Grasshoppers

“There is something liberating about not knowing exactly how things will turn out.  The smell of a fresh new adventure tickles the tips of my antennae.  It sends shivers down my body and before I know it, I turn and land in its direction.  As its vibration gets stronger, I trust my inner compass more and more until eventually that which was once unknown now becomes the known.”
– Message from the Grasshopper, Animal Totem Tarot

It’s a bit of an aside but grasshoppers are eaten by Roadrunners which are another of the Animal Totem Tarot cards so you may want to spend some time reflecting on what that means, especially if you’ve pulled both cards.

But back to the main post, the grasshopper, the first card in the Animal Totem Tarot deck; the fool. Something I didn’t know about grasshoppers and locusts until a few years ago is that they are (sort of) the same.  A locust is a short-horned grasshopper but not all grasshoppers are locusts. Got that?! Safe Haven Pest Control describe locusts as grasshoppers that have “superior social characteristics”! Given the right environmental conditions, a short horned grasshopper can transform into a locust. When conditions are right for that transformation, they get bigger, their wings become stronger, their colour changes and they swarm.

Scientists have identified an increase in serotonin in certain parts of their nervous system initiates the changes in behaviour which leads to the swarming. Serotonin, when it comes to humans, is mostly known for its role in depression but it’s a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in your brain and body. In addition to its role in mood, it affects sleep, digestion and healing.

This Jekyll and Hyde transformation is something I want to consider in relation to this insect along with the two sides.  We have here a being with two very different personas depending on the situation or environment it finds itself in. It makes me think of someone who is quiet and unassuming in their day job but then comes alive and vibrant at night, in the karaoke bar or on stage as a drag queen. Or an extrovert in one aspect of the life but introvert in another. Then there’s the trigger that changes one into the other. Perhaps you’re an introverted performer who can relate to the idea that a certain routine helps you get into the right mindset, or a writer who has a certain environment where they are better able to get into the flow.

Whilst I am going to touch on locusts, as this card is primarily about the grasshopper, let’s start their first. They are ancient creatures which were around about 250 million years ago and key to understanding them, is their powerful hind legs.  These allow them to escape from danger and according to Canal and River Trust:

“These all-singing, all-dancing creatures truly are the gymnasts of the insect world, being able to leap distances of up to 20 times the length of their own body.”

Whilst they don’t actually ‘jump’, they catapult themselves instead, it’s not surprising that we see the grasshopper in the place of the Fool as this Major Arcana card is epitomised by leaps of faith.

In addition to catapulting themselves out of danger, they have a hard shell and some species eat toxic plants and then keep the toxins in their body for protection. They advertise this danger with bright colours. Further to this, when picked up, they spit out a brown liquid known as ‘tobacco juice’. This is actually a mix of saliva and other stomach enzymes and is acidic, smells bad and can stain. In China and Japan this fluid was sold for medicinal uses (Clausen).

They also disappear from predators by hiding in the vegetation that they enjoy, sometimes staying still is wiser than making dramatic moves. Their strong jaw is used for chewing plants, and in locust form especially, can cause serious damage to crops, causing devastation and famine which has a huge impact on their reputation.

Moving through their senses; they have a pair of compound eyes and three simple eyes which detect light and dark. Instead of ‘traditional’ ears, they have an organ called a tympana; a circular membrane on their abdomen which they use to hear. They also have a covering of fine hairs (called setae) which help them detect touch and wind. This makes me want to stand outside, arms outstretched and just feel the air and the weather on my skin!

Some species make the well known stridulation sounds by rubbing together a row of pegs on their hind legs and edges of their forewings.  Often the noise is made by the males and is to attract females or compete with rivals. Sadly, urban grasshoppers are having to make their song louder in order to compete with human noise.

Of course, grasshoppers come together to mate even though they live mostly solitary lives. Females are larger than males and have a sharp point at the end of their abdomen, this helps them lay their eggs under the ground. After hatching as nymphs, they undergo an incomplete metamorphosis; at each stage their look a lot like adults but each time they shed their skin there are a few changes. These gradual changes (5 or 6 moults) end with them in an adult form where they’re able to reproduce and most species have wings by this point.

We all change as we go through life and sometimes it’s harder and more painful than others, but (full) metamorphosis involves fully rearranging your body and even incomplete metamorphosis involves breaking out of your former self. Give yourself the space to grow, the credit when you do and the time to say goodbye to that version of you. There may be the need to grieve old versions of yourself or the people who were there when that was who you were. Not everyone is supposed to be with you for life, sometimes people come into your life, make their mark and for whatever reason then go a different way.

Healing, symbolism and mythology

Taking a quick look at healing and insects in a more physical, less emotional, way, Wikipedia tells us that the femurs of grasshoppers were used to treat liver issues by the indigenous people of Mexico, and further afield, they’ve been used to cure migraines and headaches and are eaten as a source of protein.

