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June 27, 2024 49 mins

In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Rob and Joe explore the world of the periodical cicada, from their curious lifecycle to their mythological and culinary roles in human cultures. 

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Speaker 1 (00:03):
Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 2 (00:12):
Hey you welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My
name is Robert Lamb.

Speaker 3 (00:15):
And I am Joe McCormick, and we're back with the
fourth and final part in our series on cicadas. Now,
if you haven't heard the first three parts yet, you
might want to go check those out first. That's where
we talk a good bit more about the biology of cicadas.
We've sort of had a special focus on the periodical
cicadas of North America because of a big exciting co

emergence we had this year in the eastern United States,
but we've been talking generally about the biology of the cicadas.
In the last episode, we had a really exciting digression
about a fungal parasite that sort of fills up the
abdomens of the cicadas and turns them into turns them
into a parmesan cheese dispenser. But today we are back

to talk about some more ideas of cicadas in culture
and in literature.

Speaker 2 (01:04):
That's right. Yeah, As is often the case with our
part fours or even Part fives, this is kind of
like what's left. What did we not get to or
what new and weird ideas came up in our research.
So I guess before we get going too much here,
I do want to just touch based on two things
that I thought I was going to talk about more
but ended up largely ignoring. Or we're looking into a

little bit and deciding, well, there's maybe not as much
that I wanted to get into there. But I do
want to point out that there are some interesting accounts
of North American periodical cicadas from the sixteen hundreds at Plymouth.
This is something that was brought up in the latest
book from cicada expert Gen Kritzky, the twenty twenty four

Emergence of the Periodical Cicada, And I just found this
fun quotes, so I'm going to read it. This is
from William Bradford, the second governor of Plymouth Colony. This
in his History of Plymouth Plantation, so something like sixteen
twenty through sixteen forty seven quote and the spring before,
especially all the month of May, there was such a

quantity of a great sort of flies, like for bigness
to wasps or bumblebees, which came out of holes in
the ground and replenished all the woods and ate the
green things and made such a constant yelling noise as
made all the woods ring of them and ready to
death the hearers. They have not, by the English, been
heard or seen before or since. Okay, so I don't know.

I just kind of like the idea of these these
guys trying to make sense of these wasp or bumble
bee like creatures that made this racket, and you know,
it just seemed to sort of come out of nowhere
without previous or latter records regarding them.

Speaker 3 (02:53):
Now, this came up actually in the most recent Listener
Male episode, or actually maybe in two Listener Male episodes ago.
But I do want to clarify that there are in
fact cicadas in Europe. It's not that there are no
cicadas in Europe, but they are all annual species. I
do not believe there are any periodical cicadas in Europe.

Speaker 2 (03:11):
Yeah, periodical cicadas are a North American phenomena, but we
do have these rich tradition traditions regarding annual cicadas elsewhere
in the world.

Speaker 3 (03:20):
I believe there are. Actually I was looking at research
there might be a couple of other possible periodical cicadas
elsewhere in the world, but they have different periods than
the thirteen or seventeen.

Speaker 2 (03:29):
Yeah, I think there's one that Kritsky brings up in
this latest book that's being looked at. I go back
to that episode, but I mentioned it in passing at least. Yeah,
but again, there are annuals all over the place, and
therefore there are traditions of eating annual cicadas in cultures
around the world. This was another area I thought I

was going to dive into more. But suffice to say, yeah,
they've long been considered by humans, and you'll find them
on menus traditionally around the world. But also it looks
like a lot of the more adventurous restaurants in the
world have been capitalizing on cicicada fever. I was reading
an article that came out on the website for Smithsonian

last month by Aaron Borstein titled from Dinner Parties to Restaurants,
Cicadas are landing in the kitchen. He points out that, yeah,
they can be prepared numerous ways, often fried, and they're
generally held to have a shrimpy, nutty taste. I've read
elsewhere that fresh cicadas have kind of a buttery flavor.
I can't really speak to this myself, as I've never

consumed circadas. I have not had the opportunity to do.
But if the opportunity came up and with somebody who
knew what they were doing, yeah, I guess I would
try it. Why not.

Speaker 3 (04:42):
I'm not surprised that that fried is a common option
for people who don't already have cicadas as a major
part of their diet, because it just seems like, you know,
you deep fry anything, and it makes it more more acceptable,
you know, like that's like the easy way to introduce
a new food stuff, and then maybe later you could
try try different preparation methods.

