Scarabs: Appeals for Protection and Resurrection

By Dr Nicola J Adderley

Scarab Amulets: Petitions for Safety and Preservation

Among the diverse repertoire of ancient Egyptian amulets, the most common form is that of the scarab. Amulets of this type first appeared during the Sixth Dynasty and remained in use until the Græco-Roman Period, although amulets in the form of beetles are attested as early as the First Dynasty.1 A wide variety of materials were used in their production, ranging from metal to animal products such as bone and beeswax,2 although various types of stone were the most common.

The prominence of the scarab as a form of amulet arose from its association with creation, new life and regeneration, and consequently resurrection and rebirth; these associations developed from the misapprehension that the beetles hatched spontaneously from balls of dung without the need for sexual reproduction. In addition, observation of the beetle assiduously rolling a ball of dung along the ground inspired the belief that the daily journey of the sun-disc across the sky was facilitated by the god Khepri in the form of a giant dung beetle, while the renewal of the sun each morning, after fading and disappearing the evening before, evinced the scarab's capacity for regeneration.3

As the scarab symbolised new life and regeneration, it could serve as an amulet without the need for additional inscription or decoration: the image of the scarab itself was sufficient to magically invoke protection for the bearer, perhaps from the god Khepri or even the sun god Re, of whom Khepri was one manifestation. Examples of this undecorated type in the Eton Myers Collection include ECM897, ECM905 and ECM1124, each measuring less than 2 cm in length and made of red carnelian, beeswax and obsidian respectively.4 Often, however, the underside of the scarab was decorated with hieroglyphs, figures of deities, animals, plants or patterns. Many such inscribed or decorated scarabs were also used as seals, but the majority functioned primarily as protective amulets, as is demonstrated in part by the presence of a piercing, allowing them to be worn by the owner on a string or wire.

1-ECM892Scarabs decorated with the name or image of a deity, or expressions of praise, may have been intended as a means of obtaining protection from the deity/deities depicted: the texts and representations communicated reverence for particular gods whilst simultaneously invoking their protection. An example of this type of scarab is ECM892 (figure 1), which bears a depiction of Seth (a figure with the head of the Seth-animal) on the left and a uraeus with solar disc on the right; the scarab probably dates to the Ramessid Period, at which time veneration of the god Seth was at its peak.5 In this case, the favour and attention of not only Seth but perhaps also Re (the sun disc) and Wadjet (the uraeus) may have been sought to ensure the welfare and safekeeping of the owner, all three being prominent deities in Lower Egypt. Alternatively, the uraeus may simply be representative of divinity in a more general sense, or perhaps kingship. Additionally, the uraeus could offer protection against snake bites.6

While the above example includes only a possible reference to kingship, other examples bear explicit mention of the king, such as ECM1644, a blue glazed steatite scarab inscribed with the nomen of Amenhotep III, Amenhotep Heqawaset ('Amenhotep, ruler of Thebes').7 Scarabs with such inscriptions may have been produced as celebrations of kingship or as expressions of loyalty to, or veneration of, the king; they nevertheless retained their amuletic properties: not only the scarab form, but also the name or representation of the king, the earthly embodiment of divinity, imbued the amulet with protective properties. Alternatively, or additionally, they may have summoned protection for the owner from the gods depicted within the name of the king, in this case, Amun.

Just as the image of the uraeus could simultaneously invoke a deity whilst also protecting against venomous snakes, depictions of other animals, such as the hippopotamus or the crocodile, could also serve a dual purpose, both summoning the guardianship of the deities with which the animals were associated and also performing an apotropaic function, warding off dangerous creatures. Many of the animals which appear were also associated with fecundity and, like the scarab, regeneration. Indeed, it was possible, as is the case with scaraboids, to entirely substitute such animals in place of the scarab form and, rather than simply decorate the base of a scarab with images of fauna, to replace the back of the scarab beetle with a three-dimensional carving of some other animal. Examples include ECM746 and ECM1726, made of blue faience and blue glazed steatite respectively, both of which take the form of a frog.8 Similarly, plants associated with regeneration, such as the lotus,9 are a common motif on scarabs and scaraboids, including, for example, ECM871, a blue-green glazed steatite cowroid10 carved with a depiction of a lotus plant beneath hieroglyphs reading 'every day', also incorporating the name of the god Re.11

As a symbol of resurrection and rebirth, the scarab became associated with the transition of the deceased from life to an existence as an akh spirit in the afterlife. Consequently, scarabs were also viewed as appropriate amulets with which to adorn the dead and numerous scarab amulets have been excavated in tombs. Many of these are indistinguishable from the small amulets worn by the living; indeed, the majority of the examples discussed above could have been used by either the living or the dead. It is also likely that many individuals were buried with scarabs which they had worn during their lives: the scarab served equally well as protection for the living and the dead, and also ensured that the deceased would be reborn in the netherworld. However, several types of scarab developed for use exclusively within a funerary context: heart scarabs – large scarabs which were often inscribed and which were placed on the breast of the deceased (discussed below); funerary scarabs – large, uninscribed scarabs with separate outstretched wings which were sewn into mummy wrappings from the Twenty-fifth Dynasty;12 and small, uninscribed scarabs with legs carved in relief on the underside which are found sewn into mummy wrappings of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty onwards; ECM1124 is an example of this latter type.

