Beetles as Religious Symbols
by Yves Cambefort, (bibliography)
The scarab is generally associated with old Egypt which indeed made this beetle their most important religious symbol; however, scarabs and other beetles have been worshiped in various ways from Prehistory. This paper will show the Egyptians’ use of the scarab beetles as neither accidental or unique and only the most obvious of many sacred beetle examples throughout history.
Yves Cambefort article is divided into four main sections.
1. Prehistory to Buddhism and Taoism including Shamanism, The Scarab as Creator, and Buddhism and Taoism.
2. Ancient Egypt including Khepri and the pyramids, The scarab and the mummy, The auspicious scarab, and Ptah and Neith.
3. Indo-Europeans including Old Europe, India and Iran.
4. Judeo-Christian culture including Semitic people and the Bible, Christian authors, and Modern Europe.
It is well known that Prehistoric beliefs are related to the beliefs of contemporary “primitive” cultures. More surprisingly, these primitive beliefs have often evolved into more elaborated ones.
So-called “pendants” in the shape of beetles are known from the late Paleolithic epoch (10,000 to 20,000 years ago). So much earlier than the Egyptian civilization, it is difficult to know the exact meaning these people attributed to beetle body ornaments. Some insight is gained in an observation of the habits displayed by “primitive” cultures of today. Ethnoentomological studies reveal beetles’ significance due to their importance as a food source and their ability to fly. In primitive and traditional cultures, shamans (medicine men) play very important roles. They are men of power, who are able to address issues in both the terrestrial and celestial worlds. They are able to “fly” in the sky, (in dreams or trances) and descend to subterranean hells where they act as mediators between infernal powers and ordinary men. With these talents held in high esteem, beetles were observed to fly in the sky and dive into the ground. In addition to their palatability, it is plausible to consider the importance of beetle symbolism within shamanic cultures; their vivid colors and spectacular horns aiding in their use as ornaments.
Further clarification may be needed to visualize the links between shamanistic values and the importance of beetles. Fully immersing ourselves in the ways of primitive or traditional cultures reveals a belief that nothing is due to chance or accident. Everything has a “sacred” meaning, as demonstrated by Mircea Eliade. Food, as an essential key to life, inherits the symbolism of immortality, and therefore of the divine; everything that can be eaten receives divine connotation. The French philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss has shown that there are strong correlations between ornaments and food.
Ornaments used by traditional cultures are not purely for decorative appeal; they possess an auspicious nature believed to increase the bearer’s strength. Therefore, as often as possible, edible objects are used as ornaments, especially if they have additional aesthetic qualities and shamanic symbolism. This is the case for some metallic or horned beetles. Bright, metallic colors evoke images of the sun and luminous sky; horns symbolize rising upward, especially if their bearers can fly. Many beetle species have been and still are used as food in America, Australasia, Asia, and Africa; some were also eaten in Europe. Simultaneously, “primitive” societies have used shining elytrae of Buprestids or Rutelids, as well as “horns” of Lucanids and Dynastids. Western civilization through Art Nouveau jewelry of the 1900’s was richly adorned with beetles and other insects. In Europe and North America, collars, broaches, and ear pendants, used beetles mounted on bronze. To this day, especially in Mexico, living specimens of some beetle species are worn by women as broaches, attached with a small gold or bronze chain.
Among shamanic societies, there are series of myths relating the creation of world to beetles. In some Indian tribes from the Chaco (South America), a big scarab named Aksak modeled man and woman from clay. Thus, the scarab, who shapes dung into balls, is identified as potter; an identification that we shall find again in Old Egypt (below).
In a more remarkable myth, an aquatic animal plunges down to the bottom of original liquid chaos, managing to grab and bring back to the surface some amount of matter to form the terrestrial world. In some examples of this myth, the primeval diver and maker of the world is a beetle. This is especially the case among pre-Aryan people from India and South-East Asia. The myth probably combines two different sorts of beetles: a Dytiscid, whose name recalls his ability to plunge (from Greek dytiscos “diver”), and a scarab, grabbing and pushing his dung ball (of course, in the primeval waters, there was no dry land to push one’s ball on).
The sky, representing a similar symmetrical medium to the water, has resulted in variant inversions of the creation myths. Among the Sumatran Toba, a big beetle brings a ball of matter from the sky to form the world. This beetle could be a scarab. (Egyptian and Greeks believed scarabs were able to fly while carrying a dung ball.)
