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Beetles in Folklore and Mythology

Beetles are often found near garbage, around excrement, and in dank areas. People usually associate beetles with filth, squalor, and decay, yet myth often regards these qualities are often a preliminary stage to the creation of life.

In ancient times in the Mediterranean region, people believed that life, particularly that of insects, sprang spontaneously from decomposing matter, and a few varieties of beetles came to be regarded as holy. Foremost of these is the scarab beetle, also known as the dung beetle, which has been represented in countless amulets, some of which were found wrapped in cloth together with mummified corpses.

The scarab lives off dung and is frequently seen near farms. It pushes a globe of dung to an underground burrow before consuming it, and to the ancient Egyptians the ball suggested motion of the sun crossing the sky. The scarab was sacred to Ra, god of the sun. The god Khepera, associated with creation and immortality, was depicted with the head of a scarab beetle. The female scarab beetle lays her eggs in a ball that she creates inside her hole.

The Egyptians confused the two processes of feeding and reproduction in scarabs, thinking the eggs hatching from the ball were generated spontaneously from the earth. The Egyptians held a number of other beetles as sacred as well. One long, slender click beetle (Agypus notodonta) was sacred to Neith, very ancient goddess associated with both fertility and war, and it was often depicted on amulets and in hieroglyphs. In the later periods of Egyptian civilization, including the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, beetles were mummified and placed in miniature sarcophagi in expectation that they would enter the next world. According to Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, the veneration of certain beetles eventually spread from Egypt throughout much of the Mediterranean. It also spread south to Africa, to the Hottentots and Kaffirs, who revered the golden-tinted rose beetle up through at least the eighteenth century.

One brightly colored insect, usually orange with black spots, is known as the ladybug in the United States and the ladybird in Britain. “Lady” refers to the Virgin Mary. In France the insect is sometimes called “poulette à Dieu,” or “chicken of God.” These names and the regard with which the insect is viewed hint at a divine role in the religions of antiquity, but this has never been fully explained. One theory is that the beetle was once sacred to Freya, the Scandinavian goddess of love. The association of the ladybug with the sun, however, indicates that its cult may be connected with that of the Egyptian scarab. To have a ladybug alight on your clothes is considered a sign of good fortune, and you must never kill or injure the creature. You are to send it away with a rhyme, though you may also hurry it along by blowing gently. A common British variant of the rhyme goes:

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