Science May Explain Why Egyptians Worshiped Dung Beetle as Sun God

Modern African Dung Beetles Roll Ball of Dung

African Dung Beetles: © Ann Brundige

My mother sent me a link to a fascinating Scientific American article about zoologist Emily Baird’s research on dung beetles. Egyptologists give these poo-pushing champions the more dignified name of “scarab,” after an ancient Greek word for beetle.

Dr. Baird’s specialty is insect vision, flight and navigation (see her profile at Lund University). She wrote her thesis on honeybees. I’m grateful that she decided to turn her research to the humble dung beetle, Kheper nigroaeneus. Her work may illuminate one of ancient Egypt’s more bizarre gods.

The Ancient Egyptian Insect God

Why did the ancient Egyptians worship a large beetle that rolls a ball of dung, lays its eggs inside it, and then pushes the ball along the ground? Why did the Egyptians call this beetle kheper, with the metaphorical meaning “becoming, to come into being”? Why did they associate the lowly dung beetle with Re, their supreme being and sun god, and give their beetle-god avatar of Re the name Khepri?

Many Pharaohs incorporated kheper into their “throne name,” the official name they assumed at their coronation. King Tut’s treasures are decorated with elaborate cartouches of his throne-name Neb Kheperu Re, “The Lord of Becoming/Manifestation/Creations is Re.” Tourists to Egypt buy scarabs modeled on King Tut’s scarab-jewelry, not realizing that they’re paying homage to dung beetles. Even Barbie has accessorized with them.

Khepri in Egyptian Painting (Photo by Hajor, Wikimedia)

Mythological Interpretations of Kheper

Egypt scholars, puzzled over this peculiar god, have offered explanations. Young beetles emerge from their dung-cocoon like the sun rising from the horizon. Therefore, they are a symbol of creation and manifestation. As Khepri, they assure the sun’s rebirth each day.

The ancient Greek naturalist Plutarch, who wrote extensively about Egyptian religion in his own day, has this to say about scarabs:

“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.”

— Source: Ancient Egypt: The Sacred Scarab

Dr. Baird’s research may shed light— literally— on one more reason why the ancient Egyptians associated the dung beetle with the sun.

Scarabs as Solar Navigators

Dung beetles present their own puzzle to entomologists. Why on earth do dung beetles frequently pause, climb on top of their dung balls, and do a little dance before resuming their hike?

© Emily Baird, Lund University

Dr. Baird’s research suggests that the beetles climb up to get a sighting of the sun. Their eyes have built-in polarization filters that would allow them to use the sun’s rays like the points of a celestial compass, even on an overcast day. She found that if she blocked the sun from their line of sight and reflected the sun at the beetles with a mirror, they climbed up for a “jitterbug dance” and usually headed off on a different bearing.

Egyptian sacred beetle and baboons worship Re

Ptolemaic-Period Sculpture, © Peter Roan, Creative Commons

If she’s right, the beetles are attuned to the sun’s rays. I can’t help thinking of the Aten, the rayed solar disc that is common in Egyptian art at the time of King Tut. At right, a late-period Egyptian sculpture shows a variant of this rayed disc with baboons worshipping it. The depiction of the beetle is now more accurate: dung beetles push the ball with their hind legs. Th star above the beetle is probably Sirius, which appeared just before sunrise right before the Nile River’s annual flood. (See “Sopdet: Egypt’s Herald of the New Year,” previously covered by Mythphile.)

The Egyptians were close observers of their natural environment. They knew that the beetle pushing the ball was male, although by Plutarch’s day they had forgotten that the female first laid eggs in it. Perhaps they had figured out that the insects’ dance was a way of taking the sun’s bearings. To them, the beetle must have had special sacred knowledge putting it in touch with the supreme being, the sun-god.

Similarly, the Egyptians often represented baboons side-by-side with paws upraised towards the solar disc, worshipping it at sunrise with sacred hymns in their own language. Real-life baboons chatter and sometimes line up to watch the sunrise.

Mythology as the Precursor to Science

Mythologist Joseph Campbell says that the “second function of …traditional mythology” is scientific explanation (Thou Art Thatp. 3). Before logic and scientific experimentation were invented, people created myths— sacred stories— to explain the world around them and imbue it with meaning.

More than that, Campbell says, these pseudo-scientific explanations helped make sense of the capricious, irrational world, uncovering a comfortingly consistent “order of the cosmos.” (The Greek word for world, “cosmos,” means “order, pattern.”) The Egyptians were eager for and sensitive to repetitive patterns in the natural world, since their lives depended on the rise and fall of the Nile River each year, their only source of water and food. They were terrified of the forces of chaos which might at any moment overwhelm the world once more. For ancient Egyptians, progress was anathema; they prized stability. The wise baboon and the divine dung beetle reassured them of  nature’s underlying order.