Heart Scarabs and the Rebirth of the Deceased

2-ECM1606top3-ECM1606base4-TranscriptionHeart scarabs were placed on the chest of the mummified body, either under or on the mummy wrappings. The earliest known examples date to the Thirteenth Dynasty and they remained in use until the Roman Period.13 The purpose of these scarabs was to ensure a smooth transition for the deceased into the afterlife.

Many heart scarabs were inscribed with all or, more commonly, part of Chapter 30B of the Book of the Dead, a spell commanding the heart not to act against the deceased during the weighing of the heart – the judgement of the deceased in the afterlife, as depicted in Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead and its accompanying vignettes. During this interrogation, the heart of the deceased was weighed against maat; if the scales balanced, the individual was declared 'justified' or 'true of voice' and permitted into the netherworld; if, however, they were found wanting before the gods of the tribunal, their heart would be devoured by Ammut, preventing entry into the afterlife and causing them to experience the second death.14 Part of Chapter 30B is inscribed on the base of ECM1606, a heart scarab of pale blue faience dating to the Twenty-first or Twenty-second Dynasty, probably from Thebes15 (see figures 2-4):

My heart of my mother, my heart of my mother, my heart of my form(s)! Do not be hostile (before) the Keeper (of the Balance)! Do not raise up a witness16 (against) the Osiris, the mistress of the house, the Chantress of Amun-Re, King of the God(s), Nes[...], true of voice.

The spell takes the form of a plea, imploring the heart, believed to hold a record of a person's life, not to reveal anything during the judgement which could jeopardise the deceased's hopes of entering the afterlife as an akh spirit. This particular heart scarab bears a relatively short extract from Chapter 30B; others contain more lengthy lists of exhortations, also instructing the heart not to 'oppose' the deceased 'before the tribunal' or 'tell lies about' him 'in the presence of the god',17 although presumably a lie would be preferred in favour of revealing crimes or transgressions!

While Chapter 30B is the text which appears most commonly on heart scarabs, Chapter 30A (also intended as a means of preventing the heart from speaking against the deceased), or, less frequently, Chapters 26, 27 and 29B (spells to ensure the heart remained with its owner after death and that the deceased was able to enter the netherworld without restraint) were also used.18 Alternatively, heart scarabs could be left uninscribed. The employment of such artefacts as heart scarabs can usually be inferred from their size, material and often the absence of any piercing; for instance, ECM1131 (figure 5) can be identified as a heart scarab as it is unpierced, too large to be worn as an amulet,19 and made of a greenish-brown stone with gold gilding, resembling the materials stipulated for the manufacture of heart scarabs in the rubric to Chapter 30B.20 Uninscribed heart scarabs served the same purpose as those bearing excerpts from Chapters 30A and 30B of the Book of the Dead: they functioned as a talisman preventing the heart of the deceased from speaking out against him during his judgement by the gods of the tribunal. Furthermore, the form of the scarab itself, representing new life and renewal, as well as being the hieroglyph for 'existing' or 'coming into being', helped to magically ensure the deceased would be successfully reborn in the afterlife.5-ECM1131

Entreaties to the Gods, Missives to the Heart

Scarabs bear a range of messages which can be broadly divided into two types: those that were intended to convey piety and appeals to divine beings, and those which were intended to serve as a directive to the heart. Of the former, some are simply a general request or invocation for preservation and protection, addressed to any god or magical entity that might be able and willing to assist; others communicate the owner's devotion to one or more specific gods or kings whilst soliciting their favour and guardianship. Scarabs utilised in burial contexts, in addition to retaining their protective function, also served to aid the deceased in undergoing his or her transformation into an akh spirit in the realm of the dead. In many cases, this role was implicit in the scarab form, with its inherent associations of new life, resurrection and existence. Heart scarabs, however, developed this aspect further: they also functioned as a missive to the heart, either literally (if inscribed with Chapter 30B of the Book of the Dead) or implicitly (if left uninscribed), imploring and impelling the heart not to betray the deceased in their judgement in the afterlife, so that they might continue to exist after death.

As with most aspects of Egyptian religion, an ongoing development of the scarabs can be seen over time: the earliest examples are crude amulets dating to the Sixth Dynasty; towards the end of the First Intermediate Period, the scarab form became more naturalistic and the range of motifs used on the base expanded, as it continued to do through subsequent periods; during the Middle Kingdom, heart scarabs first came into use, and then later, in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty and the Saite Period, other types of funerary scarab developed. Their primary purpose, however, remained essentially unchanged and the employment of scarabs as one of the many and diverse means of inducing the gods to intervene on behalf of their devotees, alive or dead, continued until the Roman Period. 