Speaker 2 (05:03):
Now deep frying. Aside, they are apparently not only a
safe food but also pretty healthy. They're supposedly full of
any oxidants, full of protein essential amino acids. So yeah,
I mean these this article in the Smithsonian, you know,
makes it sound like, yeah, if cicadas are on the menu,
give them a try, why not? And then you know,

around the world there are going to be these different
traditions for exactly how you cook them up and or
what exact seasoning, dipping, exhausces, et cetera might be utilized
alongside the cicadas. So again, if anyone out there has
personal experience with this, either you know, some sort of
like a modern culinary experience, or some sort of like
you know, traditional cicada preparation, write in. We would love

to hear from you. All right now, we've already spoken
a bit about cicadas and mythologies, cicadas and philosophy, and
I have another fun example here of cicadas as a
as a teacher or a model for human and behavior.
I looked at several sources on this, but one of
the first ones I came across was an article this
posted on the website of Smithsonian National Museum of Asian

Art by Jan Stuart back in twenty sixteen. And Stuart
points out that you'll often find the symbol of the
golden cicada on the headgear of rulers and nobles in
Chinese antiquity, and here they would signify modesty, refinement, and awareness.
And I think that awareness is in part due to,

of course, the prominent eyes on the cicada, which are
featured in the artifact Joe. I've included an image of
one of these cicada plaques and numerous examples of these
have been found from this time period in China. This
is like golden bronze, I believe. But you can see
the cicada motif there in the center.

Speaker 3 (06:49):
Absolutely. Yeah. So we see a big emphasis on the eyes.
They're rendered as huge. You see a kind of a
shortened version of the body with these kind of round
oval wings. And then are these bent lines up above
the head? Are those supposed to be legs?

Speaker 2 (07:05):
I believe?

Speaker 3 (07:06):
So yeah, yeah, it's a very elegant design. It's also ornate,
like it's busy. There's a lot going on.

Speaker 2 (07:12):
Yeah. Now this would be from I believe the third
to fourth century, and Stuart points out that this is
a lot of this is based on the idea that
the cicada was understood to live high in the trees,
privy to great views and a lofty existence where it
was thought to subsist entirely upon the dew. So it's
a it's a creature of vision, a creature of pure diet.

You know, it's it's not eating a bunch of junk,
it's just eating the dew itself, right, or that's the belief.
And again lofty, and it has this great view of
everything around it. It's very aware of its surroundings. And
to a certain extent this is true, not that the
dow part per se, but the part about cicadas having
excellent vision.

Speaker 3 (07:55):
So having a liquid diet. I mean it might not
be do but the you know, the ones under the
ground they feed off of the rude xylum, and then
the ones above ground they still just feed off of
the plant juices from inside the stems.

Speaker 2 (08:08):
Yeah, so there's a certain amount of I think accurate
observation wrapped up in this idea. And you see this
referenced in various forms, but one that I that I
ran across that I thought was really needed is this
poem Owed to a Cicada. This is by Kauji, who
lived one two through two thirty two. This was a

poet and calligrapher. And there's an extended part of this
poem there about the cicadas. I'm just going to read
a part of it. The cicada's nobility is hidden in
the darkest shadows, under the dazzling sunlight of midsummer. It
roams the fragrant forest, not seeking prestige and having few desires,
humming with contentment alone. Its calls, ring out, piercing, lingering,

like the unwavering hearts of virtuous men, benevolent and kind.
It does not eat, asking nothing of other creatures. It
purchases high above all and looks down, only drinking the
freshest dew. Hidden among dense mulberry leaves and sheltered from
the heat, it sings with joy.

Speaker 3 (09:12):
Now there are some differences, but it's interesting what this
has in common with the vision of cicadas propounded by
Socrates and the Platonic dialogue that we talked about in
the last episode, the idea that they do not eat,
they only sing, and portraying them as kind of an
ally of the heavens or as like a holy creature

in a way.

Speaker 2 (09:34):
Yeah, yeah, I think it does. But I also have
to note that this poem ends up taking kind of
a I don't know if it's a darker turn, but
it ends up going in an interesting direction because in
full it stresses that, first of all, rulers of the
world should strive to be like the cicada. Again, these
are noble virtues, but the poem also stresses that the

cicada is a creature with many enemies, and it has
a very fixed time upon the summer Earth, with lines
like to escape all these dangers and avoid capture, it
flees to the Grand Palace, and that as it perceives
its many threats and tries to escape them, quote, it
succeeds only in tightening its bonds and thus foresees its end.

Speaker 3 (10:18):
So it's that kind of nobility that you see in
some characters in art. That's a kind of a nobility
in its fragility. It's a doomed nobility.

Speaker 2 (10:26):
Yeah, and it's worth noting that kylege Hear himself was
apparently something of a political prisoner. He was ostracized from
political power, so you know, perhaps he's he's channeling. It's
my understanding, he's channeling a certain amount of that understanding
of power and politics and life here now. Stuart also

outlines that the Cicada was heavily associated with resurrection as well.
And these ideas go back pretty long ways, and I
think it makes sense given the life cycle. As we've discussed,
these are creatures that emerge from the earth, you know,
shed in their dark earth and skins, and then they
climb out, they re emerge, They're reborn from their own

kind of dead flesh and then take to the skies.
And in Chinese traditions, this was interpreted as a symbolic
for the transference of the soul after death into a
more transcendent realm. As such, during the Han dynasty, jade
amulets in the shape of cicadas were apparently placed on

the tongues of the deceased, and I included an example
of one of these for you here, Joe.

Speaker 3 (11:37):
Yeah, it's interesting how it sort of looks like depictions
of a tongue, like the wings come together and create
the folds that is often represented going down the middle
of a tongue.

