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Insects in ancient (Pharaonic) Egypt: a review of fauna, their mythological and religious significance and associated diseases

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Based on the available and scattered reports, this article reviews the insects that were known to ancient Egyptians (butterflies and moths, honey bee, locust, praying mantis, beetles, ants, flies, mosquitoes, bed-bugs, fleas and head lice). The mythological and religious significance and associated diseases (malaria, filariasis, leishmaniasis and plague) of such insects were also included. The present status of the medically important insects and their borne diseases in modern Egypt were discussed. In conclusion, in spite of the large variety of insects occurring in Egypt at present, only few have been represented and named in ancient Egypt.
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Citation :Egypt.Acad.J.Biolog.Sci. ( A.Entomology ) Vol.8(1)pp15-32 (2015)
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Vol. 8 No. 1 (2015)
Citation :Egypt.Acad.J.Biolog.Sci. ( A.Entomology ) Vol.8(1)pp15-32 (2015)
Egypt. Acad. J. Biolog. Sci., 8(1): 15 –32 (2015)
Egyptian Academic Journal of Biological Sciences
A. Entomology
ISSN 1687-8809
www.eajbs.eg.net
Insects in ancient (Pharaonic) Egypt: a review of fauna, their
mythological and religious significance and associated diseases
Mohamed A. Kenawy1 and Yousrya M. Abdel-Hamid2
1- Department of Entomology, Faculty of Science, Ain Shams University, Abbassia, Cairo
2- Research Institute of Medical Entomology, The General Organization for Institutes and
Teaching Hospitals, Ministry of Health, Dokki, Giza, Egypt.
E-mail: mohamedkenawy85@yahoo.com
REVIEW ARTICLE
INFO ABSTRACT
Article History
Received: : 4/1/2015
Accepted : 8/2/2015:
_________________
Keywords:
Ancient Egypt
Insects
Insect-
borne diseases
Malaria
Filariasis
Leishmaniasis
Plague
Based on the available and scattered reports, this
article reviews the insects that were known to ancient
Egyptians (butterflies and moths, honey bee, locust, praying
mantis, beetles, ants, flies, mosquitoes, bed-bugs, fleas and
head lice). The mythological and religious significance and
associated diseases (malaria, filariasis, leishmaniasis and
plague) of such insects were also included. The present
status of the medically important insects and their borne
diseases in modern Egypt were discussed. In conclusion, in
spite of the large variety of insects occurring in Egypt at
present, only few have been represented and named in
ancient Egypt.
INTRODUCTION
Ancient Egypt (Map) as a general historical term broadly refers to the
civilization of the Lower Nile Valley between the First Cataract and the mouths of the
Nile Delta, from circa 3300 B.C. until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C
(NEW, 2009). The history of ancient Egypt proper starts with Egypt as a unified
state, which occurred sometime around 3000 B.C., though evidence indicates a
developed Egyptian society may have existed for a much longer period.
Many insects tormented (plagued) the ancient Egyptians throughout their long
history (IAE, 2007). The ancient Egyptians held certain insects in special respect.
Apart from the beetle worshipped as Atem (Atum, Atoum; the creator god of
Heliopolis- Note1) and the flies representing tenacity (persistence) and courage,
Egyptians respected also other insects as butterflies which were portrayed for their
beauty and bees that kept for their honey (AEB, 2007). Many other insects: lice, fleas,
bed-bugs and mosquitoes were mostly nuisance for ancient Egyptians but their
potential for causing harm was only partially recognized. There was little to do about
such pests apart from praying to the gods, such as the fertility god Min (protector of
crops), or Isis as guardian of life. On the other hand, insects such as grasshoppers,
praying mantises were present in ancient Egypt.
Mohamed A. Kenawy and Yousrya M. Abdel-Hamid
16
The Grain weevils (since the Old Kingdom) and grain beetles (since the early
New Kingdom) also occurred in ancient Egypt (Eva Panagiotakopulu, 2003) and
destroyed significant amounts of stored cereals. Bacon beetles (Family: Dermestidae),
checkered beetles (Family: Cleridae), lesser mealworm beetles, cockroaches, snout
beetles and others were found in tombs, where they caused damage to the food
offerings and the mummies. But apart from occasional drawings showing those pests
being pierced by some weapon, and a few spells, there was little anybody could do
against them (Eva Panagiotakopulu, 2003). This article reviews the most common
insects occurred in ancient Egypt and their mythological and religious significance to
the ancient Egyptians. In addition, remedies against such insects and diseases
associated with the medically important ones were also reviewed.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
The available published and unpublished reports on insects that were known to
ancient Egyptian, their mythological and religious believes and associated diseases
were collected and reviewed. In addition, several web pages were accessed since
2009. The primarily objective was to prepare a course by the first author for
undergraduate students at the Department of Entomology, Faculty of Science, Ain
Shams University, Cairo which was lectured starting from 2009 till present. In this
article, the present situation of the reviewed insects and diseases they transmit to the
Egyptians were added and discussed.
RESULTS
Insect Fauna
Butterflies and Moths
Butterflies may be among a small number of creatures apparently not having any
mythological and religious significance. Still, they were quite often represented in
hunting and fishing scenes, apparently for their beauty's sake (NIC, 2001a).
