Cultural Insects

In literature and films, we find certain insects privileged over others.  We find a lot of butterflies but very few dung beetles and this is something that could be considered problematic with the word insect.  Any word which covers such a vast range of different creatures is going to be hard to generalise, for example it’s hard to gauge whether people like insects because whilst most people like ladybirds, very few like mosquitoes.  This means that unlike other themes I’ve looked at, its hard to draw many generalisations so instead I’m looking to examples.


Children’s books are a good place to find insects.  We have the cricket in Pinocchio, the iconic hungry caterpillar, the insects in James and the Giant Peach and the spider in Charlotte’s web (not an insect but for my purposes we’re lumping them together).  There are also illustrated versions of the old woman who swallowed a fly, but perhaps the author with the most number of anthropomorphised insects is Lewis Carroll with Alice in Wonderland and Alice in the Looking Glass.

““What kind of insect?” Alice inquired a little anxiously.  What she really wanted to know was, whether it could sting or not, but she thought this wouldn’t be quite a civil question to ask.”

Throughout her adventures, Alice finds herself on a train with a beetle, having difficult conversations with a caterpillar and in conversation with a chicken sized gnat, she learns that insects in her world and in the looking glass world are very different.  Horseflies have become rocking horseflies, dragonflies are now snapdragon flies and butterflies, most remarkably, are now bread-and-butter-flies who die if they can’t find the weak tea and cream they live on.  Bread-and-butter-flies have thin slices of bread and butter for wings, a crust for its body and a lump of sugar for it’s head.  The conversation with the gnat leads on to an interesting philosophical discussion about names:

“What sort of insects do you rejoice in, where you come from?” the Gnat inquired.
“I don’t rejoice in insects at all,” Alice explained, “because I’m rather afraid of them—at least the large kinds. But I can tell you the names of some of them.”
“Of course they answer to their names?” the Gnat remarked carelessly.
“I never knew them to do it.”
“What’s the use of their having names,” the Gnat said, “if they won’t answer to them?”
“No use to them,” said Alice; “but it’s useful to the people who name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?”

In a chapter that Carroll would chose to omit, Alice encounters a wasp wearing a yellow wig.

We also find insects in Charles Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, in Aesop’s fables, in Shakespeare’s work and obviously, in Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka which features a character waking up to discover he’s become a cockroach.  Barbara Kingsolver, author of Flight Behaviour, has included insects in her novels, including monarch butterfly migrations:

“The flames now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it is poked. The sparks spiralled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against grey sky.”


Writing in the 700s, Chinese poet Du Fu wrote a poem that in the translation by J. P. Seaton begins “House cricket … Trifling thing. And yet how his mournful song moves us. Out in the grass his cry was a tremble, But now, he trills beneath our bed, to share his sorrow.”

In the 18th century, insects were used to write about human desires and sexuality, such as the flea in the poem of the same name by John Donne.  Here we have a flea which mingles blood from two bodies and thus provides a tidy metaphor for sex.  Robert Burns uses an insect in “To a Louse” in order to commentate on vanity and humility.

In The Fly by William Blake, we have a comparison of the insignificance of the fly to man and the insignificance of man to God.

Fireflies in the Garden, by Robert Frost

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,

And here on earth come emulating flies,

That though they never equal stars in size,

(And they were never really stars at heart)

Achieve at times a very star-like start.

Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.

Apparently Robert Frost wrote 17 insect poems, I didn’t count them myself, ranging from butterflies to wasps.  Similarly, Emily Dickinson was no stranger to insects such as in “I heard a fly buzz”.

More contemporary poets also use insects in their writing.  Lafcadio Hearn observed, in 1901, that Japanese poets had created dragonfly haiku “almost as numerous as are the dragonflies themselves in the early autumn.” Other insects also feature heavily in haiku, possibly as they provide information about the time of the year and perhaps also because of the almost international language of symbolism they bring with them.

