Beetles as Religious Symbols

by Yves Cambefort, (bibliography)
Paris, France

The scarab is generally associated with old Egypt which indeed made this beetle their most important religious symbol; however, scarabs and other beetles have been worshiped in various ways from Prehistory. This paper will show the Egyptians’ use of the scarab beetles as neither accidental or unique and only the most obvious of many sacred beetle examples throughout history.


Scarabs

Yves Cambefort article is divided into four main sections.
1. Prehistory to Buddhism and Taoism including Shamanism, The Scarab as Creator, and Buddhism and Taoism.
2. Ancient Egypt including Khepri and the pyramids, The scarab and the mummy, The auspicious scarab, and Ptah and Neith.
3. Indo-Europeans including Old Europe, India and Iran.
4. Judeo-Christian culture including Semitic people and the Bible, Christian authors, and Modern Europe.

FROM PREHISTORY TO BUDDHISM AND TAOISM

It is well known that Prehistoric beliefs are related to the beliefs of contemporary “primitive” cultures. More surprisingly, these primitive beliefs have often evolved into more elaborated ones.

Shamanism

Neolithic Buprestids
Neolithic Buprestids

So-called “pendants” in the shape of beetles are known from the late Paleolithic epoch (10,000 to 20,000 years ago). So much earlier than the Egyptian civilization, it is difficult to know the exact meaning these people attributed to beetle body ornaments. Some insight is gained in an observation of the habits displayed by “primitive” cultures of today. Ethnoentomological studies reveal beetles’ significance due to their importance as a food source and their ability to fly. In primitive and traditional cultures, shamans (medicine men) play very important roles. They are men of power, who are able to address issues in both the terrestrial and celestial worlds. They are able to “fly” in the sky, (in dreams or trances) and descend to subterranean hells where they act as mediators between infernal powers and ordinary men. With these talents held in high esteem, beetles were observed to fly in the sky and dive into the ground. In addition to their palatability, it is plausible to consider the importance of beetle symbolism within shamanic cultures; their vivid colors and spectacular horns aiding in their use as ornaments.
Further clarification may be needed to visualize the links between shamanistic values and the importance of beetles. Fully immersing ourselves in the ways of primitive or traditional cultures reveals a belief that nothing is due to chance or accident. Everything has a “sacred” meaning, as demonstrated by Mircea Eliade. Food, as an essential key to life, inherits the symbolism of immortality, and therefore of the divine; everything that can be eaten receives divine connotation. The French philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss has shown that there are strong correlations between ornaments and food.
Ornaments used by traditional cultures are not purely for decorative appeal; they possess an auspicious nature believed to increase the bearer’s strength. Therefore, as often as possible, edible objects are used as ornaments, especially if they have additional aesthetic qualities and shamanic symbolism. This is the case for some metallic or horned beetles. Bright, metallic colors evoke images of the sun and luminous sky; horns symbolize rising upward, especially if their bearers can fly. Many beetle species have been and still are used as food in America, Australasia, Asia, and Africa; some were also eaten in Europe. Simultaneously, “primitive” societies have used shining elytrae of Buprestids or Rutelids, as well as “horns” of Lucanids and Dynastids. Western civilization through Art Nouveau jewelry of the 1900′s was richly adorned with beetles and other insects. In Europe and North America, collars, broaches, and ear pendants, used beetles mounted on bronze. To this day, especially in Mexico, living specimens of some beetle species are worn by women as broaches, attached with a small gold or bronze chain.

The Scarab as Creator

Among shamanic societies, there are series of myths relating the creation of world to beetles. In some Indian tribes from the Chaco (South America), a big scarab named Aksak modeled man and woman from clay. Thus, the scarab, who shapes dung into balls, is identified as potter; an identification that we shall find again in Old Egypt (below).
In a more remarkable myth, an aquatic animal plunges down to the bottom of original liquid chaos, managing to grab and bring back to the surface some amount of matter to form the terrestrial world. In some examples of this myth, the primeval diver and maker of the world is a beetle. This is especially the case among pre-Aryan people from India and South-East Asia. The myth probably combines two different sorts of beetles: a Dytiscid, whose name recalls his ability to plunge (from Greek dytiscos “diver”), and a scarab, grabbing and pushing his dung ball (of course, in the primeval waters, there was no dry land to push one’s ball on).
The sky, representing a similar symmetrical medium to the water, has resulted in variant inversions of the creation myths. Among the Sumatran Toba, a big beetle brings a ball of matter from the sky to form the world. This beetle could be a scarab. (Egyptian and Greeks believed scarabs were able to fly while carrying a dung ball.)

Buddhism and Taoism

A possible heritage of shamanism, we know of some buddhist liturgical ornaments adorned with bright beetles. (especially elytra of Buprestids) These type of ornaments existed in continental Asia by the 6th century a.d. Due to their fragility, we do not know older examples, although they may have existed anteriorly, since Egyptian parallels are known: some objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb (14th century B.C.) are adorned with Buprestid elytra. In Asia, the most precious example still in existence is the Tamamushi reliquary in the temple of Horyuji at Nara (Japan). Made for empress Suiko, who was crowned in 592 a.d., it was adorned with 9000 elytra of the Buprestid Chrysochroa fulgidissima.
Taoism is another Asian religion, or rather philosophy. Its goal was to reach immortality, either material (for the body), or spiritual (for the soul). Of course, spiritual immortality was more precious and more difficult to reach. A famous text, “The Secret of the Golden Flower,” takes the sacred scarab as an example of the “work to be done” in order to reach spiritual immortality. Taoism believes in the strengths of various material “pellets” that aids in reaching immortality. The scarab dung ball was identified as one of these pellet substances; the larva and pupa were also used in the Taoist belief:
The scarab rolls his pellet, and life is born in it as an effect of nondispersed work of spiritual concentration. Now, even in manure an embryo can develop and cast his “terrestrial” skins, why would the dwelling of our celestial heart not be able to generate a body too, if we concentrate our spirit on it?
Let us notice that scarab larva and pupa have been observed within the ball; (although in reality they do not develop in the ball while it is being rolled, but later in the nest, when the ball has been fashioned in the shape of a pear): we shall see they have also been observed in Egypt.

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