Speaker 2 (11:47):
Yeah, the jade is key here as well. Of course,
it was the most valued of stones through much of
Chinese history, representing purity and indestructibility, and so it was
widely used in both decorative and ritual objects. And of
course I think from like a modern tie in, you know,
we can't help but think about the moths and the

silence of the lambs and the death said moths placed
in the mouth or throat. And then there was also
a tradition in ancient Egypt for some time where you
would have a golden tongue amulet placed in the mouth
of the deceased, supposedly so they could speak when summoned
before the court of Osiris in the afterlife. But anyway,

back to Chinese tradition. Stewart also shares a fourth century
BCE Dallas scholar Jong Za covered this in his writing,
wrote about the Cicada. And I read his writing on
this in full and translation elsewhere, and I'm going to
summarize it here. Basically plays out as follows. So Jongsa

is walking in the forest when he spots a strange
bird in the sky. It has large wings, it's kind
of awkward flying around, it has big eyes. He hasn't
really seen this kind of bird before, so curious, he
stalks up to where the bird is perched in a tree,
and hey, he has his sling shot on him, so
why not take a shot at the bird? Right? So

he draws in, you know, I mean, it's like, I
don't know if he's necessarily, you know, looking to eat
the bird, or it's about studying the specimen more, but
you know, at any rate, it's what he does. He
gets off the sling all right, and the bird doesn't
seem to notice him, so all the better. This is
going to be an easy bird to pick off. But
as he creeps closer, he notices something there in the tree.

There's a mantis stalking an oblivious cicada about to strike.
And equally oblivious, the mantis is being stalked by this
strange bird. And oh yeah, and so he and here,
of course is our Dalis scholar stalking that bird. And
so he stops at this point and he lowers his sling.

He feels that the dow is revealed in this scenario,
and he leaves the bird alone.

Speaker 3 (14:01):
Oh, I wondered if it was going to end with
him like looking over his own shoulder, like, what's stalking me?

Speaker 2 (14:07):
Essentially, I mean, that's essentially the thought. And Stuart points
out that there is a common Chinese saying based on
this quote. As the mantis catches the cicada, the jay
is just behind, so you know, it's kind of there's
always a bigger fish right right, And indeed, look over
your shoulder before you you take advantage of the oblivious

nature of the birth. Now cicadas are invoked elsewhere in
Chinese culture, is pointed out by Hayan Lee, a professor
of East Asian languages and cultures and of Comparative Literature
at Stanford University, cited in a twenty twenty one m

PR article brewed ten is back or brood x is
back if you'd rather buy Anita Ollaby, and in this
one point out that in the sixth century military text
thirty six Stratagems, one of the strategies outlined is shed
your skin like the Golden Cicada, which entails creating a
decoy by which to escape from an overwhelming or more

powerful enemy. So I looked up the translation of the
text here, and in translation, it says, when you are
in danger of being defeated and your only chance is
to escape and regroup, then create an illusion. While the
enemy's attention is focused on this artifice, secretly remove your men,
leaving behind only the facade of your presence.

Speaker 3 (15:38):
Ah okay, So maybe if you're hiding down in a
bunch of earthworks or something, you simulate activity still going
on there, put up some flags and stuff while you're evacuating.

Speaker 2 (15:46):
Yeah, which you know, this is not really part of
what's going on with the cicada per se. It's not
doing this to distract predators. But on the other hand,
it does kind of match up with I think with
our experience of cicadas, often is the case where we
venture outside and we see something, hope, there's something there
that wasn't there before. It is the cicada's shell. It is,

but where's the cicada that emerged? It is nowhere to
be seen. It has moved on. Though you do get
the rare occurrence too of finding both shell and emergent cicada,
and that is also magical. But sometimes I can see
where it might seem as if, oh, I'm looking at
the wrong thing. I'm looking at the empty shell. The
tasty cicada has flown off.

Speaker 3 (16:28):
Yeah, it got away from me now.

Speaker 2 (16:30):
I was also looking at traditions of the cicada in
Japan and this was I found this pretty interesting. There
are a couple of different ways to refer to cicadas
in Japanese. There's a there's semi, which I think is
the main word for cicada. But then there's also this
name that is like kana kana, and this is on

a monopa. This is a This is a name that
is supposed to sound more or less like the sound
that the the howling, the screeching of the cicadas in
their tree. And more to the point, I was reading
about this in several different sources that this sound, the
sound of the cicadas, is in Japanese traditions often associated

with melancholy summer vibes, so essentially that summertime sadness, if
you will, and it's it's referenced, you know, throughout various
examples of Japanese poetry, but also in contemporary pop culture works.
They're also associated with this concept of mujo, the passing

nature of things. And so you see like these overlapping
ideas referenced in a lot of different Japanese works and
in a lot of different poems.

Speaker 3 (17:47):
It's so interesting that you get such different associations with
these creatures. Some are melancholy versus sort of doomed nobility
versus the kind of care free, summer playful.

Speaker 2 (18:00):

Speaker 3 (18:01):
There's there's like such such different feelings about the same phenomenon.

Speaker 2 (18:06):
Yeah, yeah, I I do feel like I get this
idea of cicadas as the soundtrack of summertime sadness, though,
you know, because I do associate it with like oppressive
heat and like a really bright sun. You know, it's
like everything outside the house is trying to push you
into the house and maybe make you feel a little
isolated or you're outside and you have no choice in

the matter, and it can be just a little bit overwhelming. Uh.
And then you again compound that with the id like
the knowledge of what the cicada is doing, that it
has emerged for this very brief time, and that they're
all gonna die, but you know they're not gonna they're
they're not going to be around for the for the
next summer.

Speaker 3 (18:45):
I guess I don't. It would depend also on like
what types of activities you do culturally in the summertime.
I associate summertime sadness with like having to say bye
to your friends from camp who you're not going to
see again for a long time.

Speaker 2 (18:58):
Yeah, I mean it's kind of like that was is.
You're not going to see thea again. You'll see different ones,
but you're gonna have to wait a bit. Anyway, I
wanted to read a couple of examples of Japanese poetry
concerning cicadas in translation, of course. This first one is
by Japanese edo poet Matsuo Basho, and it just goes
as follows, the cry of the cicada gives us no

sign that presently they will die straight into the point.
I like it, you know, And again it is one
of the interesting things about like there, and in a
way it's inspiring. Right they are living life to the
absolute fullest.

Speaker 3 (19:33):
They are.

Speaker 2 (19:34):
They are going about it, but they do not have
lung in which to do it.

Speaker 3 (19:38):
Yolo, as they say.

Speaker 2 (19:40):
Yeah, here's another one. This one is apparently by eighteenth
century samurai poet Yo Koi Yayu. And this one I
got off of the website Tofu Gou dot com in
an article titled the Cicada's Song Japan's Summer Soundtrack from
twenty fourteen. It contains multiple examples of this sort of thing.
But I always say, and by this particular example that

goes as follows. Again, the Japanese word semi is is
what this means. Cicada methinks that SIMI sits and sings
by his former body, chanting the funeral service over his
own dead self. WHOA yeah, which is great because it
brings to mind, you know, the of course, the emergence,

the shedding of the old skin, the nearness of its demise,
but also like the richness of its sound, that you
could associate with various emotions and in this case, like
think of it as kind of a funeral dirge. Yeah,
I like this one. And there are other examples too,
particularly in this article, you know, where it's like there's

it's not so much a contemplation of the cicada's sorrow
or you know, it's forthcoming demise, but using it as
a metaphor using it alongside considerations of more you know,
human centric feelings of say, heart break and so forth.

Speaker 3 (21:01):
Oh well, that connects to something I'm going to get
into in a few minutes here, because there are more
tragic use of the cicada as an image of tragedy
to come.

Speaker 2 (21:10):
All right, Well, I'd love to hear other examples of
Japanese literature and you know, in cinnamon and pop culture
that invoked the cicada. I think I'm going to be
extra alert for it now, engaging with Japanese cinema and
so forth. Another idea I ran across. And first of all,
I should point out that that Japanese traditions also inherit

some various Chinese ideas about cicadas. You know, some of
these various virtues that we already talked about including the
idea that not only is the cicada virtuous because you
know it can see far, and it's up in the
trees and it drinks dew, but also it emerges at
fixed and regular times, so it is faithful. You know,

it is sincere. You know, other people in your life
are the things in your life. There may be uncertainty
to them, but you can count on the cicadas. They
always come.

Speaker 3 (22:01):
Well said, well, are you ready to get into some
other cicada stuff?

Speaker 2 (22:05):
Let's do it.

Speaker 3 (22:06):
So in the previous episode, I mentioned an ancient Greek
story about the mythological origins of cicadas, which is told
by Socrates in the Platonic dialogue known as the fe Dress.
And according to that story, cicadas were once humans like us,
but they lived at a time before the muses had

introduced song and music to the world. And the story
goes once these people encountered music, they were so enraptured
by it that they spent every moment of their lives
singing and listening to music, and not even stopping to
eat or drink until they finally sang themselves to death.
But the muses took pity on them and allowed them

to be reincarnated as cicadas, who would still, according to
the understanding of some ancient Greeks, go on singing their
entire lives and never stop to eat or drink. And
Socrates also says in the story that cicadas are the
earthly informers for the muses, so they kind of spy
on us and report back whether we're doing things that

honor the muses or not. So that was an interesting view.
But this, it turns out, is not the only famous
story about cicadas tracing back to ancient Greek and other
classical sources. So I collected a couple of examples in
a reference text called the Book of Greek and Roman
Folk Tales, Legends and Myths. This is edited by the

classicist William Hansen from Princeton University Press, twenty seventeen. And
this led me to a couple of great examples. The
first one I want to mention is the story of
the great singer UniMas and the Cicada, as told by
the ancient Greek author Strebo, who lived from about sixty

four BCE to twenty four CE in the Roman Empire.
And this was in Strebo's book geography, as you might
guess from its inclusion in a book about geography. This
story comes in the context of Strabo talking about some
natural features of the land and landmarks. Specifically, he's talking
about a river called Halix, which he says separates two

lands called Region and Locris, and he says it exits
through a deep ravine, and then Strebo says, there is
an odd thing about the cicadas here on the two
sides of the river Halix. The ones on one bank
of the river make a song. They sing like any
other cicadas, but the cicadas on the opposite bank are silent.