Insects in films

When aliens appear in films, they are often in the guise of insect like creatures.  Conversely, when insects appear in films, they are portrayed as alien-esque and bringing with them the threats we tend to associate with aliens – the risk of invasion for example.  Insects feature in science fiction where they are often human sized and this in turn makes their unfamiliar features all the more scary to us.

‘Something in the insect seems to be alien to the habits, morals, and psychology of this world, as if it had come from some other planet, more monstrous, more energetic, more insensate, more atrocious, more infernal than our own.’
—Maurice Maeterlinck

On the other hand, we have the humanised insects like Antz, A Bug’s Life and The Bee Movie which “hold up a mirror to our society by having as their central characters human-like [insects] who feel out of place in a community of conformists, where individuality is undervalued” (Robert Roggeveen).

Insects are also prevalent in superhero films such as spiderman and antman where characters take on behaviours of the insects in order to save the day.

Because of the sheer variety of insects, there is a vast mix of ways that insects are used and portrayed in cultures around the world.  Some are portrayed favourably and others as menaces but because insects inhabit almost every part of the globe, it is inevitable that they will sneak their way into art and literature for decades to come.

Further reading


Cats in literature

We’ve already realised that I love cats, and because I am very very allergic to them I can’t have one so I tend to live vicariously through other cat owners and cat related things.  Hence cats in literature are getting their very own blog post!

Cats, as we know, have been with humans for a long time so it is no surprise that they have a prominent place in art and literature of both today and the past.  They are complicated creatures but cats, in stories and poems, tend to be portrayed as clever and wily, as independent and cunning, and as mysterious and enigmatic.  They are shown to be witch’s familiars, travellers companions, heroes and villains. In some writings they take centre stage and in others, supporting roles.

In folklore, cats tend to be haughty and proud, sneaking and clever, wise and helpful.  This sits gratingly against the less flattering cat related metaphors we use; fat cat, copy cat, pussy, pussy footing, cat burglar, alley cat, have kittens, wild cat, catty and so on.  Even miow, when said the right way, is derisive.  There is something about the cat that means we use it to say lazy, to talk of sexual behaviour and to deride sexual women.  I’m actually going to look a bit closer at cats and women when I focus in on gender within nature and writing so I shall leave that thought with you for now.

As well as metaphors, there are also a host of interesting sayings involving cats which are great for sparking the imagination!  It can be raining cats and dogs whilst children fight like cats and dogs and suddenly curiosity kills all these cats, except the one in the cat’s pajamas!

Cats in stories

To get a flavour of the many different cat characters found in fiction, here is a small sample:

  • Lewis Carrol’s Cheshire Cat, a cunning, clever and manipulative beast.
  • The range of cats which appear in the books of Beatrix Potter, portrayed anthropomorphically but still retaining a number of elements of their natural life and are playful and a little mischievous.
  • Mog from Judith Kerr
  • Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams
  • Garfield created by Jim Davis
  • The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber
  • The Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale
  • There are even cats in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

And big cats aren’t neglected either

  • Aslan, the lion from the Narnia books. I don’t know much about the Christian imagery in the series but I do know that Aslan is supposed to represent Jesus.
  • The tiger in The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • Bagheera from the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
  • There is also the Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr

In addition to these examples, cats show up in a range of fiction types, from children’s books to science fiction and beyond.  They are familiar creatures with an array of different personalities and habitats which give authors a lot of scope to work with.  Because there are a lot of metaphors and symbols that can be found in the cat, they can be used to add depth to work and as shortcuts in creating character traits.

Naturally, cats also crop up in Aesop’s fables, written about 500BC, so the use of cats in fiction is not a modern idea.  In one of the fables, Belling the Cat, the cat is cast in the role of enemy and hunter, as does the Town Mouse and The City Mouse. Obviously, perspective is important when considering the traits of any animal.  Of course, most stories told from the point of view of mice are going to show the cat as evil and dangerous.  And stories told from the point of view of a dog would probably exaggerate the cat’s faults and tar them with aspersions which emphasise their own strengths.  If you were a dog who was trying to show everyone how fast and hardworking you were, you’d tell everyone how lazy the cat was.

