What is it about the humble looking dung beetle that led the ancient Egyptians to venerate it and even use it in medicine? Looks are certainly deceptive when it comes to the dung beetle. Far from being humble, this species of beetle is extraordinary. Not only can it survive in a challenging, inhospitable terrain but it is also the strongest insect/animal in the world.
This beetle is found in the Egyptian desert, grasslands and farms. It depends entirely on dung for food and to cater for its offspring and therefore has to cope with debilitating heat radiating from the desert which could bake the beetle alive. But how does the dung beetle roll the dung ball in a straight line with a reverse ball pushing technique which obscures its vision? The beetle begins by climbing atop its sphere and performing a rotating dance. Remarkably, this dance is actually a rhythmic orientation movement which helps the beetle navigate itself using celestial cues. Scientists at Sweden’s Lund University have discovered that this small insect takes a “snapshot” of the sun, moon and stars to steer its dung home. Humans and birds are known to navigate by the stars but this could be the first example of an insect doing so.
Were the ancient Egyptians aware of the solar/celestial navigational skills of the beetle? Interestingly, the dung beetle was linked to solar worship in ancient Egypt. The sun was conceptualised as a principal force, which manifested itself in various guises in a daily struggle for existence. The god Khepri was depicted as a scarab beetle or a man with the head of a scarab, and symbolised the sun in the morning, appearing as a huge celestial beetle propelling the sun above the horizon in imitation of it rolling a dung ball through the sand. The verb kheper translates as “to become” or “to come into being”, and in Egyptian myth, the scarab came to represent the ability of the sun god to bring about his own rebirth. The noun “scarab”, kheperer means “that which comes into being”literally. Such representations can be seen in the scarab’s multiple depictions in the amduat “that which is in the netherworld”—a New Kingdom text describing the sun’s nocturnal wandering through the shady world of the Egyptian afterlife, and subsequent self-resurrection. At nightfall, Ra descended into the underworld in his night boat, crowded with deities, protective demons and spirits of the blessed dead.
The best-known scarab of all is the heart scarab. This is a large amulet of hard green or black stone, placed over the heart of the mummy and inscribed with Chapter 30B from the Book of the Dead, whereby the deceased implores his heart to not mess up his chances at a blissful afterlife: “O my heart, which I had from my mother, the centre of my being. Do not stand against me as a witness, do not oppose me in the judgement hall, in the presence of the keeper of the balance.”
While the scarab could help provide a happy afterlife, the Egyptians were well aware that foodstuffs placed inside tombs—as well as embalmed corpses—were attractive targets for all manner of insects. Insects preying on the deceased’s body were a big danger to a happy ever after. Beetles form the largest single group of insect species, and one particular chapter of the Book of the Dead was written to try and deal with the problem. Spell 36 contains an incantation to repel a beetle: “Begone from me, O Crooked-lips!” The term “crooked lips” likely refers to the clypeus—the broad plate at the front of the beetle’s head (scarabs use it to efficiently shovel dung).
Scarabs grew in popularity and continued to be produced in the millions for use as beads, pendants, seals and in rings until the fourth century a.d. Their amuletic properties led to a vast array of magical hieroglyphic symbols appearing on the base. The scarab beetle was even included in the various medical and magical papyri. The Ebers Papyrus is named for the German Egyptologist Georg Ebers, who purchased the papyrus scroll in Luxor in the winter of 1872. Thought to date from around the reign of Amenhotep I (ca. 1525 b.c.), the Ebers Papyrus contains a recipe to eliminate bewitchment in which the head and wings of a scarab are scorched, mixed with some salamander fat, heated and then drunk.
Scarabs continued to be used in magic spells long after the death of Cleopatra in 30 b.c. and Egypt’s assimilation into the Roman Empire. The Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden was written in the 3rd century a.d. contains a fascinating “love potion” designed to seduce a woman, and features a type of scarab wine: “[The method] of the scarab of the cup of wine, to make a woman love a man. You take a fish-faced scarab…. You take it at the rising of the sun… and you address it before the sun when it is about to rise, seven times. … When evening comes, you take it out, you spread its under part with sand, and put a circular strip of cloth under it upon the sand, unto four days…. When the four days have passed, and it is dry…. you divide it down its middle with a bronze knife …. [With one half] make it into a ball and put it in the wine, and speak over it seven times, and you make the woman drink it….”
The magic formula continues at some length and describes how to bind the other half of the scarab mixture to one’s left arm whenever one wants to “lie with a woman”. What’s interesting is how it incorporates the solar aspects of the scarab beetle within the spell.
In the mesmerising western desert of Egypt, not only does the scarab have the skills to survive the lethal heat, but within the landscape of the legendary singing dunes it emerges to life from within a dung ball—a ball which was remarkably pushed in a straight line after performing an orientation dance. While it’s unlikely the ancient Egyptians fully understood the scarab’s unique skills in using the Milky Way to navigate itself home, the beetle’s “magical” self-reproduction and physical strength made it not just an ideal celestial/solar deity, but also the most popular amulet in Egyptian history.
An excerpt from my article in Nile Magazine #14. To read more: