A venomous animal found in warm climates, the scorpion is an invertebrate belonging to the phylum Arthropoda, class Arachnides. It possesses four pairs of legs for locomotion, two large claws, and a tail ending with a pair of small stingers connected to a gland in which the venom is stored. In Egypt, scorpions range in color from almost white (Buthridas) to yellow and light brown (Scorpionidae), with sizes ranging up to 8–10 cm, not counting the tail. They are extremely hardy and resistant to hunger and thirst. Scorpions are generally found in desert areas, hiding under rocks during the day, but are also known to nest in the bricks of adobe houses.

Well attested as early as the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods, the scorpion is depicted on various painted vessels and carved on schist palettes, as well as sculpted in the round, often in precious metals. The scorpion, as drawn by the ancient Egyptians, is frequently shown in side or three-quarter view, with the number of legs varying from three to four pairs. When it is drawn in texts or engraved on monuments, it is shown flat, positioned either horizontally or, in later periods, vertically, with two to four pairs of legs. After the Old Kingdom, it is no longer found on vessels, but is often made into a talisman, sculpted in the round.

Several Egyptian names for the scorpion are used, all feminine nouns. From the Old Kingdom to the Late period, ḏʒrt is attested, although in the medical papyri—copied in the New Kingdom, but written in the “classical” language—this word appears as the plural form dʒrw. From the Middle Kingdom to the Late period, wḥt is common. A scorpion called ḏdbt also occurs in a magical papyrus. The scorpion is not mentioned in onomastica, with one exception, an Old Kingdom lady who is called Dʒrt.

Though present everywhere in Egypt, the scorpion is rarely encountered in texts; it is never mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, whereas serpents are frequent. In the Coffin Texts, it serves only as the determinative of the goddess Ḥḏḏt, perhaps the same goddess that is found later in the Edfu temple. In fact, the scorpion is mentioned mainly in magical texts, in formulas either to repel these arachnids, to conjure away their venom, or to cure their sting: “Formulas to repulse the scorpions” (rʒ[w] n šnʒt dʒrt).

The venom of both scorpions and snakes is neurotoxic and results in death by asphyxiation. Ostraca found at Deir el-Medina, on the western bank of the Nile at Thebes, mention workers bitten by scorpions, and thus absent from work. “The scorpion has bitten him—sick” (psḥ sw tʒ wḥʿt mr). In the Late period, several Greek funerary stelae mention young people killed by a scorpion's sting.

The magical texts are simultaneously treatises with recipes for curing stings and a collection of incantations that are a psychological means to help the sick person to cope with his illness. These incantations are sometimes hidden within mythological events.

Scorpions

Scorpions. Amulet in the form of a scorpion, in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. (Courtesy David P. Silverman)

A magnificent though incomplete papyrus, recently published, lists the snakes of Egypt, with descriptions, and gives information on how to treat—or decline to treat, because of their high toxicity—their bites. This treatise belongs to the library of the ḫrp Srḳt, “the exorcisor of the goddess Serket (variant, Selket).” When the Egyptians went to the turquoise mines in the Sinai—a particularly hot, desert environment—they used to bring with them a šd wḥʿt (“the one who removes scorpions”), a sʒ Srḳt and a ḫrp Srḳt, servants of the goddess Serket, and specialists in the prevention and cure of scorpion stings and snake bites. If these specialists were not sufficient, the embalmers were also present. The šd wḥt was also used to purify (swʿb), that is, to clear a temple of these arachnids.

Only a few examples of deified scorpions exist, and they are all personifications of goddesses, mostly a result of syncretism: Ḥḏḏt (Edfu temple); Isis-Ḥḏḏt (scorpion-goddess of Edfu); Isis-wḥʿt (often represented by a scorpion with a human head); Isis-Serket, with two ostrich feathers flanking a scorpion with head down (temple of Sety I at Abydos); and a goddess with a scorpion on her head (or with her head replaced by a scorpion), found on the Horus-on-the-Crocodile stelae—a form of Isis of Tell Tebilleh in the Nile Delta. Most of these goddesses are Nubian in origin. The sovereigns at Meroë liked to wear a headdress surmounted by a scorpion with a human head.

Bibliography

  • Goyon, J.-C. “Isis-scorpion et Isis au scorpion.” Bulletin de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale 78 (1978), 439–457.
  • Jelinkova-Reymond, E. Les inscriptions de la statue guérisseuse de Djed-Her-le-Sauveur. Bibliothèque d'Etudes de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 33. Cairo, 1956.
  • Sauneron, S. Un manuel égyptien d'ophiologie. Bibliothèque générale de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 11. Cairo, 1989.
  • Tod, Marcus N. “The Scorpion in Graeco-Roman Egypt.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 25 (1939), 55–.

Frédérique von Känel