A possible heritage of shamanism, we know of some buddhist liturgical ornaments adorned with bright beetles. (especially elytra of Buprestids) These type of ornaments existed in continental Asia by the 6th century a.d. Due to their fragility, we do not know older examples, although they may have existed anteriorly, since Egyptian parallels are known: some objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb (14th century B.C.) are adorned with Buprestid elytra. In Asia, the most precious example still in existence is the Tamamushi reliquary in the temple of Horyuji at Nara (Japan). Made for empress Suiko, who was crowned in 592 a.d., it was adorned with 9000 elytra of the Buprestid Chrysochroa fulgidissima.
Taoism is another Asian religion, or rather philosophy. Its goal was to reach immortality, either material (for the body), or spiritual (for the soul). Of course, spiritual immortality was more precious and more difficult to reach. A famous text, “The Secret of the Golden Flower,” takes the sacred scarab as an example of the “work to be done” in order to reach spiritual immortality. Taoism believes in the strengths of various material “pellets” that aids in reaching immortality. The scarab dung ball was identified as one of these pellet substances; the larva and pupa were also used in the Taoist belief:
The scarab rolls his pellet, and life is born in it as an effect of nondispersed work of spiritual concentration. Now, even in manure an embryo can develop and cast his “terrestrial” skins, why would the dwelling of our celestial heart not be able to generate a body too, if we concentrate our spirit on it?
Let us notice that scarab larva and pupa have been observed within the ball; (although in reality they do not develop in the ball while it is being rolled, but later in the nest, when the ball has been fashioned in the shape of a pear): we shall see they have also been observed in Egypt.
Scarab-headed god Khepri
The Egyptian civilization was formed from meeting and melding of wandering, cattle-bearing nomads, from the prehistoric green Sahara, with sedentary farmers from the Nile Valley. It is possible to speculate about these peoples’ beliefs, and to suggest that both of them share shamanic ideologies. They would have noticed large bright metallic beetles; Buprestids on the Acacia trees, and a golden-green scarab which made large balls of cattle dung. We know of a number of hard stone pendants dating back from prehistoric Egypt that are often in the shape of Buprestid beetles. Although prehistoric Egypt does not show the use of the scarab beetles, early 1st dynasty (ca. 3000 B.C.) Egyptian culture produced a small alabaster case in the shape of a scarab. According to the British egyptologist Flinders Petrie, the case was designed to be attached to a necklace and might have been made to contain a true beetle.
In Egypt, the primary symbolism associated with scarab was solar. The first scarab worshiped, was probably the bright metallic Kheper aegyptiorum. The decisive symbolism came from the association of the dung ball to the sun: the scarab rolling his dung ball provided an explanation of the sun’s movement in the sky. However, this solution was neither “logical” (where is the scarab in the sky?) nor exclusive: Egyptian culture embraced their old and new beliefs with an equal and non conflicting faith.
The capital of the solar religion was the city of On, which Greeks called Heliopolis (“the City of the Sun”). It was probably at On that Khepri, a scarab god of the sun, appeared in the predynastic epoch. Khepri might have been associated with the brilliant Kheper aegyptiorum, (whose name was coined by André Janssens, in 1940) or to the black Scarabaeus sacer, which was more often figured later. Nowadays, only the latter occurs in this region; the former being a more southern species probably due to significant climactic changes since Egyptian civilization. The name Khepri (or Kheperi, or Khepera) means “The Being, The Extant.” The name Khepri is related to other words of the same root, e.g. kheper “to exist, to come to existence” and khepru “transformations, metamorphoses.” Originally, Khepri represented the sun from sunrise to sunset, although the oldest texts describe him setting in the western horizon at dusk. He quickly lost some importance, and became confined to the associative role with the rising sun, which he maintained throughout the entire Egyptian civilization. He is represented as a man with a scarab topping or replacing his head (right). Khepri lost his association with the “dying” evening sun, to the god Atum, who is often figured with a ram head. For this reason, the ram-headed scarab represents the sun in the double aspects of rising/setting, or birth/death. To Khepri and Atum is often added Re, “The Sun,” who subsumes them.