Butterflies were often depicted in tomb paintings of river-bank scenes throughout the
Old and New Kingdom periods (2686-1069 B.C.). Some of these paintings show great
attention to details so that a particular species of butterflies still represented in the
present-day fauna and which can be easily recognized (Kendall, 2009a). The most
frequently species depicted on these ancient reliefs is the large monarch butterfly,
Danaus chrysippus (Eva Panagiotakopulu, 2003) which is a close relative and very
similar in appearance to the familiar monarch or milkweed butterfly, Danaus
plexippus of North America and occasionally found in parts of northern Africa and
Europe (Kendall, 2009a). Also, there were jewelers using butterfly motifs. Silver
bracelets with semi-precious stones inlays in butterfly patterns were found in the tomb
of the queen Hetepheres (NIC, 2001a) [thought to be the mother of Khufu and the
wife of the 4th Dynasty Pharaoh Sneferu (2613-2589 B.C.)] and now in the Museum
of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. In addition, several amuletic artifacts resembling
butterflies have been found in excavations at the royal cemeteries at Lisht (el-Lisht), a
village located on the west bank of the Nile, around 65 km south of Cairo.
Flies
In the ruins of Akhetaten (el-Amarna, Amarna was the city of Akhetaten/
Akhetaton on the east bank of the Nile in the modern Egyptian province of Minya at
312 km south of Cairo) at least two species of fly have been identified, the
Insects in ancient Egypt a review of fauna, their mythological and religious
17
housefly, Musca domestica, and a flesh-fly of the Sarcophagidae family (Eva
Panagiotakopulu et al., 2010). It is generally thought that the fly in Egyptian
mythology gave protection against disease or misfortune (Kendall, 2009a).
Map of ancient Egypt (http:// www.nga.gov) with some extra sites were added.
The Egyptians acknowledged the flies' persistence in the face of opposition.
They were given in the form of large golden pendants (possibly horse fly Tabanus sp.
which have quite a painful bite) to new Kingdom soldiers for their bravery in battles
(NIC, 2001b) (Fig. 1). One of the best known examples is a gold chain with three
pendants (Fig. 2) in the form of flies from the tomb of Queen Ahhotep I (c.1550 B.C.)
and now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. In addition to these large fly pendants,
relatively small ones are found on mummy beads. These smaller flies may be
associated with the behavior of necrophagous flies. The Egyptians were likely
associating their observations of insect behavior with mythical beliefs. During the
mummification process, it was likely that flies would lay eggs on the corpse, larvae
would develop and adults would emerge before the completion of the embalming
process. Possibly, Egyptian priests observed flies leaving the corpse, before it was
prepared for the afterlife and thought that the spirit of the dead person was leaving. It
is hypothesized that in an effort to reunite the spirit with the body, the Egyptians
placed small fly pendants on the mummy (NIC, 2001b). During the Old and Middle
Mohamed A. Kenawy and Yousrya M. Abdel-Hamid
18
Kingdoms flies made of gold, faience (glazed pottery; a ceramic material made from
crushed quartz), glass or precious stones (Fig. 3) were worn as amulets called ofef
(NIC, 2001b). The fly hieroglyph (Fig. 4) was used to represent the word aff (meaning
'a fly') or in later times (c.1550 B.C. onwards) as a symbol of bravery (Kendall,
2009a).
Fig. 1: Akhenaten and his family, standing in a window of appearances, are showering officials with
the gold of valour. (Source: The rewards of military life. The scribes' view of the soldier's life in
Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien.http://nefertiti.iwebland.com/ building/).
Fig. 2: Large golden fly pendants. (Source: El-Dorry, M. The Golden Fly of Valour. Arab World
Books. http://www.arabworldbooks.com/egyptomania/jewels.html.).
Fig. 3: A fly amulet from the Late Period (c.250 B.C.). This example (29 mm long) is carved from pink
agate and has a suspension loop at the top to hang on a necklace (Source: NIC, 2001b).
Fig. 4: Fly hieroglyph (Source: NIC, 2001b).
Mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes are common pests in tropical and subtropical countries, in places
where there is a lot of standing water. In Egypt the infested regions are the Fayoum
and the marshy parts of the Nile Delta and Valley. To the ancient Egyptians
mosquitoes were a nuisance rather than a deadly danger. The Satire of the Trades
(Adolf, 1927 and Manniche, 1989) describes the lot of people working in the pools
and ponds of the Delta as follow: "The reed-cutter travels to the Delta to get arrows;
when he has done more than his arms can do, Mosquitoes have slain him, Gnats have
slaughtered him, He is quite worn out". Malaria, spread by the Anopheles mosquito
was endemic in ancient Egypt (NIC, 2004 and Ziskind, 2009). The malaria vector,
Anopheles pharoensis may come from Egypt. Fresh ben oil or the uses of a net were
considered efficient against mosquitoes.
Bed-Bugs and Fleas
The desiccating conditions of the Egyptian desert provide excellent media for
the preservation of biological materials. The vertebrate and plant remains from tombs
are well known (Eva Panagiotakopulu and Buckland, 1999). Bed-bugs Cimex
lectularius, are first mentioned in a 2nd millennium papyrus (NEW, 2009). Eva
Panagiotakopulu (2003) a paleoentomologist at Sheffield University in England
Insects in ancient Egypt a review of fauna, their mythological and religious
19
discovered some bugs when excavating garbage dumps at a workmen's village at el
Amarna. Also well-preserved specimens were recovered. Although separation of C.
lectularius, from C. columbarius, the pigeon bug, is difficult on the fossil material
(Fig. 5). The Amarna specimens provided the earliest record of an association
between man and this ectoparasite.
Fleas (Pulex irritans, the human flea), were also among the parasites that Eva
Panagiotakopulu (2003) found at el Amarna in workmen's village.