And he says that people have guessed that the reason
for this is that the Locrian bank, where the cicadas
are loud, is dry and sun baked, so the cicadas
there have dry membranes that they can rattle with ease,
whereas on the other bank, the other bank is in
the shade. And I'm not sure if he means the
shade of the ravine or if it's more shaded by foliage,

but the other side is shady, and he says because
it's in the shade, people believe that quote. The cicadas
are moist with dew and cannot expand their membranes hated
when that happens, And so I got really curious, is
what Strabo's talking about here? Based on reality? I looked
around to see if I could find any entomologists in

the present day offering informed commentary on this observation, but
I couldn't really find anything solid. The closest I found
to a direct reference was a twentieth century Strabo translator
talking about how he could attest personally that the cicadas
of southern Italy, where I believe this is supposed to
take place, are unusual. But that's not all that helpful,

So I went to see what I could piece together
on my own. So my big question, a big way
to check the plausibility of this claim, is to ask,
are there actually today any known examples of a specie
or a population within a species of totally silent cicadas
like the ones from the region side of the river. Now,

if you ask the question, are there any like actually
truly completely silent cicadas? I could not find any examples
of that. But while most cicadas have males that emit
these loud, obvious mating signals, there are in fact a
few species that are sometimes referred to as mute cicadas, which,

while not actually mute, to make a sound that is
not at all similar to the songs produced by the
timbal organs in most male cicadas. So here I'm going
to refer to a paper by chanching Low, Songwei and
Christian Nonsen, and it's called how do Mute Cicadas Produce
their calling Songs? This was published in Plus one in

twenty fifteen, and again the researchers here were Christian Nonsen
and entomologist affiliate with UC Davis, and Chuan ching Low
and Songwei from the Northwest anf University in China. And
this paper focuses on a genus of cicadas known as Corenia,
containing five species found in China, Vietnam and Burma. And

it turns out that species within this genus are not
able to make sounds with a timble mechanism. Remember from
part one of our series here we talked about the
timble organ. The timble is an organ that is used
by most male cicadas to make sounds, and the timbles
are rigid corrugated membranes on the sides of the abdomen

that are connected to an internal muscle, and the internal
muscle flexes and relaxes rapidly to collapse the membrane and
then allow it to kind of snap back into place.
And this rapid collapsing and snapping back sort of the
buckling and snapping, produces the whirr and the drone that
we associate with cicadas. But Krenia cicadas do not have

functional timbal organs, which is why they are called mute cicadas. However,
they are not completely mute. They do make sounds, and
this paper investigates how Now in the introduction to this paper,
there's a really interesting fact that the authors discuss as
to the backstory of this investigation. I just want to

read from their introduction quote. Recently, Way at All reported
sound production in Corenia chauma and discovered that this species
exhibited an atypical behavior, i e. The male adults can
be easily attracted to sounds produced by clapping of hands,
knocking of bamboo sticks, breaking of twigs, and chopping of wood. Weird. Okay,

so you might be chopping on a log, you might
be clapping, you might be knocking some bamboo together and
suddenly the cicadas come running. They like this. It attracts
them very odd So anyway, they say that sound production
in this genus had not been deeply investigated until this paper.
So the authors here studied the species Carrenia keela tata

to discover that they do make a to my ears
rather inconspicuous sound. It's a clicking sound that they make
by knocking two parts of their outer bodies together. So
this is not an example of stridulation, which a lot
of insects use. Stridulation again, is rubbing parts of the
body together, often one part that's kind of ridged like

a comb, and another part that's just sort of a
flat scraper thing that scrapes the teeth of the comb.
This is called a file and scraper system. They do
not use stridulation like that. Instead, what they produce is
an impact sound, more like a drum beat, which they
make by banging the leading edge of the fore wing,
which is known as the costa, against a hard plate

on the outside of the body, known as as an operculum.
So they're drumming on their own outer shells with their wings,
and this sound is indeed audible to human ears. But Robi,
I let you listen to a sample of it before
we recorded here, and I was listening to it myself,
and I think if I were walking through a forest

and I heard this sound, I might well not even
attribute it to an insect. And if I did attribute
it to an insect, I might not likely think of
it as a cicada sound. It's sort of a clicking
or a snapping that could be anything in the environment.
Breaking of a twig, could be wood creaking in the wind.
It could be a pebble falling. It just doesn't seem

to me like it would really stand out in a
riverside grove.

Speaker 2 (30:44):
Yeah. I agree, it doesn't quite register to me as
it instantly as being an insect noise or even another
animal sound. So yeah, it's interesting. I could see where
you might even have sort of maybe supernatural interpretations of
the noise at first, like, well, you know, what is that?
What is that? Are Is there some sort of drumming

going on amid the invisible folk? I don't know?

