A 17-year cicada, or Magicicada

A 17-year cicada, or Magicicada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This evening the cicadas started to chirp in North Alabama.

The name is a direct derivation of the Latin cicada, meaning “tree cricket”. There is no word of proper English, or indeed Germanic, etymology for the [nomenclature of the] insect. In classical Greek, it was called a tettix, and in modern Greek tzitzikas—both names being onomatopoeic. (Wikipedia)

Colloquially (at least in the Southern US) it has been called the “shrimp of the land.”

“In Greek literature and the poetry of Dioscorus, the cicada was a symbol of the poet, prophet, and philosopher.” (CICADA, The Poetry of Dioscorus of Aphrodito)

The first known mention of cicadas in literature is in the Illiad of Homer:

Like cicadas, which sit upon a tree in
the forest and pour out their piping
voices, so the leaders of Trojans were
sitting on the tower.

HOMER, The Iliad, bk. Ill, 151

A survey of the cicada in ancient Greek literature is found in “Cicadas in Ancient Greece. Ventures in Classical Tettigology” by Rory B. Egan, Department of Classics, University of Manitoba (excerpts):

English: The wing structure and venation of ci...

“The song of the cicada is not the only thing that commends it to the attention of the ancient Greeks and many other human observers. The emergence of the nymph from the ground in which it has spent several months or years, the shedding of its integument and the deployment of its wings as it begins its adult phase is another process that stimulates the curiosity and often the admiration of the human observer. This whole sequence of events was briefly but accurately described in the fourth century B.C. by the great Greek polymath Aristotle in his work entitled Historia Animalium (i.e. Investigation of Living Things). There is nothing in the description offered by Aristotle that could not have been viewed by any unsophisticated observer in the preceding centuries, and it is observations of this sort that generated such widespread beliefs as the one that the cicada was “born from the earth,” or that it was capable of resurrection and therefore an appropriate symbol of immortality. A related belief is that by shedding its skin and sprouting wings on its fresh white body it could realize perpetual youth. Another popular belief, again based on observation, was that the cicada subsisted entirely on a diet of dew or on dew and air. The notion that they fed on air might have derived from examination of the large empty space in their abdomen. As for the dew in their diet; it is probably owing to observations, such as have been made by many moderns, of quantities of fluid in and around the trees which the insects infest. In reality the fluid has probably oozed from the holes bored through the bark by the xylem-feeding insects or some of it might be profuse quantities of liquid excrement that a tree-full of sap-imbibing insects can produce.”

“Thucydides, who was himself an Athenian of the generation before Plato’s, tells us that in earlier times the people of Athens wore gold ornamental cicadas in their hair and later authorities report that the cicadas were emblematic of Athenian “autochthony,” a concept which asserted that the earliest ancestors of the Athenians were sprung from the local soil thus bequeathing to their posterity an inalienable right to the land. The literary evidence found in Plato and Thucydides, coupled with the Mycenaean archeological evidence, encourages the hypothesis that awareness of the subterranean phase of the cicada’s life cycle and observation of its eventual emergence from the earth contributed, over a long extent of time, to the cultural entomology of the Greeks which included a connection with their beliefs about birth, death and re-birth. The centuries between the date of the pre-historic tombs at Mycenae and the historian Thucydides do furnish us with at least one additional bit of evidence pointing to the cicada as a symbol of immortality. This is the myth of the cicada-man Tithonus who, as a handsome young man, became the lover of the goddess of the Dawn. She, in gratitude for his love, granted him the gift of immortality.”

