Scarabs as Amulets
Christopher A. Tuttle
I am he who is constantly appearing, whose real nature is unknown,
I am yesterday, He who has seen a million years is one name of mine,
I pass along the ways of those sky-beings who determine destinies,
I am the master of eternity, ordering how I am fated, like the Great Beetle.
The Book of the Dead, Chapter XLII, Papyrus of Nu (trans. R. T. Rundle Clark)
Scarabs are unparalleled in their frequency as an elemental linguistic and artistic motif amongst the remnants of ancient Egyptian culture. Innumerable carved scarabs have survived from the ancient world, attesting to their importance as symbols of record and as amulets believed to imbue their possessors with inarticulate powers. Clearly identifiable examples exist from predynastic Egypt (ca. 3100 BCE) through to the end of the Late Antiquity (ca. fourth century CE). That Egyptian examples are found throughout the ancient Mediterranean, such as in most regions of the Near East, Greece, Italy, Spain, Malta, and Sardinia, indicates their motific endurance and practical popularity well outside the spheres of direct Egyptian influence.
Beetles have frequently been objects of human fascination. Many cultures, in many eras and locales, have revered different beetles in their mythologies and social and religious rites. In Egypt itself, crudely etched stone scaraboid artifacts, dated to the Neolithic period (7000-5000 BCE), have been found in excavation contexts which allow some to theorize a shamanistic purpose underlying their origin. Scholars conjecture that early shamans may have forged ornamental icons representing food sources for use in sympathetic magic. Beetles may have served early societies as a prolific and reliable source of protein and other nutrients (a practice still found today in some regions of the world) and thus required special attention by the shamans of the social order. Further evidence for this practice in Egypt may be seen in the empty carapaces of real beetles found in prehistoric burial sites.
In Egypt, this potent and enduring ancient symbol was derived from several species of the Scarabaeidae family. It has been proposed that Egyptian reverence was initially inspired by Kheper aegyptiorum, a beetle whose striking, bright metallic coloration lends itself to ready identification with the sun. But the most prominent image was that of the common Egyptian dungbeetle, Scarabaeus sacer ("sacred scarab"). Dung provides the beetle with both food and a means of gestating its eggs. The eggs are laid and then covered with the excrementusing its widely spaced hindlegs, the beetle rolls the mass across the dusty, sandy ground until a hardened ball forms, which is then buried in the earth. Inside this artificial cocoon, the composting dung produces enough heat for gestation, and also is a source of nourishment for the hatched larvae. In time, the offspring eat their way out of the ball, emerging fully moulted and capable of flight. To observing ancients, it seemed the sacred scarab spontaneously generated from the ball of dung, fully grown and capable of self-sustenance.
During the period in which the solar cult at Heliopolis was prominent, this act of genesis was seen to parallel the moment of Creation, symbolized for the Egyptians by the first and every rising sun: in Chapter LXXXV of the Papyrus of Ani, the Creator states: "I came into being of myself in the midst of the Primeval Waters (Nu) in this my name of Khopri" (cf. Ani CXLVII and LXXXIII). As Khepri/Khopri/Khephra ("Sun at Dawn" or "the Becoming One"), the beetle coalesced into one of the symbols for the tri-part sun, along with Re and Atum. As part of this trinity, a scaraboid form is usually depicted riding in the prow of the Solar Bark, journeying across the daytime heavens and through the Underworld at night. The scarab's act of rolling the dung ball also evoked religious significance; it was seen to represent the daily recapitulation of Creation, as the solar orb, giver of life, traveling in its bark to rise on the horizon. Further solar association may have arisen because Scarabaeus sacer, unlike other species, can often be seen flying during the intense heat of the day.
Egyptian cosmology understood that life and death existed in a continuous cycle. Many Egyptian symbols inhabit a complex web of paradox in which they represent both life and death. The mature scarab emerges from a ball of dungthe waste product, a symbol of death. Through this act the beetle came to connote an act of creation from nothingness. Early in Egyptian history the beetle also came to represent the soul rising from deathresurrected, transcendent, fully formed and ready to make its journey and face its judgment in order to live in the Afterlife. By the New Kingdom (1539-1070 BCE), the funerary texts from the papyri portray a scaraboid form as the most powerful symbol of life's victory over death. These later funerary texts combine Khephra (scarab) with Atum (ram) into a ram-headed beetle, a portrayal of the supreme god overseeing the cycle of life and death (and Afterlife). This is a reflection of their respective associations with the rising and setting sun(s), which flank Re/Ra, the sun at midday, the source of all life: "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 an Old Kingdom Pyramid Text).
The dual symbolism of these images, while perhaps confusing in contemporary cultural contexts, has a certain logic within the Egyptian ethos as we understand it. The apparent asexual genesis of the scarab, with its insectal metamorphoses within the underground dung ball, evoked a distinct parallel for what must happen to the sun during its nightly journey through the Underworld. As the sun traveled from west to east beneath the earth, it was believed to undergo equally mysterious changes which allowed it to appear each morning regenerated. It is but a small symbolic step to link this rejuvenating journey to that undertaken by human souls as they pass from life to Afterlife. The various recensions of the funerary texts can be understood as instructions to reenact the stages of this metamorphosis. Scholars have even proposed that mummies were intended to emulate the pupa of a growing scarab; the pupa is the final stage before the mature insect emerges from the dung ball. As such, mummification may have originally been conceived as a temporary state in which the body is preserved in order to endure the transformations prior to resurrection.
The scarab as a symbol of resurrection has even journeyed through time and survived diverse permutations to emerge again in modern Western occultism. The fundamental stage in this development came in the Early Modern period when scarabs were associated with alchemy; a time even before the awakening of European interest in Egyptology following the Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt. By the sixteenth century, scarabs had been linked with Christian alchemy: Michael Maier (1566-1622) conceived of "the philosopher's stone," the outcome of alchemy's Great Work, to be an allegorical reference to the resurrected Christ, thus a symbol of the promised resurrection for all believers; the Jesuit alchemist, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), perhaps building on Maier, expressed his conception of the prima materia for the Great Work with a scarab, the symbol of resurrection. Even earlier, the scarab had been associated with Christ in the work of the artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528 CE). In contemporary occultism the scarab in its form of Khephra has become a significant figure in the Thelemic tradition, and often appears in rituals written by Aleister Crowley:
Hail unto thee who are Khephra in Thy hiding;
As the Egyptian linguistic element kheper, the scarab glyph meant "come into being, rise from," closely akin to the verb to become, to change. The symbol for form, it made an ideal image for use in talismanic magic: the art of imbuing an object with power to aid in accomplishing a purpose or obtaining a goal beyond the normal scope of one's mundane ability or influence. The Egyptian worldview held that such supernatural power to affect circumstances came from a vast pantheon of deities. Possession of a purposefully engraved scarab brought one closer to divinity, creating a link which facilitated the magical act. The desired outcome, when evoked through proper inscription of a spell, was believed to "come into being" through the body of the iconic scarab.
This is a sample of The Becoming One from issue No. 4 of Obsidian.
All material ©1999 Obsidian Magazine. All rights reserved.