Sun-god creator in the form of a scarab beetle.
The image of the scarab is almost synonymous with Ancient Egypt. The choice of an insect to convey one of the forms of the sun-god illustrates the keen eye of the Egyptian in observing nature and his imagination in trying to understand the universe. Khepri is the sun-god at dawn on the eastern horizon. His iconography is that of the scarab beetle (of which there are numerous varieties in Egypt) pushing the disk of the sun upwards from the Underworld to journey across the sky. In their own local environment the Egyptians would have noticed the scarabs busily rolling balls of dirt across the ground and translated this method of propulsion into an explanation of the sun’s circuit. However, the analogy did not stop there. Observing that out of the ball emerged a scarab, apparently spontaneously, it was logical to see the insect as Khepri – ‘he who is coming into being’, i.e. self-created of his own accord without undergoing the natural cycle of reproduction. The creator sun-god was therefore aptly manifest in the ‘scarabaeus sacer’ or dung beetle.
Inscriptional evidence for Khepri occurs in the pyramids of the Old Kingdom: a wish is expressed for the sun to come into being in its name of Khepri. The priesthood of the sun-god combined his different forms to assert that ATUMKhepri arises on the primeval mound in the mansion of the BENU in Heliopolis. Referring to the myth of the sun-god’s journey through the hours of night, Khepri is said to raise his beauty into the body of NUT the sky-goddess. From noticing the somewhat slimy consistency of the scarab beetle’s dirt-ball, the earth is made from the spittle coming from Khepri.
From about the Middle Kingdom representations of Khepri, as the ovoid scarab, regularly occur in three-dimensional form carved as the amuletic backing of seals. These scarabs, by implication, connect the wearer with the sun-god. The underside could be incised, not just with the titles and name of an official, but also with good-luck designs, deities and the names of royalty used for their protective power. Kings would use the undersides of large scarabs to commemorate specific events – Amenhotep III (Dynasty XVIII) has left a number of these news bulletins which inter alia give information on his prowess at lion hunting and celebrate the arrival of a Syrian princess into his harem. The scarab could form the bezel of a ring or be part of a necklace or bracelet – the tomb of Tutankhamun has provided us with splendid examples of scarabs made of semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli set in gold. One of the young king’s pectorals in particular stresses the dominance of Khepri the sun-god as well as being a masterpiece of the jeweller’s craft: in the centre of the design is a scarab carved from chalcedony combined with the wings and talons of the solar hawk, representing Khepri who, as controller of celestial motion, is shown here pushing the boat of the moon-eye.
Paintings in funerary papyri show Khepri on a boat being lifted up by the god NUN, the primeval watery chaos. In some depictions Khepri coalesces with other conceptions of the sun-god to present the appearance of a ram-headed beetle. On a wall of the interior chamber in the tomb of Petosiris (fourth century BC) at Tuna el-Gebel, Khepri was carved quite naturalistically in low relief, painted lapis lazuli blue, wearing the ‘atef’ crown of OSIRIS. Less frequently Khepri could be shown as an anthropomorphic god to the shoulders with a full scarab beetle for a head. Bizarre as it might seem, the Egyptian artist has left some magnificent depictions of Khepri in this form – e.g. in the tomb of Nefertari (Dynasty XIX) in the Valley of the Queens.
Although relatively few examples are extant in museums or in Egypt, it seems likely that the major temples each possessed a colossal hard-stone statue of Khepri. Raised on a plinth, the scarab symbolised architecturally the concept that the temple was the site where the sun-god first emerged to begin the creation of the cosmos.