Art Language And Literature

Art draws its inspiration from the environment of the artist. It is therefore not surprising that insects have pervaded all forms and aspects of art. Images of insects are found as adornment on all types of objects from textiles and pottery to weapons and jewelry and even the tattoos on human bodies. Insects are also found, either as the primary subjects or merely as curious elements of lesser status, throughout all types of paintings.

Like the illustration of other animals, insect illustration began as a form of decoration. The earliest clearly identifiable drawing of an insect apparently dates to around 20,000 years ago. It is of a cave-dwelling rhaphidophorid cave cricket, inscribed on a piece of bison bone by Cro-Magnon people in southern France. From this humble beginning, depictions of insects have adorned everything from the walls of caves and temples of ancient societies to the paintings and textiles of modern artisans.

Insects, particularly butterflies, were used for decorative purposes in the painted illuminations of medieval manuscripts. By the 15 th century, insects had become as important as birds in this respect. The rich iconographic use of insects at this time, often associated with folklore composed of a mixture of misinformation and factual representations, formed the basis on which the first scientific naturalists started their work in the 16th century. One insect painter, who was primarily an artist rather than a biologist, was Maria Sibylla Meriam. She reconciled the old aesthetic realism of medieval origin with the new tradition of practical engravings of the elaborately illustrated natural history treatises of the day and helped form the foundations of modern scientific investigations and writings on insect subjects.

In addition to paintings and textiles bearing artistic depictions of insects, their bodies, parts, and products often serve as the media for art. The metallic, brightly colored elytra of some buprestid beetles have been used as decorative cover on sculptures and textiles and as accessories in jewelry. Similarly, pieces of the colorful wings of butterflies are used in various parts of the world in collages to create artistic images. Beeswax was used to fashion figures and was the wax used to make the positive images in the "lost wax" technique for casting metal figures that originated in the third millennium B.C. in the Middle East.

One art form in which insects have been widely used as models is jewelry. Jewelry resembling insects has been used as aesthetic adornment around the world, throughout history and currently. The insects most commonly used as models for jewelry are beetles, flies, bees, butterflies, and dragonflies.

Some of these, such as flies and bees, had symbolic significance in ancient societies. Others, such as dragonflies and butterflies, are more likely used because of their beauty. A particularly interesting form of insect-based adornment is living jewelry. In Mexico, small jewels, glass beads, and metallic ornaments are set or glued to the elytra and pronotum of living ironclad beetles (Zopheridae) that are then attached to a fine chain pinned to the blouse and allowed to act as a living brooch. Some brilliantly metallic buprestids are used in a similar manner in parts of tropical Asia, and living fireflies and luminescent elaterids are used as decorations in hair or attached to clothing.

Many 15 th and 16th century paintings include the motif of common-looking flies perched on various subjects, including people. The depiction of flies in this manner was done in mischievous jest or to invoke shock, perhaps to symbolize the worthiness of even the smallest objects of creation in association with the images of humans, as an expression of artistic privilege, or to indicate that the person in a portrait had died. Sometimes flies were included simply as imitation of such musca depicta done by previous painters.

In addition to their roles in mythology and folklore, insects and their symbolic representations have been adapted into the language and philosophy of various cultures. Symbols are used to suggest some idea or quality other than itself. One example is insect symbols in ideographic or phonetic symbols in written language. Examples are found in Assyro-Babylonian cuneiform and the ideographic writing of the Chinese and Japanese. The Greek word for mosquito, "Konops," is the source of the word for canopy, such as that made of mosquito netting. The medieval word "mead" refers to an alcoholic drink made from fermented honey and water that was used as an elixir. This word is the basis for the word "medicine" in recognition of its purported healing properties, and the word "madness" is in reference to the state of some people under the influence of mead. Insects even form the basis for geographical place names. Chapultepec, the hill of the grasshoppers, is where the castle of Aztec Emperor Montezuma stood in what is now part of Mexico City. Urubamba, which means the plain of the insect, is the sacred valley of the Incas near Cuzco in Peru. Japan was once known as Akitsushima, meaning dragonfly island.

Insects have also lent their names and attributes to a variety of descriptors of people and their personalities. People may be described as "busy as a bee," "nit picky," or "antsy." They may act "merry as a cricket" or feel as though they have "butterflies in their stomach." Connotations associated with particular insects may be used to convey similar traits in people. In many parts of the world, the reference of someone as a cockroach signifies an utter contempt for the individual and implies that their life is without value. The Spanish word for butterfly, "mariposa," is street slang for male homosexuals in Mexico. Lastly, insects enter language as metaphor. For example the self-ascribed desirable qualities of boxer Muhammed Ali are that he can "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee."

Aside from purely scientific works, insects have been represented in word and verse in a variety of contexts. In literature, insects are found as subjects of humor, as examples of aesthetically interesting natural subjects of wonder and appreciation, and as characters in fairy tales and in science fiction, mystery, and fantasy novels. Insects sometimes even serve as the storytellers themselves.

