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.

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: