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An essay by Elizabeth Brightwen

The Sacred Beetle

Title:     The Sacred Beetle
Author: Elizabeth Brightwen [More Titles by Brightwen]

On reading books on Egypt and the voyage up the Nile, one is sure to find some mention of the curious beetle which is found along the banks of the river, especially in Nubia, where the shore is traceried with the footprints of the busy little creature. Miss Edwards, in her very interesting book, "A Thousand Miles up the Nile," thus speaks of it: "Every one knows how this scarab was adopted by the Egyptians as an emblem of creative power and the immortality of the soul; it is to be seen in the wall-sculptures, on the tombs, cut out in precious stones and worn as an ornament, buried in the mummy-cases, and a figure of the beetle forms a hieroglyph, and represents a word signifying 'To be and to transform.' If actual worship was not paid to _Scaraboeus Sacer_,[1] it was, at any rate, regarded with the greatest reverence and a vast amount of symbolism drawn from its various characteristics."

[Footnote 1: Or _Ateuchus Sacer_.]

I had often wished to see this insect alive, and one day my wish was very unexpectedly gratified by the arrival of a small tin box in which I found a specimen of the sacred beetle swathed in wet linen like a veritable mummy, only, instead of being an Egyptian specimen, this had come from a kind friend at the Riviera, who knew that the same species existed there, and had sent me this one by post. The scarab was at once named "Cheops," and treated with all the respect due to his ancient family traditions.

His wants were easily supplied: a deep tin box, with earth and moss slightly damped, gave him space for exercise; and then for food--alas! that his tastes should be so degraded--he had to be supplied with cow-dung! This could be done in secret, and judiciously hidden by fair, green moss; but when exhibiting my cherished pet to admiring friends the first question was sure to be, "What does he feed upon?" and one had to take refuge in vague generalities about organic substances, &c.;, which might mean anything, and then, by diverting attention to some point of interest apart from the food question, the difficulty was generally overcome.

I kept a close watch to see if the beetle would be led by instinct to form its round pellets of mud as is its custom on the banks of the Nile, and having placed its egg in the centre, it begins to roll it from the margin of the river until it is above high-water mark. There it digs a hole and buries the pellet, leaving the sun to hatch the eggs in due time. Travellers who have watched the process describe the untiring way in which both the male and female beetle roll these pellets, often falling down with their burden into holes and ridges in the rough ground; but then their comrades will give them help, and, picking up the ball, they patiently labour on. Walking backwards, having the pellet between their broad hind legs, they push it up and up until it is placed in safety. The persevering energy of this insect led the Egyptians to adopt it as an emblem of the labours of their great deity, Osiris, or the sun; they also traced a resemblance in the spiny projections on its head to the rays of the sun.

Great was my delight to find at length that Cheops--even in captivity--was true to his native instincts, that he had formed a pellet about the size of a marble and was gravely rolling it with his hind legs backwards and forwards in his box. Poor captive! he was evidently puzzled what to do with the precious thing. He had no Nile bank to surmount, and the sun was hardly warm enough to encourage any hope for his future family; but he did the only thing that was possible--he set to work to scoop out a hole of sufficient size, then rolled the pellet in and covered it over with loose earth. Three such pellets were made at intervals of a few days; one of them I unearthed and kept as a curio. The beetle never seemed to miss it, and having done his duty under difficult circumstances, his mind seemed to be at rest.

I often placed Cheops in my hand to show him to visitors, and there he would lie feigning to be dead until he was gently stroked over the elytra, when he would stretch out his antennae, then his legs by slow degrees appeared (for he tucked them close to his body out of sight when frightened), and at last he would begin to walk in a jerky manner, as if moved by machinery, often stopping to look and listen to be sure that it was safe to move, and even if busily at work in the earth, if he saw any one coming near he would stop, draw in his antennae and limbs and remain motionless.

He had a strong and peculiar odour at times, which became more apparent if he was annoyed. He was infested with a small mite, and though these were frequently cleared away with water and a camel's-hair brush, they always reappeared in a day or two, clustering under the thorax between the first pair of legs, and at times they might be seen racing over his body with great rapidity. Once Cheops nearly escaped, for I had placed his box in the sun, and the warmth so excited and waked him up that he opened his wing-cases, used his gauze-like inner wings, and with a mighty hum was all but gone in search of his native land, but fortunately I was near enough to intercept his flight and place him in safe quarters. After keeping this curious creature in perfect health for sixteen months, I was much vexed to find him one morning lying in a shallow pan of water in his box, quite dead. He had overbalanced on to his back, and, being unable to turn over, had been drowned, though the water was scarcely half an inch deep. Poor Cheops is enshrined in a pyramid-shaped box, in which he is often shown and his life-history told to interested visitors.

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Elizabeth Brightwen's essay: Sacred Beetle