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W. M. Flinders Petrie. Scarabs and cylinders with names: illustrated by the Egyptian collection in University College, London (London, 1917)

View Scarabs and Cylinders PDF Online


3. Veneration for the beetle

4. Ideas connected with it

5. The use of the scarab

6. Literary references to it

7. Amulet and seal

3. Veneration for the beetle

That various kinds of beetle were venerated in Egypt from prehistoric times is clearly proved, both from the preserved animals, and from the images of them. So far back as s.d. 53, in the earlier part of the second prehistoric civilisation, two jars in a grave contained numerous dried beetles (grave B 328, Diospolis). Rather later, in S.D. 66, a grave (b 234) contained a jar with scarab beetles. Of the same age another grave (b 217) contained a jar with dozens of large desert beetles, and an immense quantity of small beetles. Another grave, undated (b 17), had thirty-six beetles in a jar.

Not only are the dried animals thus found, but the intention with which they were buried is vouched for, by the models of beetles pierced to be worn as amulets. At Naqadeh two beetles of green serpentine were found, of prehistoric age, copied from the long bright green beetle now found living in the Sudan (Naqada. lviii). Other beetles of the same kind cut in sard, and one in crystal, have been found in graves at Tarkhan, about S.D. (Sequence Date) 77-8. In another grave (1552), of S.D. 77, was a group of amulets with two desert beetles cut in opaque green serpentine. Of S.D. 77 also, was a translucent green serpentine beetle found in the lowest level of the town of Abydos (Ab. i, li, 7). Slightly later, but before the first dynasty, was another long beetle found in the temple of Abydos (Ab. ii, xiv, 282). Of S.D. 78, just before Mena, there is the most striking instance of a reliquary case, to be worn as a charm, made of alabaster in the form of the true Scarabaeus sacer (grave 27, Tarkhan I, iii, 4, xiv, 19). About the "time of King Den (S.D. 81) in a grave at Tarkhan (120) was a jar containing many large desert beetles. Passalacqua found the Bupresiis beetle embalmed at Thebes. The variety of beetles here mentioned, beside the commonly recognised scarabaeus, is what is to be expected, as we find that four other genera are clearly copied in the scarabs of later times, and are alluded to in papyri for magical use.

4. Ideas connected with it

What then must we conclude as to the Egyptian view of the beetle, before the engraving of designs upon it? It was certainly sacred or venerated, as shown by the many amulets, and especially the amulet case or reliquary in the form of Scarabaeus sacer. It was, by the same examples, certainly worn as an amulet. This being the case, we have no right to dissociate it from the very primitive idea which we find connected with it in later times, that the sun is the big ball rolled across the heaven by the Creator, and hence the scarab is an emblem of the Creator, Khepera. The scarab is figured with the disc of Ra in its claws in the xiith, xviiith, and later dynasties. Such a symbolism is assuredly primitive, and would not arise after the anthropomorphic gods filled the religion of Egypt; moreover Khepera is called "the Father of the Gods" (Lanzone, D. Mil. cccxxx). This symbolism of the beetle is a part of the primeval animal worship of Egypt. The idea of the word Kheper is "being" existence, creation, or becoming; and the god Khepera is the self-existent creator-god.

On turning from the material remains to the inscriptions, we find that the importance of the scarab emblem was transferred from the Creator to the soul which is to be united to him. In the Pyramid texts it is said, "This Unas flieth like a bird and alighteth like a beetle upon the throne which is empty in thy boat, Ra." Teta is said to " live like the scarab." Pepy is " the son of the scarab which is born in Hotept."

The scarab also passed to the other gods as a creative emblem. Ptah Sokar has the scarab on his head; so also Ka, "father of the gods," has a scarab on his frog's head. HorapoUo refers to Ptah having a scarab.

5. The use of the scarab

We are now in a position to see the Egyptian idea which underlay the immense popularity of this form in historic times. We need not suppose that the original amuletic purpose and theological allusion ruled entirely; mere habit of association was perhaps all that was commonly in the thoughts. We know how in Christian times the cross was popularised, and was used so incessantly that at last a higher value had to be attached to the emblem by forming the crucifix, in order to renew the solemnity of it. In somewhat the same spirit, after the scarab had become too familiar in common use, it was re-sanctified in the xviiith dynasty by being carved in a very large size, with a purely religious text upon it, and placed in a frame upon the breast of the dead. On this frame it is often shown as adored by Isis and Nebhat. It is said to be the heart of Isis, who was the mother of the dead person, thus identified with Horus: to be the heart which belonged to the transformations or becomings of his future life, in order to give soundness to his limbs; and to be the charm which should ensure his justification in the judgment. Such were the high religious aspects of the scarab in the later times, removing it from the almost contemptuous familiarity to which it had been degraded, as the vehicle of seals and petty ornament.

On passing to the xxiiird dynasty and later, we see the winged scarab placed on the breast of the mummy, as the emblem of the Creator who should transform the dead; and associated always with the four sons of Horus, as guardians of special parts of the body.

From this time, and specially from the xxvith to the xxxth dynasties, many scarabs were placed on the mummy, usually a row of half a dozen or more, along with figures of the gods. Such scarabs are almost always carved with the legs beneath, and are never inscribed.

On reaching gnostic times we see on amulets three scarabs in a row, as emblems of the Trinity, with three hawks as souls of the just before them, and three crocodiles, three snakes, etc., as souls of the wicked driven away behind them (see Amulets, 135). Thus the function of the scarab as emblem of the Creator Khepera was transferred, and it became in triple group the emblem of the Trinity.

