Beetles and Man
Ornaments in the shape of beetles have been found which date back twenty-five thousand years to the early Magdalenian era. Fashioned from anthracite, a hard form of coal, they were highly polished and drilled with a hole, presumably so that they could by strung and worn.

Beetles, especially the scarab, inspired creation myths in many ancient cultures. Little sparkling beings crowned with horns flying in the air or materializing mysteriously from underground, they must have been objects of fascination and awe. In the ancient imagination, everything in nature had a magic purpose and meaning. In an aboriginal South American creation myth, undoubtedly inspired by the dung rolling scarabs, a great Creator beetle models man and woman from clay. A similar ancient Sumatran myth tells of a great beetle flying down from the sky bearing a ball of matter to form the earth.

The image of the scarab with his wings spread, clutching the solar disc between his claws is a universally familiar icon. As well known as the pyramids or King Tutankhamun’s golden death-mask, it is emblematic of Ancient Egypt. No insect has ever attained a status comparable to the revered position given by the Egyptians to the scarab: for thirty centuries, the scarab was venerated as the personification of rebirth and immortality.

Much of the mysticism associated with beetles derives from their life cycle, which begins in the earth, hidden from human view. Scarabaeus sacer, the sacred scarab, tunnels into the earth to create nurseries for its eggs. It furnishes each underground chamber with a ball of animal dung which will serve as food for the hatching larvae. In the curious antics of the beetle, head down, propelling itself backward, rolling a ball of dung with its hind legs, the Egyptians saw a representation of their universe in microcosm. The beetle, emerging from the earth, rolling its ball, seemed to mirror the spectacle of the sun god Ra, rolling the ball of the sun across the sky. The sun sets, sinking below the horizon, and likewise, the scarab disappears into the earth, but both sun and scarab will rise, reborn. The Egyptian name for the scarab cheper, derives from the same root as the word for becoming or "coming into being". Chepri, the god of creation, one of the avatars of Ra, was shown, alternately, with a scarab above his head, or with a scarab in place of a human head.

It has been postulated that the practice of mummifying the dead may have been inspired by the metamorphosis of the scarab. The pupa is the cocoon-like stage wherein the larval beetle accomplishes the completion of its maturation; it is a period of development and change within, but its outward appearance is inert, as a corpse. The emergence of a live, adult beetle from a seemingly inanimate husk was dramatic evidence of the beetle’s mystical ability to return from the netherworld. Perhaps the ancient priests reasoned that encasing the dead in protective pupa-like wrappings might similarly serve the dead on their sojourn in the afterlife and ensure a glorious rebirth.

Scarabs rendered in green stones such as basalt, schist, or jade were placed over the hearts of the mummified dead. Suspended on gold chains or wires, and sometimes inscribed with passages from the Book of the Dead, these "heart scarabs" were to serve as proxies for the hearts of the deceased when they were called before the tribunal in the underworld, to ensure that the heart would not bear witness against its owner.

Over the course of three millennia, untold numbers of scarab amulets were made in a variety of semi-precious stones, faience, soapstone, and ivory, and worn by people at all levels of society. The wealthy and powerful wore them mounted in elaborately worked gold rings, armbands, and pectorals while a peasant might wear a single scarab strung on cord. The pharoahs issued commemorative scarabs bearing inscriptions detailing the momentous events of their reigns.

Egyptian civilization, at its the height , extended its cultural influence throughout the Mediterranean region and, in the Near East, as far as the Euphrates valley, and thus the wearing of scarabs as amulets or good luck charms spread throughout the ancient world. With the passage of time, some of their symbolic attributes were forgotten and others took their place. As the Egyptians had always believed all scarabs to be male, the scarab was a totem of masculinity, and Egyptian soldiers wore them into battle. Adopted as a mascot by Roman soldiers the wearing of a scarab as an amulet spread throughout the Roman empire.

