Monday, August 3, 2015

The Sardonyx Scarabs of Egypt

Antique Carved Sardonyx Cameo Ring. You can see the base color is
reddish-brown, and the second layer in which the figure is carved is of
pure white. Photo ©2015 EraGem.

Sardonyx, a reddish-brown variety of agate with white bands, is a layered combination of sard and onyx found primarily in India since ancient times. Sardonyx has long been prized for its carvability. Perhaps one of its most prolific and enduring manifestations is the carved scarab of Egypt. Carved dung beetles were found so prolifically in Egyptian archaeological sites that some have referred to them as "a plague to the collectors."{1}

The unending numbers of these talismanic creatures were first believed to be child's play, until the hieroglyphic mysteries began to be unlocked. At once, upon understanding the significance assigned to these garbage men of the Nile, archaeologists praised the scarab beads and sculptures as "the most valuable keys to unlock the history of the ancient Egyptians."{2}

The picture that emerged, as understanding dawned on these investigators of the past, was one of historical importance. The Egyptians, masters of contemplation and mystic understanding that they were, saw in the dung beetle the hope of regeneration. On observation alone, the practices of the scarab beetles appeared to them to represent on earth their most fundamental religious beliefs about creation, transformation, regeneration, and resurrection.

Above ground, the scarab beetle forms balls of dung which he maneuvers around with his front legs. After a time, the ancient Egyptians would watch in wonder as, seemingly out of these same balls of fecal matter, new living beetles would emerge. Immediately, the words of their Creator God, Khepri, came to mind: "I develop myself from the primeval matter which I made, I developed myself out of the primeval matter."{3} And what is more primeval than feces? In reality, the dung beetles rolled these above-ground balls around for food. Beneath the ground, the females of the species would lay eggs from which the beetles would emerge.

The Egyptians saw another incarnation of Khepri in the sacred beetle. Just as they witnessed the regenerative work of the scarab, rolling his sacred dung balls across the ground from morning to night, so they recalled the vigor of Khepri as he arose on the horizon at dawn, full of youthful vigor from his time spent in "the other world."{4} Each day Khepri used his power and might to push the great sun-disk, the source of all life and power, across the sky. At sunset, Khepri would have aged and crossed over again into the other world, only to be reborn the next morning.

As the Egyptians watched the daily toil of the scarab beetle unfold, its life cycle appeared to serve as a fractal for the drama unfolding in the sky. Thus, the Egyptians imbued the beautiful bug with all the sacred power of their most celebrated deity. Thus, the scarab became the most prolific amuletic charm in Egypt.

Small ones were worn by both rich and poor, young and old.{4, 5} These charms were believed to ward off evil, ensure provision for life, and guarantee safe passage into the afterlife.{6} Scarab seals were used in place of locking mechanisms, which would not be invented for many years to come, securing such valuables as honey, divine relics, and royal treasuries.{7}

Pharaohs used scarab signets to sign formal decrees, and some were formed as beads and strung onto cords to serve as tools of prayer.{8} These talismans were carved from all manner of materials, the most popular being steatite, serpentine, carnelian, agate, onyx, and August's birthstone sardonyx.{9}

~Angela Magnotti Andrews, Staff Writer


  1. Flood, Theodore L. and Frank Chapin Bray. The Chautauquan, Volume 58, No. 2, April 1910, p. 263.
  2. Ibid., p. 263.
  3. McClung Museum. "Ancient Egypt: The Sacred Scarab." Accessed July 20, 2015.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ward, William A. "Beetles in Stone: The Egyptian Scarab," Biblical Archaeologist, 57:4 (1994), pp. 186-202.
  6. McClung Museum.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Flood, Theodore L.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.

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