All posts by Ancient Art Podcast

1: The Scarab in Ancient Egypt

Welcome to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. Join us in each episode as we explore the art and culture of the Ancient Mediterranean World. Together we’ll uncover the truths and discover new ideas on the civilizations that shaped our modern world.

In this, our inaugural podcast episode, I thought I would begin the podcast appropriately enough with a short introduction to the Scarab, known to the Ancient Egyptians in its Hieroglyphic form as kheper, or “to come into being.” Known also as the Scarab beetle god Khepri, a manifestation of the Sun-god Ra as he rises in the morning on the eastern horizon. Ra assumes multiple manifestations throughout his daytime journey across the sky. At his midday zenith he assumes the form perhaps most recognized by us today — the falcon or falcon-headed man. And in the evening as the sun sinks below the western horizon, Ra assumes the form of the aged ram-headed Atum falling to his daily death and his nighttime journey through the underworld.

This cyclic action of the sun rising and setting closely parallels the pattern of birth, life, and death, and then resurrection … a iconographic motif that we routinely encounter throughout Ancient Egyptian funerary art. In New Kingdom tomb painting and funerary papyri (also known as the Am Duat or Imy Duat which means “That which is in the Underworld”), we see Ra making his journey across the heavens and being swallowed in the evening by his mother Nut, as we can see here in this image from the ceiling of the burial chamber in the tomb of Rameses VI — KV9 in the Valley of the Kings, photo courtesy of the Theban Mapping Project. And then at dawn, Ra is reborn by Nut in the form of Khepri pushing the sun disk up from the depths and into the sky.

The question of why the Ancient Egyptians would come to represent their Sun god, or at least one aspect of him, as the Scarab, the unglamorous dung-beetle, begs for an answer. While unfortunately we don’t benefit from the Ancient Egyptian’s own writings on this matter, it’s generally held that the scarab beetle came to be closely associated with the idea of resurrection as the Egyptians observed the larvae of the beetles being born from death, that is when the eggs are lain in the round balls that the beetle forms out of scavenged animal dung, the dung being the waste or lifelessness cast off by animals; dung also being a potent fertilizer or catalyst for life in the form of vegetation. The eggs hatch, and feed, and the scarab beetle thus emerges from the darkness, like a sort of phoenix rising from the ashes.

And along the same lines, we also observe the scarab beetle rolling balls of dung along the ground, just as we see the god Khepri pushing the solar disk up from the horizon, as we see here again in the burial chamber of Rameses VI.

Another appearance of the scarab prevalent in Egyptian funerary artwork is as necklaces and amulets decorating the exterior and interior of mummies. Scarab amulets take the form of little scarab beetle figurines fashioned out of faience, a type of ceramic material found throughout Egyptian history and prehistory and usually painted with a blue or green glaze to imitate precious stones like lapis lazuli and turquoise. The so-called “heart scarab” is just one type of amulet among many that would decorate the Egyptian mummy. On the flat underside of the heart scarab we typically find a spell carefully inscribed in hieroglyphs (or sometimes crudely scrawled in chicken scratch). We call the spell by the attractive name of “30B.” This spell is also found on funerary papyri during the judgment scene when the heart of the deceased (the seat of all consciousness) is being weighed against the feather of truth, Ma’at. Perhaps a little ashamed of what they may have done in life, they Egyptians included this spell as a little extra insurance to make sure things went their way at this moment of judgment. The spell goes something like this, as is translated by Raymond Faulkner in his 1972 Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

O my heart which I had from my mother! O my heart which I had from my mother! O my heart of my different ages! Do not stand up as a witness against me, do not be opposed to me in the tribunal, do not be hostile to me in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance, for you are my ka which was in my body, the protector who made my members hale. Go forth to the happy place whereto we speed; do not make my name stink to the Entourage who make men. Do not tell lies about me in the presence of the god; it is indeed well that you should hear! (p. 61, 2005 edition)

Egyptian funerary iconography really emphasizes rebirth and resurrection rather than death. It’s only logical to understand then why representations of Khepri occur so frequently. We see here, for example, an exquisite piece from the ancient art collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Mummy Case of Paankhenamun from the Third Intermediate Period. Prominently decorating the chest of the mummy case, painted in beautiful detail with brilliant colors, we see Khepri interestingly represented here with the falcon head holding the solar disk aloft. If we examine the mummy case only a little more closely, we see that it sports a couple more representations of Khepri — another extraordinarily beautiful one on the feet … and where’s that last one … ? Here you have to get up on your tippy toes and look on top of his head and we’ll find the third scarab. You might just say he’s covered with scarabs “from head to toe.”

Well, that’s it for this short introductory episode. Be sure to check out the next episode as we examine all the iconographic details and symbolism of the mummy case of Paankhenamun in excruciating detail. Come on … you know you want to know what all those funny shapes and figures mean. And if you’re really nice, I may even read the hieroglyphs for you.

Be sure also to visit us online at scarabsolutions.com for more information and links to other great resources, like images from the Art Institute of Chicago and other famous collections. And you’ll definitely want to visit the Theban Mapping Project at thebanmappingproject.com. Here you can explore all the tombs of the Valley of the Kings in a virtual 3D environment with tons of accompanying photos and videos and related articles.

See you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2006 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org