Egyptian Symbols: Scarab

The scarab is a particular specie of beetle known as the dung beetle (Scarabeus sacer) that often lends its appearance in various Egyptian amulets and art forms. The scarab is a very scared symbol that can be likened to the cross in Christians. It represents the concepts of self-generation, rebirth, renewal and resurrection after the uncanny practice of the dung beetles. It has a variety of use including recording material for important events and inscribing prayers placed on the mummies to protect the dead from evil. It may also be used as stamp seals by officials. Scarabs may be made from a variety of materials including carnelian, steatite, lapis lazuli, basalt, faience, limestone, schist, turquoise, ivory, resin, turquoise, amethyst and bronze.

Dung beetles are known for their peculiar habit of rolling balls of dung even larger than their actual size and depositing them in their burrows. Once there, the females would lay their eggs inside the dung balls that would serve as nourishment for the larvae. Once totally consumed, young beetles would emerge from the ground suggesting they came from nowhere. The ancient Egyptians believed that these beetles came from a spontaneous birth from the burrows. This made the citizens worship them as the Khepera or “He who came forth” – an aspect and function associated with creation god, Atum.

The same practice along with the ray-like antenna structure found in the beetles associated them with the sun. Thus, they were connected to the god Khepri (a god with the body of a man and head of a beetle), who is believed to be one that pushes the sun as it sets in a manner similar to the scarab’s habit. Some artifacts even suggest a beetle pushing the sun is Khepri because of his appearance. This solidified the position of the scarab as a symbol of rebirth because the sun sets daily only to rise again the following day.

In fact, during the New Kingdom, the heart scarab is often placed next to the mummy’s heart in the sarcophagus for a smooth sailing journey towards afterlife. In some versions, these scarabs were to be weighed against the feather of Ma’at in the Hall of Justice pending final judgment. Spells from the Book of the Dead were usually inscribed in the scarabs that will entreat the deceased heart not to stand witness against the person. The most famous heart scarab was found in the temple of Tutankhamun in Karnak.

Equally famous is the commemorative scarab of Queen Tiye used as seal that bore lengthy inscriptions and was much larger than the normal-scarab size. Larger sculptures of scarabs can also be found in the Temple of Luxor in Alexandria.