The Ritual of the Gift

Time magazine article this week notes that traditional ink-and-paper paper books are seeing a surprising spike in sales this year, as they did last year, despite the meteoric rise in popularity of ebook readers. The article flails for causes: “The holiday spike may reflect this year’s partial lifting of economic gloominess.” If that’s true, why was there one last year at this time, too?

Trust an economist to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.” As a student of myth, I’ll say, “It’s mythology, stupid.”

E-books are more and more popular, but there’s a fundamental problem with giving them as presents: you can’t put them under the tree! Tapping Mom on the shoulder to say, “Oh, by the way, check your email; you have a present” isn’t as satisfying as watching Mom unwrap a gift.

Gifting is a ritual. Ebooks are excellent, but they remove the process of giving, receiving and unwrapping. They remove the sense of a thing given.

Nearly all American midwinter holiday celebrations include exchanging gifts in a ritual context (the tree, the trimmings, the feast, and our particular religious traditions). Commercialism has only added one more layer of ritual (the hunting and gathering of presents) to the whole gift-giving ritual process.

What do I mean by “ritual,” and how are rituals related to mythology? Rituals are a special form of participatory mythology. They’re short on story — although Christmas is most definitely based on a sacred story — but have sacred symbols, chants and hymns, and formal, structured activities which evoke a sense of the sacred or of doing something special and timeless, passed down through time from the ancestors. Rituals are participatory mythology  in which we derive psychological and spiritual satisfaction from repeating cultural and family traditions. Rituals work better with things: candles, trees, priestly garments, churches, books.

A book is a peculiarly magical object. It’s a physical object. Within its pages, readers undergo a mind-altering experience. We see visual signs, but we hear them in our mind as sound. We disconnect our senses from the world around us to enter an imaginary world evoked by the book. For the time we are reading, we may suspend disbelief and imagine that subcreated world (to borrow Tolkien’s term) as real. Books induce synaesthesia, a journey of the mind to a mythical place which is not literally true, but feels real. Of course, most of these facets of book-reading are true of ebooks as well, but we do not experience them in the same physical, tactile way, making their stories seem more disembodied, less real.

For all these reasons, giving a physical book means giving a powerful, meaningful physical object. Step one for the recipient is to open the gift, to unwrap it. Step two is to open the book, to experience it physically and imaginally.

The Meaning of Samhain/ Hallowe’en: Past and Future

I love both the old Celtic holiday of Samhain and the modern secular holiday of Hallowe’en, despite the over-commercialization of the latter. They are two different holidays.

For me, they are both magical. Personally, I celebrate Samhain by honoring my ancestors: I light a candle and spend some time remembering my Nana, my other relatives, my mentor and a friend who passed away too young. However, that tradition comes later in the evening. First, I celebrate the secular holiday with whatever bright-eyed children materialize like spirits on my doorstep.

I remember Halloween and trick-or-treating fondly from my childhood in the rural farming communities of Pennsylvania. It was a time to greet and renew ties with far-flung neighbors and shower attention on the children. As an adult, I am delighted to carry on the tradition, spreading a little joy (and yes, chocolates) to kids and enjoy vicariously their costumes, their imaginations, their trust. There’s too few holidays left where we practice goodwill to strangers. I’ll focus on that, not the shameless commercialism.

By honoring ancestors and children on the same night, I’m putting a modern spin on Halloween’s root meaning, the transition between past and future, the dead and the living.

But let me back up. What was Halloween, and where does it come from? It is a complex hodgepodge of many different traditions woven together in a uniquely American melting pot, combining both Christian and pre-Christian traditions.

What follows is an impressionistic survey of some of Hallowe’en’s roots.

Samhain (Hallowe’en) was the name for the last day of the Celtic calendar, New Year’s Eve, or, in older traditions, simply the boundary between the “light” half of the year (summer and spring) and the “dark” (fall and winter).  Samhain is also the Irish Gaelic name for the month of November. A number of different overlapping Samhain traditions arose in different parts of the Celtic world (northwestern Europe and the British Isles.)

