Scarabs were popular amulets and impression seals in Ancient Egypt.

They survive in large numbers and, through their inscriptions and typology, they are an important source of information for archaeologists and historians of the ancient world. They also represent a significant body of ancient art.

For reasons that are not clear (although no doubt connected to the religious significance of the Egyptian god Khepri), amulets in the form of scarab beetles had become enormously popular in Ancient Egypt by the early Middle Kingdom (approx. 2000 BCE) and remained popular for the rest of the pharaonic period and beyond.

During that long period, the function of scarabs repeatedly changed. Primarily amulets, they were also inscribed for use as personal or administrative seals or were incorporated into jewelry.

Some scarabs were apparently created for political or diplomatic purposes to commemorate or advertise royal achievements. By the early New Kingdom, heart scarabs had become part of the battery of amulets protecting mummies.

From the middle Bronze Age, other ancient peoples of the Mediterranean and the Middle East imported scarabs from Egypt and also produced scarabs in Egyptian or local styles, especially in the Levant.

Scarabs are a common product of present-day forgery.

Religious significance of the scarab beetle

In ancient Egyptian religion, the sun god Ra is seen to roll across the sky each day, transforming bodies and souls.

Beetles of the Scarabaeidae family (dung beetle) roll dung into a ball as food and as a brood chamber in which to lay eggs; this way, the larvae hatch and are immediately surrounded by food.

For these reasons, the scarab was seen as a symbol of this heavenly cycle and of the idea of rebirth or regeneration. The Egyptian god Khepri, Ra as the rising sun, was often depicted as a scarab beetle or as a scarab beetle-headed man.

The ancient Egyptians believed that Khepri renewed the sun every day before rolling it above the horizon, then carried it through the other world after sunset, only to renew it, again, the next day. A golden scarab of Nefertiti was discovered in the Uluburun wreck.

Historical development

By the end of the First Intermediate Period (about 2055 BCE), scarabs had become extremely common.

They largely replaced cylinder seals and circular “button seals” with simple geometric designs. Throughout the period in which they were made, Scarabs were often engraved with the names of pharaohs and other royal persons.

In the Middle Kingdom scarabs were also engraved with the names and titles of officials and used as official seals.

From the New Kingdom scarabs bearing the names and titles of officials became rarer, while scarabs bearing the names of gods, often combined with short prayers or mottos, like “With Ra behind there is nothing to fear” became more popular. These “wish” scarabs are often difficult to translate.

Commemorative scarabs

Amenhotep III is famous for having commemorative scarabs made. These were large (mostly between 3.5 cm and 10 cm long) and made of steatite.

They are beautifully crafted scarabs, apparently created under royal supervision or control and carry lengthy inscriptions describing one of five important events in his reign (and all of which mention his queen, Tiye).

More than 200 examples have survived and they have been found in locations that suggest they were sent out as royal gifts/propaganda in support of Egyptian diplomatic activities.

These large scarabs continued and developed an earlier Eighteenth Dynasty tradition of making scarabs celebrating specific royal achievements, such as the erection of obelisks at major temples during the reign of Thuthmosis III.

The tradition was revived centuries later during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty when the Kushite pharaoh Shabaka (721-707 BCE) had large scarabs made commemorating his victories in imitation of those produced for Amenhotep III.

Funerary scarabs

Although scarab amulets were sometimes placed in tombs as part of the deceased’s personal effects or as jewelry, generally they have no particular association with ancient Egyptian funerary rites.

There are, however, three types of specifically funerary scarabs, heart scarabs, pectoral scarabs, and naturalistic scarabs.

Heart scarabs became popular in the early New Kingdom and remained in use until the Third Intermediate Period. They are large scarabs (typically 4 cm-12 cm long) often made from dark green or black stone and are not pierced for suspension.

The base of a heart scarab was usually carved, either directly or on a gold plate fixed to the base, with hieroglyphs which name the deceased and repeat some or all of spell 30B from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The spell commands the deceased’s heart (typically left in the mummy’s chest cavity, unlike the other viscera) not to give evidence against the deceased when the deceased is being judged by the gods of the underworld. It is often suggested that the heart is being commanded not to give false evidence but the opposite may be true.

The Book of the Dead requires the heart scarab to be made of green Νemehef stone but a variety of green or dark colored stones were used. Heart scarabs were often hung around the mummy’s neck with a gold wire and the scarab itself was held in a gold frame.

From the Twenty-fifth Dynasty onwards large (typically 3 cm-8 cm long) relatively flat uninscribed pectoral scarabs were sewn, via holes formed at the edge of the scarab, onto the chests of mummies, together with a pair of separately made outstretched wings.

These were mainly made from faience and glazed blue. The association of pectoral scarabs appears to be with the god Khepri, who is often depicted in the same form.

The third kind of funerary scarab is the naturalistic scarab. These were relatively small scarabs (typically 2 cm to 3 cm long) made from a wide variety of hardstones and faience and are distinguished from other scarabs by having naturalistic carved “3D” bases, which often also include an integral suspension loop running widthways.

Groups of these funerary scarabs, often made from different materials, formed part of the battery of amulets which protected mummies in the Late Period.

When a person died and went to their final judgment, the gods of the underworld would ask many detailed and intricate questions which had to be answered precisely and ritually, according to “The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Since many people of those days were illiterate, even placing a copy of this scroll in their coffin would not be enough to protect them from being sent to Hell for giving a wrong answer.

As a result, the priests would read the questions and their appropriate answers to the beetle, which would then be killed, mummified and placed in the ear of the deceased.

When the gods then asked their questions, the ghostly scarab would whisper the correct answer into the ear of the supplicant, who could then answer the gods wisely and correctly.

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*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.