Interview with Gene Kritsky on Insects in Ancient Egypt
Caroline Wazer, a staff writer at a website called History Buff, recently interviewed Gene Kritsky about his new book, The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt. Dr. Kritsky is professor and chair of biology at Mount St. Joseph University, an adjunct curator at the Cincinnati Museum Center, and he is editor-in-chief of American Entomologist.
The website owners have allowed us to reproduce some excerpts below, but be sure to click here to read the entire interview.
History Buff: The insect most identified with the ancient Egyptians in popular culture is the scarab beetle. Aside from the honey bee, are there any other insects that people might be surprised to learn were important to the Egyptians?
Gene Kritsky: Oh, certainly. In fact, I often call the Egyptians the first entomologists, although a lot of people give that honor to the ancient Greeks. But before the Greeks were involved—they did more of the pure scientific work—in addition to the scarabs and the honeybees, we find hieroglyphs of grasshoppers, we find amulets of grasshoppers, we also, in addition to the scarab beetle, there are metallic wood-boring beetles, in the same family in which we find the emerald ash-bore. There’s also the click beetles, which are found especially in the old kingdom, we find butterflies, we find praying mantis mentioned in a number of religious texts, there’s even a praying mantis that is been found wrapped in mummy linen and mummified.
HB: Oh really? Do you know what museum that’s in?
GK: I believe that’s in Brussels. I’ve not seen it, but I have a poor photograph of it. We also have flies. There are two kinds of flies that are seen, the large golden flies, which are supposed to be awards for valor, tenacity in battle, and these are large, 2 to 3 inches in length, for example, three of them that were on a necklace. We also find a small flies on mummy necklaces. These are maybe a quarter of an inch in size, made from everything from faience to silver to gold. Those are quite common in the Egyptian mummy jewelry or amulet area. There appears to be some good evidence for darkling beetles or flour beetles. And they had some concerns about water beetles. There’s a spell in the book of the dead against water beetles and I found, when I was at the British Museum going through the amulet collection, there was one amulet that was very smooth and stylized, just like a water beetle, in the same shape as well.
I wrote a paper for Kmt: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, titled “Beetle Gods, King Bees & Other Insects of Ancient Egypt” a few years back—sort of a survey of all these different insects that you find in Egyptian literature and archaeology.
HB: Modern people tend to have ambivalent feelings about bees: we know they’re important for the ecosystem and we love honey, but most of us don’t really like being close to bees because we’re afraid of being stung. Did the Egyptians have a similar relationship with bees?
GK: The Egyptians are the first beekeepers that we have definitive evidence for. The oldest record of true beekeeping, which consists of providing the bees with an artificial cavity in which the bees can build honeycomb and raise their young and produce honey and what have you — that honor, right now, goes to the ancient Egyptians. They may not have been the first, but we have the oldest record of true beekeeping with the Egyptians. And we know from tomb paintings and temple carvings that they were not wearing any protective gear, so if they were afraid of being stung, it’s not being shown in their illustrations.
We know from the tomb of Rekhmire, an 18th dynasty vizier, there’s a scene where one of the beekeepers is actually holding an incense censer. And they’re giving the bees an offering of incense. Now of course we know today that we smoke the bees to quiet them down, and because they considered the bees the gift of the god Re, this offering seems like a logical thing to do from our read, that you’d honor your god with incense, but that smoke would also quiet the bees down. You can almost see the behavior change in the bees.