There are lots of folk tales (I nearly did go there and say tails…) regarding the cat but here are just three, from very different cultures, which help give a flavour:

  • The boy who drew cats, Japan. In this tale, the cat is shown to protect the boy and to be helpful towards humans whilst not expecting anything in return.
  • The cat who came indoors, Africa. This is a story which illustrates how the cat domesticated itself and thus how the cat is independent and strong minded.
  • Puss in boots, also known as the master cat, Europe. Here we see the cat as clever, planning ahead and getting what it wants (and escaping death).

We also find cats all over the world in mythology playing the roles of gods and goddesses as well as guides and guardians of humans.  They were often considered magical and portrayed as moving between worlds; night and day, this world and the other.  As we’ve seen before, cats in Egypt were associated with pregnancy, motherhood and the feminine and this was also the case in Norse mythology where they were sacred to Freya, goddess of love and beauty and fertility.

Cats in poetry

As the subject of poetry, cats appear across the centuries and from both male and female writers. There are serious poems and playful ones, ones where the cats are adored and ones where the cat is barely tolerated…

The earliest cat poem I found was written in 550AD by Agathias about a cat attacking one of his partridges… Not a great start to a literary career but by the 9th century, in Ireland at least, they were faring better; Pangur Ban tells of a monk and his cat.  However, cat poetry seems to have become more popular from the mid 1700s which makes sense when you think about the timeline of cats and humans.  Prior to this, they were considered more as pest control than pets and just before this time, they were associated with witches and thus were not popular to keep around.

Again, I just want to provide a few examples to show the scope of cats in poetry:

  • T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
  • Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat gives us a characteristic rule breaker, showing the more chaotic side of our feline friends.
  • Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat, 1868
  • William Blake, The Tyger, 1794
  • William Wordsworth, The kitten and the falling leaves, 1804
  • Emily Dickinson, She sights a bird – she chuckles, 1800s. Don’t you think even the title brings to mind a cat?!
  • Eleonor Fargeon (1881-1965), Cats.
  • Cat Kisses by Bobbi Katz (at the bottom of the link)
  • Black Cat by Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926
  • Edward Thomas, A Cat. It turns out not everyone is such a fan…

As you can see, there are a very diverse range of cats hiding within the pages of our books and we’ve not even looked at plays and films and tv programmes.  Or even cats in non fiction such as Elsa in Born Free.  And we’ve only glanced at cats in myths.

You can find out more about big cats as symbols and their role in myths and beliefs in my animal spirit posts:

Who are your favourite literary cats?  Let me know, I’d love to hear and I’m always up for book recommendations (about cats or even, I suppose, not about cats).

Animals in children’s literature

There is a whole argument that could be had about what is children’s literature and I know that the label puts some adults off reading some amazing writing.  Here, when I use the phrase, I am referring to books that were written with children in mind.  This does not mean that adults shouldn’t read them or that they aren’t good or well written.  In fact, if you’ve ever tried to write for children, you’ll know that it’s exceptionally difficult. 

We find animals in picture books, in children’s novels, in non fiction, in poetry, in fairy tales and in nursery rhymes and anyone who has engaged with children and animals knows that most of the time, they find them intriguing and interesting.

There are so many animals in children’s literature that I think we take the idea for granted today.  But looking back at the development of the genre of books specifically for children, the natural world had an important role to play.

Before the 18th century there wasn’t really the concept of childhood as we know today and thus no niche for books for childhood.  When this changed, authors created a sort of hybrid of nature books and story books – books entirely for education of the natural world but which used a story telling approach.  There were also books featuring animals to teach letters and numbers as well as less tangible concepts such as morality.  As time went by, the genre expanded and books for pleasure were written with children in mind and the “golden age” of children’s books was found towards the end of the 18th century and early 19th.  At this point in time, the cost of paper and printing had gone down and concern for children’s religious and moral wellbeing resulted in an increase in supply of books whilst improved literacy increased demand.