The essence of insects in literary humor typically involves the superimposition of insects into aspects of human behavior. The depiction of insects engaged in human activities is a common avenue of insect humor. This is particularly true of the role of insects in comic strips and cartoons, such as in the Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson. In other works, factual entomological information is cleverly presented in a humorous format. Such essays serve to popularize insects and their study, to educate, and, of most relevance here, to entertain.

Insects with endearing qualities, such as beautiful appearance or song, are used in fanciful stories and celebrated in poetry and verse. In Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, a group of larger than life insects join a young boy as companions in a surreal adventure inside a monstrous fruit. A cricket and its song play a central role in Charles Dicken's fairy tale of home, The Cricket on the Hearth. The people of the house are gladdened and cherish the pleasant voice of the cricket as they listen to its fireside music. The melodious tune made for a happy home and served as an inspiration for those that heard it. Selections of insect poetry are typically written to convey particular feelings or to celebrate insects themselves. A contemporary example comes from the late D. K. McE. Kevan, the author of many humorous entomocentric verses, who wrote An Embiopteran Epitaph (reprinted from the Bulletin of the Entomological Society of Canada 6(1), 29, 1974).

We embiid web-spinners,

When seeking out our dinners,

Run back and forth in tunnels made of silk;

But, when we get the urge,

We occasion'ly emerge

From beneath a log, or places of that ilk.

We like our climates warm;

We're of dimorphic form;

We're soft and have a tendency to shrink.

"One does not often see 'em!"

Says the man in the museum,

But we're really not so rare as people think!

On the other hand, insects with undesirable qualities or strange traits are typically the subject of horror and mystery stories. Hundreds of science fiction and fantasy stories that use insects in a variety of prominent roles have been published. Franz Kafka's short story The Metamorphosis is about a young man who awakes one morning to find out he has turned into a giant insect. In Edgar Alan Poe's tale of the hunt for a pirate's treasure, The Gold Bug, an insect is used to find the buried loot. As per the directions on a coded map, the gold beetle, tied to the end of a string and passed through the left eye of a skull nailed high in a tall tree, indicates the spot of a landmark from which the location of the treasure can be deciphered.

The role of insects in science fiction is particularly well established in film, where various insects appear as horrific creatures. Some of these insect fear films, e.g., The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), merely embellish factual information in order to prey on the entomophobic tendencies of the general populace and the potential fleetingness of the future of humans on Earth in the face of the insect hordes. Others use fantastic representations of insects with supranormal characteristics, typically the result of science and technology gone awry, to instill fear and malevolence toward the insect characters, and as a lesson of what can happen when humans arrogantly fool with nature. Ants are common subjects in these roles and appear as giant mutants invading southern California in Them (1954) and a housing development in Florida in Empire of the Ants (1977). In The Naked Jungle (1954) and Phase IV (1974), the ant attackers are of normal size, but possess supernatural intelligence and aggression. Because they are widely despised by humans, cockroaches and flies are predisposed to be good villains in these films. In Bug (1975), hordes of carnivorous, self-combustible cockroaches wreak havoc on the population; and in the classic insect horror film The Fly (1958), the bodies of scientist and insect become inextricably combined with horrific consequences.

Not all fiction films starring insects depict them in a negative light. Insects sometimes fill the role of funny or entertaining characters. For example, in Joe's Apartment (1996), the singing and dancing cockroaches are crudely humorous roommates. The literary or cinematic use of insects in humor or as subjects of entertainment invariably leads to the creation of bugfolk. Bugfolk are humanized insects and other related arthropods that dress or talk like humans or are little people with wings, antennae, or other insect features. Bugfolk appear in nearly every literary and art form and are favorite characters for young audiences because of their teaching and entertainment abilities.

Certainly the most familiar bugfolk to Americans and many others worldwide is Jiminy Cricket, of Walt Disney's 1940 animated film Pinocchio. Like many of his kind, but unlike his true insect model, Jiminy Cricket bears only four limbs and acts and appears very human. Although morphological correctness is commonly practiced in more recently derived motion picture bugfolk, four-leggedness continues to be seen particularly when a friendly character relationship is desired. Six leggedness, e.g., the evil "Hopper" and his gang of grasshoppers in Disney's animated feature A Bug's Life, is used perhaps to provide a farther-from-human image and invoke disdain. Many other bugfolk are featured in comics, as children's toys, and as subjects in literature and art.

FIGURE 3 Trio of bugfolk extolling the virtues of sociality. [Illustration from Episodes of Insect Life, by Acheta Domestica, M.E.S. (1851).]

The use of bugfolk in literature and film enables people to see and learn something about themselves through these characters, in perhaps a different light than would be achieved through a strictly human relationship. For example, insect humor often involves a comparison of human behavior and what an insect might be supposed to do in comparable situations. In this manner, insects are found dressed as humans engaged in human activities, such as attending a festive party or dance, or as subjects in amusing or thought-provoking situations (Fig. 3). Particularly creative illustrations of anthropomorphized insects enjoying themselves are found in Grandeville's Scènes de la vie privée et publique des animaux and in Aldridge's Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast.


The songs, sounds, and other qualities of insects have inspired many musicians and songwriters. The sounds produced by various insects serve as songs for direct enjoyment or as the inspiration for man-made music. Singing insects have a rich social history in Asia where celebrations and festivals are routinely held. People in both Japan and China have long kept singing insects, chiefly crickets and katydids, in small cages, like birds, for the enjoyment of their songs. The inspiring influence of insect sound for human musicians is exemplified in Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov's famous musical composition the Flight of the Bumblebee and in that of another piece by Korsakov's pupil Anatol Liadov, the Dance of the Mosquito. As subject matter in song, insects such as cockroaches are common in blues and folk songs such as the famous Mexican folk song "La Cucaracha," about the troubles of a cockroach down on his luck.

Although insect collection and observation is generally done as an educational activity, many people find great enjoyment in capturing insects for specimens, to keep as pets, and to use in a variety of entertaining tasks. This is particularly true of children living in rural areas of Japan where insects have achieved a lofty cultural status.

These activities support an entire industry devoted to providing the equipment used to capture, observe, and keep insects in captivity. Some insects, particularly large dynastine scarabs and lucanids, are even mass reared and sold in vending machines.

Insects serve as the models for games or may be active, albeit unwilling, participants in a variety of six-legged sporting events. In the children's game "Cootie," the object is to be the first player to assemble a complete insect from a set of body parts such as antennae, proboscis, and six legs. In many parts of the world children fly insects instead of kites. Large insects, such as big beetles and dragonflies, are tethered to strings and allowed to fly for the amusement of people. In places where they occur naturally, large male dynastine scarabs or lucanids are collected and made to fight each other for sport.

Bouts and games involving insects are a source of enjoyment as well as an opportunity for gambling, such as with cricket fighting in China and Thailand and water bug roulette. In the latter contest, water beetles or water bugs are released into the center of a circular container filled with water. The inside perimeter is bounded by a continuous series of marked slots into which the insect can enter. Entrance of a particular insect into a slot is analogous to the landing of the ball on a particular number on a roulette wheel and the appropriate prize is awarded. In addition to being pitted against each other in battle, insects are commonly matched in foot races. For example, caterpillar races are held in Banner Elk, North Carolina, during the Woolly-Bear Festival, and cockroach racing is popular in many parts of the world, particularly in China and India.

Other forms of insect-based entertainment for humans include flea circuses and entertaining displays of both living and dead insects. Flea circuses use tiny performing fleas that are "trained" to perform a variety of circus acts for the amusement of the audience. Living insects are displayed in venues such as butterfly houses, where they can be viewed and enjoyed flying about their enclosures by an appreciative public. Dead insects have been similarly displayed as objects of aesthetic pleasure, sometimes with added adornments such as miniature clothing. Dead fleas are dressed in tiny costumes and displayed in folk art exhibits in Mexico. In Plano, Texas, the Cockroach Hall of Fame Museum features dead roaches dressed as famous people engaged in various activities.

As is true for other organisms that are held in high regard and for those that serve some utilitarian function such as food, some insects fill symbolic roles in human ceremonies. For example, although insects are regularly eaten in many parts of the world for sustenance, the consumption of insects

FIGURE 4 Grasshoppers being carried to a feast to celebrate the Assyrian defeat of the Elamites, from a relief of Ashurbanipal at Ninevah. [Illustration modified from Bodenheimer (1928).]

was sometimes reserved for ceremonies or other special occasions (Fig. 4). The Kaua of Brazil perform a dance known as the "Dance of the Dung Beetles" that is used to drive away demons. The dancers attempt to transfer powers to themselves from the spirit world by taking on the image of the beetles. They do this by imitating the actions of beetles rolling a ball of dung. Other insects play a more active role and are used for a particular ceremonial or ritualistic purpose. Because of their powerful stings, giant hunting ants are used by indigenous peoples in Amazonia in male initiation and virility rites ceremonies. Large numbers of ants are tied to a woven mat and the mat with the now enraged ants is applied to the initiate's bare skin. Those who endure the excruciating pain without complaint, and live, are deemed worthy.

The Indians of central and southern California also made ceremonial use of ants. Male youths of the Kitanemuk, Tubatulabal, and Kawaiisu were taken by their elders for three days of fasting, after which they were given numerous live "red" or "yellow" ants to eat. The ants were consumed in order to gain power and induce a trance-like state during which spiritual insight would be gained.

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