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The Scorpion in Ancient Egypt


The Scorpion in Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Royce Hiller

The Scorpion King Mace Head


Scorpions invoke, for many people, as much fear as venomous snakes. That is probably precisely the reason that one of Egypt's most most famous predynastic rulers chose this invertebrate for his name. Of course, that ruler's widespread fame is mostly due to the movie, "Scorpion King", which is a completely fictional account grounded in virtually no factual history. Really, we know very little about that king's true historical role, but we know much more about the creatures sacred significance in ancient Egypt.

Scorpions did, during ancient times, inhabit the mostly the deserts of Egypt, as they continue to do so today. Of course, they are found in dry climates throughout the world and are certainly not unique to Egypt. They belong to the phylum Arthropoda, class Arachnides. They have four pairs of legs, two large claws and a tail ending with a pair of small stingers that connect to a gland in which the venom is stored.

A scorpion of the Scorpionidae family

In Egypt specifically, they range in color from almost white (Buthridas) to yellow and light brown (Scorpionidae) and range in size from eight to ten centimeters, not counting the tail. Of these, the Buthridas is the more poisonous, while the Scorpionidae is relatively harmless. The venom of both scorpions and snakes is neurotoxic, and if their bite results in death, it is by asphyxiation.

A Libyan Yellow Scorpion

Scorpions are very hardy animals that are resistant to hunger and thirst. Normally, they are found in desert areas, of which Egypt is mostly composed outside of the Nile Valley. They hide under rocks during the day, but are also known to inhabit the bricks in mudbrick constructions. We should note that they have never posed much of a problem for tourists, though certainly those on desert treks should use a certain amount of caution and common scenes in such areas.

Scorpions are certainly well attested from the earliest times in Egypt. During the PredynasticEarly 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 ideogram, one of the earliest known hieroglyphic signs, was depicted on wooden and ivory labels found in the early period Dynastic royal necropolis at Abydos and also among the cache of cult equipment of the Early Dynastic temple at Hierakonpolis. Usually, depictions of the scorpion from ancient Egypt show the animal in side or three-quarter view, with the number of legs varying from three to four pairs. When drawn in texts or engraved on monuments, it is typically shown flat, positioned either horizontally or, in later periods, vertically, with two to four pairs of legs. After the Old Kingdom, the scorpion was no longer found on vessels, but was often made into a talisman sculpted in the round. However, it should be noted that the scorpion, like other dangerous animals, was usually not depicted in detail for protective, magical reasons. Frequently, its stinger, claws or legs were omitted.

The Scorpion Stone, showing a very fine carving of an Egyptian scorpion

There were various names for the scorpion in ancient Egypt, and yet, it was actually rarely mentioned in text and is not found at all in the Pyramid Texts, even though serpents and are frequently referred to in those compositions. In the Coffin Texts, it serves only as the determinative of a goddess. In fact, the scorpion is mostly found in a few medical papyri and particularly magical texts, in formulas either to repel them, conjure away their venom or cure their sting. Ostraca discovered at Deir el-Medina on the West Bank at ancient Thebes (modern Luxor) mention workers bitten by scorpions, and therefore absent from work. In the Late Period, several Greek funerary stelae also mention young people who were killed by a scorpion's sting.

Serket, from the tomb of Tutankhamun

The magical text used to cure such stings is both a treatises with recipes for the bite and a collection of incantations that are a psychological means fortifying the patient. The incantations are sometimes hidden within mythological events. In a recently published papyrus, a list of snakes in Egypt is provided with descriptions on how to treat, or not treat their bites in cases of high toxicity. This document belonged to the library of "the exorcisor of the goddess Serket (Selket)", who was herself a scorpion deity. When laborers from Egypt went to the turquoise mines in the Sinai, a particularly hot, desert environment, they brought with them "the one who removes scorpions", servants of the goddess Serket and specialists in the prevention and cure of scorpion stings and snake bites. Of course, they also took along embalmers for situations where the specialists' skills were insufficient.

In late antiquity, the Cippus stela provided protection from a variety of animals

In general few gods were associated with insects or invertebrates in ancient Egypt. Notable among these was Khepri, the personified in the scarab beetle. There were actually only a very few examples of deified scorpions in ancient Egypt, all of which personified goddesses, mostly as a result of syncretism. The goddess Serket was the principal divine personification of the scorpion and was usually depicted with a scorpion perched on her head. She was a protector goddess, perhaps best known to the public at large as one of the four goddesses who's golden statues surrounded the sarcophagus of Tutankhaman in his tomb. Her full name, Serket hetyt itself means "she who causes the throat to breath", referring to the effects of a scorpion sting. However, there were other gods and goddesses also associated with the scorpion. One of the most famous is Isis, who is said to have been protected from her enemies by seven scorpions. Isis herself may have at times been depicted in scorpion form, though this is not clear. Interestingly, it is not Serket, but rather Isis who is more frequently mentioned in many magical spells for scorpion stings. The child god Shed, described as "the s

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Ancient Gods Speak, The: A Guide to Egyptian Religion

Redford, Donald B.

2002

Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-515401-0

Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.

2003

Thames & Hudson, LTD

ISBN 0-500-05120-8

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul

1995

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Early Dynastic Egypt

Wilkinson, Toby A. H.

1999

Routledge

ISBN 0-415-26011-6

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)

2001

American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

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