Head Lice
Head lice have been with mankind for a very long time. The Egyptians shaved
the heads of their small children to reduce the incidence of head-lice (Kendall, 2009a)
while the body shaving of the priests may have been of traditional significance rather
than a question of hygiene. There are records where lice have been identified in
mummy hair from ancient Egypt. Palma (1991) discovered seven head lice (egg,
nymph and adult) from a debris found among the fine teeth of a wooden comb (Fig. 6)
excavated in Antinoë- Note2 (located 10 km south of Bani Hassan, Minya
Governorate, Map) and dated between the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. The comb is
kept in the collections of the National Museum of New Zealand since 1914.
Fig. 5: Fossilled bedbug, Tel el Amarna (Source: Eva Panagiotakopulu and Buckland , 1999).
Fig. 6: Wooden comb from Anitnoë, Egypt, dated between the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. ( Source:
Palma, 1991).
Honey Bee
Wild or domesticated bees (Apis mellifera) were appreciated for their honey, the
main sweetener for many food stuffs. The ancient Egyptian bees may have been more
aggressive than the Italian bee, which has become the dominant variety in modern
times (NIC, 2007). The agricultural, nutritional and medicinal value of the bee and its
honey was important in Egypt from pre-dynastic times onwards. Attractively,
Northern Egypt (the land stretching from the Delta to Memphis- Note3, Map) was
known as “Ta-bitty”(the land of the bee) and Lower Egypt was known as "Per-bit"
(the house of the bee) (Gough, 2009). Throughout ancient Egyptian history the bee
has been strongly associated with royal titles as demonstrated by the fact that King
Menes (Min, Mena, Meni; the first king of Egypt and founder of the First Egyptian
Dynasty), was called "the Beekeeper”; a title recognized to all subsequent Pharaohs.
An image of the bee was even positioned next to the King’s cartouche (Fig. 7) as one
of Pharaoh's titles "Bee King", and the shelter in which Osiris was worshiped was the
Hwt bjt, the house of the bee (Gough, 2009). The Egyptologist, Wallis Budge (Gough,
2009) confirmed the bees’ importance in Egyptian mythology that contains countless
references to the bee; including the belief that bees were the tears of the god RA (The
sun god of Annu or Heliopolis, Map). The bee is featured notably in many Egyptian
temples (Fig. 8), including for example, the pillars of Karnak, the Luxor obelisk now
erected on the Place de la Concorde in Paris (NIC, 2007) and on the Rosetta stone.
Moreover, temples kept bees in order to satisfy the desire of the gods for honey. Bees
are portrayed on the walls of Egyptian tombs and offerings of honey were routinely
Mohamed A. Kenawy and Yousrya M. Abdel-Hamid
20
presented to the most important Egyptian deities. Indeed, honey was the ‘nectar of the
gods and Egyptian physicians valued its medicinal value in many important
procedures, i.e. they practiced Apitherapy. The bee hieroglyph (Fig. 9) was used to
represent the word bit (meaning 'bee' or 'honey', or the royal title 'King of Lower
Egypt' or 'King of the North) (Gough, 2009).
Fig. 7: The Bee, next to the signature of Hatshepsut, the 5th Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty (Source:
Insects and Society: Other Symbolic Insects. Iowa state University, Department of Entomology,
http://www.ent.iastate.edu/dept/courses/ ent211/history/symbols).
Fig. 8: Bee hieroglyph-Luxor © Kenneth J. Stein (Source Insects and Society: Other Symbolic Insects.
Iowa state University, Department of Entomology, http://www.ent.iastate.
edu/dept/courses/ent211/history/symbols).
Fig. 9: Hieroglyph inscription nesw-bit ('he of the sedge and the bee'), which was part of royal titles
from the 1st Dynasty onwards and translated as 'King of Upper and Lower Egypt'. It was used as
a prefix to the throne name (prenomen) of the Pharaoh king (Source: Kendall, 2009a).
Beekeeping was practiced in Egypt for thousands of years (before 3000 B.C.)
according to bee expert Eva Crane (Gough, 2009). The main centre of bee-keeping
was Lower Egypt with its extensive cultivated lands, where the bee was chosen as a
symbol for the country. Honey was regarded as a symbol of reappearance and also
thought to give protection against evil spirits. Small pottery flasks, which according to
the hieratic inscriptions on the side originally contained honey, were found in the
tomb of the boy-king, Tutankhamun (commonly referred to as King Tut). The first
official mention recognizing the importance of honey dates from the first dynasty. The
oldest pictures of bee-keepers in action are from the Old Kingdom in Niuserre's sun
temple (at Abu Ghurab about 10 km southwest of Cairo) where bee-keepers are
shown blowing smoke (Fig. 10) into hives as they are removing the honey-combs.
After extracting the honey from the combs it was strained and poured into earthen jars
(Fig. 11) which were then sealed. Honey treated in this manner could be kept for
years. Cylindrical hives (Fig. 12) from the tomb of Babasa (at Asasif, just outside the
entrance to Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri, Luxor), dated to the 7th century B.C.,
were made of clay and stacked on top of each other in rows up to eight high and a
total of about 500 hives, with those on the outside were left empty as insulation
against the heat (NIC, 2007).
Fig. 10: The standing bee-keeper produces smoke, while the one kneeling removes the combs from the
back of the hive. (Line drawing after a picture in the tomb of Rekhmire, 18th dynasty) (Source:
NIC, 2007).
Fig. 11: Pouring of honey into earthen jars. Photo courtesy Kenneth Stein (Source: NIC, 2007).
