One doesn’t normally think of beetles and gods in the same thought, or at least I don’t at any rate. Well I suppose, there is that famous (and perhaps apocryphal) quip of Haldane’s about God’s inordinate fondness for beetles. But a beetle as a manifestation of a god, or an integral part of the correct functioning of the cosmos, or a symbol of the beginning of the universe, no that doesn’t spring easily to my mind. But if I was an Ancient Egyptian that would make perfect sense to me. The Egyptians had observed young scarab beetles emerging from balls of dung, and as far as they could tell this was spontaneous generation of beetles (obviously we now know that a female scarab had laid an egg in there first, but that bit the Egyptians didn’t see). So as a result they thought of the scarab as being associated with creation, and specifically with self-creation. And this then generated a comparison with their god Atum – Atum who emerged from the primordial mound at the beginning of creation, like a scarab beetle emerges from its dung. And yes, that does mean that there is a direct comparison between a ball of dung and the land we live on but it doesn’t seem that that was an important part of the analogy (or then again maybe it was, dung is a good fertiliser after all and the fertility of the land they lived on was essential to them).
And that’s not all that was compared to a ball of dung. Another thing that scarab beetles do, as well as emerge from dung, is push dung balls across the ground (in search of a safe place to eat it). And that made the Ancient Egyptians think of the sun – how does it move across the sky? One of their answers was that it was in a boat, that floated on the waters of Nun that were held back by the sky goddess Nut. But another of their answers was that it was pushed across the sky by the god Khepri in the form of a scarab beetle. So Khepri is another god who is associated with this beetle – he’s a solar god, and more specifically the god of the sun rising on the eastern horizon. There is one pretty big difference between reality and iconography in this case – real scarab beetles stand up on their forelegs and push their dung ball along backwards using their back legs. However Khepri pushes the sun moving forwards and using his forelegs. I find this quite intriguing and wonder if it’s related to how one of the bad things that one didn’t want to happen in the afterlife was to walk upside down on one’s hands – perhaps it was considered an ill-advised way to portray a sun god? Or maybe it was just considered more aesthetically pleasing? I find it a bit unlikely it was just random chance, the Egyptians seem to’ve been keen observers of nature so I’m sure they wouldn’t’ve just got it wrong!
Khepri’s iconography is all about the beetle as well. As with many Egyptian gods he had three main forms – a person, a person with animal attributes, and an animal. Khepri is therefore sometimes shown as a man with a beetle headdress, as a man with a whole beetle as his head, and as a scarab beetle. The beetle is often blue, like in the necklace I’m using to illustrate this article. The real beetle, unsurprisingly, is not blue – it’s black – so this colour was chosen for its symbolism, and was intended to emphasise the link between the beetle and the heavens. Some exceptions to this colour choice are in funerary texts, where the beetle is its natural black – perhaps because black signifies fertility and rebirth?
The link between Khepri and the scarab beetle goes much deeper than his iconographic representation. The original name of Khepri was kheprer, which is quite literally the word for the scarab beetle in Ancient Egyptian – so he’s not just represented by a beetle, he is a beetle. It is also linked to the verb kheper, which means “to develop” or “to come into being,” and you can see how this links the concepts of creation (and the rising sun) even more deeply into the nature of the beetle and the god Khepri as well as linking them both again to that initial moment of creation and the emergence of Atum from the primeval waters. It’s also another illustration of something I mentioned when I was talking about Khonsu – the names of the cosmological gods in Egyptian generally aren’t the names of the cosmological entities that they represent. Nothing of the sun about the name Khepri, instead it’s all about the beetle and the metaphysical ideas.
There are also tweaks to the representation of the scarab and Khepri that link them with other gods and other ideas within Egyptian cosmology. For instance Khepri could be shown as a scarab beetle in a boat being held up by the god Nun which is then a recapitulation of creation with the solar creator god rising up from the primeval waters. And also one of the other ways that the sun is supposed to travel across the sky – in a boat, floating on the waters of Nun which are held back above us by the goddess Nut as the sky. There are also scarab beetles with wings and the feet and tail of a bird – normally a falcon or a vulture, the former linking perhaps to Re-Horakhty (another solar god). And there are also ram-headed scarab beetles which represent Atum-Khepri – the solar creator god in multiple aspects, and also a symbol of the rising and setting sun together. And of course as a solar god Khepri was also considered a manifestation of Re, and sometimes he’s associated so closely with Re that it’s Re who’s said to be a scarab beetle pushing the sun in the morning with no explicit mention of Khepri.
And in something that starts to feel a little like a pattern – the solar associated scarab beetle can also be associated with the moon (c.f. Shu and Tefnut), and be depicted pushing the moon in front of it in a visually and conceptually analogous fashion to pushing the sun. There’s also a pectoral from the tomb of Tutankhamun (not the one I’ve got as my illustration) which has a winged scarab beetle holding up the boat of the lunar eye, above which is the usual moon symbol of the full moon sitting in a crescent moon. And this imagery may be associated with one of the moon gods – Iah.
As I’ve alluded to a couple of times already, scarabs beetles show up in funerary contexts. Sometimes this may be linked to something about the person – for instance because one of Tutankhamun’s names is Nebkheperure (with the “kheper” in the middle written with a beetle) the scarab beetle is used as a visual pun on his jewellery and other funerary goods. But more generally there were strong links in Ancient Egyptian thought between their creation stories and their ideas about the afterlife – linking the moment of first creation with the rebirth and renewal to come after death. Thus imagery associated with creation often shows up in funerary contexts. Rather more specifically for the scarab beetle, in his role as the pusher of the sun across the sky Khepri was thought to be swallowed by Nut each night along with the sun and reborn again in the morning. This idea that he was constantly reborn mean that he was also directly associated with resurrection. And in this sort of context he might be explicitly linked with Osiris, symbolically linking the solar realm with the netherworld. For instance in the Late Period tomb of Petosiris there is a depiction of Khepri wearing Osiris’s atef crown, and there are other depictions elsewhere of Osiris with a scarab beetle for a head with the atef crown on top.
Much later authors like Plutarch (2nd Century CE) and Horapollo (5th Century CE if he existed) take the association of scarab beetle imagery and the funerary context much much further. They say that the tunnels of Old Kingdom mastabas were built to resemble the tunnels of the scarab beetle, and that mummified bodies are wrapped to mimic scarab beetle pupae. This is dubious at best – there’s no evidence at all that this was a part of Pharaonic Egyptian thought so it’s almost certainly a flight of fancy on the part of some Roman or Greek. But it entertained me enough to tell you about it, despite its lack of foundation in fact!
So in summary, if you were an Ancient Egyptian when you saw a scarab beetle you wouldn’t just think “oh look, a beetle pushing some dung around” – you’d think of the sun, of the beginnings of the world and of life after death. A pretty weighty load for a beetle to push around.
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