In the 19th century, more people were aware of more types of animals though public exhibitions and very early zoos, this meant that writers had a larger number of familiar creatures to work with.  I would imagine, prior to the zebra being commonly known, alphabet books were a bit difficult to finish!  In the 1920s and 30s we find a resurgence of more realistic children’s books and now we have an entire range of options.

“Adults tend to think of nature in terms of ‘The Great Outdoors’.  They crave distant, glittering vistas, snow-capped mountains, broad, far-reaching valleys.  Children are less particular.  A hedge, a ditch, a tiny knoll will give them all the countryside they need”
– Christian McEwan

Apparently the most common animals found in children’s literature are dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, ducks, rabbits, mice, wolves, foxes and bears.  With the exception of the last three, these are all common animals which most children will have seen or be aware of.  This makes them characters with which they already have a connection, they already have an affinity with.  And the last three, wolves, foxes and bears, are the animals of fairy tales with the bear also being found often in the bed of the child.  Again, there is familiarity here.

These animals tend to have their own, pre-established character. For example, we have rabbits who were historically portrayed as a trickster but now tend to be playful, friendly and a little naughty but too much naughtiness is shown to have consequences.  Dogs are faithful, obedient, loving and often rescue other characters.  This all means that children can open a book, see an animal, and get a very quick sense of what’s going on.  And this easy access knowledge is important for those children who are less interested or able to read.

If you walk into a library or book shop and look at the cover of children’s books, you’ll see a lot of animals staring back at you.  An analysis of over 1000 children’s books in a library showed almost half of them contained animals.  Of those containing animals, only ¼ were in their natural settings, the rest anthropomorphised and even that quarter saw animals carrying out human behaviour.  Another study showed that 59% of storybooks in the library in question featured anthropomorphised animals and of the most frequently borrowed books, a significantly higher proportion contained them.  There is no doubt that the use of animals in children’s book is both a common one and a popular one.

Stories themselves are important learning tools in early development and anthopomorpised animals in children’s books distance us from human issues and make them less frightening.  This means children can learn that the dark isn’t scary, for example, without it being explicitly explained.  They are effective tools that can convey concepts and prompt conversations about life issues.  Where the death of a human in a children’s book might be considered too much for a child, an animal dying would prompt a different reaction.  Dressing animals up in clothes, for example, is one way in which scary concepts can be made more accessible.  There are other issues which can be addressed such as bullying, feeling inadequate because you’re small (eg piglet) and because a lot of books feature more than one species, huge topics such as racism and equality can be looked at.

Some research has shown that animals in literature help children to recognise and empathise with animals and brings out the desire to nurture and protect.  However, some researchers argue that this presentation of animal creates the “Bambi syndrome” where children believe that all animals are cute and fluffy and can be played with and taken home as pets.

And there does seem to be a bit of a battle going on about whether biological or anthropomorphic books are best.  How animals are presented has been shown to affect how children reason.  Those who read books with anthropomorphised animals are more likely to use anthropomorphic reasoning whereas those who read biologically accurate stories use biological reasoning.  Personally, I feel that a mix is good and that they have different benefits.

Biologically accurate books help children to learn and retain knowledge about the animals involved.  And this is true for adults as well – I know that I remember facts much more easily if I’ve read them in a fiction book or seen a film that if I read or watch nonfiction.

Children’s books about nature, accurate or not, draw their eyes to certain things, help them to notice the plants and animals around them in the same way that nature writing for adults can.  Animals stories can spark wonder in children and provoke a whole range of emotions, even when portrayed biologically, from terror to happiness to surprise.  These traits, plus the wonderful array of illustrative opportunities, mean it is not surprising how popular animals are in children’s literature.

Useful links:

Animals in Literature

We need animals not only as mirrors in order to see ourselves clearly but so that our minds may become more beautiful by the sight of them. It’s a paradox. We need our animal kin so that our spirits and imaginations can be most fully human.
Christie Dickason

I’m going to offer a broad outline of animals in literature here and will be focusing on animals in children’s literature in my next post.  Inevitably there will be cross overs but animals feature so heavily in books for children that I feel it needs its own space and exploration.

