Thursday, April 24, 2014

Deifying the lowly dung beetle: how 'Kheper nigroaeneus' hooks up with scarabs, Tut, and Amun-Re

Google's “doodle” for the 44th anniversary of Earth Day was a lovely one, with endearing animated illustrations of the Japanese macaque, the Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus; found mostly on the west coast of the U.S.), the puffer fish, veiled chameleon, moon jellyfish, and dung beetle (Kheper nigroaeneus).
The latter may seem lowly, but is actually both persistent and puissant in relation to its size. No wonder the Egyptians revered it as a god and immortalized it in gorgeous scarab jewelry and the like. This beetle's name, kheper, bore the metaphorical meaning “becoming, to come into being,” for they were intimately connected with Re, the Egyptians' supreme being and sun god. Many a Pharaoh incorporated kheper into his official “throne name,”  assumed at coronation. (The treasures of King Tutankhamun, for example, are decorated with elaborate cartouches of his throne name: Neb Kheperu Re: “The Lord of Becoming / Manifestation / Creations is Re.”)
Pectoral with the throne name of Tutankhamun
Greek commentator Plutarch had this to say about the Egyptians' idiosyncratic reverence for Kheper nigroaeneus:
One accepts (with the ancient Egyptians), that these varieties are only male beetles, that they put down their seed substance (semen) which forms a ball and the beetle rolls it forward with its widely spaced hind legs so that the beetle imitates the path of the sun as it went down in the west and rose in the east in the mornings.
Recent scientific research indicates that these beetles use the top of their dung balls to check their progress in relation to the position of the sun (even doing a little "dance"). So the observant Egyptians were right on track in associating them with the sun god!

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  1. I have nought but admiration for the industrious dung beetle. Another scarab beetle, Cetonia aurata, figured in Jung's theory of synchronicity. A female patient was describing a dream in which she received a jewelry in the form of a golden scarab. Just then, Jung noticed a bug trying to enter the window. He let it in, and found it was a golden scarab beetle, which coincidence gave him great astonishment.
    He presented the insect to the woman, as fulfillment of her dream.

    1. ... which coincidence gave him great astonishment.

      It's hard to imagine that Jung would be surprised by much of anything. (Unless, of course, it turned out to be a jung dung beetle.)