We can also find historical sources which refer to the use of the grasshopper. According to Entomotherapy or the Medicinal Use of Insects, classical authors including Pliny the Elder noted that locusts of grasshoppers could be used for fumigation against anuresis of women and for scorpion stings. NB, anuresis refers to lack of urination and I’m unclear why it’s specific to women…

In Tibetan medicine, grasshoppers were considered medicinal, with their spit used for a head injury called ‘dripping brain’ and to neutralise the poison of a particular beetle. We also find that in Tibet, synonyms for the grasshopper include “the lion cub that jumps in the sky” which I wanted to include because it’s a gorgeous image!

And that feels like a great point to step into symbolism and mythology…

The story of how the first grasshopper was created is told in a Greek myth. It tells of Aurura, Goddess of the Morning who fell in love with a hunter, a mortal called Tithonus. In turn, he fell madly in love with her. So much so that he agreed to forsake the land of mortals to live with her in the land of the gods. They were happy for a while, until Aurora become overcome with the idea that he, being mortal, would die. She approached her father, conveniently the King of the Gods, and persuaded hum to make Tithonus immortal. She forgot to specify he would remain youthful and so, whilst she remained young and beautiful, he grew older. And as he grew older, he got sadder until he asked Aurora to be allowed to return to the realm of mortals. She did release him but as she did, she said: “From now on you shall be a grasshopper so that whenever I hear the grasshopper’s clear, merry song, I shall be reminded of the many happy days we spent together.” (Clausen)

Aside from that particular myth, Athenians held the grasshopper high esteem and hence it was unlucky to kill one. In China they are also considered lucky and are associated with fertility. Grasshoppers were used in ancient Egypt as a hieroglyph, a seal, an amulet, a symbol of beauty and an illustration of life along with Nile. But it’s not all good news for our symbolic grasshopper… It seems like their reputation is fickle…

The Aztec view of the grasshopper returns us to our earlier Jekyll and Hyde analogy with their ability to change overnight from grasshopper, a symbol of fertility, to a locust more associated with destruction.

If we turn to Aesop, we find that the grasshopper in the fable is recklessly living for today, where the ant is planning for tomorrow. Perhaps a sign to look up the ant card as the moral is that the grasshopper perishes and ant survives.

This perspective continues and in Shakespeare’s day, they were figures of careless improvidence and hedonism, focused on the joy of today without a care for tomorrow. And in some western cultures they were seen as irresponsible, because of their seemingly sporadic leaping (Insect Mythology, Kritsky and Cherry).

As a result of their link with locusts, they are associated with plagues and famine and so are linked to bad luck. Native Languages explains how tribes dependant on agriculture felt strongly against them whereas tribes that focused more on hunting and gathering were less affected.

They further say “In some tribes, it was said that grasshoppers could predict the weather and even had power over changes in the weather (especially drought and rain)” which makes a lot of sense when we consider how weather affects food supply and food supply affects certain kinds of grasshoppers. If they become locusts then a famine and reduced food supply would ensue.

We see the link with weather in amulets; farmers would sometimes carry a grasshopper amulet with them to protect from poor harvests (Bodyguards, Desmond Morris).

In India, the Sumi Nagas have used animal behaviour as a weather predictor. Grasshoppers are seen during the hot and dry weather so indicate the hot season has arrived or is coming and will be a dry period. A large increase in the number of grasshoppers leads to concern about a pending drought.

Other stories detailed on Native Languages link grasshoppers with tobacco. This Abenaki tale sees the grasshopper hoarding tobacco and refusing to share it, selfishly keeping it on an island. The hero of the tale, Gluskabe, is able to retrieve the tobacco and when grasshopper comes looking to claim it back, Gluskabe declares that grasshopper cannot be trusted with it. However, he does give grasshopper enough tobacco to enjoy for the rest of its life. The tale also explains that grasshopper couldn’t be trusted with the magical canoe to return to the island so Gluskabe split the back of it’s coat and gave it wings. To this day, grasshopper flies with these wings and chews his mouthful of tobacco, and if you ever pick up a grasshopper, it will immediately spit it out, “as if to say, “See, I am willing to share.””, “I am no longer selfishly hoarding tobacco.”

The Fool

Thinking about the grasshopper as the fool in the tarot deck, we can reflect on the cultural concept of the grasshopper as a student, never the master, as we all are. No matter how much we know or learn, we will never master all knowledge. This is not meant to be a defeatist kind of energy, but rather to encourage you to accept where you are, and still keep seeking and learning. Keep growing and keep moving through the phases of your life.

We have a creature here that has a lot of energy, taking leaps of faith, but who is also attuned to the world; they can literally feel the wind by the hairs on their back.

Finally on grasshoppers, because I have to share this:

What’s the craziest grasshopper fact you know?

