Ancient Egyptian Scarabs: 10 Curated Facts to Know

A closer look into one of ancient Egypt’s most prominent symbols of death, birth and rebirth. Here are 10 facts about the ancient Egyptian scarab beetle.

Aug 20, 2021By Charlotte Davis
egyptian scarabs
Selection of scarabs including Scarab with the Name of Hatshepsut, 1473-1458 BC, Heart Scarab of Ruru, 1550-1070 BC, and Naturalistic Scarab, 688-30 BC, via The Met Museum, New York

 

The Egyptian scarab was one of the most well-recognized symbols in Ancient Egypt, appearing as amulets, on jewelry and in funerary context. Modeled after the dung beetle, the scarab was closely connected with the sun god Khepri, who brought the sunrise over the horizon each day. Thus, it became a symbol of rebirth, regeneration, and protection in the afterlife. Below are some facts you may not have known about this sacred insect.

 

1. Egyptian Scarabs Are Modeled After the Dung Beetle

dung beetle image
A dung beetle rolling its ball backwards, via ScienceNews

 

Male dung beetles are known for rolling up animal dung and other debris into a ball and rolling. When they gather enough to form a large sphere, they then bury it underground as a food supply for their larvae and lay their eggs inside it. This beetle held great significance to ancient Egyptians, as they believed that the beetle’s dung ball was representative of the world; the dung beetle kept the world forever revolving like its ball of manure.

 

2. Scarabs Represented Resurrection in Ancient Egypt

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3D CT scan of the mummified remains of Tamut, with amulets, via The Independent

 

Because of the dung beetle’s significance in ancient Egypt, the scarab beetle came to represent the eternal cycle of life. Like the dung beetle’s revolving ball, the scarab became a symbol of birth, life, death, and resurrection.

 

Since the sun was believed to die each night and reborn each morning as a beetle, the scarab took on significant regenerative powers. The deceased needed to harness these powers to be reborn in the afterlife – in the same way, the sun was reborn each morning.

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3. Scarabs Were Associated With the Gods Khepri, Atum, and Re

thoth khepri
Khepri with the head of a scarab, Papyrus leaf from the Book of the Dead of Imenemsauf, via History Today

 

It is no surprise that the Egyptian scarab was very closely linked with the god Khepri, who presided over the sun, sunrise, and the renewal of life. Ancient Egyptians believed that scarabs were the reincarnations of Khepri himself, and depictions of the god often show him with the head of a scarab. The scarab beetle was also associated with the gods Atum and Re, who represented primordial creation and the sun, respectively. Together, the gods formed Atum-Re, which illustrated the joint power of the sun and creation.

 

4. From the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom and Beyond

agate egyptian scarab
Naturalistic Agate Scarab, ca 664-332 BC, via Christie’s

 

The first known Egyptian scarab amulets appeared during the 6th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom period (2649-2150 BC). The first examples of scarabs were simple, uninscribed, and seals made of stone. From the Middle Kingdom period (2030-1640 BC), scarabs had become objects of daily life, often featuring inscribed names of leaders or officials, and were used as official scroll seals. They also gained variety in purpose and craftsmanship during the Middle Kingdom.

 

By the New Kingdom period (1550-1070 BC), scarabs had gained significant religious importance and were inscribed with the names of gods or religious figures. Larger scarabs, known as ‘Heart Scarabs,’ were also used in funerary context to aid the deceased in the afterlife. They could either be placed in a tomb or within the deceased’s mummy wrappings, predominantly atop the heart. To the ancient Egyptians, the heart was the seat of the mind.

 

5. Scarabs in Jewelry and Decoration

ancient egyptian scarab ring steatite
Egyptian Gold and Steatite Scarab Swivel Ring, ca. 1540-1400 BC, via Sotheby’s

 

Although all early Egyptian scarabs were crafted in stone, their increased popularity and significance through time yielded more diversity in material and craftsmanship. As they became more popular, scarabs were produced in faience and steatite as well as gemstones including turquoise, amethyst, green and red jasper, lapis lazuli, to name a few. They also varied in size and form.

 

As the scarab evolved, so did its use. While scarabs had begun as seals and amulets, they began to circulate as decorative objects during the Middle and Late Kingdoms. They were often used as charms for items such as necklaces, tiaras, bracelets, rings, and earrings. It was also used as furniture decoration. During the New Kingdom, scarabs were used to provide protection and good luck, and some even believed that they granted spiritual powers to their wearers.

 

6. The Winged Scarab

egyptian faience winged scarab
Egyptian Faience Winged Scarab, 1550-1070 BC, via medusa-art.com

 

Some of the pectoral funerary Egyptian scarabs featured birds’ wings to ensure rebirth of the deceased and peaceful flight into the afterlife. They were also an additional link to Khepri, who was sometimes shown with bird’s wings. The scarab and wings were made separately then attached to the mummy wrappings.

 

7. Commemorative Scarabs

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Commemorative Scarab of Amenhotep III (left) and King Shabaka, 25th Dynasty (right), via The Met Museum, New York

 

Pharaohs also used scarabs to link themselves with divinities. Most notably, Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC) produced rich glazed faience scarabs during his reign to commemorate his first year on the throne. He then subsequently released other scarabs in groups for his various achievements. He produced a group of ‘Lion Hunt’ scarabs to represent his strength in lion hunting, and ‘Bull Hunt’ scarabs for bull hunting. He also released a group to commemorate his marriage to his queen Tiye, as well as to celebrate the construction of a man-made lake for her.

 

8. Scarabs in Foreign Art

scarab 3700 years old
Scarab Seal of a senior official, 13th Dynasty, excavated at Dor in Israel’s coast, via Tel Dor Excavations, via projectyoureself.com

 

With increased interaction between ancient Egypt and the surrounding areas of the Mediterranean, scarab manufacturing spread to other civilizations. Neighbors in the Near East and the Greco-Roman world adopted symbolic and religious importance from the Egyptian scarab, assimilating their cultural values into its worship.

 

9. Modern Scarabs Are Popular to This Day

egyptian revival jewelry
Modern scarabs in jewelry, via marketsquarejewelers.com

 

Although the scarab does not hold religious significance in modern Egypt, it still exists as a cultural symbol. Tourists visiting Egypt flock the markets and souvenir shops to buy modern replicas of scarabs, amulets, and papyrus scrolls. Also popular are jewelry featuring the scarab as a link to antiquity and as a charm for protection and luck. Tattoos also often contain Egyptian scarab imagery as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration.

 

10. Are Ancient Egyptian Scarabs Collectible?

selection ancient egyptian scarabs
Selection of Egyptian Scarabs, via Bonhams

 

Yes, in fact, there is quite a demand for Egyptian scarabs, and they can vary considerably in price, size, and material. The large auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and England’s Bonhams are venues that offer Egyptian scarabs in their sales. Certified dealers with e-commerce sites, such as medusa-art.com and hixenbaugh.net are great places to find scarabs at entry-level prices.

 

Like anything else of value, some forgeries reach the market. Looted pieces are illegal to trade, so be careful and ask questions.



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By Charlotte DavisCharlotte is a contributing writer from Portland, Oregon now based in London, England. I’m an art historian with extensive knowledge in art history, classics, ancient art and archaeology.