Speaker 3 (31:07):
Yeah? Yeah, anyway, So given this, I was wondering, is
it possible that Strabo's story here has a basis in
fact that the cicadas on the two sides of the
river are different. Maybe on the Lockers side they're loud,
they sound like cicada's normally sound. But what if there
were cicadas on the region side of the river Helix
that were known to be silent, not because they were

actually silent, but because they didn't make the sounds we
associate with cicadas. What if they were clicking or something
like that. Now, I want to be clear, this is
pure speculation on my part because I look to see
again if entomologists had commented to this effect about this
historical passage, and I didn't come across anything. So I
don't know, But I at least do know that there

are some species of cicadas that don't make the worrying
sound we think of. They make some other kind of sound,
like a sort of incanspicuous click. And the Krenia cicadas
are not the only ones. Now, remember, if there were
so called mute cicadas in this region in the ancient Mediterranean,
that seems unlikely they would have been the Karnia genus

because that genus is native to East and Southeast Asia.
But there are other so called mute cicadas. I was
looking for examples of them. The plus one paper mentions
four other genera of cicadas that contain species without timbal organs.
It mentions Platypedia, neo, Platypedia maroboduus, and Lemmo tialna. And

so I was looking these genera up, it seems like
most of the ones where I could get information about
where they were located, more of them were centered around
North America, but some more more global species. So nothing solid.
But there are a number of cicada species known to be,
if not mute, at least incapable of typical cicada timbal sounds,
and this could be mistaken for muteness. So I wonder

if if such a species were found on the region
side of the river, and if they were mistaken by
the ancients for silent insects.

Speaker 2 (33:08):
Yeah, this sounds entirely plausible to me that you could
have had some species like this that is not mute,
but it's either making a sound that we don't associate
with cicadas or one that is, you know, maybe out
of register of human hearing. So yeah, absolutely plausible.

Speaker 3 (33:25):
Listeners, if you have anything to add to this, please
write in. But anyway, I wanted to continue with Strabo's
account here because so it just starts off with the
two different kinds of cicadas on the two banks of
the river, but this leads into Strabo's account of UniMas
and the cicada. So I'm going to read from Strabo's geography,
but a couple of things to know for context. In

this passage, it makes reference to an object called a kithara,
which was a stringed instrument that people played in ancient Greece.
The etymological root of the word guitar actually the cathara.
And it also makes reference to the Pythian Games, which
were sort of like the Olympics, except they included both

athletic and artistic competitions. And while the ancient Olympic Games
were held at Olympia in honor of Zeus, the Pythian
Games were held at Delphi in honor of Apollo. And
remember which of the regions had which cicadas. It was
the cicadas of Locris that would sing and the cicadas
of region that were silent. So Strebo writes a statue

of UniMas, the singer and kathara player, with a cicada
sitting on his cathara used to be displayed in Locris.
Timaios says that this man, UniMas, and Ariston of Region
were once competing at the Pythian Games and got into
a dispute about their respective lots. Ariston beseeched the Delphians

to support him, seeing as his ancestors had belonged to
the god and their colony had been dis patched from Delphi,
but UniMas declared that persons in whose land the cicadas,
most sweet voiced of animals were mute, had no business
even participating in a voice competition. Ariston was nonetheless held

in high regard and hoped for victory, but it was
UniMas who won and dedicated in his own homeland the
statue I mentioned. For during the contest, when one of
his strings broke, a cicada perched on his cathara and
supplied the missing note.

Speaker 2 (35:31):
Wow again, it is so surprising how we can have
such totally different cultural interpretations of the cicada. You know,
is it screeching madness that that maddens the ear? Or
is it the sweet songs? Is it sent from the gods?
You know, Yeah, it's wonderful.

Speaker 3 (35:50):
Yeah, and I will say that this story, I think
it's open to multiple interpretations, and it has been interpreted
in different ways over the years. So sort of like
the origin story told by Socrates, it portrays cicadas as
fundamentally musical animals, musical beings, but also in this case
they're kind of they're kind of belligerent, like they intervene

to take sides in a battle of the bands. And
it's I think a little hard to discern the intended
meaning or moral here, assuming there is supposed to be one,
because on one hand, I would think the snapping of
a string during a performance would indicate a kind of
punishment by the fates for UniMas, I would think is

sort of a payback for his haughtiness and hubris he's
insulting Ariston, you know. But then the insect intervenes to
supply the missing note, which seems like another divine intervention,
but in this case in the opposite direction in favor
of UniMas.

Speaker 2 (36:49):
The infighting of the gods via insects.

Speaker 3 (36:52):
Yeah, I mean, it doesn't supply that gloss in Strabo's
telling here, but it does kind of remind me of
like in the Iliad, we have the gods intervening on
both sides of an issue, like in opposite directions.

Speaker 2 (37:04):
You know, normally I take a very logical approach to
this sort of thing. But I'm just gonna go ahe
and say it. I think this absolutely happened. Has written
this is one accurate and that we shouldn't question it.

Speaker 3 (37:16):
I mean, it's not actually all that implausible that a
cicada lands on a lands on somebody's instrument makes a sound.
Everybody would remember that.

