ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Scorpions, water scorpions
Main menu Main Index and Search Page History List of Dynasties Cultural chronology Mythology Aspects of Life in Ancient Egypt Glossary of ancient Egyptian terms Herodotus on the pharaohs Ancient Egyptian texts Apologia and Bibliography

  For best results save the whole webpage (pictures included) onto your hard disk, open the page with Word 97 or higher, edit if necessary and print.
  Printing using the browser's print function is not recommended.


Scorpions and water scorpions

    Superficially similar, scorpions are part of the Arachnida, while water scorpions, (Nepidae), belong to the class of the Insecta. The Egyptians were probably aware of the fact that the aquatic water scorpion could not endanger them, while the poison of some of the true scorpions could kill. Still, they seem to have grouped them together, apparently using the water scorpion hieroglyph as common determinative, the name of the goddess Selket being written srq.t, translit. srq.t or Isis' epithet Hededet, Hdd.t.


Tehenu palette

Selket with scorpion, Source: Excerpt, 'Ancient Egypt', Time-Life Books     There are two kinds of scorpions endemic in Egypt: the dark coloured Scorpionidae are less poisonous than the light coloured Buthridae. Scorpions are nocturnal, hunting insects and the like during the dark hours, while during the day they hide underground.
    According to Diodorus Siculus the hawk was the natural enemy of the scorpions:
Among birds the ibis serves against snakes, locust and caterpillars, and the hawk against scorpions and horned adders and other small poisonous animals whose venom is especially dangerous to humans.
Diodorus Siculus: Historical Library, chapter 87
    In the story of Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah a magic book is inside a box which is especially well protected:
[There are six miles of] serpents, scorpions, and all kinds of reptiles around the box in which the book is, and there is [an eternal serpent around] this same box
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature volume 3, p.129
    Naneferkaptah used magic to dislodge the vermin:
He recited a spell to the six miles of serpents, scorpions, and all kinds of reptiles that were around the box, and did not let them come up. [He went to the place where] the eternal serpent was. He fought it and killed it.
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature volume 3, p.130
    The goddess Selket was worshipped in scorpion form as protectress of the living and the dead. Often she was depicted as a woman with a scorpion on her head. She kept guard over the body of Osiris together with Isis, Neith and Nephthys.
    In the chapter of Casting a Spell on the Cat a charm describes the effects a scorpion sting has:
Hail, Ra, come to thy daughter! A scorpion hath stung her on a lonely road. Her cry hath penetrated the heights of heaven, and is heard along the paths. The poison hath entered into her body, and circulateth through her flesh. She hath set her mouth against it; verily the poison is in her members.
E. A. Wallis Budge: Book of Legends Of The Gods
    There was no cure for scorpion stings which was not magical. Seven scorpions helped Isis and were therefore often worn as amulets. Isis enlisted their support to save the son of the lady Usert:
I came forth [from the dwelling] at the time of evening, and there came forth the Seven Scorpions which were to accompany me and to strike(?) for me with [their] stings. Two scorpions, Tefen and Befen, were behind me, two scorpions, Mestet and Mestetef, were by my side, and three scorpions, Petet, Thetet, and Maatet (or, Martet), were for preparing the road for me. I charged them very strictly (or, in a loud voice), and my words penetrated into their ears: "Have no knowledge of [any], make no cry to the Tesheru beings, and pay no attention to the 'son of a man' (i.e., anyone) who belongeth to a man of no account," [and I said,] "Let your faces be turned towards the ground [that ye may show me] the way." So the guardian of the company brought me to the boundaries of the city of Pa-Sui, the city of the goddesses of the Divine Sandals, [which was situated] in front of the Papyrus Swamps.
Then Isis placed her two hands on the child in order to make to live him whose throat was stopped, [and she said], "O poison of the scorpion Tefent, come forth and appear on the ground! Thou shalt neither enter nor penetrate [further into the body of the child]. O poison of the scorpion Befent, come forth and appear on the ground! I am Isis, the goddess, the lady (or, mistress) of words of power, and I am the maker of words of power (i.e., spells), and I know how to utter words with magical effect. Hearken ye unto me, O every reptile which possesseth the power to bite (i.e., to sting), and fall headlong to the ground! O poison of the scorpion Mestet, make no advance [into his body]. O poison of the scorpion Mestetef, rise not up [in his body]. O poison of the scorpions Petet and Thetet, penetrate not [into his body]. [O poison of] the scorpion Maatet (or, Martet), fall down on the ground."
Horus the Child
The narrative of Isis
From E. A. Wallis Budge: Book of Legends Of The Gods

Horus the Child standing on two crocodiles, holding two snakes and a lion in his left hand, a gazelle and a scorpion in his right. Above his head there is an image of the face of Bes, another protective deity but having a much wider scope.
Source: Levinson, H. & Levinson, A.: Über altorientalische Skorpione in DGaaE Nachrichten, 20.Jahrgang, Heft 3, p.106

    Later, Isis had to save her son Horus from a scorpion sting which he received while his mother was away. Horus the Child (Horpakhered) became a protective deity and stelae were devoted to him. Other protective deities were Shed, generally depicted as a child or youth fighting dangerous animals,[2] and Ta-bitjet, a consort of Horus.
    Apart from chanting charms over the stricken body and making him touch a Horpakhered stela with its magical inscriptions, healers also used physical treatments such as opening the sting wound in the hope the poison would be removed from the body by the flow of blood, and causing the patient to move around to prevent him from being suffocated [1].


Depiction of a two tailed scorpion in the tomb of Seti I, Hisham K. El-Hennawy, Scorpions in Ancient Egypt, in Euscorpius, No. 119, August 2011 Hieroglyph of a two tailed scorpion in the tomb of Seti I [3].

    It happens, though very rarely, that a scorpion has two metastomas (i.e. tails). The first to refer to this was possibly Aelian and Pliny who quoted him thought that they belonged to different species. The ancient Egyptians may have noticed this anomaly a millennium earlier when they depicted a two-tailed scorpion in an inscription in the tomb of Seti I, though of course this could simply be a picture of a water scorpion.

Water scorpions

    An insect belonging to the Nepidae family, the water scorpion is an aquatic predator, preying on small fish, tadpoles and the like. It is not harmful to humans. It was similar enough in look and behaviour to the dangerous land scorpions for the Egyptians to group them together. The stingless scorpion hieroglyph serqet hieroglyph was often used to write the name of the goddess Selket.


[1] Levinson, H. & Levinson, A.: Über altorientalische Skorpione in DGaaE Nachrichten, 20.Jahrgang, Heft 3, p.107
[2] Geraldine Pinch, Magic in ancient Egypt, University of Texas Press, 1995, p.36
[3] Picture Source: Hisham K. El-Hennawy, Scorpions in Ancient Egypt, in Euscorpius, No. 119, August 2011

© 2002
June 2013
October, August 2009

CSE xhtml validated