Myths not only evolve, they are sometimes invented. Jill Kamil observes a modern ritual at Karnak
It might have happened two or three decades ago: an imaginative tour guide sought to recapture the waning attention of his group, perhaps suffering from over exposure to sun and monuments, by telling them that if they walked seven times round the gigantic stone beetle at the Sacred Lake at Karnak and made certain genuflations before it, or even kissed it, their most ardent dream would come true. The idea was appealing and the tourists lapped it up. Since then the ritual has picked up momentum and become extremely popular with tour groups, the myth no doubt embellished with the passage of time.
The Sacred Lake and its stone beetle lie to the east of the "southern buildings" of the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak. The site has become an important focus of interest, a regular stopping point following the tour through the entrance pylon, the outer Court, the Hypostyle Hall and past the beautiful lofty obelisk erected by Queen Hatshepsut. Watching visitors performing the bizarre ritual one after the other, one wonders whether they are informed of the significance of the stone monument, the scarab, round which they prance.
The historical and religious significance is, anyway, briefly marginalised as (mostly) women conduct a ceremony that has little link with the past. In ancient Egypt, magic lay at the very heart of religious ritual and liturgy. It was the means by which the restoration of all forms of order and harmony would be ensured, and the royal uraeus, the cobra on the forehead of the Pharaoh, was a vivid symbol of his power. But among all the magical artefacts excavated in Middle Kingdom shaft tombs, scarabs do not feature. A magic rod might come to light in one, female fertility figures in others, or boxes of papyri containing magical or religious texts, a cobra- wand, or even, as in the case of one tomb of a priest, a statuette of a woman wearing a lion mask and holding two snake-wands. But not a scarab.
The earliest scarabs discovered were in the shape of the beetle (Scarabaeus sacer), uninscribed and used as amulets. The beetle personified Kheper, a form of the sun god associated with resurrection. When the ancient Egyptians observed that scarab beetles emerged, seemingly spontaneously, from balls of dung that the beetles rolled forward it was not surprising that they should associate it with the passage of the sun and come to believe that the scarab's actions reflected the process of creation itself. They did not realise that the beetles laid their eggs in the dung.
During the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC) scarab amulets were produced in very large numbers. The flat underside was decorated with designs and inscriptions, sometimes incorporating a royal name -- frequently that of a long dead ruler. Later a number of funerary scarabs, including winged scarabs, were produced. They were generally made of blue faience and were often incorporated into bed nets covering mummies; the heart-scarab (usually inscribed with a verse from the Book of the Dead) began to be placed among mummy wrappings. Not until the reign of Amenhotep III (1390-1352BC) were unusually large scarabs, like the one at Karnak, produced to celebrate important events in the pharaoh's reign, such as the hunting of bulls and lions, historical records, and even the building of a monument along with titles of his Queen Tiye. Perhaps there were such scarabs in all the temples, elevated on a plinth to represent the temple as the primaeval mound from which the sun god emerged to begin the process of creation. Did that provide the channel of thought that gave rise to the modern myth: rebirth -- birth -- fertility? Because to be noted is the fact that it is mostly women in the tour groups that go through the ritual.