Symbolism And Reverence

Throughout human existence, many insects have been admired for their ingenuity, beauty, fantastic shapes, and behaviors. In some instances, the use of insects as totemic figures that may symbolize ancestry or kinship of humans with these organisms leads to a deep sense of adoration and reverence. In other cases, the resultant admiration has developed into a reverence for their inspirational and historical nature and a medium for symbolizing a variety of aspects of human life. In these situations, characterizations of organisms, in both illustration and sculpture, act as vehicles to convey human feelings rather than as objective expressions of entomological facts. Insect symbolism is best developed in the most advanced ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and especially Central America, where the people were surrounded by a multitude of insects.

Of all the insect groups, the flies (Diptera) most frequently play negative roles in human symbolism. Flies typically represent evil, pestilence, torment, disease, and all things dirty. This association is likely a result of the fact that those flies most familiar to people have a close association with filth. Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies, is a fallen angel who presides as a leader of demons and an agent of destruction and putrefaction. In the ancient lore of Persia, the devil Ahriman created an evil counterpart for every element of good put on Earth by the creator. Many insects, particularly flies, were thus formed and they continue to be associated with evil and filth. Some flies were considered so bad that they became symbols of qualities revered by humans. The Order of the Golden Fly was a military decoration of the New Kingdom of Egypt (1550-1069 B.C.) awarded for valor. Derived from encounters with the stable fly, Stomoxys calcitrans, soldiers observed these flies to fiercely bite and return to bite again, even in the face of persecution.

Because of the perceived similarities between human and insect societies, social insects figure prominently in the symbolic representation of insects. Social insects such as ants, termites, and some bees represent desirable qualities such as unity, cooperation, and industriousness. For example, ants represent the benefits of teamwork and cooperation for the good of all. Many symbolic depictions feature the ancient activities of honey hunting and beekeeping. In Europe, bees and hives also are widely used in various signage and as heraldic emblems, perhaps extolling various qualities of bees upon their bearer. A fine example of the latter is found on the coat of arms of Pope Urban VIII, Maffeo Barberini, who consecrated the present church in St. Peter's Basilica in 1626. The three Barberini bees adorn various ornamentations at the church and many papal objects located in the Vatican museum, including the building itself. In the United States, honey bees are used to symbolize virtuous qualities. The designation of Utah as the "Beehive State" originates from the adoption of the beehive as a motif by the Mormon leaders in 1849 and may be based on impressions of the bees as hard-working, industrious creatures.

Some insect groups have such wide representation in the symbolism of past and present human societies that it is impossible to make general statements about their meaning. Butterflies and moths, for example, are very common elements in symbolism of societies worldwide. Within the limited scope of Western art, Ronald Gagliardi describes the use of butterflies and moths in 74 different symbolic contexts. These insects adorn the artwork of many societies, not only because of their beauty but also because they are widely used to symbolize spirits. Butterflies are often equated with the souls of the dead or sometimes of souls passing through Purgatory (Irish folklore) and are thus often used to represent life after death. The Greek goddess Psyche, who represented the soul, is typically depicted bearing butterfly wings. Moths are depicted as a symbol of the soul's quest for truth, and just as the moth is attracted to a light, so the soul is drawn to divine truth.

Butterfly images are common adornments of pottery, featherwork, and the deeply religious characters hewn in stone in ancient Mexico. The Hopi of the American Southwest have a ritual called the "Butterfly Dance" and have kachina figures that anthropomorphize the butterfly spirit. The Blackfoot Indians of North America believe that dreams are brought to sleeping people by the butterfly.

Symbolic depictions of insects also serve to bestow honor on the insects themselves. Insects have been featured on a few coins and on several thousand postage stamps worldwide (Fig. 2). One fifth century Roman coin bears a honey bee,

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FIGURE 2 Postage stamps featuring a selection of moths. (Stamps from the author's collection.)

FIGURE 2 Postage stamps featuring a selection of moths. (Stamps from the author's collection.)

the emblem of the city of Ephesus. Their "Great Mother" was also known as the Queen Bee and her priestesses were called "melissae," from the Greek for honey bee, in analogous reference to worker bees and their servitude to the queen. There are currently 39 U.S. states that have designated an official state insect, chosen typically to represent something beautiful or inspirational from the state or merely an insect familiar to many. The honey bee is the insect of choice for 16 states and has been nominated, along with the monarch butterfly, as a candidate for the national insect of the United States.

Some insects, particularly those that symbolize aggression, have found their way onto the playing field in the form of sports team mascots. Teams often choose insects, such as wasps, that symbolize aggression (e.g., the Charlotte Hornets of the National Basketball Association and the Yellowjackets of Georgia Institute of Technology).

Other forms of insect celebration involve periodical events of recognition or appreciation for the actions or beauty of local insects. Cities and towns celebrate the beneficial industry and products of some insects, such as honey bees, or the pestiferous activities of those insects that affect the local economy. Annual festivals are held to celebrate honey bees in Illinois and Georgia, woollybear caterpillars in Kentucky and North Carolina, and monarch butterflies in California. In other places, celebrations recognizing the local impact of pestiferous insects are held, including a fire ant festival in Texas, a phylloxera festival in Spain, and a permanent tribute to a weevil in Alabama. The monument to the boll weevil in Enterprise, Alabama, is a large statue of a woman holding a larger than life weevil high over her head. It was dedicated in 1919 to honor the pest for the roll it played in the history of the town. The farmers were forced to switch from planting cotton to a diversity of other crops, particularly peanuts, and the town prospered as a result.

A very successful type of organized celebration of insects that has become common in recent years is the insect fair. These events serve to congregate people with a common interest in insects where they can participate in and enjoy a variety of insect-based fun, contests, food, and dialogue. Insect fairs also provide opportunities to see and purchase nearly anything of entomological interest.

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