scarab beetle or scarab, name for members of a large family of heavy-bodied, oval beetles (the Scarabaeidae), with about 30,000 species distributed throughout most of the world and over 1,200 in North America. North American scarab beetles range in length from less than 1/2 in. to more than 2 in. (5–50 mm); members of some tropical species grow several inches long. Many scarab beetles are brightly colored and many are iridescent.
A large group of scarab beetles are scavengers, feeding on decaying vegetation or on the dung of grazing animals. Most of these lay their eggs in underground chambers supplied with dung, where the larvae feed and pupate, emerging as adults. These scarabs, called dung beetles, play an extremely important role in the rapid recycling of organic matter and the disposal of disease-breeding wastes. Australia, which has few native dung beetle species, has imported African species to help dispose of cattle dung.
Some of the dung beetles, known as tumblebugs, form balls of dung that they roll about with their hind legs, sometimes for long distances and sometimes working in pairs. Eventually they bury the ball and lay eggs in it. One such ball-roller is the sacred scarab (Scarabaeus sacer), a black scarab beetle of the Mediterranean region. In ancient Egypt the periodic appearance of this beetle in great numbers on the surface of the Nile mud led men to associate the sacred scarab with resurrection and immortality. It was believed that all scarabs were males capable of reproducing their kind. Their ball-rolling activities were associated with the diurnal movement of the sun.
Other species of scarab beetles feed on living plants. Members of these groups include such major crop and garden pests as the Japanese beetle, the rose chafer, and the June beetle (also called June bug and May beetle). Cockchafers are Old World species similar to June beetles. Adult plant-eating scarab beetles attack leaves, flowers, and fruits, while the larvae, which develop from eggs laid in the ground, attack roots.
The largest scarab beetles in North America are the plant-eating Hercules beetles and their close relatives, the rhinoceros beetles and elephant beetles. In most species of this group the males are prominently horned. The Hercules beetles of the S United States may grow 21/2 in. (6.4 cm) long; their tropical relatives may attain a length of 6 in. (15 cm) including the horns. Despite their ferocious appearance these beetles are harmless to people.
The term scarab is also applied to representations of scarab beetles made of stone, metal, or other materials. Finely carved scarabs were used as seals in ancient Egypt; inscribed scarabs were issued to commemorate important events or buried with mummies. Roman soldiers wore scarab rings as military symbols.
Scarab beetles are classified in the phylum Arthropoda, class Insecta, order Coleoptera, family Scarabaeidae.
A beetle and its conventionalized representation that was widely used as a talisman and seal in ancient Egypt. The scarabaeus sacer, a large black beetle, became almost a personification of ancient Egypt, so common was its association with Egyptian culture. This beetle owed its prominence to the fact that it was connected with the Egyptian sun-god ra (re), though the reasons for such a connection remain obscure. One explanation is that the sun rolling across the sky suggested the practice of some beetles of rolling balls of dung. Another is that the beetle was venerated as a symbol of life after death, since the offspring seemed to emerge from decaying matter; only in a later time was the identification made with Ra. Still another is that there is merely a verbal connection between Khopri, one of Ra's appellations, and Khopirru, the Egyptian name for the scarab.
The image of this beetle and related species was used in such abundance on amulets and signet rings by the Egyptians that Egyptian influence can be detected in any country where these artifacts are found. The beetle's image when used as an amulet was regarded as having some prophylactic power. In rings, one side of the image was often used as a seal. The engraved portion carried a design and personal name. Some scarab rings bear the name of the pharaoh or local officials and thus provide a terminus a quo for dating purposes. The shape of the image also is a dating aid, since it changed in the course of centuries. Such scarab seals provide, in addition, useful information on the art and religious practices of Egypt. Caution, however, must be exercised in interpreting the data. Scarabs were often copied and mass-produced by men who in their ignorance or lack of skill distorted the originals.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 2140–41. j. beckerath, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 9:816. m. pieper, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa, et al. 3A.1 (Stuttgart 1927) 3A.1 (1927) 447–459. f. bodenheimer, Animal and Man in Bible Lands (Leiden 1960) 80–81.
[t. h. weber]
scar·ab / ˈskarəb; ˈsker-/ • n. (also scarab beetle or sacred scarab) a large dung beetle (Scarabaeus sacer) of the eastern Mediterranean area, regarded as sacred in ancient Egypt. Family Scarabaeidae (the scarab family) also includes the smaller dung beetles and chafers, together with some very large tropical kinds such as Hercules, goliath, and rhinoceros beetles. ∎ an ancient Egyptian gem cut in the form of this beetle, sometimes depicted with the wings spread, and engraved with hieroglyphs on the flat underside.