Dragonflies? A possible composite type in Egyptian tomb scenes and its implications

Linda Evans, Philip Weinstein

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The Egyptology literature sometimes refers to the presence of “dragonflies” in Egyptian tomb scenes, but is this identification accurate? Many of the creatures labelled as such are morphologically incorrect, displaying antennae and/or legs that are too long, with bulbous abdomens, and/or extra wings. Despite these anomalies, some images do indeed resemble dragonflies, especially those found in tomb scenes in later periods. Here we present the first known identification of a dragonfly nymph in an Old Kingdom scene at Saqqara, which reveals Egyptian knowledge and observation of the natural history of these insects. Furthermore, while butterflies appear early in the artistic record, “dragonflies” are not represented in marsh scenes until the late Fifth Dynasty. Their occurrence thus corresponds with a period of environmental change in Egypt that was marked by unusually low Nile floods. The warm backwaters that resulted from the changed river conditions will have encouraged a substantial increase in the range and quantity of common aquatic insects, such as mayflies, midges, mosquitoes, as well as their predators: dragonflies and damselflies. We propose that heightened awareness of these insects in the late Fifth Dynasty led to the introduction of the ‘dragonfly’ motif and that, in addition, it represents a composite type incorporating the features of a range of hovering, fast-moving insects that are reliably found near water. Other composite insect types have been proposed in Egyptian art, such as the “bee” motif and the use of Monarch butterflies to represent the insects as a group. The “dragonfly/flying insect” image may similarly represent a merging of ecologically related species in order to represent a type, with variability in the features of the motif indicating the artists’ conflation of visually- and behaviourally-similar marsh insects. The humble “dragonfly” thus offers us unexpected insights into changing environmental conditions during the Old Kingdom period and the impact of animals on Egyptian cultural expression.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAbusir and Saqqara in the year 2020
EditorsMiroslav Bárta, Filip Coppens, Jaromir Krejčí
Place of PublicationPrague
PublisherCharles University
Number of pages10
ISBN (Print)9788076710511
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • ancient Egypt
  • animals
  • insects
  • art
  • invertebrates
  • dragonflies
  • aquatic insects
  • marsh scenes
  • Nile river
  • climate change
  • Old Kingdom


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