Want to know more about Egyptian beetles? To understand how these insects are linked to the Sun through the beetle-headed god Khepri?
Welcome to Egyptian History, in this article we will trace the myths and legends surrounding beetle's symbols in ancient Egypt!
Egyptian beetles were worshipped by the Egyptians for their ability to create balls of earth and dust that were used as their food. These balls were seen by Egyptian priests as drafts of the Sun shaped by the supreme Egyptian god Ra during the creation of the Universe.
In this article, you will discover:
- The story of the beetle-headed god Khepri
- The commemorative and funerary use of Egyptian beetles
- Other important Egyptian symbols related to Egyptian beetles
After this article, you will know what is the link between the Egyptian beetles, the god Khepri and the god Ra.
Let's find out without further delay!
1) Egyptian beetle's meaning
I) The god Khepri
To understand the importance of beetles in ancient Egypt, one must understand their connection to the Sun through the beetle god Khepri.
Khepri is one of the first gods of ancient Egypt (appeared in 5000 BC). The name of this beetle god means "the Sun in the making". Indeed, Khepri is the form that the creator god Ra took to create the Sun in Egyptian mythology.
Two representations of the scarab-headed god Khepri.
According to Egyptian mythology, at the beginning of all things, there was only a vast primordial ocean personified by the goddess Noun in which was reflected the original Darkness, a sky of shadow and emptiness that has been present since time immemorial.
As a result of many frictions generated by repeated contacts between the ocean and the Darkness, a light breath of life (personified in the form of the god Atum) emerged. The breath of life Atum, being too weak to create life by itself, a particularly benevolent deity created himself to help Atum shape the Universe: Ra, the falcon-headed god.
Ra first creates the stars and the Earth by skillfully mixing a bit of original ocean with a bit of original Darkness.
Wanting to bring a jewel to his creation, Ra takes the form of the creator god Khepri and creates the Sun which he then places on his head. Thus, thanks to this beetle form, Ra becomes a falcon-sun god. Moved by his creation, Ra sheds a tear on the Earth, which has the effect of creating humanity as well as animal and plant life.
In order for the new lives he had just created to prosper, Ra will push the Sun into the sky.
In the morning, at each dawn, Ra creates a new Sun in the form of Khepri. He then pushes it into the sky before becoming again the falcon-Sun god Ra as soon as the entire solar disc becomes visible (about an hour after sunrise). In the evening, at each twilight, Ra and the Sun disappear while the breath of life Atum blows over the world during the night. The following morning, the cycle begins again: Atum calls Ra who takes the form of Khepri.
In Egyptian myths, it should be noted that Ra gradually took the place of Khepri and Atum. Indeed, with the establishment of the "myth of the Solar Boat" in 1500 BC, Ra no longer pushes the Sun during the day but carries it on his head while navigating in the skies on a boat called "the Solar Boat of a thousand nights".
II) The Egyptian "scarabs"
If the god Khepri, "creator of the Sun," is a beetle, it is due to one of the attitudes of ancient Egypt's beetles.
Ra mixed the Darkness and the primordial ocean to create the stars, the Sun and the Earth. More modestly, Egyptian beetles of the species Scarabaeus sacer "also recreated small Suns" by mixing earth, plants and waste to create balls that served as food for their offspring.
By virtue of their ability to create "little Suns", beetles become the sacred animals reproducing Ra's work in honor of him.
Thus, because their children came out of the balls they had made (because they were born in eggs placed inside the balls before they were born), the ancient Egyptians believed that beetles gave birth to life from nothing!
III) Egyptian sacred animals
From 2000 BC, we also find beetles placed under the bands of mummified Egyptians:
- A beetle the size of a fist was placed on the heart of the deceased (and was called "the cardiac beetle").
- Two small beetles were placed in or near the ears of the deceased.
To understand the role of these three beetles of different sizes, one must understand the Egyptians' beliefs about the Afterlife.
After his death, the soul of an Egyptian travels to the two gods of death, Anubis and Osiris. The ancient Egyptian has to answer the questions of these two gods in very specific ways (with answer that he must have preparated during its mortal life).
