For ancient Egyptians beetles were an integral part of daily life, burials and mythology. Darkling beetles, Prionotheca coronata, have been found in entombed pottery jars, stone vessels themselves were sometimes carved in the shape of beetles, click beetles, Agrypnus notodonta, were depicted alongside a fetish of the goddess Neith, and gold pendants shaped like jewel beetles, Acmaeodera polita and Steraspis squamosa, were popular during the Old Kingdom. When the Egyptians realized that the creatures could damage a corpse a spell was added to the Book of the Dead meant for repelling the destructive creatures:
“Begone from me, O Crooked-lips! I am Khnum, Lord of Peshnu, who dispatches the words of the gods to Re, and I report affairs to their master”.
However, the beetle most important to the Egyptians was Scarabeus sacer, the dung beetle whose habit of rolling up dung into a ball where it lays its eggs reminded the Egyptians of the daily travels of the sun across the sky. The apparent spontaneous generation of larvae was associated with their god Khepra or Khepri who was also capable of self generation and renewal. Khepri was also thought to push the sun across the sky and down into the underworld at night, only to reappear each morning.
It is not surprising that the hieroglyph representing the dung beetle was read kheper and as a verb meant to create or to come into being. This hieroglyph was used to write Khepri’s name and in fact the deity was often depicted as having a beetle either on or for a head.
During the New Kingdom kheper took on yet another aspect as a sacred symbol. Large amulets featuring a scarab on one side and a spell on the other were placed over the heart of a mummy. As such, the amulets were referred to as heart scarabs. The spell on the back was also from the Book of the Dead (spell 30) and read,
“O my heart which I had from my mother, O my heart which I had upon earth, do not rise up against me as a witness in the presence of the Lord of Things; do not speak against me concerning what I have done, do not bring up anything against me in the presence of the Great God, Lord of the West.”
I’ve listed some of the resources I used to research this article as they may be of interest to lovers of beetles and ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt Online is a particularly good resource if you are interested in further exploring the culture, religion, mythology and literature of ancient Egypt.
While not referenced for the article you may want to visit the Pyramid Texts Online where you can read the complete text in English or view the Hieroglyphs in their entirety. A number of other important works are available at that site as well, including the Rosetta stone and E.A. Wallis Budge’s Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary.
Ancient Egypt: The Mythology
Ancient Egypt Online
Beetles and the decline of the Old Kingdom: Climate change in ancient Egypt by Miroslav Barta
The Book of The Dead
The Book of The Dead Plate XVI featuring chapter 30 found on heart scarabs
Khepri Wikipedia Article