Ancient Egyptian silver scarab, dated to c. 1981–1975 BCE during the reign of Amenemhat I of the Middle Kingdom. The scarab was found in the tomb of Wah, an estate manager, which is recorded by the inscription on the scarab’s wings. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos edited by me.

I was recently asked about the religious significance of jewelry in ancient Egypt. Evidence for religious and spiritual jewelry in Egypt dates to at least the Predynastic period (c. 4500-3100 BCE) and continued well through the Greek and Roman eras (305 BCE-641 CE), spanning all of ancient Egyptian history as we define it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the religious connotations that jewelry held in ancient Egypt, but the sources I’ve cited have much more information if you’d like to learn more.

Like many of their neighboring peoples on the Mediterranean, the ancient Egyptians wore amulets to protect themselves from evil spirits or to provide themselves with certain traits (Source 1: Metropolitan Museum of Art). Amulets could be worn in the form of pendants, necklaces, and bracelets (Source 1), with amulet rings introduced in the Middle Kingdom (Source 2: McClung Museum). In the Old Kingdom (c. 2649–2150 BCE), amulets generally took the shape of animals, and amulets in the shapes of gods were introduced in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BCE) and remained popular as time went on (Source 1).

Specific animals held specific meanings for ancient Egyptians. The dung beetle (or scarab), for example, which rolls up balls of dung for food or for breeding ground, was viewed as a symbol of regeneration, renewal, and rebirth. Given the ancient Egyptians’ strong religious belief in the afterlife, we can understand how important the symbol of the scarab would have been to the ancient Egyptians. Scarabs were thus some of the most-if not the most-important amulets in ancient Egypt. Scarabs could be inscribed with the names of their wearers, phrases, or specific prayers or wishes (Source 2).

Another greatly important amulet was the Wedjat Eye, also known as the Eye of Horus, as the symbol combines the human-shaped eye of the god Horus with the falcon wings of Horus who often appeared in the guise of a falcon (Source 3: Metropolitan Museum of Art). An Egyptian myth explains the rise of the sun with Horus’s loss of his eye, though it was later restored to him. As such, the Wedjat Eye protects its wearer from harm and symbolizes recovery (Source 3).

The ankh was another popular amulet form. The shape of the ankh was the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for the word “life,” including both the earthly existence of humans as well as their afterlives (Source 4: Ancient History Encyclopedia). The ankh was such an important symbol that even when Akhenaten forbade the practice of the traditional religion of Egypt and imposed the worship of the single god Aten, the ankh remained present in Egyptian art as part of the new religion (Source 5: History Embalmed). Further, that the ankh symbolizes eternal life explains its frequency in tomb art. Here is a depiction of the god Anubis and the goddess Isis, both deities heavily associated with death and the afterlife, presenting Tutankhamun (c. 1341- 1323 BCE) with ankhs.

As in life, amulets held great importance in the afterlife too, as the example of the ankh shows. Heart scarabs, which were generally larger than scarabs meant for everyday use, were worn by the deceased near their hearts, hence their name (Source 2). Many heart scarabs were inscribed with spells designed to protect the deceased person in the afterlife, particularly from being judged harshly against the feather of Ma’at (the goddess of truth), which eliminated the person’s afterlife and erased him or her from all existence (Source 2).

Still, most amulets in ancient Egypt were designed for living people (Source 2). Scarabs, for example, were made abundantly and with a variety of materials, allowing most everyone access to them across social classes (Source 2).

As a final point, different materials held different meanings to ancient Egyptians, sometimes based on their color. Lapis lazuli, a vibrant blue stone, was associated with the heavens and divinity, and some believe that lapis lazuli was considered the most precious gemstone in ancient Egypt (Source 6: Setjataset). Emeralds also had symbolic associations due to their color, as ancient Egyptians viewed green as a symbol of fertility and rebirth (Source 6). Some gemstones had symbolic significance unrelated to their color, such as turquoise, which had a variety of properties, including protection from evil spirits and promotion of health, happiness, and prosperity, as well as being sacred to the goddess Hathor (Source 6).

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