The scarab beetle IS NOT the flesh-eating monster shown in the film ‘The Mummy’! It eats dung. In Egypt the scarab beetle was important for both the living and the dead. It is by far the most common amulet of ancient Egypt.
The beetle (Scarabaeus sacer) can be seen in the desert rolling a ball of animal dung into its underground home. The Egyptians compared this to the apparent rolling of the sun-disc across the sky. In addition, scarab eggs are laid in a dung ball. The young can feed off the dung when they hatch. Finally, the pupa of the beetle looks like a mummy. For these reasons the beetle was associated with the daily rising of the sun, with continual birth and rebirth. The word for scarab was ‘kheper’ which means ‘to be created’. The new-born sun was deified and took the name ‘Khepri’. He was sometimes shown as a man with a scarab beetle for a head.
There are faience scarab beetles on display in the Egypt Centre. Some of these have wings. The wings are not shaped like beetle wings but bird wings. This suggests that the wings were symbolic of heavenly associations, rather than simply an acknowledgement of the flying capability of the beetle. The scarabs and winged scarabs were placed within mummy wrappings, usually upon the breast, to ensure the rebirth of the dead. From the 25th Dynasty faience winged scarabs were produced with holes to sew the artefacts onto the mummy wrappings.
In the downstairs gallery we also have a ‘Heart Scarab’ with inscription on display and in the upstairs gallery we have a Rameside heart scarab. This type of scarab becomes popular in funerary wrappings from the 13th Dynasty. The Egyptians believed that the heart was weighed against the feather of truth to judge the dead. If the heart was heavy and full of lies it was eaten by a monster and so the dead could not enter heaven. The heart scarab had an inscription of Chapter 30B of the Book of the Dead. This ensured that the heart would not speak out against its owner on judgement day. Part of it may be translated:
O my heart which I got from my mother,
My heart which I got from my mother,
My heart of different ages,
Do not bear witness against me.
Do not create opposition against me among my judges.
Do not tip the scales against me.
This Chapter also instructs that heart scarabs be made out of green jasper. However, in reality, few were.
Scarab beetles as amulets seem to have been introduced in the 6th Dynasty. By the mid-First Intermediate Period a number functioned as seals. Some of these are on display downstairs. From the 12th Dynasty they are also used on finger rings. You can see one in the jewellery case upstairs.
The underside of scarab amulets may be inscribed with the names of kings, gods, sacred animals or other deities. Alternatively ‘good luck’ formula might be inscribed such as ‘A good new year’. They acted as ‘charms’ for the living and the dead. The names of kings are not always reliable for dating as very often the names of long dead kings were used.
As stated above, a number also acted as seals. A lump of clay would be placed so as to seal a jar, letter or door and then the scarab impressed into the clay. Any breakage of the seal could then be clearly seen.
Amulets of scarabs were usually made from faience, but others are known in lapis-lazuli, basalt, serpentine, glass, alabaster and other stones. From the 12th Dynasty amethyst was particularly popular.