One of the most important objects in The Phoenix Code is the scarab amulet that Ryan finds in Smenkhkare’s tomb. It’s full of clues that help to find the Benben stone. I won't tell you what those clues were, in case you've not read it yet, but here is lots of information about scarab beetles and scarab amulets. They're really amazing! As Ryan says . . . it's amazing what you can find out from a beetle's bottom!
Khepri, the scarab god
The scarab represented Khepri who was one of the forms of the Sun-God, Ra. Ra took the form of Khepri when he emerged at dawn from his journey through the night. You can find out more about Khepri (and other gods) at here.
Like many of the Ancient Egyptian gods, Khepri was inspired by an animal – in this case, the lowly dung beetle. In fact, the scarab beetle is just one family of dung beetle - there are many other different types too, and they live in almost every part of the world.
If you’ve ever seen this type of dung beetle at work, you’ll know that they roll lumps of animal dung into balls (often standing on their heads and rolling with their legs).
You can see the dung beetle in action on this National Geographic video.
The way that the beetle rolls the ball made the Ancient Egyptians think of the sun rolling across the sky from the Eastern to Western horizon throughout the day. Amazingly, in the last few years scientists have shown that some species of dung beetle actually do use the sun to navigate so that they can roll their dung ball in a straight line. You can find out more about this amazing finding here.
The dung beetle doesn't just eat the dung. The female also lays eggs inside the ball. When the beetles hatch, the dung makes the perfect baby food!
When the little beetles hatch they all tumble out of the dung balls buried in the soft earth. It looks as if they are appearing by magic; that might be another reason the Ancient Egyptians associated them with new life and rebirth.
|Ra with the head of the scarab|
In Ancient Egypt model scarab beetles made from stone or faiance (a kind of ceramic) were worn as amulets. They were believed to bring luck and protection from harm. They were often worn on a necklace, just as we might wear a lucky charm in the shape of a horseshoe or a four-leafed clover. You can see some pictures here.
You can still buy scarab amulets in Egypt from shops and stalls and street-sellers all around the tombs and temples. I bought this little white scarab from a stall near Karnak. It’s not finely carved or encrusted with jewels, but there’s something appealing about the curved shaped that fits into the palm of your hand. He sat on my desk all the time I was writing The Phoenix Code and I like to think he was cheering me on and bringing me luck.
By the way, do you know the difference between an amulet and a talisman? An amulet is used to protect from harm, to ward off evil spirits or bad luck. Talismans give a person special or magical powers.
On the beetle's bottom there would usually be a message or inscription. This might ask one of the gods for protection (for example, May Amun grant you a good new year). It could also have the name of the owner – amulets came in very handy as a stamp or seal to press into wax - a bit like an identity card. Other amulets were issued to commemorate important events, such as when a new pharaoh came to the throne or won a battle (as Ryan points out in The Phoenix Code, they were a bit like a souvenir mug for the Queen’s jubilee!).
This is the base of my scarab. I'm not sure what it says but I hope it's something nice (I recognise the symbol for E and N, but as each glyph can have other meanings apart from theses sounds, that may not help. And I'm not a hundred percent sure exactly which bird that's meant to be!)
You can find out much more about scarabs at the virtual Egyptian museum
Scarabs and the afterlife
Scarab amulets weren’t only used to protect the living. They were also tucked into mummy wrappings, usually just above the heart. That’s because they had an important part to play in the journey of the deceased to the afterlife.
This fabulous scarab – with its magnificently bejewelled open wings – was found on the chest of the mummy of Tuntankhamun (notice how it is balancing the sun on its head).
|Photo Credit © Andreas F., Voegelin, Antikenmuseum, Basel and Sammlung Ludwig.|
If you've read up on mummification you'll probably know that the organs were removed and kept in canopic jars. (If you're not an expert you can find out more here and here.)
But one organ - the heart - was left inside the body . . .
The Ancient Egyptians believed that our thoughts and feelings were stored in our hearts – not our brains (they didn’t even keep the brains in a jar; they were thrown away.) We know now, of course, that our hearts are really just big muscles that pump our blood around, and that all the complicated stuff like thinking and feeling and remembering goes on in our heads. But, interestingly, we still often talk about our hearts as if they are thinking (I knew in my heart of hearts) or feeling (my heart was broken, my heart’s desire, it tugged at my heart-strings) or remembering (there’ll always be a place in my heart).
The Ancient Egyptians thought that the heart had a big part to play in determining whether the mummified person would be allowed to enter the afterlife. They had to go through a ritual called the Weighing of the Heart, which is described in one of the many chapters of the Book of the Dead.
The deceased person enters the Hall of Ma'at (Truth and Justice) to be judged by a panel of gods. Anubis, the jackal-headed god, weighed the heart while Thoth recorded the findings in his book. The idea was that any sins and bad behaviour that you'd got up to during your life would make your heart heavy, while a "good" heart would be as light as an ostrich feather. If you passed the test and your heart was light, you would be allowed into the afterlife. But if your heart was too heavy it would be gobbled up by Ammut (a.k.a. The Devourer), a demon with the head of a crocodile, body of a lion and legs of a hippo, and your soul would never be at rest.
