Cicadas in Ancient Greece: Ventures in Classical Tettigology

by by Rory B. Egan
Department of Classics, University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2 CANADA

As a student and teacher of the languages and literatures of the ancient Greeks and Romans I made my initial entry into the world of cultural entomology some years ago through a door that was left invitingly open by the large number of classical writers who have graced their works with references, allusions or even extended literary episodes involving the life and ethology of the cicada. It was some twenty years ago that a student of mine, well-versed in physics and a pioneer (at least so far as my experience allowed me to tell) in computer applications, who also had a strong avocational interest in ancient Greece, told me of her attempts to recover, with the aid of sound synthesizer and a computer, the sound of the cithara, an ancient Greek stringed musical instrument. My student was using whatever scraps of data she could glean from ancient illustrations and literary references. While the product that eventually issued from the synthesizer was anything but music to my ears, the project seemed most intriguing, particularly as I had just recently read one of the several surviving Greek accounts of a person named Eunomos (i.e. Mr. Goodtune), an accomplished cithara player and singer, who was singing and playing in a competition when one of the strings on his instrument snapped. At that crucial juncture he was miraculously assisted by a cicada which perched on his instrument and substituted its voice for the missing fifth string, enabling him to win a prestigious victory. It occurred to me that perhaps this story contained some data which might be applied to the project of my physicist student. Might the cicada’s song, which was specifically connected with the fifth and highest string on the instrument, tell us something about how an ancient cithara was pitched? I left the question with the student shortly before permanently losing touch with her. I do not know how or if she answered it or if it led her on a course of her own in cultural entomology, but the question has remained humming unanswered in the back of my own mind these past two decades during which I have spent part of my time as a scholar learning more and more about cicadas and their varied manifestations in Greek culture.

Greek vial

For me personally Eunomos and his cithara served as the stimulus to the curiosity, prompting me to seek out more information about the cicada, its natural history, its musical activity, its diet and its place in human culture, particularly in literature and folklore. In retrospect I must own to starting from a point of virtually complete ignorance about this creature despite the fact that he (and it is, for the most part he) so frequently and conspicuously punctuates the pages of Greek and Latin literature on which I had some claim to expertise. My belated education on the cicada and other “singing” insects of classical literature has been assisted by my good fortune in establishing personal and friendly acquaintances with two of the leading lights in the world of Cultural Entomology: Charles Hogue, late of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and Keith Kevan, late of the Lyman Entomological Museum and Research Library of McGill University. As I enter upon a survey of some of my own work on the cicada in Greek culture I gratefully acknowledge the patience and generosity of those two entomological mentors.

Greek metepontum

My own initial ignorance was, as I can now say with condescension, something which I shared with many scholars who have written on relevant passages in Greek or Latin literature, or who have translated those passages into English and other modern languages. Having undergone a partial metamorphosis into a cultural entomologist I can now express annoyance at those fellow classicists who identify the Greek tettix, as a grasshopper, an error committed by, among others, the authors of the textbooks which I use for teaching elementary Greek and Classical Mythology. While I must not over generalize here (for there are scholars such as L. Bodson, Davies & Kathirathambey, Beavis with excellent competence in both tettigology and the relevant texts), this one error epitomizes the state of the knowledge about cicadas possessed by many a Greek and Latin scholar. The fact that translators and commentators on ancient texts operate from a base of false assumptions or misinformation has consequences even for the entomological historian who does know something about cicadas because, unless such an entomologist knows Latin or Greek, he/she is at the mercy of those who know the languages and through whom information or misinformation is filtered. I do believe that my own efforts at self education through reading entomological literature and consulting with entomologists has enabled to break into the vicious circle at a few points and to achieve new and improved readings of several passages of Greek literature. In what follows here I hope to set forth some examples of the hermeneutic consequences of wedding entomological facts to a knowledge of classical literature.

Greek metapontum

Before turning to a description of some of my own labors in the field I would like to offer a brief, and far from comprehensive, survey of facts and beliefs about the cicada in Ancient Greece. As anyone who has spent any part of a summer in the Mediterranean countryside can attest, the cicada, mostly through its incessant singing during the hot daylight hours, is a constant and ubiquitous contributor to the ambiance. It has been so of course for millennia; certainly for as long as there have been people in that part of the world there have been cicadas insistently drumming their music into human ears. The aesthetic reception of that music on the part of humans has not been uniformly favorable. Many modern visitors do not share the widespread enthusiasm of the ancient Greeks for the beauty of the insect’s song and the ears of the Romans (de gustibus non disputandum), to judge from the words of the Latin poets, seem to have been more impressed with the stridency or raucousness of the sound than with its musicality. There are indeed some references in Greek literature, mostly in the comic poets, to the chattering garrulity of the cicada. Whether one liked the sound or not, it would be a very rare ancient Greek who could avoid the experience of it. It is not surprising, then, that the cicada should have so many and varied appearances in Greek culture – in literature, in the visual arts, in folklore, in scientific writing and, as I hope to demonstrate below, in philosophy and religion.

