Even though “scarab” applies to a whole family of beetles, it is the scarabaeus sacer, the dung beetle of the western desert that has captured the mythopoetic imagination.
The dung beetle has the remarkable instinct of rolling balls of animal dung along the ground to its underground cache where it will be stored for food. The ball is sometimes so large that the beetle is forced into an almost vertical position, yet persistent and resolute, the scarab manages to negotiate obstacles in the way.
African cultures featured the dung beetle in myths of the beginning, as young dung beetles, having been laid as eggs within the dung ball, emerged from it fully formed and thus were considered to have been created from nothingness. However, the scarab’s pushing of its dung ball resonated specially with ancient Egyptians, who thought of it as an embodiment of the god Kephri, who every day propels the sun out of the darkness of the underworld and across the sky in its diurnal journey.
Kheper, from which Khepri gets his name, means “to take shape or to “come into being” by virtue of connecting the many dimensions of the self and propelling consciousness into its awakening. Khepri, who represented the morning sun and was seen as an aspect of the greater sun god Ra, was often depicted as a scarab beetle or as a scarab beetle-headed man.
Along with the concept of existence, development, and growth embodied by Khepri, the symbol of the scarab was revered for representing the cycle of life, creation, death and rebirth and seen as a form of protection.
Hundreds of thousands of scarabs amulets and seals were crafted in Egypt for many centuries and many thousands have survived. They were typically carved out of precious or semi precious stone, metal or glass, or moulded out of Egyptian faience, a primitive version of porcelain. The scarab motif was portrayed in varying degrees of naturalism but usually at least indicating the head, wing case and legs with a flat base.
Separately, Heart scarabs as well as scarab pectorals were larger funerary pieces placed with the dead in the tomb as signs of new life. Funerary texts illuminate the notion that these pieces aided the heart of the deceased during the tests necessary to enter the afterworld. Pictured below is the pectoral piece found on the mummy of king Tutankhamun.
From the middle Bronze Age, other ancient peoples of the Mediterranean and the Middle East imported scarabs from Egypt and also produced scarabs in Egyptian or local styles.