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Egyptian scarabs - divine dung beetles

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

Venerated from pre-historic times in Egypt, associated with creation and the daily round of the Sun, the scarab beetle featured as a key spiritual symbol through dynastic Ancient Egypt and beyond. Small, intricately carved and variously inscribed scarab amulets and seals were immensely popular and have been found across the Mediterranean in all places that traded with the Egyptians. These charming, intricate, portable ancient objects are available and affordable with due diligence to the modern collector, providing a tangible link to ancient beliefs of life, hope and rebirth.


Some of the scarabs featured below are for sale at time of posting. SHOP NOW


Beetle power


Petrie [1915] (1994) details how, in pre-dynastic Egypt, large quantities of dried beetles, often pierced for wear, were found in jars as grave goods. Amulets and amulet cases or reliquaries in the form of the scarab beetle were also found, and so the beetle 'was certainly sacred or venerated ... This symbolism of the beetle is a part of the primaeval animal worship of Egypt.' WM Flinders Petrie, Scarabs and Cylinders with Names, [1915] 1994, p2.


Hornung & Staehelin (1976) reference the fact that among the many forms of amulets of the Ancient Egyptians, beetles of various species were found in addition to other insects from the very beginning. Not less than fifty replicas of the species Agrypnus notonda (a click beetle) are strung on a 4th Dynasty gold necklace that belonged to royalty. In the early days and in the Old Kingdom, the scarab beetle of the Egyptians was found only occasionally among these beetle amulets. Its triumphal procession only begins when, at the end of the Old Kingdom (around 2300/2200 BC), people began to stylize the beetle’s ventral side as an oval plate … Only then does the beetle amulet become the scarab.


Black dung beetle rolling a ball
Dung beetle: Image by DEZALB from Pixabay

The habit of the dung beetle is to roll balls of dung with its hind legs, which apparently came to be associated with the creator-god Khepri (Khepera) who rolled the Sun across the sky. Baby beetles emerge from larvae that hatch from eggs laid in a ball of dung, appearing to come straight out of the dung ball. In addition adults tend to emerge suddenly with dung balls that they have stored underground, as if borne out of the earth, much like the morning Sun.

Thus the scarab became a symbol of spontaneous generation, new life and, by extension, resurrection.

C Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, 1994, p50-51


Early scarab forms from the 6th Dynasty were crudely shaped with undecorated underside and, according to Andrews (1994), functioned purely as amulets.


From the mid-First Intermediate Period to the early New Kingdom, scarabs were used as seals. Opinions vary as to whether this became their primary purpose. Hornung & Staehelin (1976) however provide extensive evidence of the range of religious, magical and amuletic properties of the scarab as a symbol and an amulet, which they state always prevailed over its use as a seal. They suggest that the reproducibility of a dedicated inscription or decoration increased its effectiveness as an amulet. Moreover a clear indication that the imprint was not primarily considered when inscribing scarabs and scaraboids is the orientation of characters and figures to the right, ie in the usual direction, from which it only rarely deviated. Hornung & Staehelin (1976)


Even when metal signet rings were more commonly used as seals, scarab finger-rings:

... continued to be worn as amuletic jewellery because of the potency of the scarab as an amulet in its own right and the possibility of enhancing its magical properties by the text or scene added to its underside.

C Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, 1994, p53


Andrews (1994) states that from the early New Kingdom, the vast majority of scarabs were purely amuletic in function giving protection and good luck to the wearer.


The religious powers of the scarab were re-stated during the 18th Dynasty with the large carved heart scarab, placed on the mummy. It was usually inscribed with the heart scarab spell, chapter 30B of the Book of the Dead, or less commonly, with chapter 30A, as in the following very fine example from the Met Museum NY of the Heart Scarab of Hatnefer c 1492-1473 BC, in which the name in the inscription was inserted over erased text, suggesting it wasn't originally made for the deceased Hatnefer.


Metropolitan Museum New York

The heartscarab was placed over the dead person’s heart to protect it from being separated from the body in the underworld. The heart, which contained a record of all the person’s actions in life, was essential for the ‘Weighing of the Heart Ceremony’ as it was weighed against the feather of the goddess Ma’at. If the scales were balanced, the person passed and entered the afterlife. For those who were concerned about this test, they could recite the spell inscribed on their heartscarab to prevent their heart from ‘betraying’ them.

Winged scarabs were placed on the breast of the mummy from the 23rd Dynasty, and amulet scarab symbols and amulets continued to be part of the funerary ritual right through until the 30th Dynasty.


Material and design


Material and size


The primary material for scarab seal amulets was steatite/schist, which was then colour-glazed. A variety of other hardstones were also used, including semi-precious stones, non-precious stones and in the New Kingdom - moulded pottery (faience) and sometimes glass. Metal scarabs are rare and wood is very rare. Scarabs are typically about 3/4 inch and pierced longitudinally to fit a thread or thin wire.


Glazes were nearly always used on steatite scarabs, adding to their hardness. Newberry [1906] (2002) describes some of these characteristic glazes as follows:


12th Dynasty - a very fine blue glaze of excellent quality; often a green glaze.