First, it was a festival of the dead. It was believed that on the last night of the year, during the transition from old year to new, the “barrier between worlds” (the living and the dead, the solid world and the spiritual) was at its thinnest. Those who died within the past year were supposed to cross over on Samhain eve, and bonfires were lit to guide them. There were also traditions connected with fear: spirits of all kinds were out and about, and one had to be  careful. Many traditions had people dressing in disguise to defend against unfriendly spirits. Ghosts could not catch you if they didn’t recognize you. Or perhaps it was whistling in the dark: in many world mythologies, one overcomes powerful forces by mocking or imitating them and thus making them manageable, “captured”, defined by human will.

In a similar vein, some Irish and British traditions celebrated the holiday by carving turnips with faces and putting candles in them  to scare away evil spirits, like gargoyles on Christian churches or goggle-eyed Fu dogs outside Japanese and Chinese buildings. The turnip-lantern became a folklore symbol of Jack o’ Lantern, the embodiment of winter, the opposite counterpart to Jack o’ Green, the spirit of the lighter half of the year. (In America Jack o’ Lantern became Jack Frost.) These figures were never believed in, no more than the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy, but they were a part of folklore, surviving in nursery rhymes which still use “Jack” for all kinds of generic, semi-mythical figures (Jack Sprat, Jack Be Nimble, Jack and Jill).

Second, Samhain was a harvest festival. It was time to bring in the last of the crops, burn the fields (which fertilized them), and bring in animals to pens and stables. It was a time to take stock of one’s grain and fodder, slaughter the animals one could not afford to keep, and smoke their meat so that it would be preserved through the winter. This was done with care and ritual, since killing was not then treated with the casual out-of-sight out-of-mind attitude we show nowadays for the meat that appears on our grocery shelves.

In some of these harvest traditions, practitioners wore animal skins and/or antlers to honor the animal killed. Later versions of these harvest festivals inevitably involved a certain amount of lads and lassies playing around in the fields while bringing in the sheaves. See Robert Burns’ “Halloween” poem for a good long sample of Scottish traditions in the 18th century.

The trick-or-treating tradition appeared in something close to its modern form in late medieval Scotland. Children in costumes went door-to-door “guising,” offering songs, dance or other performances in return for coins or sweets. This tradition seems similar to caroling at midwinter or the mummers’ plays of May Day. Pranks were also part of this “guising” tradition. This seems to have been the Halloween tradition imported to the states.

Third, Halloween was (or became) a Christian holiday, All Saints’ Day on November 1st honoring the saints, and All Souls’ Eve or All Hallows Eve on October 31st to honor the dead. The name “Halloween” is itself Christian: All Hallows Evening (A Hallow is something sacred). Morality plays and mime-like charades portrayed devils versus saints, sinners and the redeemed, witches and goblins as well as angels. It was not, however, considered “Satan’s Day” — certainly not; it was hallowed to the saints! That seems to be a relatively recent idea that grew out of those medieval morality plays plus, of course, the Christian notion that pre-Christian traditions aren’t Christian, so Satan must be involved.

Some Catholic traditions held that All Souls’ Night was the night that souls were released from purgatory and went to heaven; accordingly, good Christians prayed for them.

A Christian variant of “guising” was going door-to-door begging for “Soul Cakes,” given in memory of good Christians. You probably know the Peter, Paul and Mary version of the old rhyme that they would sing:

A Soul, a Soul, a Soul Cake
Please Good Missus, a Soul Cake
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry
Any good thing to make us all merry
One for Peter, two for Paul, Three for Him who made us all.

Confused by all these different ways of celebrating Halloween? Don’t be. Try not to fasten onto any one tradition as “the” definitive Halloween. Like wedding traditions, there were many local variations with common themes, common threads.

Hallowe’en boils down to this: harvest time and honoring the spirits of the dead, mixed up with a certain amount of fear of the dead and of the dying time of year, the darkness of winter.

Oddly, people often seem to defend against things that scare them by making artificial things that scare them even more, knowing that the ghost stories and disguises are fake. That’s psychology for you, and it is responsible for an awful lot of scary images in myth. The problem comes when you start taking myths, masks and costumes literally.

“Midas Has Donkey Ears,” Whistleblowers and Wikileaks

Gold Coin of Modern Kazakhstan

You’ve heard of King Midas of the “Golden Touch,” monarch of ancient Phrygia (See theoi.com’s Midas entry for classical Greek and Roman sources.)

Probably you’ve heard Nathaniel Hawthorne’s version, which makes Midas into a moralistic fable about gold-greed and appreciating the simple things in life. Hawthorne supplies King Midas with a daughter to drive the lesson home: turning her to gold by accident is the climax of the tale, proving to the king that his love of gold is a curse. In most versions of the story, ancient and modern, he comes to regret the gift, and is instructed to bathe himself in a river to wash away the curse. This river is Patoclus in ancient Phrygia (modern Turkey), whose waters were famous for their gold dust. The tale of the Golden Touch was thus originally aetiological: not a parable about avarice, but a myth that arose to explain a natural phenomenon. (Greek: αἰτία = “cause”).