During the entire Old Kingdom (ca. 2650-2200 B.C.), and to a lesser extent until the end of New Kingdom (ca.1050 B.C.), Khepri retained various titles: the great god of the morning sun; the self-created; the creator of the universe; and the father of the gods. The Great Sphinx, also known as “the great statue of Khepri,” is facing eastward to hail the rising sun. This statue is close to the Gizeh Pyramids and was probably made during the same epoch (4th dynasty, ca. 2575-2465 B.C.). In 1987, I remarked, if the Great Sphinx represents a dung beetle [god], it is to be asked whether the Pyramids represent anything other than a giant dung pat; namely a cattle dung pat, since cattle were very important within Egyptian religion. If we cannot be sure about the Sphinx association with a scarab, we possess a few colossal statues of indisputable scarabs. The term colossal is relative, since the statues barely exceeds one meter in length. The largest one is in the British Museum, probably brought from Alexandria. The most famous (left), is made from red granite and still stands on a two meters high pedestal in its original location at the great temple of Karnak, inspiring tourists take a second look and wish that someday they might return. Maybe this habit is as old as the colossal scarab itself!
Understanding the daily rebirth of the sun has always been of interest to the Egyptians. What happens to the sun between the moment it sinks into the earth in the western horizon, (where it dies and is buried) and the moment it emerges in the eastern horizon, (where it born again?) Some indications suggest that Egyptian scholars, i.e. priests, got the idea to examine what happened to the beetle’s dung ball when it was buried beneath the ground. They probably made the entomological observation of metamorphoses; predating those of the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre by about 5000 years.
However, the conclusions of Egyptian priests were rather different from Fabre’s. They appear to have concluded that the scarab ball was something like the beetle’s egg. Making their eggs from dung, scarabs did not need females; therefore, they were all males. By the way, let us remark here that the Egyptians also believed that vultures were all females (below). The Egyptian understanding was that old male scarabs buried their balls/eggs into the ground. In the ball, the beetle experienced vital changes, passed through various worm-like stages (the larvae), became a motionless, dead-like corpse (the pupa), and ultimately was born anew from the ball. Egyptian priests thought that what happened to the sun in the ground was not essentially different from scarab metamorphoses. At the end of the day, the sun enters into the ground as does the scarab and his ball (let us observe here again that the sun alone can be represented by the scarab and/or his ball; a vision rather hard for contemporary cultures to believe). The sun travels underground from west to east, undergoing a mysterious metamorphoses, or khepru, resulting in regeneration. The next morning, the sun rises from the ground rejuvenated, as the scarab god Khepri.
Now, Egyptian scholars or priests further developed their beliefs. If the humble scarab and the glorious sun can be reborn from the ground, after suffering death and undergoing mysterious transformations, why should not this be possible for human beings? Even though men are not as glorious as the sun, they are not as humble as the scarab. The recipe for rebirth, or resurrection, was then to imitate as closely as possible what happened to the scarab while it entered the ground (for it is more difficult to observe what happens to the sun). Most crucial was the last stage (the pupa) which inspired the invention of the complicated process of mummification. In all probability, the mummy is nothing other that the imitation of scarab pupa; A temporary condition intended to protect the dead body, and the transformations (the khepru) it must endure before its resurrection.
The first hour of the book Amduat
The Egyptians made a distinction between the “old” scarab, who sinks into the ground, and the “young” scarab, who rises up to the sky with, or rather as, the sun. Osiris, king/god of the dead, was identified to the “old” scarab. His son Horus, the falcon god, was identified primarily with the midday sun, whereas Khepri remained associated with the morning sun. However, according to a Pyramid Text inscribed on the inside walls of the royal pyramids in the 5th and 6th dynasties (ca. 2465-2150 B.C.), the two animals were sometimes combined to produce the surprising hybrid of a scarab body, with falcon wings, legs, and tail:
I fly up as a bird and alight as a beetle;
I fly up as a bird and alight as a beetle on the empty throne which is on your bark, O Re!
From this time on, the scarab became the most powerful symbol of the victory life wins over death. The “Funeral Books” of the New Kingdom consecrates this role. An excerpt of the most important of them, the “Book of What is in the Underworld”, or Amduat, is painted on the wall of Tutankhamun’s tomb, behind the pharaoh’s head (above right). It shows the ark of the sun sailing on nocturnal waters. The sun is represented as a beetle, a promise of his next morning rebirth, as well as of the young pharaoh’s resurrection. Later on when the idea appeared on a post-mortem judgement, before Osiris’ tribunal, the scarab had a new role to play.
A large (3-10cm) “heart scarab” (right) was suspended from the mummy’s neck with a gold wire or chain, not only as a token of resurrection, but as an advocate to help the deceased to present his defense before the tribunal. These scarabs were often made with green stone (basalt, schist, jade, etc.), for green was an auspicious color. On their flat basis is inscribed in hieroglyphs a particular chapter from the Book of the Dead which invokes the “heart of [one's] mother”, and this expression probably designates the heart scarab.
