The sacred scarab or kheper of ancient Egypt was the dung beetle, an insect that lives off the waste of herbivorous animals. It was seen as an incarnation of the sun god Khepri, and its name was part of many royal monikers, including Men-kheper-re and Kheper-ka-re. The scarab ornament found on mummies and now bought by tourists in Egypt is an homage to this humble bug.
Let’s meet the beetles. Scientists have identified about 30,000 scarab species — that’s about one-tenth of all beetles now known. Scarabs live on every continent except Antarctica. They can be tiny (0.08 inches) or HUGE — the Hercules beetle can grow to be 6.7 inches long.
But not all scarabs are dung beetles, whose scientific name is Kheper nigroaeneus. Those guys are special. All they eat is undigested matter in the waste of animals like cows, sheep, and camels. The fresher it is, the more they like it, because they can suck out the liquids. Some species burrow into it, but others form balls with it. The male makes a perfect sphere and, if he’s lucky, a female helps him roll it off to a nice place where they bury it and start a family.
Well, she starts it. He goes off to find other females. Mom stays home and seals the ball with spit and maybe her own poop. She might even make more dung balls. Then she lays one egg in each, and her young hatch and mature inside the balls, feeding off the nutrients until they emerge. (Does your room seem a lot nicer all of a sudden?)
So why did Egyptians worship scarabs? They assigned gods to all kinds of things, and they saw the young beetles emerging from their spherical dung balls as symbols of the sun, which is also spherical and emerges each day.
So when tourists buy scarabs based on King Tut’s jewelry, they’re paying their respects to dung beetles. And who wouldn’t?