Fig. 12: Bee hives, tomb of Pabasa (25th dynasty). Photo courtesy Kenneth Stein. (Source: NIC,
Insects in ancient Egypt a review of fauna, their mythological and religious
21
2007).
Honey was frequently mentioned in medical Smith and the Ebers Papyri and
was even a vital ingredient in Egyptian wine and beer. This linked the beer to
commerce, for beer was often used as a form of wages. In fact, promises of honey
from husband to wife were included in marriage contracts, and even the Pharaoh
Ramses III. (The last great Pharaoh, the second ruler of the 20th Dynasty and the last
native Egyptian to sit on the throne of Egypt) offered up 15 tons of honey to the Nile
God Hapi, in the 12th Century B.C (Gough, 2009).
Locust (Grasshopper)
Grasshoppers were used to represent soldiers because armies typically attack in
large numbers so that ancient Egyptians easily associated outbreaks of grasshopper
populations with attacking armies. In the battle of Kadesh inscriptions, Ramses II
described the armies of his Hittite enemies as follows: “They covered the mountains
and valleys and were like locusts in their huge number” (Lichtheim, 1980) and in the
Pyramid Texts “the flight of the locust is of greatest consequence: it can even hide the
sun” (IAE, 2007). The particular grasshopper species used as a motif by the ancient
Egyptians was probably either the desert locust (Schistocera gregaria) or the
migratory locust (Schistocerca migratoria), both of which were probably common in
the rich agricultural land bordering the Nile. Sudden plagues of these insects in
ancient times no doubt caused much destruction of grains and other food crops, just as
they do today. Most of the locust (or grasshopper) amulets and seals (stamps) so far
discovered are similar to those of the scarab beetles, with a flat base usually inscribed
and pierced through for threading on a string or wire so that they could be worn,
possibly to ward-off locust plagues. The locust hieroglyph quite simply refers to the
insect itself, although in certain contexts it appears to mean 'great numbers of
individuals', for example on a wall in the temple at Medinet Habu near Luxor there is
an inscription (Fig.13) which reads: 'battalions will come like the locusts'. The locust
appears in hieroglyphic texts, for example, the word snehem (meaning 'locust' or'
grasshopper) (Kendall, 2009a).
Fig. 13: The hieroglyph inscription snehem (reading the symbols top to bottom and left to right,
ignoring the determinative locust: s-n-eh-em) (Source: Kendall, 2009a).
Praying Mantis
During the excavations at Deir el Medina at Luxor, Bruyère (IAE, 2007)
discovered a small, somewhat anthropomorphous coffin made of clay which
contained the remains of a praying mantis wrapped in linen. Although there is an ink
drawing of praying mantis on a papyrus (Fig. 14), these insects are rarely mentioned
in the texts.
Mohamed A. Kenawy and Yousrya M. Abdel-Hamid
22
Fig. 14 A: Ink drawing of praying mantis on a papyrus (Source: AEB, 2007),
B: Praying Mantis (Source: http://www.flickr.com/ photos/dieu_et_mon_droit/)
In Book of the Dead- Note4 version, the translation of Abyt has been interpreted
to mean 'dancer' and in another version of the passage an Abyt-bird is apparently
referred to: I have gone to the king passing by my house. It was the praying mantis
which came to fetch me (IAE, 2007).
Scarab (Dung) Beetle
Africa is a home to a number of dung beetle species that perform a vital
ecological task by recycling the dung of herbivores. Egypt was never populated by
large herds of wild herbivores such as the case in the east African plains. Therefore
the numbers of dung beetles were much lower, and yet this insect caught the eyes of
the Egyptians (Lichtheim, 1976). It is generally accepted that the sacred scarab beetle
of Egyptian mythology originated from the species Scarabaeus sacer (Kendall,
2009a) (Fig. 15). The dung-beetle because of its 'miraculous' emergence from the
ground (Lichtheim, 1980), the ancient Egyptians believed that the scarab beetle came
into being of itself from a ball of dung (the idea of self-creation) (Kendall, 2009a) and
was associated and identified with the self-created Atem (NIC 2001d) [the creator-
god, Kheprior a sun-god Ra "Re"] (Fig. 16) who associated with resurrection
(reappearance) and new life (meaning 'he who has come into being' or 'he who came
forth from the earth) (NIC 2001e). Just as the beetle pushed its ball of dung (Fig. 17)
across the earth and made it disappear into the ground, so Khepri in the form of a
scarab beetle, it was thought, rolled the solar disc across the sky from east to west
each day (Kendall, 2009a). Hence, the scarab became an important symbol of
creation, resurrection and everlasting life in the religious mythology of ancient Egypt.
Small jars and coffins containing dried (mummified) scarabs were often placed in
Egyptian tombs as part of their ancient funeral means to ensure everlasting
reappearance.
Fig. 15: Scarabaeus sacer (actual size 25-30 mm long) (Source: Kendall, D., 2009b).
Fig. 16: Khepri, in the form of a scarab beetle, Tomb of Ramses I (Source: Ancient Egyptian
Mythology: http://www.egyptianculture.net/Gods/Gods.aspx.).
Fig. 17: Adult scarab beetle rolling its ball of dung to a suitable place for burial (Source: NIC, 2001e).
The term 'scaraboid' is often used to describe a seal or amulet which has the
same ovoid shape as a scarab, but may have its back carved in a form other than that
of a scarab beetle (Kendall, 2009a). Huge numbers of scarab amulets (or seals) (Fig.
18) were produced, either carved in stone or molded in glass or faience and served as
protective amulets. The flat underside of such scarab amulets was often decorated
with geometric patterns or hieroglyphic inscriptions. Scarab amulets were sometimes
set into decorative pieces of jewelry, but more often they were pierced for threading
on a simple cord necklace (NIC 2001e).
Insects in ancient Egypt a review of fauna, their mythological and religious
23
Fig. 18: Two examples of scarab amulets or seals inscribed on the underside with hieroglyphs,
including a scarab glyph (left) and a flying-scarab glyph (right). The scarab on the left (11 mm
long) is from the Late Period (c.500 B.C.), whereas that on the right (25 mm long) is much older
and from the reign of Rameses II (1279-1213 B.C.). Both these amulets are pierced long ways to
hang on a necklace, as typical of many scarab amulets (Source: Kendall, 2009a).
There were also a number of unpierced funereal types, such as the 'winged
scarab' (nearly always made of blue faience and often incorporated into the bead net
used to cover mummies) (Kendall, 2009a) and the 'heart scarab (Fig.19 A, B) usually
placed on the chest of the mummified bodies of deceased people in their coffins and
tombs as a symbol of resurrection and new life (Kendall, 2009b).
Fig. 19A: Two examples of funereal scarabs: 'winged scarab' (left) made of blue faience with pierced
holes for attachment to the outer covering of a mummified body (age unknown, span 150
mm); 'heart scarab' (right) carved in stone, this example uninscribed and unpierced, and would
be placed on the chest of a mummified body under its coverings (c. 900 B.C., 45 mm long)
(Source: Kendall, 2009a).
B: Heart Scarab of Hatnofer, c. 1466 B.C.; Dynasty 18, reign of Hatshepsut; New Kingdom, Western
Thebes, Rogers Fund, 1936 (36.3.2) (Source: Met museum website,
http://nefertiti.iwebland.com/religion/ body_ and_ soul. htm#body).
During the embalming the heart was not removed together with the other interior
organs and a scarab was inserted into the mummy's bindings right above the heart in
an attempt to prevent it from speaking out against its owner. Heart scarabs were often
inscribed with texts from the 30th chapter of the Book of the Dead. The scarab and
flying-scarab hieroglyphs (Fig. 20) were used in Egyptian texts to represent the name
of the creator-god, Khepri, and also to represent the word kheprer (meaning 'flying
beetle' or 'sacred scarab' itself) and the word kheper (or kheperu) (Kendall, 2009a)
meaning 'become (s)' or 'manifestation (s) of...'(Shaw and Nicholson, 1995). The
scarab hieroglyph often appears in the prenomen (one of the five titles and names) of
the Egyptian Pharaohs like that of the famous boy-king, Tutankhamun (Fig. 21)
(Budge, 1978).
Fig. 20: Scarab and flying-scarab hieroglyph (Source: Kendall, 2009a).
Fig. 21: Prenomen of Tutankhamun, Neb- kheperu– re which means 'Lordly - manifestations of - Re'
('Re' being the sun-god) (Source: NIC, 2001e).
Mohamed A. Kenawy and Yousrya M. Abdel-Hamid
24
Buprestid (Jewel) Beetle
Scarabs were not the only beetles to capture the imagination of the ancient
Egyptians. The buprestid or jewel beetle (Fig. 22) is another type frequently found in
tombs and modeled as amulets for hanging on necklaces. The name 'jewel beetle'
comes from the vivid metallic coloring of many species, displayed in delicate shades
of bright shining green, gold and purple-red. Keimer (1938) suggested that the
buprestid most likely depicted on artifacts by the ancient Egyptians was a species
called Steraspis squamosa, a large beetle about 35 mm long as an adult, with a wood-
boring larval stage that feeds on the tamarisk tree.
Pendants resembling them were made in pre-historic times. Artifacts were
decorated with their shapes and a number of such objects were found in
Tutankhamen's and Queen Hetepheres' tombs (AEB, 2007). Although the symbolism
of buprestid amulets and other artifacts remains obscure, Kritsky (1991) suggested a
possible religious significance because the wood-boring habit of the beetle could be
linked to the Osiris myth. According to this myth, Osiris (lord of the underworld and
afterlife) was tricked by his brother Seth and became trapped inside a tamarisk tree,
eventually to be released and brought back to life when the tree was split open by Isis.
In much the same way, ancient Egyptian carpenters may found buprestid beetles when
they split logs to prepare boards for coffins, and so linked the emergence of these
beetles from split logs to the myth. Thus, the buprestid amulets may have symbolized
the rebirth of Osiris (Kendall, 2009a). Buprestid amulets were made of several
substances, including gold, calcite and faience. A spectacular necklace trimmed with
many golden buprestid beetle amulets, dating from the 6th Dynasty (2345-2181 B.C.),
is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. An unusual use of the
buprestid beetle motif can be seen on the bed-canopy of Queen Hetepheres in the
Egyptian Museum, Cairo where golden buprestids decorate the pin-heads holding
together the corner posts of the bed-canopy.
Elaterid (Click) Beetle
A third type of beetle apparently of mythological significance to the ancient
Egyptians is the elaterid beetle (Family Elateridae, Fig. 23A), commonly called the click
beetle (Tick, Snap) which are quite common in Egypt. Their name derives from the
clicking sound they make when jumping through the air. Of the elaterid beetles known
from Egypt, Keimer (1938) considered Agrypnus notodonta (Fig. 23B), as the most likely
species represented in ancient carvings. Such beetle was associated with the protective
goddess Neith (Lesko, 1999) (one of the oldest Egyptian god, believed that she was
originally a goddess of war). Gold foil amulets dating to the early dynastic have been
found at Nag ed-Deir (IAE, 2007) near the Valley of the Kings, Luxor. A few centuries
later during the Old Kingdom a woman was buried with a necklace consisting of fifty
gold elaterid beetles. Thus, although their precise symbolism is unclear, elaterids possibly
had some religious or protective significance (Kendall, 2009a).