“Grasshopper brains can be controlled by a worm! While eating vegetation, grasshoppers may ingest eggs of the parasitic horsehair worm. This worm hatches and feeds on the innards of the insects, changes their behavior, and ultimately drives them to seek water. The adult worm emerges from the drowned grasshopper, finds a mate, and lays eggs. A passing mammal (usually a cow, in Arizona) drinking from the water source will swallow worm eggs. After the eggs pass through the cow’s digestive system, they end up in poop on the grass, which is then eaten by a grasshopper, repeating the cycle.”

Locust

Where the grasshopper is seem in a positive light, the locust is seen as chaotic and destructive, and one of the key turning factors is the environment, and those we surround ourselves with. If you feel you aren’t acting the way you’d like to or showing up in the world in the form you’d want to, then have a look around you – it could be the friends, your workplace or even your social media that’s adding toxic energy to your life.

It’s important to note that a plague of locust is not sustainable; if they devour all the available food, there will be a mass die off due to starvation. This naturally limits populations through boom and bust cycles.

A final note on locusts, is just their power to disrupt ecosystems much larger than themselves; a power for good or for not?

Reading

Praying mantis

“Have you ever noticed that things look different in the morning?  With just a small period of separation from you and your need for a solution, new options now present themselves.  Sometimes waiting is the best way.  Sometimes removing yourself, if only for a short period of time, is the best way.”
– Animal totem tarot

There are over 2,400 species of mantis, with some commonly called the preying mantis because of their prominent front legs which are bent at an angle which looks like they are praying.  The word mantis actually comes from the Greek mantikos meaning soothsayer, diviner or prophet, making a praying mantis especially pious.  It is clear why the creators of the Animal Totem Tarot chose this insect to illustrate the hermit card.  Before learning anything else about them, we get a strong sense of worship, reflection and of shamanism.  There is also a strong element of looking to, and being able to see, the future.  If you have pulled this card during a tarot reading then it’s likely you are already at least dabbling in divination and this might have appeared to encourage you to go deeper with this.  Maybe learn more about tarot, or explore other related ways of thinking about life, whether that’s astrology, religion or philosophy.  This is about expanding your mind and your world view and how you do that will be personal to you.

Despite all I’ve just said, their devout posture is actually deceptive, these are avid hunters, feared predators, wolves in sheeps clothing.  A video I watched about them called them the Kung Fu killers of the insect kingdom!  They are highly skilled predators whose attack can take a fraction of a second.  They are decisive and quick acting when opportunity strikes, they strike just as fast.  Whilst you may spend some of your time in deep reflection, meditation or prayer, you must also be able to seize chances when they come your way, grabbing them with both hands and not spending ages thinking it through. 

To help them, they are well adapted to their hunting life, with front legs acting as a deadly weapon.  These have a line of barbs which allow it to grasp prey tightly and the legs have lightning fast responses.  They spend a lot of time cleaning these weapons as without them, they wouldn’t be able to hunt, eat and survive.  This makes me think about ways of bringing together meditative or mindfulness practices with everyday activities such as washing the dishes, cleaning your teeth or brushing your hair.  By taking something you do every day, and committing to doing a reflective practice at the same, you might find you are more likely to stick to it.

In addition to their deadly front legs, their heads rotate 180 degrees so it has a great range of sight, this also makes it hard for anything to sneak up on it.  This movement also makes the mantis appear slightly cuter and more charismatic than many insects, with it seeming to lean its head to the side as if considering something.  This idea of taking time to think will crop up again and again with this animal even if it does seem in opposition to the idea of making lighting fast decisions. 

The praying mantis has the same senses as we do, but rely mostly on sight which is incredible when compared to other insects.  They have two large eyes which work together and are on of the only insects that have stereo vision allowing it to look at the same thing with both eyes and work out how far away it is.

When it comes to listening, the praying mantis has just one ear, under its belly which can detect ultrasound.  This is important as bats are one of their predators.  By detecting the approaching bat, they can react quickly – again we are thinking about quick reactions here – and will often be able to evade the danger.

Other ways the praying mantis deals with predators is through camouflage but if found, they will make themselves look bigger than they are and lash out with those front legs.  Given some of the mantids are flightless, attack is often the best for of defence for them.  This is always why they are generally sit and wait predators, instead of actively going out looking for prey. 

This brings me back again to that seeming dichotomy between spending time being still and taking lightening fast action.  This may not be the time to go out and use your energy to seek out opportunities, instead your time may be better spent in thought but also poised to grab any tasty looking chances that do come your way.  One thing I’ve learnt over and over as I’ve written about different animal oracle cards is that you have to find a way to be comfortable with polarities.  As a very basic example, learning how to accept that you can be happy and sad at the same time, and that one doesn’t cancel the other out, has been important in my own life.

Even if you have never really thought about the praying mantis, it is likely you’ve heard that the females sometimes eat the males during sex.  And yes, this is true however it doesn’t always happen.  The males are aware of the risk and will try to sneak up on females whilst they are eating, and hence distracted.  It might also help that she’s mid meal and therefore isn’t seeing the male through hunger glazed eyes!  However, in some cases, the female will have beheaded the male before they’ve even mated, but this is actually ok – well not so much for him, but from a population point of view – because his abdomen has its own nerve system so mating can continue even when he’s literally lost his mind…  What all of this means on a metaphorical level I don’t want to hazard a guess at…!

