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Volume 35, Number 1January/February 1984

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Beetle of the Gods

Written and photographed by Torben B. Larsen

The scarab, khunfus in Arabic, is a typical beetle - medium-sized and jet black - and most people would not give it a second look if they chanced on a specimen in nature. To the ancient Egyptians, however, the scarab was a symbol of the sun, of rebirth, of life itself.

In Egyptian art, consequently, some of the finest examples are devoted to the scarab. It is, moreover, one of the characters in the hieroglyphic alphabet, and because of its popularity in Egypt, its fame spread through the Mediterranean basin, even becoming part of the culture of the Etruscans and the Greek colonies of North Africa - quite an achievement for an undistinguished beetle of questionable habits.

To an extent, this all came about because the life cycle of the scarab fused with the content and evolution of ancient Egyptian mythology. Actually, the term "scarab" covers a multitude of closely related beetles with similar life styles and appearance, and the Egyptians probably accepted several different types as sacred. But the species that impressed them most was the "Sacred Scarab" (Scarabaeus sacer) and its closest relatives - as some of the best paintings and sculptures make clear: they contain such precise detail that entomologists can recognize them.

Despite its exalted status in art, the scarab has habits that would seem to disqualify it from glory, since as larva and adult it lives in and near animal dung - in safe underground burrows which it has hollowed out with forelegs specially adapted to be effective shovels.

It is not immediately obvious that a scarab can fly, but under the tough black surface of the body lie some folded, transparent wings. Thus, when the scarab is hungry, it simply flies off somewhere, rolls up a perfectly formed ball of dung and transports it to the burrow or another safe place where it can be enjoyed at leisure. Such a ball is far too heavy for air freight, of course, so other means have to be considered; some beetles roll the ball across the ground, often over a considerable distance, and usually in a straight line.

The single-mindedness of a scarab trying to overcome an obstacle in its path has to be seen to be believed. When facing, for instance, a steep ditch, the scarab, ball and all, often falls, head over heels, time and time again. But each time it repositions the ball, reviews the routes, pushes up the ball, and falls down again, like Sisyphus of Greek mythology who, on arrival in hell, was condemned to push a huge stone to the summit of a mountain only to watch it roll down over and over again. Unlike Sisyphus, however, the scarab eventually succeeds. And to the ancient Egyptians, this success was important.

When a female scarab has mated and is ready to breed, she builds a special underground chamber, sometimes as deep as 30 centimeters below the surface (12 inches) and rolls several balls into it, forming a pear-shaped mass in which she lays a single egg. It is important that the ball - food for the larva - be moist, because the larva will die of starvation if the ball dries out and hardens. Once her preparations are made and the egg laid, the female seals off the chamber, camouflages the entrance and wanders off to repeat the process somewhere else. Compared to most insects she lays only a few eggs, but because of her care and attention to detail, they nearly all produce offspring.

Meanwhile, underground, a tiny larva hatches - from the egg and begins to grow, taking care not to breach the wall of the pear-shaped lump. By the time the dung is devoured, only a thin crust remains, and the larva, now fully grown, strengthens the crust with a glue secreted from the body and reaches pupa stage, at which a new scarab will eventually hatch.

Since the ancient Egyptians did not know of the underground transformation from egg to larva to pupa - and finally to fully formed beetle - it must have seemed that new scarabs were suddenly created out of nothing - as one Horapollon, writing on a papyrus some 2,500 years ago, indicated. "The scarab buries her ball in the ground, where it remains hidden for 28 days, a space of time equal to that of a revolution of the moon, during which period the offspring of the scarab quickens. On the 28th day, which the insect knows to be that of the conjunction of the sun and the moon and the birth of the world, it opens the ball and throws it into the water. From this ball issue animals that are scarabs." Horapollon was right on at least one count: when conditions are suitable, the whole development from egg to adult takes about a month - one revolution of the moon.

In Egyptian mythology, meanwhile, one of the most important gods in the multifaceted Pantheon is "Ra" (or Re) - god and creator of the sun, often depicted as a man with the head of a hawk. That a sophisticated civilization like Egypt's should have chosen the sun as the basis for a deity is hardly surprising; the daily rise of the sun, its passage over the blue skies of Egypt and its subsequent disappearance certainly suggested divine power. But how, struggling in dung, does the scarab come to symbolize the magnificence of the sun?