Fig. 22: Typical buprestid beetle (Source: Kendall, 2009a).
Fig. 23A: Typical elaterid beetle (Agrypnus) (Source: Kendall, 2009a).
B: Agrypnus notodonta (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/).
Insects in ancient Egypt a review of fauna, their mythological and religious
25
Spider Beetles
The spider beetles (Order: Coleoptera, Family: Anobiidae) of the genus Gibbium
(1.3 mm) are very difficult to distinguish, and the species G. psylloides (Fig. 24) and
G. aequinoctale have only recently been routinely separated. In modern Middle
Egypt, G. aequinoctale has been found infesting foodstuffs. G. psylloides has been
recorded in houses, hotels, mills and granaries, infesting grains, bread, yeast, cakes,
cotton, seeds, spices, wool and leather. Although the predominant species at Tell el-
Amarna today is G. aequinoctiale, the large numbers of fossil specimens from
pharaonic Amarna are all G. psylloides (Eva Panagiotakopulu, 2003).
Lesser mealworm beetle
Complete fossil specimen of the tenebrionid Alphitobius diaperinus, the lesser
mealworm beetle was collected from the Workmen's Village at Amarna (Eva
Panagiotakopulu, 2003).), where it occurs in large numbers in deposits cleared out of
pigsties. The species is an omnivorous feeder, also associated with grain, flour, leather
and bones. It is a voracious predator on other invertebrates, often feeding upon the
maggots of the housefly, Musca domestica, and it is likely to occur as a secondary
pest in animal materials such as mummies.
Ants The Pharaoh ant, Monomorium pharaonis (Fig. 25) is believed to have come
from Egypt. The name possibly arises from the mistaken tradition that it was one of
the plagues of ancient Egypt in the days of the Pharaohs (HPC, 2009).
Fig. 24: Gibbium psylloides (The smooth spider beetle) (Source:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beetle).
Fig. 25: Monomorium pharaonis - Pharaoh's ant, Panamá photograph © Alex Wild 2007 (Source:
http://www. myrmecos.net).
Remedies
Few remedies against a number of pests are included in the Ebers Papyrus
(Dollinger, 2000). While some of them are apparently effective, others seem to be
based on magical thinking as for examples: (1) Household insects can be killed by
washing the house with a solution of natron, (2) Fat of the Oriole is efficient in
eradicating flies, (3) Fish eggs get rid of fleas, (4) Loose ash spread around a grinding
mill kills flour eating insects, (5) Fat of the woodpecker is used against insect stings,
(6) Fresh palm wine would protect against gnats, (7) You can protect yourself against
the predation of kites (gnats) by planting an acacia tree and using proper incantations
increases the efficacy of this means, (8) Fumigation of the house with incense and
myrrh is recommended but was not affordable to many, (9) Amulets, sometimes in the
form of a protective deity or others shaped like the pest itself, were hoped to ward off
the danger, e.g. locust amulets which have been discovered in tombs, (10). The main
effective means to keep the house free of vermin are to keep it clean and keep a cat,
(11) Shaving the head of little children, greatly reduces the incidence of head-lice and
(12) Personal cleanliness, as mentioned by Herodotus added to the well being.
Mohamed A. Kenawy and Yousrya M. Abdel-Hamid
26
Insect-Borne Diseases in Ancient Egypt
Malaria
Malaria is a widespread and potentially lethal infectious disease caused by
parasites of the genus Plasmodium and is transmitted to humans through the bites of
female Anopheles mosquito. Four species of Plasmodium are pathogenic to humans of
which P. falciparum causes severe (malignant) malaria with undulating high fever.
Immunologic tests have been used to investigate the presence and incidence of
malaria in ancient Egyptian mummies and confirmed the high prevalence of P.
falciparum malaria in ancient Egypt (Miller et al., 1994; Massa et al., 2000; Brier,
2004; Nerlich et al., 2008 and Talpalariu, 2008).
For thousands of years, traditional herbal remedies have been used to treat
malaria. The historian Herodotus (484–425 B.C.) wrote that the builders of the
Egyptian pyramids were given large amount of garlic, to protect them against malaria
(Wikipedia, 2009). Garlic is still in use as an insect repellent (Katz et al., 2008).
Sneferu, the founder of the Fourth dynasty of Egypt, from around 2613 to 2589 B.C.,
used bednets as protection against mosquitoes and Cleopatra VII (69–30 B.C.), the
last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, also slept under a mosquito net (Wikipedia, 2009).
Filariasis (Elephantiasis)
Lymphatic filariasis is thought to have affected humans since approximately
4000 years ago as artifacts from ancient Egypt show possible elephantiasis symptoms.
Although there are no written records however, the swollen limbs of a statue of the
Egyptian Pharaoh Mentuhotep II from about 2000 B.C. (Fig. 26) provide evidence
that he was suffering from elephantiasis and a painting in the temple of Hatshepsut
shows that the queen might even suffer from Elephantiasis (Cox, 2002). Preventive
measures included prayers, various kinds of magic, and wearing of amulets.