Once mating has been successful, the female will form and deposit something called an ootheca which is a kind of shell casing containing 100 to 200 eggs.  Sex normally occurs during the autumn and the eggs will hatch into larva in the following spring.  When exactly this occurs depends on the environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity but it always occurs in the morning.  As mantids don’t go through metamorphosis, the emerging nymphs will look like miniature adults.  Very quickly after hatching, they will moult for the first time.  They will then moult about seven more times, with about 14 days between each one.  Each time they moult, they will grow and this is because when they are in between moults, they are in a rigid exoskeleton which cannot grow with them. 

Sometimes you just outgrow your own skin and need to shed it and shake off the old you.  Just as the mantis is doing this at set life stages, so to do humans.  Your own skin shedding moments are likely to be personal to you but I know when I went away to university, I was able to leave the version of me that my school peers had known behind and was able to grow beyond that.  Often in life you end up holding the preconceptions that others have about you, and the ideas they have formed about you having known you for a few years in a set circumstance.  It can be hard for people to see you differently and this can feel like it’s stunting your growth and development.  Imagine a friend you’ve had since you were four, they’ve always known your favourite colour is red and your favourite food is ice cream.  As you mature and tastes change, it can be hard to rewrite this narrative even though you now love yellow and pizza.  I know that’s a trivial example but I hope it makes what I’m trying to say a bit clearer…

Apparently, the praying mantis has also been known as ‘the soothsayer’, ‘the devil’s rearhorse’ and ‘the necromancer’.  In Ancient Egypt it was a minor god that leads the souls of the dead to the underworld.  In Ancient Greece, it guided lost travellers home and in some ancient civilisations, the praying mantis was said to have supernatural powers.  Its posture means many it’s often believed to be in constant prayer and this idea is influences beliefs around it.  For Christians, seeing the praying mantis in its pious posture is a symbolism of spirituality and piety.  If it was seen in your home, it would mean that angels were looking over you.  In Chinese poetry, it represents courage and fearlessness.  Other cultures didn’t see the insect so favourably; in Italy it was said a menacing look from one could make you sick and in Japan it could foretell your death.

The praying mantis was revered by the Khoi and San tribes of South Africa and was called Gottentotsgot, meaning God of the Bushmen or God of the Khoi.  It is also believed that having one land on you was a sign on good luck.  What I’m taking from these varied beliefs is that it’s all about your personal perspective – if you see an omen as good, it will be and if you see it as bad, it will be.  Your mindset is important and this also ties into the idea of the praying mantis as devout and meditative.  Try to clear your mind from worries.

The bushmen of the Kalahari tell how the mantis would go to sleep in order to dream and find a solution to a problem.  There is a lot of value in stepping away from your problem and engaging yourself in a different activity.  Whilst you do this, your mind will mull things over in the background and the answer might appear as if out of nowhere.  Take a break.  Take some time out.  Take a step back.  Sometimes, you need to put some distance between you and an issue in order to see things more clearly. 

If the mantis has come into your life, it might be a sign that you need to take some time alone.  If this makes you anxious, ask yourself why?  Do you fear being alone? If so, why not?  What does being alone mean to you?  Remember there is a difference between being alone in solitude, and alone and lonely.

“If you research the mantis you will find she has the capacity for great tranquillity and also great treachery. I’m pretty sure that is true of all of us. That is why the praying mantis is a great symbolic mentor. This unsuspecting insect shows us we are capable of being the epitome of peace but also pulling out big power when it is called for.”
Whats Your Sign

If you take nothing else away from the praying mantis, remember this.  There is power in stillness, and power in decisive action, it’s all about timing. 

Reading:

National Geographic
Praying Mantis Facts
Insect Fact and Folklore, Lucy W Clausen

Nature’s Vampires

We all know about blood sucking bats, but did you know that of all the many types of bats, only three actually drink blood?  Technically this is know as haematology, the practice of feeding on blood.  And blood is actually a great food source – it’s rich in proteins and lipids, is very nutritious and, so long as you don’t over do it on one individual, you’ve got yourself an unlimited cow to milk as it were.

Mosquitoes are another well known vampire, with the females needing to drink blood in order to make eggs.  It’s also common knowledge that they are responsible for the spread of malaria but what you might not know is that they, or other blood sucking flies, have been spreading it for 100 million years.  Mosquitoes can also transmit sleeping sickness, typhus, river blindness and other diseases making them one of the deadliest animals in the world.  In 2015, malaria alone caused 438,000 deaths and cases of dengue have increased rapidly over the last 30 years.