“The next venture in Greek cultural entomology to be described involves one of the colossal figures in the intellectual history of the world, the philosopher Plato (429-347 B.C.). Most of Plato’s writings are in the form of dialogues, philosophical conversations in which two or more interlocutors explore intellectual or moral issues. One such dialogue, the Phaedrus, is named after one of its two participants, a bright young Athenian who is almost addicted to the pursuit of rhetoric, the art of clever speech-making, which was one of the most important educational and professional pursuits of the time. The other participant is Socrates, by this time a person of some seniority who, in real life, had been the mentor of the author Plato. These two are the only flesh and blood human beings engaging in the dialogue, but that dialogue takes place in a rustic setting outside the city of Athens with Socrates and Phaedrus sitting on a cool, grassy river-bank in the shade of a tree which is occupied by a chorus of cicadas who provide a musical background to the conversation of Socrates and Phaedrus. It is the general thrust of my own view of the Platonic cicadas that a little bit of entomological knowledge helps us to see that the cicadas have much more than a supernumerary role in the thought and action of the dialogue.

Cicada Ghosts by David L Harrison from BUGS

The Phaedrus is a complex dialogue and notoriously difficult to summarize, so complex in fact that many critical readers have faulted it for its apparent lack of unity and coherence. What is certain is that two of the important matters that occupy the attention of Socrates and Phaedrus are Eros and the relative merits of rhetoric as opposed to dialectic. Now we must be aware that in Platonic terms Eros is not just a biological or emotional appetite but an intellectual yearning, an appetite of the soul seeking knowledge beyond the sensual. Likewise in Plato’s view dialectic is a means to knowledge, and thus in a sense an instrument of Eros. The intricate connection between Eros and dialectic, then, in a Platonic context might almost be taken for granted. It is unlikely to be an accident that in the popular belief of the Greeks and in their poetic conceits the cicada has strong associations with both eloquence and with the erotic and that the cicada should also be so prominent a feature of this dialogue. The reason for the former association obviously has to do with their conspicuously strong and musical voices, while the association with Eros must stem from observation of their copulation (also described for us by Aristotle) and perhaps from deducing that their singing had a sexual function. This sort of eloquence and eros is of course strictly on the sensate, physical level, but the cicadas of the Phaedrus are not, I think, mere flesh and blood entities, a point on which I shall now spend a few sentences elaborating.

At a pivotal juncture in the dialogue, when Phaedrus and Socrates have settled down on the riverbank in the shade of the plane tree with the cicadas chattering overhead, Socrates admonishes Phaedrus that they must not do anything so doltish as to fall asleep in this pleasant spot, that they must rather engage in dialectic so that the cicadas who are observing them as agents of the Muses will carry back a good report of them to the Muses. Phaedrus owns to ignorance of what Socrates is talking about, and so Socrates informs him of a traditional belief about the cicadas to the effect that once long ago, before the birth of the Muses, the cicadas had been human beings. Once music was introduced to human experience, though, these men became so enthralled with the works of the Muses that they devoted themselves entirely to music and forgot to eat or drink with the result that their bodies wasted away. The Muses, to reward them for their devotion, transformed them into cicadas and charged them with reporting on how other humans honored the Muses. Many learned readers of the Phaedrus have seen this as nothing but a charming little story, appropriate to the setting perhaps, but basically serving as an interlude or intermezzo between more seriously philosophical parts of the dialogue. But to say that the cicadas are men whose bodies have permanently faded away under the influence of the Muses is tantamount to saying that they are disembodied souls who have achieved a higher level of knowledge than the needs of their physical bodies would normally allow for. Early commentators on Plato, in late antiquity and in the Renaissance, actually remark that the cicadas are meant to represent souls, but modem philosophical readers of the dialogue by and large find that unworthy of notice. The fact is, I believe, that the notion of the cicada-men as souls which have been freed from the constraints of the physical body is a conceit that is implicitly reinforced elsewhere in the dialogue, but it requires some knowledge of cicadine metamorphosis to appreciate this.

As a preliminary to showing its relevance to our Platonic dialogue I offer the following brief description of cicadine metamorphosis which I have put together as a sort of cento from the accounts of several modern observers. Although Aristotle’s description of the emergence and final moulting of the cicada is rather brief, it conforms quite closely to those of modern observers. This is enough to tell us at the very least, that some Greeks of Plato’s time could, as Aristotle or his informants did, observe the relevant phenomena as here described.