The scarab has remained a favorite amulet throughout history, and hundreds of thousands of these tiny figures have been found in the Egyptian soil. Most often, their flat base is engraved with a beneficial inscription, which enhances their auspicious power. The most famous of these formulae is the “praenomen” of pharaoh Thutmosis III: Men Kheper Re, although extremely difficult to translate, is something deciphered “Re stays and becomes, Hidden and Manifested.” The combination of hieroglyphs can also be read “Amun,” name of the Great God of Thebes. In this particular mode of reading, the hieroglyph of the sun was read aten instead of re, and only the first letter was retained: A; the hieroglyph men was read M, and the hieroglyph of the scarab was read neter “divine,” instead of kheper. It became A-M-N, (Amun!) Some of these well carved amulets, served as seals to mark properties. Kings and commoners used such small scarabs alike; The rich had them mounted in gold rings, while the poor simply attached them to a rope. In addition to the small scarab seals, we know of much larger (5-12 cm) scarabs that were made for the kings. The best known are those of Amenophis III (1391-1353 B.C.), which have been issued to commemorate important events of his reign, e.g. his marriage with Queen Tiye.
Ptah was a god of Memphis, the old capital where the pharaohs were crowned. He was originally a god of the earth: ta was the Egyptian word for “earth.” Ptah was also a divine craftsman. These two characters enabled him to be attributed with the modeling of man and woman from clay, as the scarab was a modeler of dung. The scarab hieroglyph, in addition to kheper and neter, could also be read ta “earth” or “Ptah.” In the Egyptian late period, Ptah was often represented as the older Khepri, wearing on his head the scarab who wrote his name. Hence, the scarab was another representation of Ptah, as was Ptah confused with Osiris- god of the dead during that epoch.
In the same late period, the capital was again settled at Memphis and Ptah regained his ancient preeminence over Amun from Thebes.The goddess of Sais (a city close to Memphis), named Neith, was a very old, half-forgotten deity, who also regained importance and was associated with Ptah. In earliest Egyptian period, her sym-bolic animal was a beetle, probably the Elaterid, Lanelater notodonta. Afterward, this particular beetle was forgotten and confused with the scarab, who was considered male. Therefore, the beetle was no longer an appropriate symbol for a goddess, and was replaced by the vulture, since, for obscure reasons, vultures were all reputed to be female.
At the epoch when Ptah and Neith were associated as the Great Divine Pair, Egyptian priests and scribes enjoyed many verbal and written play-on-words. They remembered that another name of Ptah was Ten (who was in fact another old god of the earth, who was also confused with Phah- late Egyptian beliefs became extremely complicated). The name Ten was important, since it was symmetric of Neith (Net): T-N and N-T. The scribes of this epoch wrote Ptah’s (= Ten’s) name with the hieroglyphs of scarab (T) and of vulture (N), and Neith’s name with the hieroglyphs of vulture (N) plus scarab (T).
At the culmination of the Egyptian civilization (4th century A.D.), a certain Horapollo wrote a treatise on hieroglyphs of which we possess a Greek version. In it, he exposed this sacred written pun. He also described the scarab as “only begotten,” and the Greek word is the same used by John (3:16) referring to Christ (below).
In Minoan Creta, horned “scarabs” crudely modeled in clay were used by peasants, probably in fecundity rites (right). Apart from these models, the scarab’s role is not obvious in archaic and classic Greek civilization. During late Egyptian periods, dwarves were devoted to Ptah (under the name “pataeci”) and many of them wore a scarab on their head. Probably for this reason, the scarab gained the reputation among the Greeks to be the king of Pygmies, although the Pygmies themselves represented the dead. In addition, we can find evidence that scarabs in a broad sense (sacred scarab and stag beetle were more or less confused) were important in the initiation rites of warriors (possibly due to the fact that warriors bring death). As a result, the scarab was consecrated to Zeus, to the same extent as the eagle. In fact, both animals seem interchangeable as favorites of the King of gods. Æsopus fable, “The Eagle and the Scarab,” is a testimony to the secular dispute between the scarab and the Eagle, or rather between their supporters. In this fable, the scarab wins, but historically, the eagle gained victory over the scarab, and remained the emblem of Zeus, carrying his thunder. The fable might also be a reminiscence of the late Egyptian periods, when the scarab and vulture (there are no eagles in Egypt) were united to write the Great Gods’ name T-N and N-T(above).
