Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Insects
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InsectsApart 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  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. 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 .
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.
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.
A dragonfly or a locust in flight
Damaged dragonfly amulet and bead
A number of insects had their own hieroglyph: the bee, , the fly, , the locust, , the water scorpion, , which despite its name is an insect and the ubiquitous dung beetle, . 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.
A little wind carries the ship.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.
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. 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 .
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 Pepiand the scarab, xprr:
As bird this Unas flies upwards, as scarab he alightsOf 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. MsxA.t-kA.w and MsxAA.t  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:In the British Museum papyrus BM 10793 it is rather the apSA.yt, spelled with a locust determinative, that the magic is designed to help against. Translations suggested include beetle, locust, grasshopper and cockroach. The Zettelarchiv suggests 'wasp' in addition. In Demotic the word moulted to apSe or the like. The creature was used in a spell...
To drug(?) your enemypest 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:
The small locust destroys the grapevineTheir 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.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 sunBut 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 downstream5] 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 papyrusPraying mantises are but rarely mentioned in the texts. In the following passage from a Book of the Dead version the translation of Ab.yt 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.
 G. Maspero, History of Egypt, Kessinger Publishing 2003, p. 263
 B. Bruyère, Les fouilles de Deir el Médineh (1934-35)
 Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pLondon BM 10793 => Tb 076, Line [25,18]
 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
 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
 Barbara S. Lesko, The great goddesses of Egypt, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999, p.46
 Gene Kritsky, Ron Cherry, Insect mythology, Writers Club Press, 2000, p.58
 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
 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
 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
 Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pLondon BM 10793 => Tb 036 II, line [19,7]
 Wb 1, 181.19
 http://aaew2.bbaw.de/tla/servlet/DzaBrowser?u=andi+d&f=0&l=0&wn=37220, accessed November 2009
 Wb 1, 139.6-7
 Wb 2, 147.17
 Wb 1, 498.5
 Wb 1, 98.10
 Wb 5, 142.9
 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
Off site links|
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| Carol Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt: Introduction|
| Eva Panagiotakopulu Insect Remains from Pharaonic Amarna, Egypt|
| H. Levinson, A. Levinson, Wie die alten Ägypter ihre Mumien vor Insekten schützten|
|Sacred Insects of Ancient Egypt|
|Beetles as religious symbols|