Indeed, once some answers given to these questions, the Egyptian can move on to the next step: his heart was weighed to see if the he had committed too many sins during his lifetime (something that would deny him the Egyptian eternal paradise called Aaru).
Thus, these three beetles facilitated the mortuary ritual of "Weighing of the Heart" by the gods:
- The beetle placed on the heart exerts a weight on the heart of the dead. This weight allows the soul of the deceased not to forget his heart as it moves towards the heavens.
- The two small beetles placed in the ears of the dead bore the answers to the questions of Anubis and Osiris. Indeed, because most Egyptians were illiterate peasants and artisans, most of them did not know by hearth the precise texts they were to recite in the Afterlife.
With these little beetles in their ears, the dead facing the questions of Anubis and Osiris had only to "listen" to the writings placed on the two little beetles close from their ears. Access to the celestial domain of the blessed Osiris was then open to them!
IV) Use of beetles in relic form
Beginning with pharaoh Thutmose III (1458 BC), Egyptian scarabs were used as commemorative coins for the greatest events in the Egyptian kingdom (military victories, temples' constructions, royal weddings). These scarabs were sent as gifts to all the rulers of Egypt's vassal countries. On the back of the beetles was a text describing the great event that justified their creation.
Two Egyptian commemorative beetles made of gold from the Louvre Museum:
- The text on the first beetle tells the story (in hieroglyphic) of a lion hunt led by pharaoh Amenhotep III.
- On the text of the second scarab (whose the hieroglyphic text is hidden in the picture above), one can read the description of the marriage between Amenhotep III and the Egyptian queen Tiyi.
The historians of the ancient ֤Egypt (the Egyptologists) have learned a lot from these solid objects which have a very good resilience to time. Because they were always produced in several copies, it is possible to find a complete commemorative story by joining several incomplete texts of ancient Egyptian beetles.
2) Other Egyptian symbols
You now know all about the attributes associated with the Egyptian beetle.
However, it would be a pity if you did not know about the story of the seven other great religious symbols of the ancient Egyptians: the eye of Ra, the eye of Horus, the uræus, the ankh, the ouroboros, the djed pillar and the feather of Maat.
Let's quickly discover in a second time these ancient objects related to the ancient deities of Egypt!
I) The eye of Horus
In the myth of Osiris, Set kills the Egyptian god-king Osiris. A series of trials then follows between Set and Horus (the son of Osiris) to determine which of the two gods will be most worthy of ruling Egypt. In the course of this conflict, to ensure his victory, the evil Set tears out the eye of Horus while Horus sleeps. Set cuts the eye into six pieces and hides them all along the Nile.
The symbol of the eye of Horus represents the new eye that the ibis god of knowledge Thoth gives to Horus to make his fight against Set fair. Thoth, however, finds only five of the six pieces of the eye. He therefore creates himself an enchanted 6th piece that gives the new eye of Horus additional abilities.
This one will make it possible to its carrier to see "that-which-is-invisible". "That-which-is-invisible" refers to everyting which is not in the present (i.e. the past and the future).
It is through this eye that Horus will take the upper hand in his trials against Set and become the new king of Egypt.
Thus, this eye is the eye of clairvoyance symbolizing the victory of good over evil.
II) The eye of Ra
The eye of Ra, not to be confused with the eye of Horus, is the eye that created humanity with one of its tears. In order not to confuse it with the eye of Horus, it is simply necessary to remember that:
- The eye representing a right eye is the eye of Ra (as shown in the image below).
- The eye representing a left eye is the eye of Horus.
The eye of Ra is the eye through which Ra shed a tear after he created the Sun. This tear fell on the Earth, giving birth to humanity. And, in order that humans could prosper and live in good conditions, Ra sent his great-grandson, Osiris, to lead them.
When Osiris was killed by his brother Set out of jealousy, humanity found itself disunited and began to rebel against its gods.
When Ra saw this rebellion, he changed his eye to the lion goddess Sekhmet and asked her to massacre all humans.
As the lion goddess came close to ending humanity, contemplating the carnage on Earth, Ra understood that he had to accept the shadowy side of humans. He therefore recalled Sekhmet who again took the shape of his left eye: humanity had narrowly escaped total destruction.