We talk to them, for them and about them so it is inevitable that animals will find themselves in our stories as well.

Animals feature in literature over and over and in many shapes and forms.  They are found in starring roles in Aesop’s fables from around 500BC through to modern day novels as well as in poetry and fairy tales and plays and many other guises.  They can feature in stories which are comic, or mysterious, or tragic or surreal or political…  Instead of filling line after line with examples of animals in literature, I want to look at how they feature and why they feature in our literature.

Retrospectively, literature can tell us about changing trends, relationships and interactions that humans have with animals.  We have writing that communicates the experience of animals and their suffering, writing that creates a more intimate relationship with animals and writing that unpicks the complex feelings we have about animals and the relationships we form with them.  At different points in time, we would write differently about these things and thus language and writing evolve as we do.

We know from Claude Levi-Strauss that animals are good to think with, but why is this so?  In some sense it is probably because they have always surrounded us and so our thinking, our view of the world and our way of speaking has been informed by them.  They act as comparisons to humans in a world where it is hard to find anything close to our species; drawing similarities and differences as a way of defining ourselves and mirroring our traits.


Our language is so filled with animal metaphors that we often don’t even see them.  “She’s got herself in a flap”, you might comment, without a single thought of the bird and her wings.

Metaphors are highly effective linguistic tools which we associate with verbal or written language but they can also be found in gesture and imagery.  They allow the user to convey something in a more image-centric way, they are used as short hand and as codes. They convey information rapidly and can be used to manipulate thinking.  For example, we know that if a character is described as being built like an ox they are strong and bulky and solid.  But further to this, we might start to speculate about their nonphysical nature, perhaps this character is reliable and dependable and grounded or headstrong.

To use metaphor cuts out a lot of descriptive language, but more than that, research has shown that metaphors spark the emotional part of our brains in a way that other language doesn’t.  The talk I watched about metaphors gave the example of someone coming home from work and saying she had a bad day vs she had a rough day.  Now rough day is very entrenched in our language, it’s normal and we don’t think her day was actually rough, and what would that mean unless she worked on a boat?  But the version with rough day, the metaphorical version, showed more brain activity in the person listening than bad day.  And as a writer, isn’t evoking emotion exactly what we want to do?

A metaphor triggers indirect evaluation and invites inferences, both tactics used in persuasion and hence the strong use of metaphors in advertising.  Because metaphors are not explained explicitly, their use also creates shared knowledge – in BSL the sign for metaphor is apparently actually “exchanging your minds”.  This brings the speakers, or reader and writer, closer.  You have this moment where you are both understanding something without speaking directly of it and this bonds you.

As well as using animal metaphors to describe non animal entities in literature, we can also see animals themselves starring in writing as the metaphor themselves.  For example, in little red riding hood, the wolf is not just a wolf, it is a metaphor for all that the wolf stands for.  To tell the same story in a culture where wolves are symbolic of different traits and a metaphor for something else entirely would to be to change the story itself.  Metaphors, being culturally specific, are apparently one of the hardest parts of a language to learn.  They do not translate literally. For example, it’s a dog’s life has a literal equivalent in Romanian but instead of meaning it’s easy, it means it’s full of hardship and deprivation.

Before I look at non-metaphorical animals, I just wanted to share some animal similes which are apparently used mostly in Yorkshire:

  • As happy as a pig in muck
  • As drunk as a newt
  • As gormless as a sucking duck
  • As quick as an eel
  • As sick as a Cleethorpes donkey

You can also get a sense of the huge scope for animals as metaphors in my animal spirit posts – each card contains an image of one animal and yet the breadth of interpretation is vast.