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.

Perhaps the earliest cultural evidence of the cicada in Ancient Greece comes from the prehistoric, i.e. the pre-literary, period of the second millennium B.C. In the nineteenth century archaeologists working at the Bronze Age site of Mycenae, the storied home-town of Agamemnon who led the Greek forces at Troy, discovered among a rich array of tomb deposits a number of models of wingless insects. If they are correct in identifying them as representations of nymphal cicadas we are left to surmise that the prehistoric aristocracy of Mycenae, knowing something of the cicadine life cycle had seen the images as tokens of immortality or of a return from the world beneath the earth where indeed the cicada nymphs reside for periods of months or years. The archaeological record, being in itself mute, can not confirm this surmise but, as I hope to make clear below, such a belief appears implicit in a dialogue of the philosopher Plato who wrote almost a thousand years later. Plato lived and worked in Athens, a city whose traditions gave pride of place to the cicada whose image was emblazoned on some of the city’s coinage. One of the major Greek historians, 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. As in all such stories this divine gift was not an unqualified blessing as his immortality was accompanied by the inexorable advance of old age. Poor Tithonus kept getting older and older, smaller and smaller, until there was nothing left of him but his shrill voice, or until he turned into a cicada (not a grasshopper as so many English versions have it). Now the earliest extant authority for this story, a hymn in honor of Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love, dating from before 500 B.C., does not explicitly mention the cicada-metamorphosis as later accounts do, but it is a plausible conjecture that the poet, for whatever motive of poetical economy, simply left that detail implicit, exercising a license frequently used by Greek poets in their treatments of stories which they could assume were already well-known to their audiences. It might also have been implicit in the original story of Tithonus that becoming a cicada was in fact the same thing as becoming immortal, with the added benefit of renewable youth.

The earliest explicit reference to the cicada occurs in one of the first works in all of Western literature – the Iliad of Homer, a long epic narrative of events which are set within the framework of the Trojan war. At one point the elders of the besieged city are described standing and conversing on the great fortification wall. The poet likens the old men to cicadas, perched in their trees and singing with voices that are described by the Greek adjective leirios. Now every dictionary of the ancient Greek language tells us that this adjective means “lily-like.” From one perspective that seems entirely plausible, for the adjective is presumed to have been formed from the noun leirion which means “lily”. (At least it does sometimes, though most Greek botanical nomenclature is rife with redundancies and inconsistencies.) And so virtually every translation of the Iliad and every learned annotation on the passage tells us that the cicadas to whom the old men are compared have “lily-like voices.” But just what is “lily-like” about a cicada’s voice? That question has exercised many a reader of the line and great quantities of paper, ink and scholarly ingenuity have been expended in attempting to answer it, often in terms of synaesthetic imagery whereby a descriptor appropriate to one sensory realm is transferred to another, in this case from the visual to the auditory. As a cultural entomologist I have also expended a certain amount of time and effort in trying to answer the question, or rather in trying to solve the problem on different premises. My general dissatisfaction with all of the explanations of the “lilylikeness” of the cicadas’ voices, coupled with my increasing knowledge of the life and ways of the cicada, led me to ask a different question. What if leirios really means something other than “lily-like?” I rehearsed to myself everything that I had come to know about the cicada and his voice from a variety of sources, including numerous passages of Greek and Latin literature, with a view to postulating how a Greek poet might choose to describe the insect’s voice. I tested and rejected several hypotheses before focusing in on the widespread popular and poetic notion that the cicada subsisted on a diet of dew. With that tradition in mind I recollected that dew, like honey, was supposed by the ancients to lend sweetness and eloquence to the voice of one who imbibed it. Might the voices of the Homeric cicadas, therefore, be, not “lily-like,” but “dewy,” “moist,” “liquid” or “flowing?” The prima facie answer was affirmative but it remained to test the hypothesis by seeing if the proposed meaning could be supported, or at least tolerated, by other contexts of leirios. I examined all such contexts in surviving Greek literature (there being only about a half a dozen of them) and found not only that the meaning “lily-like” was problematic in each case but that in some instances the context virtually invited some such meaning as “moist,” “dewy,” “watery,” and every one of them at least makes good sense if that meaning is applied. As a consequence I concluded that leirion, as a floral term, might have been a back-formation from leirios because of some association of the plant with water or dew. All of these findings I duly published in the appropriate scholarly journal thus making, in collaboration with the dew-drinking cicadas, what I think is a contribution to ancient Greek lexicology.