Some of the earliest Christian sects equated the scarab as a symbol of rebirth with the resurrection of Christ, but, the majority of Christian belief associated the scarab with filth and degradation, and the scarab became the symbol of the sinner. Throughout the Middle Ages the foundation of all knowledge of natural history was the Physiologus, an ancient Greek text whose origin is believed to be second century Alexandria. Translated into Latin, and subsequently into almost all of the European languages, it was a compilation of descriptions of animals, both real and fantastic, with the emphasis on their symbolic and spiritual attributes. According to the Physiologus, the scarab was a creature formed from excrement, spending its life in filth, and creating its offspring from dung.

"the dung beetles are the heretics, defiled with the stench of heresy...........

the balls of dung.....which they roll back and forth on the ground are evil

thoughts and heresies, which have been created out of wickedness and foulness."


Old European folklore is full of superstition centered around beetles. The stag beetle was believed to be capable of carrying burning embers in its jaws and was held responsible for setting houses on fire. A French peasant would kill a stag beetle to ward off bad luck, while in Bavaria the head of the beetle would be carried as a good luck charm, capable of attracting wealth. In some countries the head or mandibles were worn as charms to ward off the evil eye. The dor beetle, a relative of the sacred scarab, was called "the Devil’s Steed" in ancient Greece, and its reputation for possessing supernatural powers continued on in European folk wisdom. A dor beetle stranded on its back had to be rescued. Anyone passing by who chose to ignore its plight risked having his house struck by lightning or his crops destroyed by hailstorms. The dor beetle was also thought to possess the power to attract wealth. A dor beetle placed in a money chest would ensure a perpetual supply of gold.

Beetles before the Bar

Beetles’ survival strategies have been perfected over millions of years of evolution and their various species have been extremely successful in propagating themselves in enormous numbers. Unfortunately, beetle success and human success have, occasionally, been at cross-purposes, and beetles have been called upon to account for their behavior.

The origins of animal trials go back at least as far as the classical period of Greece. According to Plato, if an animal killed a man, the relatives of the deceased were required to file formal charges against the offending beast. The ensuing trial invariably produced a guilty verdict and an execution. Proceedings against domestic animals were civil matters, and, with the passage of time, the incidence of executions decreased in cases involving more valuable animals.

Medieval animal trials were convened in both the civil and ecclesiastical courts. The ecclesiastical courts were not involved in cases of transgressions by individual domestic animals. Their jurisdiction was in cases in which classes of creatures such as rats, mice, grasshoppers or other "vermin" appeared in large enough numbers to constitute a threat to the health and well being of the human community.

Cockchafers, melolonthine scarabs, were present in medieval Europe in numbers that sometimes reached plague proportions. A graphic illustration is chronicled in a sixteenth-century account of a swarm of cockchafers which fell into a river and, by the enormity of their number, completely clogged a water mill, bringing the mill wheel to a stop. In this case, a considerable number of hungry birds saved the day. Adult cockchafers do not cause damage to food crops, their larvae, however, are veritable eating machines capable of devastating a community’s food supply.

The first recorded ecclesiastical proceedings against cockchafers, or, more accurately, against cockchafer larvae, took place in 1320, in Avignon. Preliminary to the trial, two priests in ceremonial garb visited the affected land and proclaimed a summons to all larval cockchafers to appear before the Bishop, with failure to appear punishable by excommunication. Written notice of the summons was posted, which included advice to the larvae of their right to court appointed counsel. When the defendants failed to appear, their advocate presented the defense that his clients, as fellow beings of God’s creation, had the right to seek food, and that their failure to appear was the result of not having been guaranteed the customary safe passage to and from the trial. The ultimate resolution of the case was that the larvae were to quit the disputed territory in exchange for a plot of land that the court deemed sufficient for their needs. Any individuals who failed to relocate were declared outlaws, and, as such, could be exterminated. In a similar trial in 1478, in Lausanne, Switzerland, the unfortunate larvae did not fare quite so well: they were declared excommunicate by the Bishop.