Speaker 2 (37:23):
Not just any sound, the exact right sound. So I
think that's the really fun part of the story. And
again I don't question it at all. This absolutely happened.
Every every other story out there, every other myth in religion,
it's open to interpretation, and you're right to question it,
but not this one's good to go.

Speaker 3 (37:40):
I came across an interesting passage in another book that
was about Christian theologians reinterpreting this Greek tale to have
a different understanding of it. Specifically, I was looking at
a work called Music and Philosophy in the Roman Empire
by Pelosi and Petrucci, and the author of a passage

of this book is talking about a work where the
early Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria is taking a bunch
of pagan myths and pagan stories and reinterpreting them to
have Christian morals. And so it's sort of in the
context of talking about these Christian church fathers and theologians

taking pagan myths and saying, yeah, this is actually good
and still instructive, but here's what it actually means to
emphasize something about their view of the world. And in
Clement's retelling of the story, there's a difference that is
subtle but important, And Clement's version is that it is
not that the Cicada is so enchanted by Unimas's beautiful

song and thus comes to help him in a time
of need. This version of the story that serves to
emphasize Eunomas's virtue as a singer. It's like, you know,
a story about a great virtuous person. Instead, Clement's retelling
emphasizes that it is UniMas who attunes himself to the
perfect natural song of the cicada. So in Clement's telling,

it's not that the Cicada humbles itself to UniMas sort
of in awe of his greatness, but that UniMas humbles
himself to the cicada, as we must humble ourselves into
tune to the music of God's word.

Speaker 2 (39:20):
All right, yeah, I mean, all in all, that's kind
of a that's a nice interpretation, right, It's like your
music's not about you, it's about like getting in harmony
with at the very least existence, right.

Speaker 3 (39:32):
Mm hmmm. I mean for Clement, I think that had
a specific sectarian meaning, but yeah, more broadly, you could
think about it as as singing together with nature. Who's
the person who needs to get in key? Is it
nature that needs to get in key with you? Or
do you need to get in key with nature?

Speaker 2 (39:48):
Right? Right? Right? Instead of warping nature to your your
own tastes and purposes, you're you're the one that's getting
in tune with everything else. Se.

Speaker 3 (40:05):
So there's another famous reference to cicadas in classical Greek literature,
and it is in the Esopic fable, more widely known
as the Ant and the grasshopper. But as with the
example from Plato that we talked about last time, the
word that used to be translated as grasshopper or sometimes
cricket is now generally understood as a reference to cicadas.

It seems this is the case in a bunch of
ancient Greek and Roman literature. There are a lot of
things that, for the longest time in English said cricket, locust, grasshopper, whatever,
it often meant cicadas. So this famous ancient story is
more accurately the ant and the cicada. Now, as with
many esopic tales, it is thought to originate in oral traditions,

and it appears in different forms in different texts traditions.
There's not like one original text form of it. You
different ancient authors who put down versions of this tale.
And the book edited by William Hanson that I mentioned earlier,
it presents it as follows. Cold and wintry weather came
down from Olympus. The ant had collected a lot of

food during harvest time, storing it in its house, But
the cicada went into its hole and was panting from hunger.
Gripped by starvation in the considerable cold. The cicada asked
the ant to share its food in order that the
cicada too might eat some wheat and be saved from starvation.
But the ant asked, where were you in summer? Why

didn't you collect food during harvest time? The cicada answered,
I was singing and giving pleasure to the wayfarers. The
ant showered it with laughter, saying, then in winter dance.
The tale teaches us that nothing is more important than
to give thought to necessary provisions, and not to devote
one's leisure time to pleasure and revelry.

Speaker 2 (41:55):
Oh wow, so this time the cicada is the dummy, right.

Speaker 3 (41:58):
Yes, this time the cicada is the fool. Well, actually,
so it's interesting. This is most often taken as a
tale illustrating the value of hard work and denouncing the
cicada for its frivolity, for its failure to prepare for
the future. So yes, the most common interpretation is that
the cicada is the fool. But not just recently, even

going back to ancient times, there have been counter interpretations
and sort of inverted variants of the story, in some
cases castigating the ant for its greed or in some
cases for its lack of charity, or pointing out good
things about the cicada. After all, even the classic version
of the story I just mentioned has the cicada not

merely seeking its own enjoyment in the summer. It spends
the summer singing to wayfarers and giving them pleasure in
its song. And this emphasizes something that came up in
our discussion of the feedress. Socrates talks about this, but
it's also mentioned in an editor's note here. In the
Handsome book. Ancient Greek sources regularly indicate that the Greeks

were delighted by the singing of cicadas. They they thought
it was just great. They loved to sit and listen
to them. It was wonderful entertainment. So the cicada was
giving two others of itself what it could give all
summer long, and then the ant would not later share
what it had gathered. And then some other tellings still

emphasized that, hey, whatever the ant has gathered, it the
ant did not create, by the way, it simply raided
from its surroundings. So it's interesting. This is a more
complex tale than I remember from when I was a kid.
I mean, I encountered some version of it that was
just kind of like, yeah, basically like do your homework
instead of playing outside. It's like, you know, think ahead.

But but there I think there are actually more layers
to it.

