Category Archives: Amulet

Groundhog Day Special–Hedgehogs in Ancient Egypt

Happy Groundhog Day!

I thought it would be fun to occasionally have some posts about Ancient Egyptian connections to modern holidays.

But as you may already know, groundhogs have nothing to do with Ancient Egypt (since they are natively a North American creature).

But I DO happen to know quite a bit about hedgehogs in Ancient Egypt. And hedgehogs are REALLY cute.

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See? Adorable!

So even though groundhogs and hedgehogs are not at all related, this seemed like as good a week as any to tell you about hedgehogs in Ancient Egypt.

The Ancient Egyptian word for “hedgehog” was either HntA or Hnty.

However, this Egyptian word may also refer to porcupines and there’s no definitive evidence that the Egyptians used separate words for “porcupine” and “hedgehog.”

Practical uses of the hedgehog

Actual hedgehogs and depictions of hedgehogs in Ancient Egypt had a few practical uses.

Medicine–Hedgehog quills may have been used as medicine; in one medical text, a recipe for curing baldness calls for the burnt spines of the Hnty, mixed with oil.

Food or pets–There are also some tomb scenes that show people carrying cages with hedgehogs in them. Because those scenes also show food offerings for deceased individuals, it may indicate that hedgehogs were used as food. However, those same images may indicate that live hedgehogs were brought back from the dessert in cages to be pets (or as symbolic figures to ward off danger. More on that below).

Decoration–Depictions of hedgehogs are found in tomb scenery to indicate the dessert. They also appear on many three-dimensional objects like boats, pottery vessels, amulets, and stamp-seals.

Letter seal in the shape of a hedgehog from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

But hedgehogs also seem to have had an important symbolic role.

Possible symbolic significance of the hedgehog

Protection–As a nocturnal animal, the hedgehog may have been viewed as an advantageous apotropaic (meaning “protective) creatures to ward off the dangers of the nighttime. Additionally, hedgehogs have some natural resistance to poison from scorpions (and snakes) and a good defensive position; although hedgehogs generally avoid conflict and are more likely to flee when possible, they will roll into a ball when severely threatened, so their softer bellies are protected by the defensive spines of their back. The ability to resist poison and to protect themselves when in danger are probably the reason that many Ancient Egyptian amulets are in the shape of a hedgehog.

Hedgehog amulet from the University of Memphis, TN.

So there you have it both ways. Depictions of these adorable creatures were used in Ancient Egypt for decoration, but many of them also had symbolic significance.


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Welcome to HeartScarab

What is this blog about?

I hope that this blog will be a place where amateur Egyptologists can find reliable information about Egyptian history and culture and where both professional Egyptologists and those with a passing interest in Ancient Egypt can find something helpful and entertaining.

I intend to post entries on Ancient Egyptian art, language, and history, on Egypt-themed books and games, on modern archaeological discoveries in Egypt, and on resources in the field of Egyptology.

I use expert information on the topics I cover, but won’t make the blog overly formal; I fully intend to post fun, funny, and even ridiculous things.

Thanks for joining me. I hope you enjoy it!

Feel free to post notes or contact me personally.

 

Why “HeartScarab?”

The heart scarab was one of the ultimate “get out of jail free “cards in the Egyptian afterlife.

In Ancient Egypt, the scarab—or dung beetle—was a symbol of life and regeneration (apparently because the birth of young scarabs from balls of dung seemed to be creation out of nothing).  The scarab was frequently chosen as an amulet worn during life, designed to protect the wearer.

Ancient Egyptian scarab jewelry. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/10.130.910_27.3.206 (accessed January 2011)

One of the most important types of scarab amulet, however, was used after death, and was intended to protect the deceased from destruction in the afterlife (its purpose is described in Spell 30 of the Book of the Dead—the Ancient Egyptian guidebook to death and the afterlife).

In the Egyptian worldview, an individual’s life and deeds are judged in the afterlife by weighing their heart against the feather of ma’at (truth/order/justice).

"Weighing of the Heart" scene from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer.

If the heart is not weighed down by sin, it is lighter than the feather, allowing the deceased to enter the afterlife. If, however, the heart is heavier than the feather, the deceased cannot enter paradise (and his or her heart is devoured by a demon).

In theory, then, the heart could “testify” against its owner.  The purpose of the heart scarab, when it was placed on the chest of the deceased for burial, was to silence the heart’s witness of any bad deeds.

I chose HeartScarab for my blog title (out of the hundred titles I considered) because I love the sentiment it evokes—it’s about Egypt, and it’s close to my heart. So here I am, writing about Ancient Egypt; and if some of what I say is a bit fudged…well, that’s where a the HeartScarab comes in handy.

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