 

As an aside, the mosquito is not therefore evil and nor should it be made extinct.  All animals fill niches in nature and have co-evolved to fulfil a purpose or role that isn’t always clear to us.  In this case, they provide food for birds, fish, frogs and so on and are also pollinators.

Also in the fly family, we find sand flies, bat flies, black flies and midges which all enjoy a drink of blood.  There are also fleas, bedbugs and ticks as well as so called “kissing bugs”, or Triatomine Bugs, which apparently get their name because they like to bite people’s faces…

We also have vampire moths who use their antenna to pierce the skin of their unlucky host and some types of butterflies are partial to a sip of blood.  They can’t inflict injuries themselves so it’s more a case of coming across some spilt blood and indulging.  Sticking with small critters, some worms and arthropods like blood, as do some nematodes, such as Ancylostomids which feed on blood from the gut.  And leeches are well known for their blood sucking behaviour and are utilised in medicine such as to prevent blood from clotting.

Living underwater doesn’t protect you from vampires… Torpedo snails like the blood of electric rays, making small cuts and then using their proboscis to draw blood from the wound.  If this doesn’t work, they will insert their proboscis into they ray’s mouth, gills or anus…

Another threat comes from the Lamprey; an eel like creature which seems perfectly designed for the blood sucking way of life…  They are basically a tube with teeth…  They don’t have a jaw, instead having a suction cup style mouth which contains circles of sinister teeth.  These teeth are stabbed into the fish and anti clotting chemicals are secreted.  This tends to result in the host dying, either from blood loss or infection, at which point the lamprey will detach and move on.

The Candiru is a parasitic cat fish that are best known for allegedly being able to travel up a stream of urine and into a man’s penis.  Regardless of whether that is true or not, these tiny fish do deserve a mighty reputation.  They enter the gills of larger fish to suck their blood and generally make their lives a misery.  Once full of blood, they leave and burrow into the river bed to digest their meal.

And finally birds… The Hood Mockingbird likes open wounds, such as those they may find on sea lions or researchers but don’t rely just on blood.  However, they do increase this behaviour during the dry season suggesting it may be motivated by the need for fluid or moisture.

Vampire finches are a bit more brutal, preferring to peck at other birds, specifically blue footed boobies, until they bleed.  The boobies don’t object as much as you might expect and it’s thought the finches might once have cleaned parasites from the birds and developed a taste for blood along the way.

Oxpeckers are another blood loving bird that eats ticks and insects as well as flesh and blood from wounds on large mammals.  Whether this is a mutually beneficial relationship or not seems to be a topic of debate.  The oxpeckers may be helping with tick removal and grooming of spots that the mammal may not be able to reach.  With regards to the blood consumption, it has been argued that it may help to keep wounds clean and prevent infection and infestation.

The practice of consuming blood has co-evolved in different species, suggesting there is an evolutionary advantage for some creatures to engage in it.  And when you stop to think about it, some humans also take part in haematology… Just think about black puddings…

Insect Resources

How did we get to the end of may?!  That question aside, here are some of the things I’ve read or watched this month:

 

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.

Literature

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.”

Poetry

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

 

Write your own insect myth

When I was researching insect mythology, I came across an interesting paper which used insect myths to “foster active learning” in undergraduate courses.  It outlines a course approach which begins with discussing what a myth is then the students are asked to read a variety of insect myths from a range of sources.  As we’ve already seen, it is often possible to group these in terms of themes such as creation or explanations for behaviours.  A working definition of a myth is then provided.

Working definition of a myth*
A myth: is a story that explains or relates the origin of a natural phenomenon, cultural belief, or tradition. It often answers a fundamental question (e.g. How was the world made? Why does the sun/moon move across the sky? Where do souls go after death?). Myths may justify existing social systems and/ or account for traditional rites and customs, including cosmological and supernatural traditions of a people, their gods, heroes, cultural traits, and religious beliefs.
A myth may:

  • invoke supernatural events and gods
  • contain elements of a legendary and fabulous nature
  • be associated with religious ceremonies
  • illustrate geographical, historical, anthropological knowledge
  • explain characteristics of plants, animals, and other life forms

*Excerpted from: The Columbia Encyclopedia (1950), New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (1972), and Leach (1984).

Students are then allocated an insect from a list which includes: caddisfly, praying mantis, monarch butterfly, death-watch beetle, drugstore/ cigarette beetle, house/dust mite, green lacewing, mantispid, flea, mayfly; dance fly, water strider, and aphid-tending ant.  They are asked to read through some information about their insect which covers biology, ecology and behaviour.  Once they are familiar with their insect, they then have to write their own insect myth.

Having read this paper around the time I read White Clouds and the BQE; Using Children’s Literature to Explore the Theme of Nature in the City by Susan Karwoska (included in The Alphabet of Trees), I became interested in the idea of myth making.

White Clouds describes engaging with elementary school children (as apposed to undergraduates) and despite the significant age and ability gaps between the two approaches, there were a number of overlaps.  In White Clouds, Karwoska is working with children who live around the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) who have a specific view and experience of nature:

“Nature? Ick, disgusting!” said a girl, a bright and outspoken first grader.  “What do you mean I asked her. “Cockroaches!”