13th Dynasty - many shades of blue and green glaze of very hard quality.

Hyksos - a green glaze of a poorer quality.

Early 18th Dynasty - green of a slightly greyish tint, generally of a fine surface.

Later 18th Dynasty - coarser in quality, often very brilliant in colour, a variety of tints ranging through all the shades of blue and green; also a violet glaze.

19th Dynasty - often poor in quality, generally of dark yellowish-green colour, sometimes blue and violet.

... the greatest number of scarabs are brown or white: the brown ones were invariably coloured green, and the white specimens blue.

PE Newberry, Egyptian Scarabs, Dover Publications New York, [1906] 2002, p85



Hornung & Staehelin (1976) caution however in relation to dating by glaze, stating that there is too much leeway here to allow exact dating before a more precise determination of colour and material has provided further criteria.


Engraving tools depended on the material of the scarab.

The tools used were apparently of four kinds: a knife, a graver, a simple drill, and a tubular drill.

PE Newberry, Egyptian Scarabs, Dover Publications New York, [1906] 2002, p41


Beetle anatomy


From the end of the First Intermediate Period:

... the back of the scarab came to be carved to represent the insect naturalistically in the round with well-defined legs, its body raised from the plinth on which it stands.

C Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, 1994, p52


Side view of Egyptian 18th Dynasty cream steatite scarab
Naturalistic beetle design from an 18th Dynasty scarab. Ex TimesAncient.

Using collections from the Natural History Museum of London, Petrie [1915] (1994) identified five taxonomic genera of beetle from the family Scarabaeidae depicted in scarab objects from historic times, and thence, as their elements became somewhat mixed and varied depending on the workmanship, drew up twenty-three classes for distinguishing types.


Hornung & Staehelin (1976) argue however that is has not been possible to establish a convincing typology of the scarab with reference to the carving of the back and legs.


Andrews (1994) states that '... the only certainty about any scarab amulet is that its iconography is almost certainly not quite like that of any other!'


Inscriptions


A huge variety of inscriptions were engraved onto the underside of scarabs. Newberry [1906] (2002) groups the subjects as:

  1. Hieroglyphic inscriptions: names of kings and other royals; names of officials and private people; rarely - titles without names; names or figures of deities; good wishes, mottoes and magic formulae.

  2. Figures of men, animals, including hunting scenes; flowers such as the lotus.

  3. Geometrical designs; coil and rope patterns; spirals.


Underside of inscribed scarab with pharoah prename of Hatshepsut
This scarab's inscription includes Maatkara, the prenomen of Hatshepsut, royal pharoah queen of the 18th Dynasty: Ref. Newberry [1906] (1994) plate XXVII 22. Ex TimesAncient
[Scarabs bearing blessings and good luck formulae] ... like other amulets and charms, were meant to give protection to their owners and to bring about the fulfilment of desires common to mankind throughout the ages, such as health, wealth and fertility. These scarabs first appeared in the Eighteenth Dynasty and remained popular throughout the Late Period.

D Ben-Tor, The Scarab - A reflection of Ancient Egypt, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1989, p34


Dating


Accurate dating of scarabs, even with archaeological context, can be problematic. Beetle amulets were used over many generations, often re-used and the meaning of their inscriptions may not be time-specific.


Not all scarabs bearing a royal name are from the same period as that pharaoh. Some kings were held in particularly high regard, and so their name appears on scarabs hundreds of years after their reign. Thutmosis III of 18th Dynasty was honoured in this way with his prenomen Men-kheper-re and was used on scarabs for a period of approximately 1000 years as a metaphor for good luck and plenty.


Egyptian steatite scarab with Tuthmosis III throne name and lotus inscription
Inscribed with 'Men kheper re'; throne name of pharaoh Thutmosis III flanked by lotus flowers motifs

Nevertheless, some direct criteria can be evidenced from dated find complexes, along with names, titles, motifs, shapes and colours that can be linked to limited periods of time. For example, scenes depicting horses and chariots are unthinkable before the New Kingdom of Egypt and seem to disappear again at the end of this epoch. Hornung & Staehelin (1976)


With regard to quality:

Broadly speaking, there is a continued degradation of work from the xiith dynasty onward; none of the various revivals reach as high a point as the best of the period before ...
... Thus, judging by the abundant material with positive dates, it is futile to ascribe fine work like that of the xiith dynasty to the later ages, or to assign fine circular spirals to the degradation of the xivth or later dynasties.

WM Flinders Petrie, Scarabs and Cylinders with Names, [1915] 1994, p15


Good reference publications and catalogues are helpful to the collector!


Scaraboids


Scaraboid is the term used for amulets hinting at the beetle, but without the anatomical features, usually with the back carved into other forms including a variety of animals both in relief and in three dimensions.


Upper side view of Egyptian New Kingdom scaraboid carved as a fish
New Kingdom tilapia fish scaraboid. Ex TimesAncient.
During the New Kingdom wedjat-eyes, Bes heads, Hathor heads and human heads with carefully detailed hair and finely modelled features are also found.

C Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, 1994, p54



Scarab seals


Seals were of great importance in the Ancient World for securing and marking property and authenticating documents and valuables. The oldest Egyptian seals were cylindrical and, for a limited time later, button-shaped. By far the majority of seals from the Middle Kingdom onward however were made in the form of scarabs and inscribed on the underside. Seals were simply pressed into clay, and numerous of these seal impressions have been found in the ruins of ancient towns, proving useful to the academic study of Ancient Egyptian history.

The soil of Egypt literally teems with them ... Besides the actual seals, pieces of fine clay bearing impressions of them are often brought to light by the excavator; some of these served as sealing to jars of wine, honey, etc., whilst other had been affixed, like modern seals of wax, to documents written on papyrus or leather.
... and these impressions include every variety of scarab - royal, official, and private, as well as those bearing figures of animals and ornamental patterns.

PE Newberry, Egyptian Scarabs, Dover Publications New York, [1906] 2002, p2 & 65


The process of sealing was important and 'sealer' was a official role as part of an organised body, working in public services, religious institutions and wealthy households.

So important was it that the process of sealing jars, boxes, and doors should be done properly, that ... seḥez, "instructors," in the art were employed.

PE Newberry, Egyptian Scarabs, Dover Publications New York, [1906] 2002, p29


Scarab seals were pierced longitudinally and probably strung for wearing about the person, sometimes on the finger.


Egyptian scarab ring mounted on original bronze loop with hieroglyphs
New Kingdom steatite scarab ring on original bronze loop. Reads 'beautiful eternal life, eternal lord, the eternal stability of the pharaoh'. Ex TimesAncient.

As referenced above, it seems likely that the scarab's primary function was religious, so scarab seals that were worn about the person for practical reasons like a signet, presumably also functioned as protective.


From the 12th Dynasty, scarab seal amulets were also set into the bezel of metal finger rings, some in a metal band that could be swivelled so that both sides could be viewed. During the 18th and 19th Dynasties, metal and then pottery (faience) signet rings appeared, which Andrews (1994) suggests became preferable for use as seals, while scarabs continued to be worn as amulets, disappearing only during Roman times.


Focus on inscriptions


'a-n-r' magic formula


Ancient Egyptian scarab with magic formula and impression
Scarab with a-n-r magic formula; 15th Dynasty, 2nd Intermediate Period; ex Major G.A.D Gordon.

This scarab includes the 'a-n-r' formula combination, which probably summoned magical or divine help. Some have interpreted the inscribed signs as containing the name of Re, the sun god. Ben-Tor (1989) states that others suggest they were carved by Asiatic craftsmen imitating Egyptian signs without understanding them! She refers to the a-n-r scarabs as a special category among scarabs bearing hieroglyphic signs, which whatever the interpretation, were undoubtedly of magical value to their owners.


See The Walters Art Museum for similar.



Animals


Egyptian scarab with lion prostrate man and impression
Scarab with lion; New Kingdom: 18th Dynasty: 1550 - 1292 BC; ex Major G.A.D Gordon.

The lion is one of the most commonly represented animals on scarabs. Occasionally a lion is shown as here, trampling a prostrate human, presumably an enemy (Ben-Tor, 1989). To the front is a stylised group of papyrus and lotus flowers symbolising the land of Egypt.



Symbols of deities


Ancient Egyptian scarab with lunar and solar symbols
Scarab with celestial symbols; previously dated as 16th Dynasty, but similar to Met Museum (26.7.470) dated as 19th-20th Dynasty; ex Major G.A.D Gordon.

This scarab is bursting with celestial symbolism. The two baboons represent lunar Thoth and have lunar crescents above their heads. Above the crescents are solar discs, at the top is a solar barque (a boat used by the sun god to travel across the sky) and running down the middle is an obelisk representing the sun god. The baboons are adoring the sun, perhaps looking up in wonder at the light of the day. This scarab could be suggestive of rebirth.


Good luck symbols


Scarab and impression bearing good luck symbols
Good luck symbols; Syro-Canaanite area circa 1600 BC; ex G Mustaki

This scarab depicts a variety of 'luck' symbols including the djed pillar, su-plants and papyrus columns (representing health). As previously discussed, much as today, the ancients used small symbolic objects to bring them good luck in the present and in the afterlife, the scarab being a potent amulet in its own right, further enhanced by the inscription underneath.


 

References and further information


C Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, 1994

D Ben-Tor, The Scarab - A reflection of Ancient Egypt, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1989

E Hornung & E Staehelin, Skarabaen und andere Siegelamulette aus Basler Sammlungen, Basel 1976

AG Malloy, Egyptian Scarabs Catalogue 1, New York, Spring 1974

PE Newberry, Egyptian Scarabs, Dover Publications New York, [1906] 2002

WM Flinders Petrie, Scarabs and Cylinders with Names, [1915] 1994






 

Some of the scarabs featured above are for sale at time of posting SHOP NOW

 

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