Meanwhile, the scarab became an object of derision and jokes, the most famous of them being Aristophanes comedy “Peace,” where a peasant flies up to Olympus riding a colossal scarab, whose coprophagous habits are insisted upon. Despite these trivial manners, the scarab retains his divine nature, which enables him to reach Zeus’ throne. Another clue of his importance could be the name “scarab” (greek: kantharos) of Dionysos’ cup, where pure wine is served in order to provide sacred drunkenness. Dionysos seems to be related to Osiris, who was said to have introduced wine in Egypt. As a sacred trance, drunkenness is related to shamanic powers of uniting the sky, the earth, and the underworld. Dionysos also had close relationships with Hephaistos, who was god of the fire. Since wine “burns” or at least heats as fire does, Hephaistos is often represented as being drunk. Hephaistos was confused by the Greeks with the late Egyptian scarab god, Ptah.
In Germany, the property of thunder belonged to the god Thor (or Donar), who was second only to Odhin. The stag-beetle was devoted to Thor, and reputed to bear not only lightning and thunder, but also fire, in the form of embers. Thor was reputed to set fire to thatched houses, hence many names relating to fire and thunder are still frequently used in Germany.
Along with a scarcity of references to the ancient scarab in Europe, it is almost impossible to find such references in Aryan Asia (for shamanic Asia, see above). At best we can refer to the Indian Gandharvas, a lower genii related to the sacred beverage Soma. Gandharvas is close to the Greek word kantharos, (for the scarab and Dionysos’ cup), and Soma might be related to wine. The French mythologist Georges Dumézil has compared the name Gandharvas with those of centaurs, which is also close to kantharos. Centaurs and Gandharvas seem more or less equivalent; minor deities related to sacred drunkenness, and possibly both of shamanic ancestry. In pre-Zoroastrian Iran, Haoma played the role of Indian Soma, and local equivalents of Gandharvas existed under the name Gandarevas.
Egyptian civilization exerted its influence over the entire Middle East. The Phoenicians were especially receptive to the culture, and adopted the scarab as auspicious amulets; however, along with their other deities, they figured it with four wings, a character never found among true Egyptian scarabs. For western Phoenicians, or Carthaginians, the scarabs were even more important, being found in all the tombs. When Egyptian scarabs were available, they were imported in great numbers to Carthage and its colonies. Later on, scarabs were made on the spot. Some places were famous for this particular industry, e.g. Sardinia. It is probably from Sardinia that the habit to carve amuletic and ornamental scarabs passed to Etruria, and later to Rome, where they lost their symbolic importance.
Coming back to Israel, the word “scarab” does not occur in the Hebrew Bible. The Jewish authors probably did not want to recall the detested enemy through this Egyptian emblematic character. However, in the Greek translation of the Bible (called Septuagint,) the word “beetle” occurs once (Habakkuk 2:11):
For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beetle out of the timber shall answer it.
Habakkuk’s passage would not have been quoted here except for the use that Saint Ambrose of Milan made of it. On five occasions, this Father of the Church alluded to the text and compared Jesus Christ to Habakkuk’s scarab. Other Christian authors (St. Augustine, St. Cyril of Alexandria, etc.) made equivalent or similar comparisons. These are the most obvious testimonies of a possible influence of Egyptian religion on Christianism. They also might have been influenced by (or had influenced on) some late Egyptian beliefs, e.g. reported by Horapollo (above), who described the scarab as “only begotten,” with the same Greek words (monogenes) as used by John 3:16 referring to Christ, and repeated by other Christian authors.
In Germany, where scarab worship, in the form of the stag beetle, has persisted longest, the equation scarab = Christ was widely accepted. The quintessential German artist, Albrecht Dürer, associated the stag beetle with Christ in various paintings, and produced a famous watercolor of the insect. The Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) did not hesitate to recall the identification scarab = Christ, referring both to St. Ambrose and Psalm 22:6:
“But I am a worm, and no man,” verse which has been referred to Christ, and where (as Kircher says), “some read scarab instead of worm.” He went further to combine Christian faith with Alchemy: for him, the scarab was the prima materia of the Great Work. This idea was shared by some alchemists, e.g. Michael Maier (1566-1622), who explained in his writings that the so-called “philosophal stone,” product of the Great Work, was nothing other than Christ, resuscitated from the dead; a promise of resurrection for all human beings. Perhaps the scarabs and other beetles still occasionally used as ornaments (like in the Art Nouveau jewelry referred to above) are ultimate remnants of these old faiths, which can be traced back to the Egyptians and Paleolithic shamans.