Over the course of twelve weeks Karwoska works with the class, asking them to “observe, to dream about, to imagine, and to remember the presence of nature in their city lives”.  They read myths and stories and poems and went outside the classroom.  They looked closely at objects from nature and drew pictures.  As well as a number of other activities, they spend time looking at, and generating, creation myths.

“Young children – like the people of the ancient cultures that gave birth to these myths – lack the scientific knowledge to explain the world around them, and so must use what they know and imagine to piece together an explanation.”

The creation myths they write are about what was here “at the beginning of the beginning” and how what is here now came to be.  There are a number of dinosaurs in the myths they wrote as well as some biblical references but, as you’d expect with children, there are also some really nice nuggets:

“Mother Nature made the plants.  She had magic and she made the seeds out of her magic… The electricity came from a thunderstorm… The Statue of Liberty did not exist until mine workers dug her out of the ground.”

The way children see the world can be amazing, inspiring and eye opening and it’s such a hard skill to hold onto as we grow up and we learn why things are how they are and become vessels of facts.

Having read both of these pieces, I was feeling inspired to attempt my own insect myth but a part of me was reluctant, knowing I could never catch hold of something as so wonderful as miners digging the statue of liberty out the ground.  Nevertheless, here is my first draft:

A long, long time ago, long before the beginning of time even, there was a tree.  Its roots ran deep into the rich, blackness.  Its branches reached tall, grasping towards the light.  Pulling in the wondrous light and sucking up the fertile dark, the treed stood and stood, growing little by little, until one day, on one branch, right at the tip, appeared a twinkling, glowing fruit.  As the tree pulled in more wondrous light and sucked up more fertile dark, more and more twinkling, glowing fruits grew until the tree was alight with hundreds of sparkling lights.

A nibbling insect came along, entranced by the twinkling.  Desperate to take one of the glowing fruits home, the nibbling insect nibbled through the stem of the fruit.  But before the nibbling insect could catch the fruit, it fell from the tree.  Falling and falling and falling through the darkness until at last it came to a stop.  Here it glowed brightly and became the sun.  The nibbling insect kept trying, desperate to take home a twinkling, glowing fruit, but every time the nibbling insect nibbled through the stem, the fruit would fall and fall and fall until it came, at last, to a stop.  And this is how the stars were made.  The nibbling insect is still up there, nibbling away at fruit stems, desperately hoping to take home a twinkling, glowing fruit but never quite succeeding.

I felt it was important to post a first draft as the internet is so full of polished work that’s been edited and edited and we never see first drafts of anything which can feel a bit disheartening.  This is also why I include a lot of half edited, not yet finished, poems on my blog.

Insects in the bible

When we think of insects in the bible, we tend to think of plagues of locusts and destruction, devastation and punishment.  Alternatively you might think of examples where they are held up as pests.  But they are also used as metaphors and occasionally they are just there as observations of actual insects.

The translation of the bible will affect your reading of insects.  The King James version has 120 references to insects but more recent translations have put the number at 98 as a result of differing interpretations, changes include:

  • The word translated as hornet in the king james version is now considered to be more likely the word panic.
  • “Therefore will I be unto Ephraim as a moth, and to the house of Judah as rottenness” – “as a moth” has been changed to “as a festering sore”.
  • Lice, in the context of the plagues, is now considered to be maggots; an animal which makes more sense in the context.

Translation difficulties can arise because words used include that for generic flying creature which could mean bird or it could be a flying insect.  But where particular insect species are referred to there is less ambiguity.

Ants are mentioned as examples of industriousness, gathering food in preparation for winter in the book of proverbs.  They are also held up as a creature which is small but wise along with other animals such as the locust.

Go to the ant, you sluggard, watch her ways and get wisdom, Proverbs 6.6

Bees are another specific inclusion with numerous references to honey eg land “flowing with milk and honey”.  It was thought that bees were collectors of honey and that it was originally from the stars where it was a food of the gods.  The bees collected it from dew on leaves and branches and were thought to store it in their hives.  As with the ant, this industriousness became synonymous with the bee.

Flies on the other hand fare less well, something which is also the case in mythology.

Dead flies make the perfumer’s sweet ointment turn rancid and ferment; so can a little folly make wisdom lose its worth. Ecclesiastes 0:1

If you do not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies upon you, your courtiers, your people; and your houses. The houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with the swarms and so shall all the land they live in. Exodus 8.21

Of course the plagues of locusts are possibly the most dramatic inclusion of insects.  Today plagues of locusts are destructive and can cause devastation but when the bible was written, the impact would have been far greater, the dark cloud being an omen of death through starvation.  Of course, huge groups of locusts occur naturally and whilst it was seen at that time through a biblical eye, later in Europe at least, it would be seen through a legal eye.

