“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.”
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:
“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.”
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?