Anthropomorphism scale

Other than as metaphors, a key use of animals in literature is as characters. And these characters sit somewhere along what I am calling the anthropomorphism scale.  At one end, we have animals as they actually are, doing animal things and not subject to projection from us.  At the other end, we have animals which are essentially human. They are off to work in their suit and tie and driving their car and getting married and having babies.  The latter are used a lot in children’s literature, although not exclusively, so I shall consider them mostly in a later post.  For now, I just want to echo Rowland’s observation and add that writing anthropomorphically about animals in human roles allows us to discuss human issues with more distance.

“Writing about animals – certainly, when they are used as metaphors or representations – is simply writing about humans that is carried out by other means”
– Mark Rowlands

For the animals which tend to be portrayed more as themselves we find an array of species and roles.  There can be pets which are used to tell us about a character through how they treat the pet.  We have reams of poems which are about nature and hence include the animals around us, the swallows and the squirrels we find in our parks through to the tiger from Blake’s famous verse.

There are also stories told from the animal’s perspective but which are still mostly animal like.  For example, Tarka the Otter which I’m going to consider in a separate post.  When writing about animals as themselves, authors get to play around with the range of noises and sounds that they make and this in turn can add atmosphere to writing and tell us about the character without making the character speak.  There are also biographies of animals and stories in which animals are alongside the main characters but still pay a key part.

Including animals in literature gives authors more characters to play with and more imaginative fodder.  There is also great scope for illustrations which can be more playful and more interesting than human focused images.  I don’t know if there is any evidence, but it feels like we would remember characters differently if they were non human.  Think back to your childhood reading, how many characters can you recall?  How many of those are animals?

Tarka the otter

Tarka the otter, Henry Williamson, 1927

“He was called Tarka, which eas the name given to otters many years ago by men dwelling in hut circles on the moor.  It means little water wanderer, or, wandering as water.”

This is one of the books I’ve been reading this month and I love it.  I read it as a child but rereading it has been a beautiful experience.  I have a physical paperback copy which means I have to read it slowly, no more than a chapter at a time, because of my hand pain. And this is extending the deliciousness of the language and the writing.

Williamson did not write Tarka as a children’s book but it became popular with children and hence it is marketed that way today. I know some people are put off and don’t read children’s books, or only do it with adult covers but this really is a book for all of us.

It is a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful and brutal.  Williamson makes an excellent use of language and it contains a number of regional specific words which enhance the imagery.

“Iggiwick, the vuz-peg – his coat was like furze and his face like a pig’s”

We have words like ragrowster, aerymouse (a bat), dimity (twilight), yinny-yikker (noisily aggressive) and yikkering.  These tug at my heart in a way that alternatives might not.

We hear the animals calling in wonderfully onomatopoeia:

Hu-ee-ic…. Skirr-rr… cur-lee-eek… aa-aa…

This is not an anthropomorphic tale, it is an otter’s eye view of the landscape and the characters within it.  And yet, we feel we know the animals that weave in and out of Tarka’s life.  Part of this is the marvellous names that the creatures are given.  There is Old Nog, the white owl, and Halcyon the kingfisher.  There is Deadlock, the otter hound and the old dog otter Marland Jimmy.  There are degrees of anthropomorphism but it is not heavy handed and the animals don’t speak.  Because of this, it is imbued with a strong sense of reality and is a great example of writing from the senses.

Williamson wrote a nature journal from his childhood so it is perhaps no surprise that Tarka is so real.  He also sought out hunting experts for advice and to ensure accuracy and rewrote the manuscript 17 times.

“Twilight over meadow and water, the eve-star shining above the hill, and old nog the heron crying kra-a-ark! as his slow dark wings carried him down to the estuary.”

As well as conveying a strong connection with nature, Tarka also reveals to the reader Williamson’s close relationship with the landscape.  He moved to Devon in 1921 and his intimacy with this place comes through in his writing.  For context, otters were hunted as vermin at this time and their population wouldn’t decline until the 1950s.  This means that the text is not one about the danger to the otter population and is not intended to influence this practice.  But he did have a strong influence, inspiring writers such as Rachel Carson, Ted Hughes, Roger Deakin and Kenneth Allsop.

This book is a treasure and if you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it for a long time, please do!