Fig. 26: Statue of King Mentuhotep II in the Jubilee Garment (c. 2051-2000 B.C.) From Thebes, Deir
el-Bahri (Source: http://www.flickr.com/).
Leishmaniasis
Leishmaniasis is a disease caused by parasites of the genus Leishmania. The
infection is transmitted to humans through the bites of female sandflies and manifests
mainly in three forms: visceral, cutaneous, and mucocutaneous. Visceral
leishmaniasis or kala-azar, the often fatal form of the disease, is caused by L.
donovani. This parasite was responsible for severe recent outbreaks in Sudan and
other countries and thought to originate in East Africa. In their report, Zink et al.
(2006) described the successful amplification of L. donovani DNA in ancient
Egyptian and Christian Nubian mummies dating back to 4000 years. Beside the first
proof for visceral leishmaniasis in paleopathology, they provided evidence that
Insects in ancient Egypt a review of fauna, their mythological and religious
27
leishmaniasis was present in Nubia in the early Christian period and that the organism
also infected ancient Egyptians, probably because of close trading contacts to Nubia,
during the Middle Kingdom. They analyzed 91 bone tissue samples from ancient
Egyptian mummies and skeletons and 70 bone marrow samples from naturally
mummified human remains from Upper Nubia. The Egyptian material derived from
the Pre- to Early Dynastic site of Abydos- Note5 (n = 7; 3500–2800 B.C., Map), a
Middle Kingdom tomb in Thebes (Luxor) West (42; 2050–1650 B.C.), and different
tomb complexes in Thebes West, which were built and used between the Middle and
New Kingdom until the Late Period (42; c. 2050–500 B.C.).
Plague
Plague is an acute, contagious, febrile illness caused by the bacillus, Yersinia
(Pasteurella) pestis and transmitted by fleas of which the oriental rat flea, Xenopsylla
cheopis is the most important vector. X. cheopis, is probably originated in Egypt, and
has been distributed to all parts of the world in ships' cargoes during the second half
of the 19th century. Moreover, the bubonic plague, or Black Death, may have
originated in ancient Egypt, while most researchers consider central Asia as the
birthplace of the deadly epidemics. Eva Panagiotakopulu (Walker, 2004), found
plague bacillus in fossilized flea remains in ancient ruins in workmen's village at el
Amarna. So that she believes that the plague may have begun in Egypt rather than
Central Asia and thought that the plague epidemics originated in Egypt where the Nile
rat, was the natural host of the flea. The black rats, which came into contact with Nile
rats in the dirty cities, spread the flea and the plague, throughout much of the ancient
world. In almost all cases, plague epidemics strike areas with poor and cramped living
conditions, much like the “Workmen’s Village” section of Amarna where Eva
Panagiotakopulu carried out her research. She is the first to look at fossilized insect
remains in the ancient city and found a very high frequency of fossilized human fleas,
bedbugs and other insects and parasites that “present a picture of squalid living
conditions” in and around the workers’ houses (Sever, 2004).
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION
Apart from the insects mentioned in this review, other insects are known to exist
in ancient Egypt for examples: (1) Grain weevils, Sitophilus granarius, known to
have been present since the Old Kingdom, grain beetles such as the lesser grain borer,
Rhizopertha dominica, and flour beetles, Tribolium castaneum, occurred in Egypt
since the early New Kingdom at least (AEB, 2007) that destroyed significant
amounts of stored cereals; (2) The ubiquitous lesser mealworm, Alphitobius
diaperinus, which can carry health risks for humans and the tiny biscuit beetle,
Stegobium paniceum that have been found in excavations at el Amarna
(Panagiotakopulu et al., 2010) and (3) Bacon beetles belonging to the family
Dermestidae, checkered beetles (Cleridae), lesser meal worm beetles, cockroaches,
snout beetles and others were found in tombs, where they caused damage to the food
offerings and the mummies (AEB, 2007). In addition, other insects such as
butterflies, grasshoppers, or praying mantises might serve as guides to the deceased
on their journey to achieve eternal life (Maspero, 2003).
It is important to consider the present situation of those insects with medical
importance and their associated diseases in modern Egypt.
A total of 29 indigenous mosquito species of 5 genera (Anopheles, Culex,
Culiseta, Ochlerotatus and Uranotaenia) are now present in Egypt. Of the anopheline
mosquitoes, Anopheles pharoensis (allover Egypt especially in the north of the Delta)
Mohamed A. Kenawy and Yousrya M. Abdel-Hamid
28
and An. sergentii (in Fayoum and the oases of the Western Desert) are proven malaria
vectors (Kenawy, 1988). An. pharoensis is the only vector responsible for P. vivax
cases in the Nile Delta and An. sergentii is the main and the predominant vector in
Fayoum and Western Desert oases (e.g. Siwa oasis) and responsible for P. falciparum
transmission in Fayoum.
Malaria was endemic in almost all parts of the country however, by the end of
1998 till now no local cases were reported (Ministry of Health, 2000, Unpublished).
Only lymphatic filariasis caused by Wuchereria bancrofti now present in Egypt.
