As the most numerically abundant class of animals, insects were represented in Egypt by bees, flies, various biting insects, locusts, and beetles. The Egyptian bee (Apis mellifica fasciata; in Egyptian, bἰt) was an integral part of the king's titulary from the earliest periods of Egyptian history. The term nsw-bἰty is conventionally translated “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” but literally means “he who belongs to the sedge and the bee,” the papyrus, a sedge plant, being associated with Upper Egypt and the bee with the Nile Delta; a wide variety of other evidence suggests a close connection between the bee and Lower Egypt. The Lower Egyptian city of Sais had a “Mansion of the Bee” where Osiris was worshiped, and the name of the Delta city Chemmis (ʒḫ-bἰt in Egyptian) meant “thicket of the bee.” The Lower Egyptian goddess Neith was associated with the bee.

There are other religious associations of the bee. According to the ancient Egyptians, bees came into being from the tears of the sun god Re. The bee may also have had some sort of connection with the goddess Hathor, because eating honey was forbidden in Dendera, where she was worshiped. The creator god Khnum was said to work busily like a bee. Many priests of Min had titles connected with honey collection. The goddess Nut appears as a bee at least once.

The earliest evidence for the domestication of bees in Egypt is a scene in the sun temple of Newoserre Any of the fifth dynasty which contains the earliest representations of beekeeping. In ancient times, and even today, the Egyptians built beehives from cylindrical tubes of dried mud or dung stacked one on top of another. Beekeepers seem not to have worn protective gear when tending the hives, but rather smoked the bees into a stupor before extracting the honeycomb. In present-day Egypt and in Greco-Roman times (and possibly earlier as well), beehives were moved from place to place by boat or donkey to increase honey production. A honeycomb found in a tomb at Deir el-Medina was analyzed, and the pollens that the bees which produced it had consumed were identified as primarily those of Egyptian plum and persea, with traces of other plants. A special “white honey” obtained in the Delta during the New Kingdom was probably destined only for the use of the king and temples. In a tax-collection scene in the tomb of the vizier Rekhmire at Thebes (tomb 100), honey is brought only from cities in Upper Egypt north of Thebes. Wild honey was collected during hunting expeditions in the desert, even in Nubia. Honey also was part of the tribute offered to the Egyptian king by vassals in the Near East.

Because sugar was unknown to the ancient Egyptians, honey was the sweetener of choice. During the Old Kingdom, however, its use is suggested to have been restricted to the pharaoh's table and as a temple offering, because it is not mentioned in private tombs or texts. By the New Kingdom, the use of honey was certainly more wide-spread, figuring among the daily rations of men participating in military and commercial expeditions.

Honey was the most common ingredient in Egyptian medicine, appearing approximately five hundred times in the roughly nine hundred known prescriptions. The Egyptians used it to treat a wide variety of problems. Honey occurred frequently in eye-salves, in ointments for treating wounds and burns, and in medicines to be taken internally which otherwise would have been too bitter to swallow. Modern scientific tests have demonstrated that honey is indeed an effective killer of bacteria and fungi, and the Egyptians seem to have regarded it as having magical properties as well, for honey was said to be sweet for man but bitter for the evil dead and demons, who were repelled with potions containing honey.

Like honey, beeswax was used in medicine, principally to anoint open wounds. Wax was also used to make magical figurines and shawabtis, as a cosmetic ingredient, as an adhesive, for coating painted surfaces, and in the embalming of mummies.

The common housefly (ʿff in ancient Egyptian; the word survives in Egyptian Arabic as a verb referring to the swarming of insects on food) would have been a ubiquitous nuisance in ancient Egypt. It is difficult to impossible to identify the species of fly depicted in Egyptian art, but it has been suggested that the Egyptians may have been familiar with the families Muscidae and Calliphoridae. A scene in the tomb of Niankhchnum and Khnumhotep depicts what may be a horde of flies swarming about a fisherman as he guts his catch. Both men and women are depicted holding fly whisks in tomb paintings, and two horsehair fly whisks were found among the treasures in Tutankhamun's tomb. In a section devoted to ridding the house of pests, the Ebers Papyrus recommends a salve composed of some sort of bird fat to ward off the “bites” of flies.

Flies were not regarded in an entirely negative light by the Egyptians. Fly excrement and blood appear in a number of medical prescriptions, but never flies themselves. Gold fly pendants were awarded to soldiers and military officers who distinguished themselves in battle (it has been suggested this was due to the fact that their persistence in battle was reminiscent of a fly's behavior). During the eighteenth dynasty, such men recounted their military valor and listed the number of gold flies the king awarded them, beginning in the reign of Thutmose I, but later this came to be a reward bestowed on any civil servant. The housefly was also depicted on common amulets throughout Egyptian history, but their significance is unknown.