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.

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.

Those are what I consider the more striking examples of entomological imagery in the speech inspired by the cicadas, but there are additional places where such imagery is discernible. In his discussion of the immortality of the soul, for instance, Socrates says that when the soul has lost its wings it is carried along until it settles on something solid whereupon it assumes a terrestrial body which has the appearance of moving by its own power even though it is really the soul within the body that causes it to move. This leaves us to infer, with the aid of Socrates’ own words later on, that the soul, having served a long period in the places of correction beneath the earth will re-emerge (just as the wingless cicada does), free itself from its mortal and inert body (just as the cicada emerges from its integument), and grow its wings again. Then too, Socrates visionary description of the gods making their way, along with the soul of the philosopher, beyond the vault of heaven to contemplate the supracelestial realities, would also elicit reflections of the cicada emerging from beneath the surface of the earth onto another plane of experience on which it is transformed from a wingless to a winged state.

For the reader of the Phaedrus who has become familiar with the details of the cicadas’ emergence, ecdysis and wing deployment it is very difficult to suppose that Plato’s richly figurative description of the lover’s soul is not founded on observation of the cicada’s emergence from the subterranean world to a new and brighter existence as a winged creature on a different plane of reality. This is particularly so given the conspicuous presence of the insects in the setting of the dialogue and Socrates’ little story about the cicadas being men who have lost their bodies as a consequence of the eagerness for knowledge and then undergone a metamorphosis into a higher form of being. We can suppose that at least some of Plato’s readers in antiquity or at later periods where sufficiently knowledgeable to recognize the link between the cicadas devoted to the Muses and the souls of Plato’s philosophical lovers. If so, none of them has left anything in writing that would alert the reader who is unacquainted with the entomological facts. As far as I know that link is broached for the first time in print here in the pages of CED although I do hope to present the same arguments in a different and fuller format later for the consumption of specialists in Greek philosophical literature.

The next exploration in Greek cultural entomology will require, I am afraid, some preliminary information on the literary background. There are two poetic genres in which the cicada is presented with particular frequency by the ancient Greeks. One of these is pastoral poetry, a genre in which intellectual and artistic issues of some considerable sophistication were presented artificially in poetic contexts that featured idyllic rural landscapes populated by herdsman, milkmaids and their charges – goats, sheep and cattle. Such idealized rustic settings inevitably involve cicadas and their singing as features of the countryside in summertime and also, as in Plato’s Phaedrus, as symbols of the erotic or the amatory. The second poetic form is the epigram, a miniature poem, sometimes as short as two lines and rarely longer than twelve. The brevity of the form imposed considerable discipline and demands on the poet so that the results are often exquisitely crafted creations, finely detailed with poetic conceits and devices which sometimes include special auditory effects. The epigram might be regarded as the literary counterpart of the cameo or other engraved gems, another miniature art from which was used as widely and for as long a time as the epigram was in antiquity. Not accidentally, cicadas and other musical insects often provided themes for lapidary artists as well as epigrammatists. It was frequently part of the epigrammatists’ art and discipline to re-work themes that other epigrammatists had exploited and to improve, innovate or offer creative variations on the work of predecessors. We still possess many thousands of Greek epigrams written over a period of almost a millennium and a half and dealing with a great variety of themes and subjects including political, religious, artistic, amatory, satirical and funereal. Some of the poems have been preserved as inscriptions on stone (the original physical medium for epigrams), but the greatest number have survived in a vast collection known as the Greek Anthology which is the end product of the work of a succession of anthologizing editors some of whom contributed poems of their own to the collection. One of the poet-anthologists was a Greek-speaking native of ancient Syria by the name of Meleager. Sometime shortly after 100 B.C. Meleager compiled what he called his Garland, a collection of epigrams by dozens of his predecessors and contemporaries. In this metaphorical bouquet he plaited together hundreds of thematically arranged poems including several new creations of his own. Although Meleager’s anthology did not reach the modern world in its original form, parts of it have survived as components of the Greek Anthology that we now have, a work that dates from more than a thousand years later than the death of Meleager.

