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Insects in Art



A symbol of rebirth
Egyptian, <i>Scarab</i>, 1504-1450 B.C., green-glazed steatite<br><i>Note: The number painted on the scarab's back is the museum's inventory number.<i>
zoom Egyptian, Scarab, 1504-1450 B.C., green-glazed steatite
Note: The number painted on the scarab's back is the museum's inventory number.

 

Scarab beetles, also called dung beetles, roll balls of animal dung across the ground and then bury them in underground nests. Thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians noticed this habit and associated it with the way the sun moves across the sky each day. The scarab became for them a sacred symbol of the morning sun. Khepri, the god of the rising sun, was pictured with a scarab-shaped head.

Female scarab beetles lay their eggs inside the dung balls. The larvae that hatch from the eggs feed under ground and later emerge from the earth as adults. Unaware of this hidden stage of the beetle’s life, the Egyptians believed scarabs were born magically from the earth; so scarabs came to stand for rebirth and renewal.

As symbols of rebirth, stone scarabs were often placed in Egyptian tombs. Scarab amulets, or charms, might be sewn onto the wrappings of the dead, particularly over the heart. Inscribed on the heart scarab’s underside were writings from the Book of the Dead—a plea that the heart not betray it’s owner when he or she sought entry to the afterlife.

Living Egyptians wore small stone scarabs as good luck charms. These could simply be strung on a cord and worn around the neck, but jewelry featuring scarabs also included more elaborate necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Often an important name, message, prayer, motto, or design was inscribed on the scarab’s underside.


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1. This scarab was used as a seal to make imprints on documents or other objects. The oval on each side, called a cartouche, contains the name of a king, queen, or important official.
2. Zoom in close to see a scarab beetle rolling a ball of dung. Scarabs can roll balls two or three times their own size.

 

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March 2006