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Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Insects
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    Apart from the dung beetle worshipped as Atem and the flies representing tenacity and courage, Egyptians revered other insects too, be it for their religious significance, for their aesthetic appeal or for their produce.
    Butterflies were probably portrayed for their beauty and bees kept for their honey, but many other insects were less well liked, being mostly nuisances in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians and their potential for causing harm was only partially recognized: lice, fleas, bed-bugs or mosquitoes. Grain weevils, Sitophilus granarius, known to have been present since the Old Kingdom, and grain beetles such as the lesser grain borer, Rhizopertha dominica, and flour beetles, Tribolium castaneum, occurred in Egypt since the early New Kingdom at least [2] and destroyed significant amounts of stored cereals. The ubiquitous lesser mealworm, Alphitobius diaperinus, which can carry health risks for humans and the tiny biscuit beetle, Stegobium paniceum have been found in excavations at el Amarna.[22] Bacon beetles belonging to the family of the Dermestidae, checkered beetles (Cleridae), lesser meal worm beetles, cockroaches, snout beetles and others were found in tombs, where they caused damage to the food offerings and the mummies. But apart from occasional drawings showing them being pierced by some weapon, and casting a few spells there was little anybody could do against them [3].
    On the other hand insects such as butterflies, grasshoppers, or praying mantises might serve as guides to the deceased on their journey to achieve eternal life.[4]
    From among the huge variety of Egyptian insects only a handful have been represented and names are known of only a small number. The dung beetle in an abstracted form was turned into one of the most numerous artifacts of antiquity, flies, click beetles and locust are at least occasionally found in reliefs and as pendants and amulets, but otherwise insects do not seem to have inspired the ancient artisans to any large extent.

Dragonfly A dragonfly or a locust in flight
While locust are quite frequently portrayed, there are no dragonfly depictions which are not questionable.[10]
Author: Bob Partridge

Dragonfly amulet- Damaged dragonfly amulet and bead
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC7546

Moreover, depictions generally show little detail and make definition hard. Nor seem the Egyptians to have been bothered to lavish names on insects. A louse was a kt.t, literally a 'little one', a word they also used for little girls. A py was a flea, an aff a fly, and a xmy possibly a sandfly, but a word for dragonfly is not known. They could certainly tell a bee, afj, from a wasp, but whether bj.w, bjbj or tkk.t referred to wasps cannot be decided. Nor is it known whether the creepy-crawlies called pAw.yw [19] and jnr [20] that live in wood were woodworms or termites, though the snake determinatives make the former more likely. The kk [21] too is ill defined. Woodworm, weevil and ant have been suggested as translations.
    A number of insects had their own hieroglyph: the bee, bjt, the fly, aff, the locust, snHm, the water scorpion, srqt, which despite its name is an insect and the ubiquitous dung beetle, xpr. Of the ant hieroglyph the not always very accurate or well informed Horapollo wrote in his Hieroglyphics:
To represent knowledge, they delineate an ANT, for whatever a man may carefully conceal, this creature obtains a knowledge of: and not for this reason only, but also because beyond all other animals when it is providing for itself its winter's food, it never deviates from its home, but arrives at it unerringly.
Hieroglyphics of Horapollo, tr. Alexander Turner Cory, [1840], pp.72f.


Two ants Two ants engraved on a sard gemstone [23]

    Ants are in many cultures admired for their prodigious industry and strength. The Egyptians may have done likewise, but–as the Egyptian word for 'ant' is unknown–one cannot be certain whether the demotic Insinger wisdom text really refers to ants when it describes little forces having significant effects:
A little wind carries the ship.
A little bee brings the honey.
A little ant (?) carries the crumb (?).
A little locust destroys the vine.
Insinger Papyrus XXV.1 to XXV.4 [11]
    Apart from the term SkV used in the text above, another, qpqpe, has also been suggested to mean 'ant'. Thus a demotic charm against gout makes apparently use of boiled ants:
Then you shall bring an ant (?). You shall boil it in henna oil. You shall anoint his feet with it.


    The Buprestids (also known as Jewel beetles) are conspicuous for their metallic shine. Pendants resembling them were made in pre-historic times. Artefacts were decorated with their shapes, a number of such objects were found in Tutankhamen's and Queen Hetepheres' tombs. It has been suggested that Buprestids were connected with Osiris who had been enclosed in the trunk of a tamarisk tree. Similarly, this kind of beetle must have been found by carpenters enclosed in wood when they split it in order to make planks.

Click beetle Click beetle, relief on the pre-dynastic Brussels Neith palette.