6. Literary references to it

Turning to the documents of that age, there are descriptions which throw much light on the way in which it was venerated. Pliny says of the scarabaeus," The people of a great part of Egypt worship those insects as divinities; an usage for which Apion gives a curious reason, asserting as he does, by way of justifying the rites of his nation, that the insect in its operations pictures the revolution of the sun" (xxx, 30). Horapollo (i, 10) explains this allusion, saying that the scarab" rolls the ball from east to west, looking himself toward the east. Having dug a hole, he buries it in it for twenty-eight days; on the twenty-ninth day he opens the ball, and throws it into the water, and from it the scarabaei come forth." This description applies to the most usual place for the scarabaeus insect, the western desert edge. There we may frequently see the scarab rolling its ball toward the rise of sand to bury it, and holding it between the hind legs, pushing backward with its face to the east. The same description is given by Plutarch (Isis and Osiris, 74).

There was regard for various kinds of beetles in Roman times, as previously on the carved scarabs, and the prehistoric amulets. Pliny (xxx, 30) says, "There is also another kind of scarabaeus which the magicians recommend to be worn as an amulet—the one which has small horns thrown backward. A third kind also, known by the name of jullo, and covered with white spots, they recommend to be cut asunder and attached to either arm." This method of use is described in the Demotic Magical Papyrus (.xxi, 18) ; "you divide it down the middle with a bronze knife . . . take its left half . . . and bind them to your left arm."

Horapollo (i, 10) states, "There are three species of beetles. One has the form of a cat, and is radiated, which is called a symbol of the sun . . . the statue of the deity of Heliopolis having the form of a cat, and the scarab has also thirty fingers like the thirty days of the month. "The second species is two-horned, and has the form of a bull, which is consecrated to the moon. "The third species is unicorn, and has a peculiar form which is referred to Hermes like the Ibis." This third species is evidently the Hypsclogenia, which has a long beak in front; this seems to have been compared to the long beak of the ibis, and hence as referred to Tehuti. Of the two horned scarab there is a bronze figure in the British Museum; it may be that known to us as the stag beetle. To the cat-shaped beetle we have no clue; from being put first it may be supposed to be the Scarabaeus.

Another account of varieties is in the Demotic Magical Papyrus (xxi, 10), where for a love-potion "you take a fish- faced (?) scarab, this scarab being small and having no horn, it wearing three plates on the front of its head, you find its face thin (?) outwards—or again that which bears two horns." Whatever may be the modern equivalents of these various descriptions, it is certainly evident that five or six different kinds of beetles were all venerated, and used for their magical properties.

7. Amulet and seal

We have now seen that the scarab and other beetles were regarded as sacred or magical, from the earlier part of the second prehistoric age down to the Christian period. The religious texts that we have of the vth, vith, xviiith, and xixth dynasties all refer to it as an emblem of the Creator-God, as a symbol and guarantee of his assistance to the deceased, or as an emblem of the apotheosis of the deceased. In the xiith dynasty this emblem came into common use, and served as a seal, doubtless owing to the name of the person being placed on it, to ensure that its powers should be given to him. Just as the use of the divination arrows drifted down into the vulgarisation of gaming cards, or the cross became used for various unseemly purposes, so the personal amulet of the scarab became treated commonly as the seal for everyday use. This did not however prevent the symbol being most generally employed with a religious significance.

The purely utilitarian view of the scarab as a seal was true enough in some instances; but the facts of its actual use show that this was not the main purpose, even if we had not the use of it vouched for as a sacred amulet in the earliest, as in the latest, times. In the first place, the scarabs were originally nearly all coated with glaze, which has since perished from the majority, leaving the lines clear. But, when the glaze remains, we see that a large part of the lines were so filled with glaze that no impression could be taken from them. As to the actual use for sealing, we know of very few instances of such except in the xiith dynasty; hardly any scarab sealings of the xviiith to xxvith dynasties are found, although scarabs were commonest at that age. For signets it would be required that the name and title of the person should appear, as on many that are known. Yet such name-scarabs of private persons are very rare, except in the Middle Kingdom, and even these are but a small minority of all that were made. Further, those with kings' names are, in some cases, later than the rulers whom they name, and could not therefore be used for official seals, but must refer to the claim on the protection afforded by the deceased king to the wearer, like the medals of saints worn by the devout.

A somewhat similar change of usage is seen in the cylinders of the late prehistoric age. Though cut in one of the softest materials, black steatite, it is seldom that they show any wear. They can never have been carried on the person in most cases; the few that have been so used are so much worn as to be scarcely legible, and even hard scarabs of later times show much wear if they have been carried on the finger, owing to the prevailing grit and sand. The subjects generally engraved on the cylinders bear this out, as in the earlier classes they are seldom titles. The usual subjects shown are the seated figure with a table of offerings—as on Memphite tomb steles subsequently, or the aakhu bird, emblem of the soul—as on Abydan grave steles subsequently. Names of gods are also usual. Apart then from any question of the reading of these cylinders, the subjects show that they are funerary in character. The absence of wear upon them shows that they were not usually carried during life, but were engraved to place as amulets with the dead. Thus the cylinder—like the scarab—was essentially an amulet, and usually for the dead. Subsequently the titles were added, and then the cylinder developed in the first dynasty into an article of daily affairs. We should note the contrast that while hundreds or thousands of impressions of the business cylinders are known, but scarcely a single actual cylinder; yet, on the contrary, over a hundred early cylinders of the funerary type are known, but not a single impression of such. The complete contrast of usage shows that the early cylinders were entirely different in purpose to the business cylinders of the first dynasty and onward.

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