Contributions to Zoology, 77 (3) - 2008Gerhard Scholtz: Scarab beetles at the interface of wheel invention in nature and culture?

To refer to this article use this url:

Scarabs, humans and cults

The Scarabaeidae contains several large species in the Middle East including Scarabaeus pius Illiger, 1803, Kheper aegyptorium Latreille, 1827, Scarabaeus multidentatum Klug, 1845, and Gymnopleurus geoffroyi Fuessly, 1775 that produce dung balls or pills. Scarab beetles show intense competition for fresh dung heaps of large ruminants that are a rare commodity. The formation of a dung pill and the rolling behaviour may alleviate competition for nesting sites and food at the dung sources (Philips et al., 2004). It is likely that the population size of scarab beetles increased in parallel with the growing number of domestic animals such as cows, sheep, and goats that were already kept during the transition from a nomadic life style to early settling and the onset of agriculture (Herre and Röhrs, 1990; Benecke, 2004).

The centre of domestication of cattle is thought to be the Middle East and to have started at c 8000 years BC (Edwards et al., 2007) and sheep and goats were part of this (Herre and Röhrs, 1999). Since domestic animals live in their close proximity, it was almost impossible for their owners to overlook the curious activities of dung beetles. Ancient people in the Middle East recognised and observed insects in great detail. One piece of evidence is provided by the Sumerian list (9th century BC, but presumably based on much older documents). This ‘oldest book on zoology’ (Harpaz, 1973: 27-28) includes 121 insect names that describe properties of the respective species (Harpaz, 1973). Thus, we can conclude that the people in ancient cultures in this area observed scarab beetles and were impressed by their complex and peculiar behaviours in one way or another. That this was indeed the case is demonstrated by the ancient Egyptian culture, which is famous for attributing a sacral meaning to scarab beetles. This sacral meaning has its roots in the detailed observations of the behaviour of dung beetles, although some misinterpretations occurred, such as the assumption of autogenesis, or that males alone produce the next generation (Weiss, 1927; Levinson and Levinson, 2001).

The sources and origins of the Egyptian scarabaeid cult remain obscure, but will have existed before it showed up in the historical record. Myer (1894) and Minas-Nerpel (2006) mention the first signs of scarab worship dating back to predynastic times (before 3000 BC), as indicated by buried beetles and containers in scarab design. The exact ritual meaning of these grave goods is unclear, however (Minas-Nerpel; 2006). In contrast to this, the oldest written records of scarabaeids found in pyramid texts at the end of the Fifth Dynasty (~2367 - 2347 BC) already document the existence of an elaborated cult (Minas-Nerpel, 2006). It is astonishing that a complex cult like this should have had such a sudden appearance. One explanation might be that part of the scarab cult was imported - perhaps from Mesopotamia? Archaeological studies from the Sinai indicate an influence of the eastern Middle East regions on early Egyptian development (Gutbrod, 1975; Zick, 2007) and refer in particular to the spread of domestic animals and plants (Diamond, 2007).

The meaning of scarab beetles to ancient Egyptians was manifold but centred on Khepera (Kheper, Khepri, Chepri, or Chefre[2]), the Creator and God of the Rising Sun and its ascent during the early day (Myer, 1894; Sajó, 1910; Harpaz, 1973; Wade, 1922; Weiss 1927; Levinson and Levinson, 2001; Minas-Nerpel, 2006). Accordingly, Khepri was often depicted as a scarab beetle or with a scarab beetle as his head, and scarabs were shown with the sun disc between their legs. Old texts describe the deity as the ‘Evolver of the Evolutions’ (Myer, 1894: 104). The verb ‘kheper’ usually translated ‘to be,’ ‘to exist,’ ‘to become,’ also has the meaning of ‘to roll’ or ‘to revolve’ (Myer, 1894). Hence, the association of scarab beetles with discs, rotation, migration, and movement is obvious, also with round objects such as the sun disc (Myer, 1894; Levinson and Levinson, 2001; Minas-Nerpel, 2006). The generally accepted interpretation is that these associations are based on the observation that the new generation of scarab beetles originates from the round pill underneath the earth. This is also seen in the resurrection of the sun in the morning from the underworld, which is in turn associated with the belief of life after death (Myer, 1894; Weiss, 1927; Levinson and Levinson, 2001; Minas-Nerpel, 2006). I would however, as a serious alternative, consider the principle of rolling a round structure as the main source of this association.