Cancer, the dung beetle
As I searched around in an old box for something else, I came upon a small sculpture of a dung beetle made of clay. My daughter fashioned it a few years back as part of her Humanities class at Columbus Alternative High School. “A waste of precious class time better spent on reading and math,” you say? Just look up at the nighttime sky, and you will see that time spend studying dung beetles is time well spent.
The constellation of the Dung Beetle takes a position of honor this time of year as it scuttles almost overhead at around 10:30 p.m. Nestled in the center of the beetle in the place where its heart might be is a pretty fuzzy patch easily visible to the unaided eye. In binoculars, the fuzz resolves into a gloriously beautiful cluster of stars.
These days, we don’t call the constellation a bug. By the time of the flowering of ancient Greek civilization, the bug had become Cancer, the Crab, powerful household pet of Hera, queen of all the gods.
The beetle in the sky goes back much farther than that. Since long before human history, on sunny days the dung beetle has spun its droppings up tiny, sandy hills and allowed them to drop down again, By repeating the process many times, the beetle is able to create balls of dung much larger than itself. Most remarkably, the insect lays its eggs in the spheres. As the sun’s rays dry them out, the beetle rolls them into its tiny, underground lair. Out of its own excrement, the proud legacy of the dung beetle is passed on to a new generation as baby beetles eat their way out.
“Gross,” you say? Four thousand years ago, the dung beetle seemed nothing short of godly. The ancient Egyptians saw it rolling its dung in the bright sunshine and hypothesized that this must be the way the sun moves across the sky. The sun was an important god — Ra, the giver of light and life. They didn’t realize that the beetle laid its eggs in its droppings. They thought that somehow the bug produced life spontaneously from dung infused with Ra’s glorious glow.
Above all, the ancient Egyptians craved immortality, and so they came to worship the bug. It became for them a symbol of the great cycle of life — of death and rebirth, of endings and new beginnings, of the degeneration that comes from old age and regeneration of birth.
They believed that people were born again after death. The human body was thus carefully preserved through a long and complex embalming process. Upon the breasts of their great pharaohs was placed an artistic representation of the beetle. Sometimes, among other steps of the embalming process, the heart was removed from the corpse and replaced with a carving of the bug.
The next year after she gave me her beetle, I had the honor to stand in a pharaoh’s crypt with my daughter. We looked up together to see a dung beetle rolling the sun along the path of the Milky Way as it stretched across the sky like the backbone of god.
The bug lives in our own culture to this very day. As it was so long ago, it is called a scarab. I am often amazed to see how many people, otherwise unaware of the ancient antecedents of the practice, wearing the lovely insect as a necklace, right above the human heart.
And as I type these lines, nestled in my breast pocket, close to my heart, is a lump of clay fashioned into a scarab by my daughter. Out of that bug flows inspiration and power and a kind of immortality. They flow from the ancient sands of Egypt. They have wended their inexorable way through the stars to a small classroom in the heart of the state where we all live.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.