The heart scarab was wrapped next to the heart of the mummy as a way of stopping the heart speaking up and confessing to sins. For this reason the base of the scarab would ususally be inscribed with this spell from the Book of the Dead:"O my heart which I had upon earth, do not rise up against me as a witness in the presence of the lord of things; do not speak against me concerning what I have done, do not bring up anything against me in the presence of the great god of the west..."
|photograph from www.touregypt.net|
Scarab amulets would often invoke the protection or blessing of one or more of the gods. Amun was a very popular god, but his name meant "the hidden one" and for this reason, his name was sometimes written in a cryptographic way. That means, the name was hidden.
One way this could be done was by using an acrophonic code. Acrophonic means using the sound at the beginning of the symbol. It worked because although some hieroglyphs stood for individual sounds (like the letters of our own alphabet) many others were logograms, which means that they stood for whole words.
ib (meaning heart)
dmt (meaning knife)
This means it was possible to write a coded message by using the first sound of the word that each hieroglyph stands for. For example the three symbols above would spell out B (bity) - I (ib) - D (dmt) - or BID. (I'm not sure whether BID was a word in Ancient Egyptian, but this is just for to show you how it works!)
So, AMUM could be written a combination of any of the symbols for words starting A-M-N.
|This is an example of Amun written in a hidden way. The basket shape at the bottom is the N (basket was nb in Egyptian||).|
Photograph and information from Collector Antiquities website.
Of course, you'd have to be fluent in hieroglyphs to use this code for real. But you can do something similar by making up your own acrophonic code. All you have to do is spell out each word using a series of pictures that have the first letter that you want.
For example, here is my attempt.
|Can you read this?|
Apple - Mouse - Umbrella - Nail = AMUN
You could try writing your name or the names of other Egyptian gods like Anubis and Thoth using this system. Remember, you can use any object with the initial letter (or sound) that you want. For example, you could use a mouse, a monkey, a mouth or a mango for M.
More secret messages
The acrophonic system is an example of a substitution code. You could try using other substituion codes with the hieroglyphic alphabet to write top secret messages.
For example, you could use a shift code like the Caeser Cipher. This just means that you replace each letter of the words you want to write with the letter a certain number of spaces ahead in the alphabet. So for example a +3 shift would mean that you replace A with D, B with E and so on.
The easiest way to keep track is to write the alphabet out on two identical strips of paper. Then you can slide one along as many spaces as you need to - lining the A up under the D, for example, for the +3 shift. You can see how the last three letters, X, Y and Z wrap round to the beginning, so that they are matched up with A, B and C.
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W
X Y Z
So if you wanted to write HELLO WORLD, you would write KHOOR ZRUOG
How about this? NHHS WKLV VHFUHW
If you want to change the code you can simply change the number of places you shift to +4 or +10 or anything you like. You could even get really tricky and use multiple shifts in one message. Pick a big number - say a year like 1964 - and then your first letter shifts by 1, your next by 9, your next by 6 your next by 4 and then repeat like this throughout your message.
And of course you could do exactly the same thing using the hieroglyphic alphabet instead. That would be another way to hide the name of the hidden god, DPRQ
If you are interested in codes have a look at the counton website here or Simon Singh's Black Chamber here.
Make your own scarab amulet
How about making a scarab amulet complete with a lucky message. You could either keep it for yourself or give it to a friend or family member.
Simply cut an oval shape out of thick coloured card. Cut out a second oval in shiny card or paper. Cut a semi-circle from one end for the head, and a little V-shape at the other for the place where the wing cases meet (see photo below) and then stick the shiny piece on top of the plain piece. This is the top of your scarab. Authentic Ancient Egyptian colours would be blue-green, red or black but you could decide to make a more modern day scarab with any colour you wanted (or even use patterned paper).
|my blue-green scarab|
Little sticky foam pads are good for sticking the top to the bottom as they give a bit of height, but you could use glue or sellotape. You could also stick a small magnet in between the two layers to make your scarab into a fridge magnet (you can buy tiny magnets that are perfect for this from Rymans). Or you could glue a lollilop stick between the layers to make a book mark or tape a safety pin onto the back to make a badge.
Write your message in hieroglyphs on the base (use a gold pen for extra style).
|Can you read the message?|
Then turn the scarab over and deorate the top. Mark in the line down the middle between the wing cases, and give the face some eyes (sequins or little googly eyes). You could add some extra 'jewels' too - using sequins, glitter or gel pens.
If you are feeling extra creative you could add some legs sticking out by gluing them between the two layers. Or you could make your scarab have open wings like the one from Tutankhamun's tomb. A white paper plate, decorated with bright colours would be perfect for this. Just colour it in and glue it beneath your scarab's body.