For this reason, the eye of Ra represents the creative and destructive power of the gods to the ancient Egyptians.
III) The uræus
The uræus is the royal cobra found on the different headdresses of pharaohs.
The uræus represents a cobra erected on all its height, ready to pounce. This cobra represented in this way is the queen cobra Wadjet.
This representation is therefore not insignificant since it is also Wadjet who surrounds the solar disks that act as crowns of some gods in Egyptian mythology (mainly the gods and godesses Ra, Khepri, Bastet and Hathor).
Thus, with an uræus on his head, the power of the pharaoh is legitimized by his link with the gods. Indeed, in ancient Egyptian beliefs, the gods were constantly at the pharaoh's side and informed his decision-making.
IV) The ankh cross
The ankh is initially the symbol of life by its key shape. It allows the gods to "open the Nile" so that the Nile can have floods that will fertilize the Egyptian soils (resulting in excellent harvests).
As a symbol of fertility, the ankh cross quickly became the symbol of life. Thus, it is found in many temples and tombs where it is the symbol of eternal life after death.
Ankh crosses are well known in our time because they are often compared to their counterparts from the Bible: the Christian crosses.
V) The ouroboros
The ouroboros represents a snake that eats itself. This snake is Apep, the giant snake of the Underworld.
To understand how this symbol is the "symbol of the perpetuation of the eternal cycle of life", it is necessary to know the story of Apep:
Apep is a divine serpent that has always existed and will always exist. According to Egyptian mythology, during the day, Ra carries the Sun on his Solar Boat from east to west. In the evening, at twilight, because the world of the ancient Egyptians is considered flat, Ra must pass beneath the Earth to return to the east of the world to illuminate it the next day.
Ra thus passes each night through the Underworld, the realm of the serpent Apep. Yet, Apep is attracted to the Sun that Ra carries on his head and always want to devour it and its bearer.
However, Ra is protected by other gods (Set, Bastet, Thoth, and Isis) who kill Apep each night. Thus, in the early morning, Ra delivers light to the world for a new day as Apep recovers in his subterranean kingdom.
The ouroboros is the symbol of eternity and of the cycle that repeats itself. After each day, the Darkness (in the form of Apep) wants to plunge the world into obscurity for eternity by swallowing the Sun. Fortunately, the light of the Sun always triumphs over the Darkness: the cycle can begin again for a new day.
VI) The djed pillar
According to the ancient Egyptians, the world is flat. Thus, there are four djed pillars at the corner of this world that support it.
The djed pillar is a symbol of the balance of the world and of things. Because of this, it is also the symbol of the pharaoh ensuring Egypt's stability and prosperity on Earth.
VII) The Maat's feather
Maat is the justice's goddess of ancient Egypt. She has wings on her arms and thus feathers. These feathers are used to weigh the sins committed by the Egyptians after their deaths.
In the ritual of "Weighing of Hearts", Anubis and Osiris compared the weight of the hearts of the dead with the weight of a Maat's feather on a scale:
- If the heart was light (because it was not weighed down by crime and lightened by good deeds), the Egyptian owner of the heart could enter the heavenly paradise of Osiris and live a blessed life.
- Sometimes, however, the heart is heavier than the feather because it is too full of vices and sins. In this case, the sinful soul will be condemned to be eaten by the soul devouring goddess Ammout. This soul will then be condemned to eternal hell.
Thus, in ancient Egypt, Maat's feather is the symbol of justice rendered by the gods and thus by the pharaoh, the incarnation of the gods on Earth.
The ancient Egyptian sacred beetle
Now that this article is finished, you know all about the beetles associated with Ra and Khepri. Indeed, you now know:
- The myth of Ra and Khepri
- The funerary and commemorative use of Egyptian beetles
- The other seven major symbols used by ancient Egyptians
So, if you want to go further because you find (you too!) that ancient Egypt was a noble and majestic period, our Egyptian store should please you!
Indeed, know that we offer our readers well-chosen collections of articles inspired by ancient Egypt.
For example, related to this article, you can discover our collection of Egyptian necklaces by simply clicking on the image below.