Culex pipiens is the main vector (Harb et al., 1993) and Cx. antennatus is also
incriminated as a vector (Rifaat et al., 1968). Filariasis has been endemic in Egypt for
centuries (Southgate, 1979). Although the infection was considered to be almost
eliminated and no longer a public health problem in the 1960s, resurgence of filariasis
occurred in the 1980s. A study in some governorates of the Nile delta revealed that the
prevalence of lymphatic filariasis increased from <1% in 1965 to >20% in 1991
especially in El Qalyoubia, El Menoufia, El Dakahlia and El Giza Governorates (Harb
et al., 1993). Recently, lymphatic filariasis is still circulating in El Sharqiya (Abdel-
Hamid et al., 2009), El Menoufia (Abdel-Hamid et al., 2011a), El Ismailia (Abdel-
Hamid et al., 2011b) and Dakahlia (Abdel-Hamid et al., 2013) Governorates in spite of
applying the Mass Drug Administration (MDA) national program of Ministry of Health
to eliminate lymphatic filariasis (Ramzy et al. , 2005 and El-Setouhy et al., 2007).
At present, sandfly fauna comprises 21 species belonging to two genera:
Phlebotomus (8 species) and Sergentomyia (13 species) (Lane, 1986) of which, the
followings are the most important: (1) Phlebotomus papatasi, is the most common
and wide spread species. It is the main vector of cutaneous leishmaniasis (L. major)
(Morsy et al., 1990) which is a common and an old disease in Egypt that is endemic in
almost all parts of the country especially Sharqiya. Governorate and Sinai, (2) P.
sergentti, is less common, and may be involved in transmission of cutaneous
leishmaniasis and (3) P. langeroni, a vector of visceral leishmaniasis (L. infantum)
(Doha and Shehata, 1992), a disease which was recorded for the first time during an
outbreak in 1983 in El Agamy, Alexandria - North west Coast.
To-day, 35 species of fleas (order Siphonaptera) occur, of these 4 species are of
medical importance, all belonging to family Pulicidae: Pulex irritans (Human flea),
Xenopsylla cheopis (Indian Rat flea), Ctenocephalides canis (Dog flea) and Ct. felis
(Cat flea). X. cheopis, the main vector of plague may derive from Cheops (Khêops ),
a name of Khufu, the Dynasty ancient Pharaoh who ruled in the first half of the Old
Kingdom period (26th century B.C.). Plague was known to be endemic in Egypt
(Gratz,1973 and Mafart et al., 2004) however; no recent reports are available on the
present situation of the disease in Egypt.
Infestation with head lice Pediculus humanus capitis (Pediculosis) is
recently reported in some parts of Egypt (El-Basheir and Fouad , 2002; El-Sherbini
et al., 2008 and El-Bahnasawy et al., 2012 ). It is common in crowded unclean sites
as slum areas, schools and other places. Moreover, people who live and work in close
proximity to louse-infested individuals may secondarily acquire lice even if they
regularly wash their clothes and have good hygiene.
In conclusion, in spite of the large variety of insects occurring in Egypt at
present, only few have been represented and named in ancient Egypt.
Insects in ancient Egypt a review of fauna, their mythological and religious
29
NOTES
1. Heliopolis ("City of the Sun" or "City of Helios"; ʿĒn Šhams, "Eye of the Sun") was
one of the oldest cities of ancient Egypt, the capital of the 13th Lower Egypt. It is now
found at the north-east edge of Cairo. Modern Heliopolis (Mar el-Gedīdah, "New
Egypt"; now a part of and a district of Cairo. The settlement was established in 1905
by Baron Empain. http://en.wikipedia.org/Heliopolis_ancient,
http://en.wikipedia.org./wiki/ Heliopolis_ (Cairo_suburb).
2. Antinoë (Antinopolis, Antinoöpolis, Antinoopolis,) was a city founded at an older
Egyptian village by the Roman emperor Hadrian to commemorate his deified young
beloved, Antinous, on the east bank of the Nile, not far from the site in Upper Egypt
where Antinous drowned in 130 A.D. Today not much remains of the ancient city of
Antinopolis. In its place, El Sheikh Ibada, a small mud village, and many newer
structures and still remains of the Roman Circus and ruins of a few temples exist
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antinopolis).
3. Memphis (Manf) was the ancient capital of Lower Egypt. Its ruins are located near
the town of Mit Rahina, 20 km south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. The
modern cities and towns of Mit Rahina, Dahshur, Abusir, Abu Gorab, and Zawyet
el'Aryan, south of Cairo, all lie within the administrative borders of historical
Memphis. The city was also the place that marked the boundary between Upper and
Lower Egypt (http://en.wikipedia.org/Memphis_Egypt).
4. The Book of the Dead is an ancient Egyptian funerary text, used from the
beginning of the New Kingdom (around 1550 B.C.) to around 50 B.C. to
describe the loose collection of texts consisting of a number of magic spells
intended to assist a dead person's journey through the Duat, or underworld.
The Book was placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased,
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_funerary_texts, http://nefertiti.
iwebland.com/religion/ body_ and_soul.htm#body).
5. Abydos is one of the oldest cities of ancient Egypt, located about 11 kilometers west
of the Nile, near the modern Egyptian towns of el-Araba el Madfuna and al-Balyana
(Sohag Governorate}. The city was called Abdju in the ancient Egyptian language
meaning "the hill of the symbol or reliquary", a reference to a reliquary in which the
sacred head of Osiris was preserved.
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... pandemics. During her study, Eva Panagiotakopulu found plague in fossilized flea remains in ancient ruins in workmen's village at el Amarna and believed that the plague may have begun in Egypt rather than Central Asia, as has long been believed [13]. The workmen's Village at Amarna ( Figure 5) located at 270 km south of Cairo, had a very short occupation period (20-25 years, 1350-1323 BC) and consists of a group of well-preserved structures apparently built to house the workers involved in the construction and building of the tomb of Akhenaton [29,30]. ...
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