If this is something you find interesting, Insect Mythology has a several page table looking at insects in the bible and Simon Roberts has looked at all the animal references in the bible.

Insects and war

Despite my posts about the healing power of insects and why we need insects, there is no denying that they don’t always have our best interests at heart, and why should they?  I am thinking particularly about the insect that bit my shoulder almost two weeks ago and is still stopping me from sleeping on that side.  I am also thinking about the impact that insects have had on soldiers at war.

“History is pocked with the traces of malaria.  Some have said it helped topple the roman empire. It was present during the US civil war, infecting more than half the soldiers.”
– Gordon Grice

Over the course of history, more soldiers have died from insects than from the weapons of war.  They have affected entire armies, affected the outcome of wars and in doing so, determined the direction of the future.

Along with mosquitoes, lice have had an incredible impact on wars.  One of the worst outbreaks of typhus was caused by lice and ravaged the trenches of world war 1.  It causes high fever, headaches, respiratory distress and even death.  It killed three million people in eastern Europe between 1914 and 1915.  It often follows war and natural disasters and “by decimating armies, it has determined the outcomes of battles and entire wars, prompting some writers to call the body louse the most important animal in history” (Grice).

Typhus also affected soldiers in 1814 when Napoleon’s troops were attempting to invade Russia.  Over the three year campaign, 105,000 men were killed by war whilst 219,000 were killed by insect borne diseases. Later in the 1800s, a Russian army was ravaged by hemorrhagic fever.  We can see examples like this throughout history and those countries who are prepared for insect attack and can manage and mitigate the effects are often the ones who come out on top.  As much as it is about fighting the enemy, war is about fighting insects.

As well as directly affecting soldiers, insects have also been used to shape our thinking about wars.

“These battles are more like ant fights than anything we have done in this way up to now”
– Wyndham Lewis

The changing nature of war and weapons reduced the personal interaction with the enemy.  No longer was it necessary to get up close, instead the enemy was reduced to specks on the horizon, dots on the landscape, insects to be exterminated. This brought with it a shift in attitudes, one which Siegfried Sassoon captured when he said of World War One soldiers:

“The solider is no longer a noble figure.  He is merely a writhing insect among this ghastly folly of destruction.”

As war became more about extermination, we became more fixated on exterminating insects.  Chemicals developed for the World Wars would go on to be used as pest controls in agriculture and would lead to the crisis described by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring.  However, the need to manage insects in war would also lead to the war office joining forces with entomologists and increased interest in studying insects resulting in the disciplines and knowledge that exist today.

Further reading

Sacred Scarab

When considering the messages of beetles, it would be impertinent to ignore the sacred scarab beetle which was revered in ancient Egypt for hundreds of years.  Within the discussion of the scarab it is also vital to understand that it is actually a dung beetle and therein lies an interesting dichotomy; the sacred scarab and the mundane dung beetle. Perspective is clearly what matters here.  The way you view your world, shapes your experience of that world.

This seemingly straightforward creature is deceptively complicated.  When most people talk about the scarab beetle in terms of being a symbol, they are talking about the sacred scarab beetle associated the ancient Egyptians.  The sacred scarab beetle is one of the species in the dung beetle family which in turn is part of the Scarabaeidae family, which is commonly referred to as scarab.  See the confusion?  For clarity, here I am talking about a sacred scarab.

For ancient Egyptians, the scarab beetle was a common and important symbol and images of this significant creature have appeared carved into bone, ivory, stone and on precious metals.  Scarabs were placed on the heart of the dead to help them move on to the afterlife.  It was also used to ward off dangers after death.

Associated with the god Khepri, the rolling of the dung ball was likened to the action of the god rolling the sun across the sky.  As the sun dies and is reborn on a daily cycle, the scarab became a symbol of transformation and rebirth.  Interestingly, whilst not all dung beetles roll their balls, those that do get their cues from the sky, be it the sun, the moon or even, in one case, the milky way.  This orientation of self to the universe is one I find myself compelled to unpick.  Could it be an invitation to explore astrology? To turn your eyes to the skies for advice and omens?  Is it asking you to consider your place in the world, your purpose and your reason for existing?  Another option is that it’s a reminder we are all made of stardust, or that we are tiny on the stage of the solar system.  If we recall the myth about the beetle who accidentally created the milky way we add another dimension to some of these questions.

One of the beliefs surrounding the scarab was that they reproduced only from males.  Ancient Egyptians had observed young beetles emerging from the balls of dung and thought that the male beetle had injected his sperm into the ball and thus female beetles were superfluous to the process.  This had parallels with the god Atum whose name is thought to come from the verb tm, meaning to complete or finish.  Associated with the creation or the world, and the end of the world, he is a self created god who is linked with pre and post existence.  Along with Khepri, Atum was a sun god, representing sun set where Khepri represented sun rise.