Within the span of a few minutes and the space of a few square yards hundreds or thousands of the insects, still wingless, dark-colored and muddy, have been observed emerging from the ground and crawling away to find objects such as tree trunks or branches to which they anchor themselves by the feet. The final molting or ecdysis then ensues. The insect executes a series of abdominal contractions accompanied by twitchings and palpitations and by the secretion of a molting fluid that flows under the hard exo-skeleton. As one entomologist puts it, the whole body becomes temporarily a large secreting gland. In a few minutes the exo-skeleton or cuticle splits at the center and top of the thorax and part of the moist white body bulges through the opening in the dark cuticle. Gradually the insect forces the rest of its body out and leaves the cuticle behind, dry and lifeless but still anchored to its place on the tree. The objects that are eventually to be the insect’s wings are already discernible beneath the cuticle before the molting process begins where they appear as two small pads on the back at the top of the thorax. As the molting continues these pulpy little masses gradually unfold, once freed from the constraining integument, and become engorged with fluid. The deployment of the wings is not complete until some time after the insect has become completely detached from the cuticle. At this time it is still almost completely pallid in coloring with its most conspicuous and anomalous feature being its dark and protruding eyes. The wings take on their final form amid further palpitations and twitching. Some observers have seen drops of fluid remaining on the tips of the wings after full deployment. At this point, when the insect is ready for the short span of its adult life which it devotes to eros and eloquence, the wings, when at rest, cover virtually the entire body from the head back.

As souls, and souls with wings at that, the Platonic cicadas have much in common with certain winged souls described in the Phaedrus, though not in the passage about the cicada-men. It must, in any case, be difficult for anyone with a knowledge of the emergence, ecdysis, and wing deployment of cicadas to read a dialogue with repeated and prominent explicit references to cicadas and not to see allusions to the same insects in other parts of the dialogue as well. What I see as some of Plato’s references to the life-cycle of the cicada-soul are presented in a diffuse, lyrical and almost mystical manner in a long speech of Eros and the soul of the lover-philosopher-dialectician. Socrates has just finished delivering this speech before the “interlude” on the cicada-men.

At one point, in particular, the wings of the soul are described when a newly initiated individual gazes on the countenance of a beautiful person. He begins to palpitate and perspire and an effluence of moisture from the beloved enters through his eyes, flows over him, moistens the buds of his wings, softens the hard parts that confined the wings and prevented them from growing before, so that now the stalks of the wings grow from their roots until they cover the whole form of the soul. In the process, which is likened to the cutting of teeth, the entire soul, Socrates repeats, undergoes throbbing and palpitations until the softening moisture that flows from the beloved one provides relief and allows the wings to grow. Much the same imagery is repeated a little later when the fluid emanating from the beloved flows in profusion onto the lover and into him, overflows out of him and back through the eyes of the beloved, revitalizes the veins of his wings and, even as it causes the wings of the soul to grow, fills it with love. The imagery of the winged souls of lovers recurs once again, with variation, when Socrates says that those lovers in whom the tendency toward the well-ordered life and philosophy has prevailed will be fully winged at the time of death, whereas those friends who have had a less exemplary and respectable existence will have souls that are still wingless when they leave the body even though their souls are on the way to becoming winged and, once having begun the upward journey, shall never again have to pass into the darkness under the earth. It is precisely from the darkness under the earth that the cicada, a model of the human soul as I am arguing, emerges on its way to becoming winged.”

Audio: Reading of Cicada article from Wikipedia

Animated Gif: cicada molting


2 Responses to “Cicadas”

  1. Jon Awbrey Says:

    Silly Wikipedia, insects don’t have etymology, insects have entomology. Their names have etymology.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      I corrected the heinous non sequitur “etymology for the insect” to “etymology for the [nomenclature of the] insect.” I hope you caught this before any damage was done to innocent minds. 🙂

      Thanks for your attention.


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