However, that is not the end of the tale of King Midas. He has a peculiar characteristic: the ears of an ass! Sarah Morris (“Midas as Mule,” APA 2004) showed that these “ass’ ears” go back to Bronze Age depictions of royalty in the region, which must have puzzled later Greeks: hence a myth, another aetiological myth, to explain them away. Early myths say he had satyr’s blood (due to his close association with Pan, often considered to come from that part of the world), but later sources bring Midas into the mythical musical contest between Apollo and another satyr, Marsyas. Midas draws Apollo’s wrath by judging in Marsyas’ favor, and Apollo gives Midas donkey ears as commentary and punishment.

I can find no older version of the musical contest than the Roman poet Ovid (Metamorphosis 11), but it sounds classical enough. I think Ovid may have supplied the tale of Midas’ barber. The barber, as much as the Golden Touch, has passed into fable and reappeared in local folktales around the world (notably in several Celtic variants.)

But I’m getting distracted by sources, when the story is my point. Ovid tells it thus. Mortified by his humiliating ears, Midas hides them under a Phrygian cap. The only one who knows of them is sworn to secrecy: his barber. But the poor man is fit to burst with his secret. Finally, the barber goes to a remote riverbank, digs a hole, whispers, “MIDAS HAS DONKEY EARS!” into the hole, buries it and runs away. Unfortunately the river’s reeds pick up the secret and whisper, whisper, whisper it until the whole country hears about it. (Another very common folklore motif: the reed or tree that takes in the “secret” and betrays it as a harp, pipe, or other instrument).

Ovid’s tale ends there. I had heard one further elaboration which I cannot track down— it’s amazing how these old myths keep getting pieces tacked on, as different listeners or bards wonder, “but what about…?” In this case, what happened to the barber? As I heard it, Midas was going to kill the man but relented, realizing his foolish secret was not worth a man’s life. At that point, the gods felt Midas had learned his lesson (once again) and restored his human ears.

Midas’ tale has a great deal of poignancy for me in my own life: I have strong barber tendencies, and do not always choose my riverbank carefully. Also, I am minded of how it plays out again in the real world. No wonder the barber’s story has been picked up by Chaucer, Mary Shelley, and many others! We have whistleblowers who call kings to account. We have leaks and secret-spillings that are not so nobly motivated, done for personal gain or (like the barber) simply because someone cannot keep quiet. We have Wikileaks, which seems to be a shrine to Midas’ barber, considering it a right and obligation to tell the secrets maintained under the hats of the great.

Sometimes the secret is mere donkey ears, and betraying it is simply a matter of betrayal, broken trust.  Sometimes the secret may cause great harm by being kept. Sometimes it will do great harm when the reeds get wind of it. The barber seldom has the full facts or judgment to know which kind of secret it is.

“Midas has donkey ears!” We are all barbers with secrets to keep, and the web is a mighty large stand of reeds.

 

Ancient Sources and Modern Retellings of the Midas Myth:

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What’s in a name: Irene, Greek goddess of…you’re kidding!

Well, here’s an irony for you. Irene, the hurricane which is currently pounding the east coast with wind, rain, storm surge, tornadoes, etc is named after the Greek goddess of peace, Εἰρήνη (Eirene, pronounced eye-RAY-nay). The Romans called her by the more familiar name of Pax.

Eirene/Irene was one of the three horai, goddesses of the seasons, mentioned all the way back in Hesiod’s Theogony, c. 700 BCE: Eunomia (law & order), Dike (justice), and Eirene (peace). Originally, they were agricultural, seasonal goddesses who each presided over a time of year. I’m not quite sure when Eunomia and Dike were supposed to reign supreme, but Eirene was clearly a springtime-goddess, often described as wreathed with flowers or described as “blooming.”

The goddess Eirene (Irene)

Greek Goddess Eirene, Photo by Bibi Saint-Paul, Wikimedia Commons

At right, a peaceful portrait of the goddess, a Roman copy of a Greek bronze.

Hurricane names are chosen from a list each year, with the list rotating every few years. Names of hurricanes that caused significant damage are retired. In recent years, the National Weather Service has tried to alternate male and female names so that it’s not just women getting blamed for all the damage. So Floyd, Charlie, Andrew,  and the harmless-sounding “Bob” have joined Camille, Opal, and Katrina.

Here’s the current list of hurricane names for all parts of the world.