by a dung beetle resembles the sun. Plutarch wrote:

The race of beetles has no female, but all the males eject their sperm into a round pellet of material which they roll up by pushing it from the opposite side, just as the sun seems to turn the heavens in the direction opposite to its own course, which is from west to east.

The ancient Egyptians believed that Khepri renewed the sun every day before rolling it above the horizon, then carried it through the other world after sunset, only to renew it, again, the next day. Some New Kingdom royal tombs exhibit a threefold image of the sun god, with the beetle as symbol of the morning sun. The astronomical ceiling in the tomb of Ramesses VI portrays the nightly "death" and "rebirth" of the sun as being swallowed by Nut, goddess of the sky, and re-emerging from her womb as Khepri.

A scarab, depicted on the walls of Tomb KV6 in the Valley of the Kings. The image of the scarab, conveying ideas of transformation, renewal, and resurrection, is ubiquitous in ancient Egyptian religious and funerary art. Excavations of ancient Egyptian sites have yielded images of the scarab in bone, ivory, stone, Egyptian faience, and precious metals, dating from the Sixth Dynasty and up to the period of Roman rule. They are generally small, bored to allow stringing on a necklace, and the base bears a brief inscription or cartouche. Some have been used as seals. Pharaohs sometimes commissioned the manufacture of larger images with lengthy inscriptions, such as the commemorative scarab of Queen Tiye. Massive sculptures of scarabs can be seen at Karnak Temple, at the Serapeum in Alexandria, and elsewhere in Egypt.

The scarab was of prime significance in the funerary cult of ancient Egypt. Scarabs, generally, though not always, were cut from green stone, and placed on the chest of the deceased. Perhaps the most famous example of such "heart scarabs" is the yellow-green pectoral scarab found among the entombed provisions of Tutankhamen. It was carved from a large piece of Libyan desert glass. The purpose of the "heart scarab" was to ensure that the heart would not bear witness against the deceased at judgment in the Afterlife. Other possibilities are suggested by the "transformation spells" of the Coffin Texts, which affirm that the soul of the deceased may transform into a human being, a god, or a bird and reappear in the world of the living.

One scholar comments on other traits of the scarab connected with the theme of death and rebirth:

It may not have gone unnoticed that the pupa, whose wings and legs are encased at this stage of development, is very mummy-like. It has even been pointed out that the egg-bearing ball of dung is created in an underground chamber which is reached by a vertical shaft and horizontal passage curiously reminiscent of Old Kingdom mastaba tombs.

Contact & Feedback : Egyptology and Archaeology through Images : Page last updated on 22-November-2014 Recommended Books