1.     Andrews 1994: 11 fig. 5i and 50-51; Hornung and Staehelin 1976: 13.

2.     For example, ECM 905 appears to be made of beeswax with traces of gold gilding also present; cf. the Eton Myers acquisition notes for this scarab.

3.     See Andrews 1994: 50-51 for further discussion of the behaviour of scarabs and its relationship with Egyptian mythology and funerary beliefs.

4.     ECM 897 measures 15 x 12 x 7mm; it is pierced longitudinally and, being made of carnelian, probably dates to the New Kingdom or perhaps later (cf. Hornung and Staehelin 1976: 22, which states that most examples of this material date to the Eighteenth Dynasty, and Andrews 1994: 50). ECM905 measures 13 x 10 x 6 mm; it is pierced longitudinally and is of unknown date. ECM1124 measures 17 x 14 x 8 mm; it has a transverse piercing and has detail of the legs and belly of the scarab carved on the underside; such scarabs were sewn into the mummy wrappings of the dead during the Twenty-sixth Dynasty and later (Andrews 1994: 59).

5.     The scarab is pierced longitudinally and measures approximately 24 x 18 x 9 mm. Comparable examples, probably also dating to the Ramessid Period, include Hornung and Staehelin 1976: 377 no. B 25 and Teeter and Wilfong 2003: 68 no. 92.

6.     See Hornung and Staehelin 1976: 134-135 for a discussion of uraei on scarabs.

7.     ECM1644 measures 18 x 12 x 10 mm and has a longitudinal piercing. ECM860 also bears a cartouche above a figure of Heh holding palm ribs in each hand; the cartouche is inscribed with the throne name of Tuthmosis III, Menkheperre, probably a cryptographic writing of Amun (cf. Hornung and Staehelin 1976: 60-63 with Abb. 9 and 175). The scarab is made of blue glazed steatite and measures 17 x 13 x 7 mm; it may date later than the reign of Tuthmosis III, as cartouches bearing his throne name remained in use until as late as the fourth century BCE (Hornung and Staehelin 1976: 60). For an example comparable to ECM860, see Hornung and Staehelin 1976: 374 no. B 9.

8.     ECM746 measures 16 x 8 x 10 mm; ECM1726 measures 15 x 11 x 9 mm. Both are pierced and have a flat, undecorated base.

9.     See Hornung and Staehelin 1976: 164.

10. A cowroid is a scaraboid based on the form of a cowrie shell. This example has a lentoid shape with an undecorated upper surface.

11. ECM871 measures 15 x 10 x 4 mm and has a longitudinal piercing.

12. For a brief discussion of funerary scarabs with several examples, see Teeter and Wilfong 2003: 122 and 138-144.

13. Andrews 1994: 56-57; Teeter and Wilfong 2003: 122.

14. Cf. Taylor 2001: 38; Pinch 2002: 93 and 142.

15. Spurr, Reeves and Quirke 2001: 44-45. The scarab measures approximately 57 x 39 x 23 mm.

16. More commonly, this part of the spell reads 'do not stand up as a witness against' the deceased; see for example Hornung and Staehelin 1976: 371-372, nos. A 8-10 and Teeter and Wilfong 2003: 124-128, nos. 201-203.

17. See, for example, Teeter and Wilfong 2003: 124-131 nos. 201-202 and 206; for translations of full versions of Chapter 30B, see Hornung and Staehelin 1976: 184-185 and Faulkner 1972: 27-28.

18. Cf. Hornung and Staehelin 1976: 184-187 and Taylor 2001: 196.

19. ECM1131 measures approximately 48 x 34 x 18 mm.

20. The rubric to Chapter 30B of the Book of the Dead states that heart scarabs should ideally be made of nephrite, a green stone, and mounted in fine gold; see Faulkner 1972: 56. Other examples of uninscribed heart scarabs include Teeter and Wilfong 2003: 132-137 nos. 207 and 209-219.



Andrews, C. 1994. Amulets of Ancient Egypt. London and Texas.

Faulkner, R. O. 1972. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (revised edition). London.

Hall, H. R. 1913. Catalogue of Egyptian Scarabs, etc., in the British Museum, Volume I, Royal Scarabs. London.

Hornung, E. and Staehelin, E. 1976. Skarabäen und andere Siegelamulette aus Basler Sammlungen. Mainz.

Pinch, G. 2002. Egyptian Mythology. A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford.

Spurr, S., Reeves, N. and Quirke, S. 2001. Egyptian Art at Eton College. Selections from the Myers Museum. Windsor and New York.

Taylor, J. H. 2001. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. London.

Teeter, E. and Wilfong, T. G. 2003. Scarabs, Scaraboids, Seals, and Seal Impressions from Medinet Habu. Chicago.



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