If we consider the metaphorical implications of the scarab in the context of Khepri and Atum, we find ourselves asking questions about how we start and finish projects, what we are starting and finishing at the moment, what we should be starting and finishing.  The endless cycle of death and rebirth also comes up, a theme that is echoed by the metamorphosis of the beetles, the nature of regeneration, resurrection and immortality.  The process of metamorphosis brings with it ideas and questions around transformation, the letting go of one self to make space for another, a process which cannot come without pain; a phoenix rising from the ashes must first go through the pains of fire.

Naturally we also have themes of recycling, of cleaning, of the importance of small creatures in keeping the world functioning and as such it would be worth reading the general beetle post as well.

Animal Allies – Beetle

Note, I’ll also be doing a post specifically about scarab beetles.

“Beetles comprise the order with more members than any other in the animal kingdom.  Scientists have catalogued more than 350,000 species.  Like most insects, a beetle has four wings.  What makes the beetle different is that he front pair are no longer useful for flight, instead they have evolved into tough sheaths that conceal the functional hind pair when the beetle is at rest.”
Gordon Grice

From an imagery point of view, these protective sheaths are full of juicy metaphors.  We can turn to some of the ideas from the crab, the turtle, the ladybird and the snail as they provide a shell or armour of sorts.  I find it interesting to think about how they were once wings – the beetle stopped flying and in doing so it needed to create this extra layer of protection.  Is there something there about how vulnerable we become when we don’t step out of our comfort zone?

The protective shell can come in an array of colours including beautiful iridescent rainbows, perhaps you identify with a particular type of beetle that has appeared to you recently, or maybe you want to take a look at local species for a more intimate connection.  If you do, take a moment to think about the colour of that beetle and what it means to you.  Here I don’t mean look up colour symbology but of course do feel free to, what I mean is probably best explained with an example: my granma almost always wore a particular shade of greeny blue and thus if a beetle appeared to me with that colour I would react differently to a black beetle.

The protective side of the beetle comes up when we turn to ancient Egypt.  Whilst the scarab, or dung, beetle were considered sacred, other beetles were also important.  Throughout their history the ancient Egyptians held insects in special reverence.  A predynastic grave was found to contain jars filled with wood boring beetles.  Metallic wood boring beetles were important as amulets and were used before the use of scarab beetles.  Click beetles were also important to the ancient Egyptians and shields were often the same shape as the prothorax of them. Protection is such a big part of what the beetle asks us to think about.

Moving around the world to native American mythology, we find a story of a water beetle which dove into the water and brought back mud to make earth and a tale where an Eleodes beetle was in charge of placing the stars in the sky.  Through a mix of arrogance and carelessness, the stars were dropped and became the milky way.  The beetle was so ashamed of what he’d done that even today, he hides his face in the bird when approached.  We’ll see this a bit more when we turn to the scarab, but there are ideas here of building something so much greater than yourself.  We have a small beetle creating earth, placing the stars and with the dung beetle, making a ball of dung that is comparatively huge compared to the beetle.  Size doesn’t matter.  We find this echoed loudly in the Hercules beetle which is one of the largest beetles and which can lift 850 times its own weight.

Strength takes on different forms and whilst the bombardier beetle can’t outlift the Hercules beetle, it can survive being eaten.  When attacked by a frog they will squirt boiling chemicals out their anus which make the predator vomit, one study showed that the beetles survived regurgitation in 43% of cases and there is no way that frog will make the same mistake again!  Survival is an important trait for beetles.

We also find with the beetle a vulture like cleaner which turns waste into value, turns negatives into positives.  This may also parallel the dichotomy on how we view beetles; some are seen as pests and others are used as pest control.  There are angles and ways of looking at things which can transform how you see them.  Perspective matters.  You might also be called to consider how you recycle ideas and resources, how you make new out of old.

Returning again to the idea of looking at local beetles, stag beetles are Britian’s largest beetle. They spend 3-7 years underground as larvae and then emerge for six weeks as adults to reproduce.  Males enjoy a spot of sunbathing to gather strength then patrol the same area repeatedly in search of a mate.  There is a suggestion here about the importance of waiting, letting ideas or plans percolate a while before jumping into them.  Put in a bit of work in the preparation stage so you don’t waste your strength and energy when you get to the action.  I think the image of the stag beetle patrolling an area has some intriguing metaphors in it.  On the one hand it could be a case of impatience, of going over the same ground and expecting different results but on the other hand, in repeating the same flight path, the beetle is intimately getting to know his immediate surroundings, something which chimes heavily with the work I’m doing around nature and writing.

There is just one more aspect of the beetle that I want to think about here and that is their antenna.  Different species use them differently but on the whole they are used for sensory perception and can detect movement, smell and help the beetle feel their way round their environment.  There is a very physical connection to your surroundings here.  It is almost like the beetle is shouting at us to get out and touch a tree, feel the grass, stand bare foot on the dirt.  Get intimate with the world immediately around you.  Feel the earth and allow yourself to experience how grounding it is to connect with nature and our planet.