The cicada, as I have said, frequents our vast collection of Greek epigrams, and just as the poems are of varied theme and content, so is the cicada’s role, for the insect is sometimes part of a pastoral melange, sometimes a token of poetic or musical virtuosity, sometimes an amatory symbol and sometimes perhaps a symbol of resurrection, rebirth or immortality. Of special concern here, though is the fact that among the hundreds of sepulchral or funerary epigrams in the Greek Anthology there are several dozen for dead animals – dogs, hares, birds, horses, snakes and even cicadas and crickets. There are many puzzling questions about these poems. No doubt some people really did compose, or commission, poems for dead poets, but some of the animal epitaphs also show the characteristic marks of the epigrammatists’ poetic game of “capping” the efforts of their predecessors by a superior variation on the theme. Some of the deceased individuals addressed or commemorated in the animal epitaphs are, I believe, probably figurative representations of deceased humans; possibly poets or musicians for whom melodious birds or insects are appropriate figures. In any case we are now approaching the point of this whole disquisition. The following two poems by Meleager appear together, one after the other, in the Greek Anthology in the midst of a sequence of animal epitaphs having to do, for the most part, with cicadas and crickets who have departed this world only to be poetically immortalized by various of Meleager’s predecessors. My own investigations, partly based on the data of cultural entomology, of Meleager’s poems, have led to what I consider a new and improved, certainly a different, reading of the two poems which is reflected (imperfectly) in the following translation of mine:

The Cicada to the Cricket
O cricket, you who soothe my passion and provide the consolation of sleep;
O cricket, shrill-winged rustic Muse;
You natural imitator of the lyre, sing for me some poignant song
As you tap with your charming feet and strum your loquacious wings,
So as to relieve me from toilsome worry that completely deprives me of sleep
As, o cricket, you spin out a song that dispatches Eros.
Then I shall give you as gifts, first thing in the morning, an evergreen leek
Along with dewy droplets that I separate with my mouth.

The Cricket to the Cicada
O resonant cicada, drunk on dewy droplets.
You sing your rustic song that sounds in lonely places.
Perched with your saw-like limbs, high up among the leaves
You shrill forth the lyre’s tune with your sun-darkened body.
But, dear friend, sound forth something new for the woodland nymphs,
A divertissement, chirping a tune for Pan as the song which you sing in your turn,
So that I, escaping from Eros, can catch some noon-time sleep
While reclining there under the shady plane tree.

I have argued that Meleager, in capping the efforts of his predecessors with which he surrounds his own poems in the Garland, mines those poems for vocabulary which he redeploys in the cicada and cricket poems. This, unfortunately, does not come through in a translation even though it is apparent when the whole sequence of epigrams is read in Greek. Another feature that I must despair of rendering in translation is the peculiar phonetic qualities which mark the end of the first poem and the beginning of the second poem. Here the poet, while writing intelligible and metrically correct Greek, achieves sound effects approximated by the following phonetic:

kai droseras stomasee skhitzomenos psakades
akhayeis tettiks droserais stagonessi methystheis

The marked sibilance of these lines, exaggerated and very unusual for Greek poetry, is unlikely to be accidental and it has led me to suppose that the poet is deliberately imitating the insects’ sounds at the point where the two poems conjoin one another. This in turn led to the further supposition that the sounds were meant to be uttered by the insects themselves (in contrast to other readings which assume that the speaker is in each case a human being, perhaps speaking to a pet insect). In effect this all means that the two poems are parts of a single poetic entity, a sort of antiphonal exchange between two singing insects. In the first poem the diurnal singer and lover, as he is about to take some respite from his activities, asks the nocturnal singer to take over where he is leaving off. In the second poem the roles are reversed.

Other scholars who have examined these poems have remarked that, unlike all of the other epigrams in this part of the Anthology, these two are not really sepulchral. My answer to this is that Meleager’s poems owe their presence here to the fact that they are the capping poet’s response to the sepulchral poems of others. In his virtuoso reworking of their several efforts he not only imitates them verbally as he imitates the insects phonetically, but he also brings in many of the rustic and amatory motifs that these insects have in pastoral poetry. In a way, then, the poetic exchange between Meleager’s insects, combining elements from the epigrammatic animal epitaph and pastoral poetry, amounts to a sort of epitome of most earlier poetry on the cicada or the cricket.

To this point I have described ventures in cultural entomology that span Greek literature from its beginnings with Homer (8th century B.C. probably) down to Meleager in the last century before the advent of Christianity. The final venture in Greek cultural entomology which I shall summarize involves two works from the early centuries of Christianity. It will be apparent here, as in so many other areas of thought and culture, that early Christianity was not only a rival to traditional Hellenic paganism, but also a borrower from it. I begin here with a translation of a short poem which has been translated many times before, often by modern poets of some eminence such as Goethe, Cowper and Thomas Moore.

We know that you are royally blest
Cicada when, among the tree-tops,
You sip some dew and sing your song;
For every single thing is yours
That you survey among the fields
And all the things the woods produce.
The farmers’ constant company,
You damage nothing that is theirs;
Esteemed you are by every human
As the summer’s sweet-voiced prophet.
Muses love you, and Apollo too,
Who’s gifted you with high pitched song.
Old age does nothing that can wear you,
Earth’s sage and song-enamored son;
You suffer not, being flesh-and-blood-less–
A god-like creature, virtually.

This poem has become a sort of locus classicus for the attributes of the cicada in the literary imagination of ancient Greece since in its brief compass it presents or alludes to so many of the attributes that we find individually in other contexts. It belongs to a collection of poems known as the Anacreontea, that is poems after the manner of, or in the tradition of Anacreon, a much earlier Greek poet who was particularly given to the poetic celebrations of drinking and amorous activity. The several dozen poems of the Anacreontea are the work of an indeterminate number of anonymous poets representing a time period that extends into the early centuries of Christianity. This particular cicada poem has been dated on linguistic and metrical grounds as late as the fifth century. This would place the poem into chronological proximity with another work which, as I shall argue (briefly here, in greater detail in a future publication elsewhere), has a good deal in common with it.

I refer to an early Christian sermon written for Eastertide by a man named Asterios who wrote and preached in Syria in the fifth century. To date his Greek sermons remain untranslated into any modern language. The one sermon with which we are concerned deals with the subject of the newly baptized Christian, a timely topic for the particular juncture on the liturgical calendar. It is no exaggeration to say that the sermon is built around a framework which is an elaborate and multi-faceted comparison of the newly-baptized Christian to the cicada. The sermon is, ostensibly, based upon the Eighth Psalm, but it has very little to do with the content of the Psalm itself. It does, however, refer several times to a “vintage song.” The only clear connection between the Psalm and a vintage song occurs in a note that precedes the Psalm and is taken to be direction to the choirmaster regarding the musical performance of the Psalm. That is to say that the note advises that the Psalm is to be sung to the tune of a “vintage song” or a song “concerning the wine-presses.” In any case our homilist Asterios does contrive to intersperse references to the vintage song among other parts of his sermon. Does this, though, have anything to do with the newly-baptized Christians and/or the cicadas? I think that it probably does.

In the course of the sermon Asterios manages to compare the chanting cicadas to the men who tramp the vintage and collect the grapes (we presume to the accompaniment of their own singing). But the cicadas are also the newly baptized Christians who, eloquent and white-winged, are soaked with the dew of baptismal water and feed on the Word of heaven even as the cicadas feed on dew. Like the cicadas of the Anacreontic poem, those of Asterios’ sermon “do no harm” to heaven which sends the nourishing dew whereas the newly-baptized do no harm to those who teach them about the nourishing Word of heaven. Just as the cicadas sing when the sun has risen, the newly-baptized exult in the dew of the Spirit and bask in the sun that is Christ (who would correspond to the Anacreontic Apollo). As Christians the newly baptized are figuratively crucified, and this enables Asterios to compare them to the cicadas in their trees. Not only the Christians but Christ himself who is likened to the cicada because “having been born from the earth like a cicada [he has] taught us to be brought to birth like the cicadas.” The notion of the cicada’s being born from the earth leads Asterios to contrive another analogy between the insect and Christ “for just as the cicada is a son born without insemination and knows the earth as his mother while he knows no father, so Christ knows a virgin as his mother and no inseminating father.” Asterios’ cicada, like that of the Anacreontic poem, is thus virtually god-like.

My tentative conclusion from all of this is that Asterios, far from taking the Psalm as the principal text from which to preach, was using a well-known “vintage song” as his text. This song was very much like, if not identical with, the Anacreontic cicada poem. Besides telling us something about Asterios and his homiletic technique this raises the possibility that the cicada poem belonged to a category of song traditionally sung by happy grape harvesters or winemakers. This would be perfectly consistent with the Anacreontic stamp of the poem since, as I have noted, the celebration of drinking was characteristic of such poetry. This conclusion, too, I hope to justify with more detailed arguments in a future publication.

While I have other projects in cultural entomology (some completed, some in progress) which I have not reported on here, my primary professional function remains as a teacher and interpreter of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. I hope that the preceding summaries of some of my work has served to demonstrate that entomological information can have a valuable ancillary role for the student of our cultural past.