Heart Scarabs- an afterlife fail safe

What fantastical secrets could your heart spill if it was compelled to in the great hall of judgment would you become true of voice and pass on to afterlife successfully or would your heart be consumed by the terrifying Ammit who lurks nearby like a spectre? Well, that was a major source of concern for the ancient Egyptians but lucky for them then found a loop hole to make sure they could survive this judgment with the use of a heart scarab. There are few things to make clear before looking at Heart scarabs the first how the ancient Egyptian felt about the heart and the scarab.

Figure 1: Book of the Dead of Hunefer showing Hunefer’s judgement with his heart being weighed in the hall of Judgment. British Museum EA9901-3 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA9901-3

For the ancient Egyptian the heart was considered the source of human wisdom and the centre of emotions and memory, rather than the brain. Due to this the heart was considered the most important of all the internal organs. As it was believed by the ancient Egyptians to be able to reveal a person’s true character, even once that person had died, the heart was left in the body during mummification and if it was accidently removed it was then sewn back into place[1].   

Figure 2: Green jasper human-headed heart-scarab of Nebankh https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA64378

The scarab was a common type of amulet, seal or ring bezel found in Egypt, Nubia and Syria Palestine from the 6th Dynasty until the Ptolemaic period (c.2345-30BC)[2]. The scarab seal is so called as it was made in the shape of the sacred scarab beetle which was the personified as Khepri, a sun god associated with resurrection[3]. The flat side of the scarabs could be carved and where usually decorated with designs or inscriptions sometime incorporating a royal name[4]. Amenhotep III for example had a commemorative scarab to commemorate his marriage to his chief royal wife Tiy. Over time a number of funerary scarabs developed such as large winged scarabs largely made of blue faience and incorporated into bead nets placed over mummies and the heart scarab which was included in burials from at least the 13th dynasty 1795 – 1650 BC onwards.[5]

True of Voice

Figure 3: The underside showing Chapter 30b on the Heart Scarab of Hatnefer https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/545146

Introduced during the Middle Kingdom large scarab amulets where placed within the mummy wrappings to protect the heart of the deceased and served as a replacement should his or her own heart be destroyed. The extreme importance of the heart in the ritual of judgment in the great Hall of Two Truths for the arrival of the deceased in the after world ensures that the heart scarab was amongst the more crucial amulets on a mummy[6]. But alongside the worry for the ancient Egyptians needing a physical stand in there was also, given that the heart was the seat of morality, that it would testify against its owner and condemn them when judged[7]. This scene of judgment was a popular vignette in the Book of the Dead, specifically Chapter 125 (Figure 1). In this scene the heart of the dead is weighted in order to become m3 ’hrw or “true of voice” in these scenes only the positive results is shown with Anubis show balancing the scales in the favour of the deceased[8]. However, lurking nearby is the goddess Ammit with her crocodile for post, lion middle and hippo hindquarters watching eagerly to see if she will get to eat a heart.

One of the earliest firmly dated heart scarabs belongs to a high official called Nebankh who lived during the reign of Sobekhotep IV of the 13th Dynasty. This example of made of dark green siltstone and boast a human head replacing that of the scarabs and a version of Chapter 30 b of the Book of the Dead inscribed on the underside[9] (Figure 2).  

Do not bear false witness against me’

Chapter 30 B of the Book of the Dead is a spell designed to be a fail safe to not have the deceased’s heart speak out against them when they are judged (Figure 3). It reads:

“O my heart which I had from my mother. O my heart which I had upon earth, do nor rise up against me as a witness in the presences of the lord of things, do not speak against me concerning what I have done, do not bring up anything against me in the presence of the west.[10]

Figure 4: Heart Scarab of Hatnefer https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/545146
Figure 5: Green jasper and gold heart-scarab of Sobekemsaf II https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA7876

Alongside giving spells to be inscribed onto heart scarabs the Book of the dead also states that is she be made from nemehef a green stone which could be green jasper, serpentine or basalt but examples have been found rendered in a range of dark green material such as glazed steatite, schist, feldspar haematite and obsidian.[11]  Some heart scarabs of high powered men and women really might be amongst my favourite objects from ancient Egypt, although I could be said to say that about an awful lot of objects from ancient Egypt. The heart scarabs of Hatnefer in the Met Museum (Figure 4) and the green jasper and gold heart-scarab of Sobekemsaf II (Figure 5) are definitely highlights. Maybe I subconsciously took inspiration from the green and gold of these objects for my colour scheme?

Not all heart scarabs bear a text, but they are usually recognisable form their materials, the fact they are unpierced and, most importantly the size; the largest are over 10cm long[12].  For commoners the heart scarab was usually inset into a solid but highly coloured glazed composition phylon-shaped pectoral that favoured setting of which was a boat between the figures of Isis and Nephthys[13](Figure 6). Occasionally heart scarabs, like in the case of Hatnefer’s were enclosed in a gold rim with a suspension for a gold torque or wire so that it could be hung around the mummy’s neck[14] (Figure 4).

Figure 6: Glazed composition pectoral: this pectoral or chest ornament is pylon shaped, initiating the towers flanking the monumental gateway entrance into an Egyptian temple the heart scarab in the centre flanked by Isis and Nephthys the scarab is show floating on a boat.

References

[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 139

[2] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 283

[3] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 283

[4] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 284

[5] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 284

[6] Ikram, S., 2015. Death and burial in ancient Egypt. New York: The American University in Cairo Press. Page 98

[7] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 139

[8] Andrews, C., 1998. Amulets of ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press. Page 56

[9] Andrews, C., 1998. Amulets of ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press. Page 56

[10] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 140

[11] Andrews, C., 1998. Amulets of ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press. Page 56

[12] Andrews, C., 1998. Amulets of ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press. Page  57

[13] Andrews, C., 1998. Amulets of ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press. Page 59

[14] Andrews, C., 1998. Amulets of ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press. Page 58

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