    Click beetles (Agrypnus notodonta) are quite common in Egypt. Their name derives from the clicking sound they make when jumping through the air. They were associated with the protective goddess Neith.[9] Gold foil amulets dating to the early dynastic have been found at Nag ed-Deir. A few centuries later during the Old Kingdom a woman was buried with a necklace consisting of fifty gold elaterid beetles [1].
    Most of the ancient Egyptian words connected with beetles refer to the dung beetle, the sacred scarab. There is the sun beetle, the ankh (transliteration anx), turning into which was apparently a major step up for king Pepi I:
You will live as an ankh-beetle, enduring as a [Dd-pillar], O Pepi
Pyramid Texts PT 690 [8]
and the scarab, xprr:
As bird this Unas flies upwards, as scarab he alights
PT 267 , Line [477] [7]
    Of other Egyptian terms the exact meaning is not as well known: the jbb was, according to the determinative, a beetle, while the jk.w-tA, known from medical literature, could possibly have been a worm.[17] MsxA.t-kA.w and MsxAA.t [18] are names for beetle divinities. The apSA.y on the other hand had to be warded off and the Nu Papyrus furnishes the deceased, referred to as NN in the text, with the following spell:
Charm for fending off an Apshai-beetle:
To be said by NN.
Keep away from me, crooked lips! I am Khnum, lord of the circuit of the world, who transmits the words of the gods to Re. I always report the message to its lord.
pBM EA 10477 (pNu), Tb 036, line [1] [13]
    In the British Museum papyrus BM 10793 it is rather the, spelled with a locust determinative, that the magic is designed to help against.[14] Translations suggested include beetle, locust, grasshopper and cockroach.[15] The Zettelarchiv suggests 'wasp' in addition.[16] In Demotic the word moulted to apSe or the like. The creature was used in a spell...
To drug(?) your enemy
(17) an apshe-beetle(?); you burn it with styrax(?), (18) you pound it together with one drachma of apple (19) and a ... and you ... (20) and you put a .....


Locust; Excerpt. Source: Divrei Hayamim - Shmot     The locust on the other hand was dangerous to survival and people were well aware of it. Their small size did not prevent them from being a great pest and when a swarm descended on fields and meadows, little was left for men to reap and beasts to feed on, as a Ptolemaic maxim has it:

Locust; Excerpt.
Source: Divrei Hayamim - Shmot

The small locust destroys the grapevine
Papyrus Insinger
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.205
    Their great numbers too were proverbial. Ramses II described the armies of his Hittite enemies as follows:
They covered the mountains and valleys and were like locusts in their multitude.
The battle of Kadesh inscriptions
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.64
and in the Pyramid Texts the flight of the locust is of greatest consequence: it can even hide the sun.
Someone flies up, I fly up from you, O! men; I am not for the earth, I am for the sky. O! you local god of mine, my double is beside you, for I have soared to the sky as a heron, I have kissed the sky as a falcon, I have reached the sky as a locust which hides the sun
The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts Translated into English by R. O. Faulkner, Hymn 467
    But it was the First Intermediate Period nomarch Ankhtifi who used the locust simile most effectively when he described the Egyptian people in their desperate search for food during a famine:
The whole country has become like locusts going upstream and downstream

Praying mantis

Praying mantis     During the excavations at Deir el Medine B. Bruyère [5] discovered a small, somewhat anthropomorphous coffin made of clay which contained the remains of a praying mantis wrapped in linen.

Ink drawing of praying mantis on papyrus

    Praying mantises are but rarely mentioned in the texts. In the following passage from a Book of the Dead version the translation of has also been interpreted to mean 'dancer', in another version of the passage (pBM EA 10477) an Abyt-bird is possibly referred to:
I have gone to the king passing by my house.
It was the which came to fetch me.
pLondon BM 10793, Tb 076
After a transcription and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website [6]
[4] G. Maspero, History of Egypt, Kessinger Publishing 2003, p. 263
[5] B. Bruyère, Les fouilles de Deir el Médineh (1934-35)
[6] Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pLondon BM 10793 => Tb 076, Line [25,18]
[7] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Pyramidentexte => Unas-Pyramide => Vorkammer => Südwand => PT 267
[8] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Pyramidentexte => Pyramide Pepis I. => Sargkammer => Südwand => östl. Fläche => PT 690
[9] Barbara S. Lesko, The great goddesses of Egypt, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999, p.46
[10] Gene Kritsky, Ron Cherry, Insect mythology, Writers Club Press, 2000, p.58
[11] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, G. Vittmann ed.: Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => literarische Texte => Weisheitstexte => P. Insinger => P. Insinger
[12] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, G. Vittmann ed.: Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => magische Papyri (s.a. unter religiöse Texte!) => London-Leiden => London-Leiden
[13] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, B. Backes ed.: Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pLondon BM EA 10477 (pNu) => Tb 036
[14] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pLondon BM 10793 => Tb 036 II, line [19,7]
[15] Wb 1, 181.19
[16], accessed November 2009
[17] Wb 1, 139.6-7
[18] Wb 2, 147.17
[19] Wb 1, 498.5
[20] Wb 1, 98.10
[21] Wb 5, 142.9
[22] Eva Panagiotakopulu, Paul C. Buckland and Barry J. Kemp, "Underneath Ranefer's floors ? urban environments on the desert edge", Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 37, Issue 3, March 2010, pp. 474-481
[23] Flinders Petrie: Objects of Daily Use (London 1927), plate xiv.

- Off site links
I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these websites
Amulets of Ancient Egypt [1] Carol Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt: Introduction
Insect Remains from Pharaonic Amarna [2] Eva Panagiotakopulu Insect Remains from Pharaonic Amarna, Egypt
Wie die alten Aegypter ihre Mumien vor Insekten schuetzten [3] H. Levinson, A. Levinson, Wie die alten Ägypter ihre Mumien vor Insekten schützten
Sacred Insects of Ancient Egypt Sacred Insects of Ancient Egypt
Beetles as religious symbols Beetles as religious symbols
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