The derivation of stories and myths is a universal tendency of all human societies. Both myths and folk tales differ enormously in their morphology and their social function. They are used to mediate perceived contradictions in phenomena observed in the natural world, they serve as vehicles of wish fulfillment, they may embody a lesson, or they may serve to preserve a piece of a culture's history. Myth and folklore also differ from one another in their origin and purpose, but application of these distinctions is difficult to discuss here. Originally, mythology meant no more than telling stories, such as traditional tales passed from generation to generation. Later, some of these tales acquired new meaning and status and evolved more symbolic or religious functions. All tales, whether classified as folklore or myth, are not generated in isolation, but derive their inspiration, elements, and messages from the environment, including the host of other species that surround us. These tales are often used to derive commonsense explanations of natural phenomena observed in the environment. Conversely, such observations may also serve as the basis for the superstitious beliefs and tales surrounding aspects of human existence such as healing practices and other utilitarian activities such as agriculture.
Entomological mythology commonly employs transformations of beings between the insect and the human form (and combinations thereof), the acquisition of souls by insects, and ultimately the deification of insect forms. Insects are also used symbolically throughout the world's religions in a variety of roles.
Insects figure prominently in the creation myths of many cultures. The widespread recognition of insects in this role probably stems from an innate recognition of insects as ancient members of the living world that must have been present at its creation or soon thereafter. Beetles, for example, play central roles in the creation myths of two native American tribes. According to the Cherokee of the southeast, the world was originally covered by water. The first land was brought forth by the water beetle that dived under the water and brought mud to the surface.
The behavior of beetles in the genus Eleodes (Tenebrionidae), which raise their abdomens in the air by standing on their heads when disturbed, is explained by the role this beetle played in the creation of the universe according to the Cochiti of the American Southwest. The beetle was given the responsibility of transporting a bag of stars that would later be carefully named and placed into the sky. But the beetle's carelessness resulted in most of the stars being spilled into what is now the Milky Way. He was punished with blindness and today expresses his embarrassment at his mistake by hiding his head when approached. Any hope of this beetle regaining its sight was apparently completely lost at a later date, as this seems to be the same beetle that lost his eyes in a bet with a spider; this is how the spider got its extra sets of eyes.
Insects appear throughout Mayan codices and Aztec reliefs. The use of insects in this manner indicates an appreciation of their existence and their inclusion in cultural events. In addition to scorpions and some unknown bugs and worms, references to seven different insects are found in the Mayan book of the dawn of life, the Popul Vuh. These include lice, leafcutter ants, mosquitoes, fireflies, bees, yellowjackets, and another type of wasp. Yellowjackets were used as weapons by the Quiche against the enemy tribes during an attack on the Quiche citadel at Hacauitz. Fireflies were used by the brothers Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who later became the sun and the full moon, respectively. They placed these insects in the tips of cigars as false lights to deceive the Xibalban sentries of the underworld that watched over them during their night in the Dark House.
Observations of metamorphosis led people throughout history and from various parts of the world to equate pupation with death of the earthbound larva and the emergence of the often beautiful, winged adult with resurrection. The adult insect is additionally equated with the soul in many circumstances. The equation of souls or spirits of the afterlife with imaginal insects may be why angels are traditionally depicted bearing wings. Insect analogies in descriptions of death, resurrection, and the journey to the afterlife continue to be used today. For example, a Doris Stickney book uses a story of growth and emergence of dragonflies to explain a Christian concept of death to young children.
Insects have also been incorporated into the astrological and cosmological traditions of various societies. Aquatic insects were used as water symbols associated with the coming of rain by Chumash astrologers of southern California, who believed that rain was a gift from the sun. The guardians of the four cardinal points in Warao (Orinoco delta of Venezuela) cosmology are insects: arboreal termites, two kinds of stingless bees, and a paper wasp. There is even a constellation of the southern fly, Musca australis.
In Aztec culture, Xochiquetzal, represented by the swallowtail butterfly, Papilio multicaudatus, was the goddess of beauty, love, and flowers; patron of domestic labor and the courtesans; and the symbol of the soul and the dead. The mother deity and goddess of human sacrifice, war, and travelers, Itzpapalotl (the saturniid moth Rothschildia), was also the personification of the earth and moon. Images of these and other deified insects are found in many Aztec and Mayan reliefs.
The most famous deified insect is the scarab of ancient Egypt. The scarab is a symbol of the sun god Khepera (Fig. 1) and also equated with the creator god Atum. One representation of the scarab was as the agent responsible for moving the sun through the sky, in the manner that these beetles move balls of dung across the ground. Another prominent representation of the scarab was that of the soul emerging from the body, and it was commonly associated with mummies. Just as the actions of the beetles and balls of earth and dung give rise to new beetles, the buried human dead will rise again. Scarab figures are nearly always found on Egyptian mummy sarcophagi, and amulets and pendants bearing the scarab likeness were worn as jewelry by royalty
and included in funeral caches as symbols of new life. Another testament of the association of these beetles with life comes from Saint Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan, who wrote of Jesus as "the good Scarabaeus, who rolled up before him the hitherto unshapen mud of our bodies."
Recent English translations of the Bible, based solely on the original texts, have shed new light on biblical references to insects, particularly with respect to the identity of the insects themselves. Of the 98 references to insects in the Revised English Version, most focus on negative aspects of their activities and as vehicles for God's wrath. Three of the 10 plagues (maggot infestation, swarming flies, locusts) visited upon Egypt prior to the Exodus were mediated by insects. Other references deal with more utilitarian or beneficial aspects of insect life. Insects are included as part of the instructions of what kinds of animals are permitted as food (Leviticus 11:22), some writings are merely observations of insects and their habits (Exodus 16:20), and other references use them as examples of virtuous characteristics (Proverbs 6:6—8 and 30:25—27). Sometimes insects are used metaphorically, as in Psalms 118:12: "They surround me like bees at the honey, they attack me, as fire attacks brushwood, but in the Lord's name I will drive them away." One or more kinds of scarab beetle may have even served as the inspiration for the prophetic visions of Ezekial.
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