Speaker 2 (43:49):
Yeah, yeah, now that you pointed out, I think this, yeah,
totally the case. I think I also grew up just
consuming the very sort of like capitalist version of it,
where it's like, don't don't be a grasshopper, be an ant.
But yeah, you look at it this way, it's like, well,
that ant sounds miserable, Like he's not dancing, he's not singing,
he's not enriching the world in any way. I guess,

you know he'll be fine through the winner, but come on,
what kind of life is he living? Also, he's a
weird aunt in that he's such an individualist and male,
I guess. And this, yeah, we're setting aside a lot
of biological realities to consider the moral here.

Speaker 3 (44:28):
Maybe it should be that the cicada speaks to the
ant colony as a whole, and the queen communicates back
for it or something.

Speaker 2 (44:34):
I don't know, there's a whole Pixar movie right here.

Speaker 3 (44:39):
Yeah, but I do think the traditional understanding of the
esopic tale does match with like the origin story given
by Socrates and the Feederist dialogue, where in both cases
it's just like that the the cicada is a being
that is so enraptured with sort of the performance of
the moment, like it gets caught up in song and dance,

or well, in both cases, it gets caught up in
song and dance to the point that it is it
dies later or it cannot feed itself when winter comes.

Speaker 2 (45:08):
It has a very short term view of life because
it's it's life is very short term at this stage. Yea,
and yeah, there are different ways to interpret that. Does
it bring on feelings of, you know, vast summer melancholy
or is there a little bit of you know, a
little bit of live live life to the fullest while
you got it sort of a vibe going on here.

I mean, there's so many ways to interpret.

Speaker 3 (45:31):
It, though, if you want to keep pumping the metaphors there. Actually,
it's interesting that cicadas may have quite long lives in
our underground stage before the part you even ever see es.
But with the periodical cicada some of the longest development
periods of any insect on Earth.

Speaker 2 (45:47):
Yeah, it would be more like saying, hey, Grandpa, why
don't you act your age instead of you know, writing
jet skis and going to Burning Man or whatever the
case may be, and Grandpa can rightly respond. It's like
I've done all the other stuff before, I've lived the
ant life before. Uh, this is this is my time
to shine one last time.

Speaker 3 (46:06):
Right, this is my short window of reproductive phase. Doesn't
really map onto human life.

Speaker 2 (46:13):
But darn it, we will. We will make everything fit
one way or another. That's that's how that's how we
use animals as ideas. Uh but uh, yeah, I mean
that's I think it's the remarkable thing about the cicada.
It's like it's it's life cycle and biology is so
unique and fascinating, and then it's it's uniqueness, you know,

begs for some sort of metaphoric usage, you know, like
we we we have to see ourselves. We try to
see ourselves in any animal just to see what we
can get out of it. Right, And there's a lot
to play with there with the life cycle of the cicada.

Speaker 3 (46:47):
No doubt. All Right, is it time? Is it time
to go underground? And hope we don't pick up any
massive sporaes on the way. Is that when you're coming up.

Speaker 2 (46:56):
That's when you're coming up. Yeah, the coming up is
when you hit those spores. But you know there's other
stuff that can go wrong down there as well. But Yeah,
it's time for us to go underground, but we'll be
we'll we'll be back with new non cicada episodes, and
who knows, in time, we might return to the world
of cicadas. Because, as we've been discussing, this is all

going to happen again. We're gonna get excited. People are
going to get excited about cicadas in the future, be
it just your your normal annual cicadas or those periodical
emergencies that can just be so amazing and overwhelming and yeah,
some a little like frightening and icky, but I think
you should embrace the cicada. Don't look away, look closer,

because there's a there's a lot to there's a lot
of wonder there if you look at it. All right,
we'll go and close it out here then, But again,
we'd love to hear from everyone out there. If you
have any thoughts or observations about cicadas. We'll continue to
talk about it in listener mail. Yes, send in your photos.
You find a good cicada, take a photo of it
and send it to us. If no one else in

your life is interested in it, we are interested. Show
us those bugs.

Speaker 3 (48:03):
We'll remind us your favorite thing you've done with Cicada
exoskeletons with the.

Speaker 2 (48:07):
Molts, Yeah yeah. Or if you're doing stuff with sound,
are you doing, like you know, field samples of a
Circada song and doing something with it. Send us an
example of that. We'd love to hear it. Just a
reminder that Stuff to Blow Your Mind is primarily a
science and culture podcast with core episodes on Tuesdays and Thursdays,
but we also put out other stuff during the week.

We got that listener mail on Mondays, We've got a
short form episode that comes out on Wednesdays, and then
on Fridays. We set aside most serious concerns, so just
talk about a weird film on Weird House Cinema.

Speaker 3 (48:39):
Huge thanks as always to our excellent audio producer JJ Posway.
If you would like to get in touch with us
with feedback on this episode or any other, to suggest
a topic for the future, or just to say hello,
you can email us at contact at stuff to Blow
your Mind dot com.

Speaker 1 (49:01):
Stuff to Blow Your Mind is production of iHeartRadio. For
more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts,
or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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