Apparently, the scarab rolling its ball with grim determination in the face of all adversely seemed to ancient Egyptians to be similar to the relentless movement of the sun - as burial of its ball resembles the sun sinking into western deserts. More to miraculously from the ground every turn of the moon; thus mythology embraced the concept of a giant insect carrying the ball of the sun across the sky every day, a stand-in for Ra, its creator. Through the god Khephri, every morning, there was a rebirth of the sun. Soon the scarab evolved into a symbol of rebirth in general.

The emergence of the scarab in Egyptian mythology dates back to the Old Kingdom more than 4,000 years ago, but it was during the New Kingdom (1570-1085 B.C.) and later that it proliferated in an increasing number of roles. Nowhere is the scarab more beautifully depicted than in the funerary artifacts of the boy-king Tutankhamen - "King Tut." For example, the royal cartouche of Tut's "throne-name," Nebkheperura, includes a scarab illustrating phonetically the khepr component of the name, derived, of course, from Khephri.

Many of the scarab images produced in this period were done with such precision and attention to detail that they can almost be identified to species level by beetle specialists. Special attention is paid to the six bulges on the head and to the claws of the forelegs, both special adaptations to assist in digging; they are, in effect, shovels. It is clear that in many cases artists must have used real models and observed proportions accurately.

During the New Kingdom and later, Khephri began to assume a broader symbolic role. Because it symbolized rebirth, it was used in tombs and liberally placed in the shrouds of mummies; many mummies from this period have a particularly large scarab placed in the position of the heart, with an inscription containing a spell designed to ensure that the heart would not bear false witness when the soul of the deceased faced the divine judges.

Scarabs were also used as seals by senior religjous and bureaucratic officials. In the Egyptian museum in Cairo, for instance, there are boxes of funerary statuettes sealed with the scarab seals of the priests

Various forms of commemorative scarabs also became popular and were sometimes produced in quantity - much as the British upper classes record their doings through advertisement in The Times. One such scarab commemorates the marriage of Pharaoh Amenophis III to Queen Tyi - when the Pharaoh slaughtered 102 lions - and another says: "Memphis city is mighty forever," rather like graffiti in favor of a football club. Another expresses hope - "May thy name endure and a son be born unto thee" - and still another extends good wishes: "May Bubastis grant you a good year." Since many scarabs contain the names of personalities, gaps in genealogy have been often filled by this type of data.

From such use of the sacred scarab, it was an easy step down to good luck charms, simply expressing health, luck, happiness and advancement without a specific message. Some late scarabs of this sort have been copied and re-copied so many times by illiterate craftsmen that the seemingly correct hieroglyphs no longer make sense. Eventually, too, scarabs came to be used for purely ornamental purposes, many of outstanding beauty.

Scarabs may be found in virtually all the materials used in ancient Egypt. They are found as bas-relief in granite and in the plaster walls of funerary chambers. They figure in many of the remarkably fresh frescoes that adorn the walls of tombs. They are integrated into the splendid jewelry of Tutankhamen, where they sometimes have, as an extra, the wings of the vulture of Upper Egypt.

Most scarabs, however, are small, single portable charms made of blue or green faience - a brilliantly glazed pottery - and there must be tens of thousands in Egyptian Museum in Cairo, for example, there are two displays of scarabs, one, a selection collected by King Fouad I, containing scarabs in colors and materials too numerous to list.

Such is the story of the lowly scarab. Although animals figure prominently in Egyptian art and mythology, the only other references to insects are the inclusion of the mosquitoes - symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt when they were united - and locusts, an ever present threat to agriculture. Among the insects of ancient Egypt only the scarab - the beetle of the gods - rose to prominence.

Torben B. Larsen, who writes regularly for Aramco World magazine on Middle East entomology, is finishing a book on insect life on the Arabian Peninsula.

This article appeared on pages 20-21 of the January/February 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1984 images.