Insects

Insects. Golden fly in the Cairo Museum. (Courtesy David P. Silverman)

Mosquitoes, fleas, and gnats are insects (hmy, hnws, and hnms are Egyptian names for stinging insects) that could have disturbed the Egyptians in their sleep by biting, the identity of the third plague that afflicted Egypt in the Book of Exodus, from Hebrew scriptures. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the Egyptians of marshy areas used the nets with which they caught fish as netting to protect themselves from mosquitoes or gnats during the night; a bed belonging to the fifth dynasty Queen Hetepheres, found in her tomb, seems to have had netting. The inhabitants of Upper Egypt, Herodotus reports, were protected from noxious insects by sleeping in towers, for the winds kept them from flying up high. It has been suggested that Herodotus is simply referring to the custom of sleeping on rooftops, but another possibility is that the people slept in mud-brick towers that may have doubled as granaries, as is common today in Upper Egypt (similar towers are depicted in ancient Egyptian art). The Ebers Papyrus gives a prescription of oil rubbed on the body to keep away some sort of biting insect (hnws).

The best-known association of locusts (Egyptian snḥm, Schistocerca gregaria or Acrydium peregrinum) with Egypt is their appearance as the eighth plague mentioned in the Book of Exodus. Ancient Egyptian texts noted the locust's destructive behavior as a threat to crops. In tomb scenes, locusts are depicted in the Nile marshes, the fields and gardens, and in one case in the mouth of a hedgehog, and several grasshopper-shaped cosmetic boxes have been found. In a single representation, a boy is depicted catching a grasshopper with a net. The term “locusts” is used metaphorically to stand for the numerous soldiers of the Egyptian king, and another time “locust” stands for the leader of foreign enemies. “Locust” also appears as a male personal name.

A number of beetles were known to ancient Egyptians (belonging to the superfamilies Scarabaeoidea and Diversicornia), although the sacred scarab (Scarabaeus sacer) is the best known. These beetles inhabit soil, dung, or decaying plant and animal substances. The scarab often feeds on dung, and has the peculiar characteristic of rolling dung destined to be food into a round ball that can reach the size of a small apple, and then rolling it to a safe storage place underground. The female scarab buries her eggs in pear-shaped balls constructed entirely underground. The ancients erroneously believed that the scarab laid its eggs in the former type of ball. Their Egyptian name (ḫprr) is related to a verb (ḫpr) which means “to become.” The scarab was worshiped as a god, Khepri, and had a close association with Re, representing the sun god when he rose from the underworld at the eastern horizon in the morning and descended below the western horizon in the evening, analogous to the behavior of the beetle rolling its food-ball.

Scarab-shaped amulets were the most common amulet worn in ancient Egypt. Besides their protective function, these amulets are often inscribed with the reigning monarch's name on the ventral side; they were used as seals pressed into mud clumps used to seal containers and doors. Most of these scarab amulets have been found in the excavation of palaces and settlement sites, even in the Near East; they therefore play an important role in the dating of sites and remains.

See also BEES AND HONEY; and SCARABS.

Bibliography

  • Bacher, Ilona. “Die Fliege in Kultur und Religion der alten Ägypter.” M.A. thesis, University of Munich, 1993. Nearly impossible to obtain, this is the only extensive work dealing exclusively with the fly in Egyptian culture and religion.
  • Chouliara-Raïos, Hélène. L'abeille et le miel en Égypte d'après les papyrus grecs. Greece, 1989. Contains information derived primarily from Greek sources on the bee and honey in Greco-Roman times.
  • Hornung, Erik, and Elisabeth Staehelin. Skarabäen und andere Siegelamulette aus Basler Sammlungen. Ägyptische Denkmäler in der Schweiz 1. Mainz, 1976. Offers extensive bibliographic references on scarabs.
  • Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. Cairo, 1996. Pages 187–194 are devoted to insects.
  • Keimer, Ludwig. “Pendeloques en forme d'insectes faisant partie de colliers égyptiens.” Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Égypte 32 (1932), 129–150; 33 (1933), 97–130, 193–200; 37 (1937), 143–172.
  • Kritsky, Gene. “Beetle Gods, King Bees and Other Insects of Ancient Egypt.” KMT 4.1 (1993), 32–39. Popular article covers beetles, praying mantis, locusts, dragonflies, butterflies, bees, and flies.
  • Leclant, Jean. “L'abeille et le miel dans l'Égypte pharaonique.” In Histoire, Ethnographie et Folklore, edited by R. Chauvin, pp. 51–60. Traité de biologie de l'abeille, 5. Paris, 1968. A discussion of bees and honey in pharaonic Egypt.
  • Rand Nielsen, Elin. “Honey in Medicine.” In Sesto Congresso Internazionale di Egittologia: Atti, vol. 2, pp. 415–419. Turin, 1993.
  • Raven, Maarten J. “Wax in Egyptian Magic and Symbolism.” Oudheidkundig Mededelingen uit het Rijksmuseum van Oudheden te Leiden 64 (1983): 7–47.
  • Tufnell, Olga. Scarab Seals and Their Contribution to History in the Early Second Millennium B.C. Studies on Scarab Seals, 2. Warminster, 1984.
  • Ward, William A. Pre-12th Dynasty Scarab Amulets. Studies on Scarab Seals, 1. Warminster, 1978. Contains an appendix on scarab beetle biology and behavior by Sadek Ibrahim Bishara.
  • Ward, William A., and William G. Dever. Scarab Typology and Archaeological Context: An Essay on Middle Bronze Age Chronology. Studies on Scarab Seals, 3. San Antonio, 1994.

Nicole B. Hansen