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.

Insect mythology

Specific insects tend to have specific features and qualities attributed to them in mythology, for example ants are used positively to symbolise industry, thrift, forethought and service to the community.  This use of ant symbology is near universal but there are exceptions.  The pueblo Indians believe ants are vindictive and cause diseases and the industriousness of ants is considered excessive in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Bees, butterflies, moths and dragonflies are seen widely in insect mythology but I’ve already touched on their use in symbolism as part of my animal spirit series.  Here instead I will be looking at other types of insects including flies and locusts.  There will be a separate post for the beetle as it’s one of the animal allies I haven’t looked at yet.  I’m also going to look at cicadas separately because they seem quite interesting.

So, let’s start with crickets and locusts which are popular insect when it comes to mythology.  They were held in high esteem and were emblems of good luck and happiness.  They also symbolised summer, courage and, again, resurrection.  The singing of the Japanese Tree Cricket represented the chanting of Buddhist priests.  In Brazilian folklore, the singing of crickets foretold coming rains or financial windfalls.  Similarly, in Barbados, crickets in the house must be treated with respect because they bring money with them.  Obviously in the form of plagues, we find locusts to be less revered.  En masse the behaviour and nature of crickets changes and becomes more destructive

Flies are really interesting, at least I think so, in terms of myth.  We tend to consider them as pests, as annoying and as something we don’t want around us and these attitudes are reflected in a lot of the mythology around them.  They are used to signify insignificance, feebleness, corruption and are associated with demons – Beelzebub was a Syrian god of flies.  Other ways the fly is depicted include as greedy, as worthless and as impudent. Comparing the fly with other insects is one way of highlighting their lack of virtues.  In an aboriginal Australian myth “a lazy tribe becomes bothersome flies while an industrious tribe becomes bees” (Kritsky and Cherry).

There is also a clear association between flies and death, but not in the way that cicadas and crickets are positively associated through resurrection.  Demons of disease and death take on the form of flies and there is also a fly demon of decomposition.  In Zoroastrianism, Nasu is a demoness of dead matter and is depicted as a fly.

Big Biter was a fly who was the overlord of fish and appeared when fishermen were taking fish from the water.  He appeared to check how the fish, his subjects, were being treated and to warn the fishermen against greed and wastefulness.

Big Fly is more positive depiction of a fly who is benevolent and who mediates between man and god.  When heroes get into trouble, it is Big Fly who will guide them.  Another interesting use of flies as symbols is from ancient Egypt where large golden flies were awards for valour and tenacity in battle, possibly because of the way a fly will return to try and bite it’s victim even after it’s been swatted away.  A particular type of fly with a metallic green or blue appearance was considered to be the spirit of a person and so shouldn’t be killed.  And a fly helped the goddess Inanna in an ancient Sumerian poem.

Being a bit more specific about flies, we find the mosquito in a number of interesting myths.  In Mayan mythology, the mosquito was a spy who learned about people by biting them.  The Tahltan of British Columbia have a tale about a mosquito which explains the behaviour of the woodboring beetle.

“A long time ago, Wormwood (the larvae of a beetle) and Mosquito lived together.  Day after day, Wormwood saw Mosquito come home swollen with blood that he had eaten.  When questioned, Mosquito, not wishing to give away his secret, replied that he had sucked it out of trees.  Wormwood immediately attacked the trees, and to this day he and his descendants bore into the wood looking for blood.”
– Gene Kritsky and Ron Cherry

Other stories explain the existence of mosquitoes as the result of ash from significant fires, such as the burning of a cannibal or the burning of an immortal giant.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find mosquito monsters in myth.  The Great Mosquito features in stories from some native americans and it is told that the monster swooped down into villages and destroyed many people.  In Thai mythology, mosquitoes the size of chickens inhabit the World of the Dead.

Turning from specific species to the themes covered in insect mythology, we find insects feature in creation myths, stories of metamorphosis and we also find them playing positive and negative roles including helpfulness, industriousness, evil beings and plagues.  Myths are also told to explain the behaviour of different insects.

Kritsky and Cherry considered the different groups of insects and the different types of myths they star in and found that whilst most groups of insects feature reasonably equally in creation myths around the world, flies very rarely do.  When it comes to considering metamorphosis, Charles Hogue said:

“It is logical that the changes attending developmental metamorphosis led unrelated cultures to a parallel adoption of winged adult insects as symbols of the soul.”

And indeed, we find that butterflies, moths and other insects which transform are featured in regeneration and immortality myths around the world.

Beetles, ants, wasps and bees are rarely depicted negatively whilst flies overwhelmingly were and conversely, whilst most insects feature in positive roles the flies do not.

There is also a role for insects in mythology as punishers.  One particularly nasty example is from China where the sixth hell is for those guilty of sacrilege.  The punishments included being devoured by locusts.  The ninth hell, for incendiaries and obscene painters, is divided into 16 smaller hells and punishments include being devoured by wasps, ants and scorpions.  Something to remember when you’re painting obscene things…

Further reading: