Randy Cicadas on Fire

17-year periodic cicada, Magicicada sp. brood ...

17-year periodic cicada, Magicicada sp. brood XIII, 2007. Photographed at Lisle, Illinois. Shown with Kentucky Coffee Tree – Gymnocladus dioicus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I live too far away from where the action is to experience the commotion first-hand, but I couldn’t help feeling a sort of vicarious excitement when I read that US States from North Carolina to Connecticut are about to be hit by a “Swarmageddon”.

This sounds vaguely ominous, but it means no more than that North-American cicadas (more specifically, three species of the genus Magicicada) are about to emerge from underground, where they had been growing for the last 17 years, and to start mating. The male of the species, as one does, tries to attract the female by producing a loud din. This he does by rapidly clicking his abdomen in and out, “as one might click and unclick an empty soda can,” with the hollow abdomen amplifying and broadcasting the sound pretty much as a resonance chamber would.

A 17-year cicada, or Magicicada

A 17-year cicada, or Magicicada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tragically, this is your average story of love and death: shortly after they mate and lay eggs, these periodic insects will die. Their reproduction spells their destruction.

One commentator has noticed that the last time the 17-year cicadas emerged from the ground and mated was when President Bill Clinton was in office in 1996. This, of course, is delightfully appropriate, since the former President distinguished himself both as a music-maker and as a … well, you know.

All this talk about cicadas in love makes me think of a curious little epigram by Posidippus of Pella, a successful and respected Greek man of letters active in the first half of the 3rd century BC. The epigram in question comes from a Byzantine collection of pagan and Christian epigrams known as The Greek Anthology (Book 12, No 98). Here it is, in (alas) my own translation:

The Muses’ cicada… Desire has tied him on thorns,

set fire under his side, and wants to put him to sleep.

Once labouring over books, now his soul shrieks

unanswered entreaties, blaming its dire fortune.

The translation incorporates a number of emendations by modern scholars, including yours truly (“unanswered entreaties” is based on an emendation of my own), which we needn’t go into here. What I’d rather focus on is the intriguing way in which Posidippus mingles the cicada with erotic desire and with images of roasting on fire, with some heart-rending shrieking thrown in for good measure. What’s this all about?

To begin with, it seems fairly clear that “the Muses’ cicada” stands for the learned poet, who has for a long time “laboured over books”. Cicadas enjoy a privileged relation with the Muses (the Greek divinities that inspire song), as everyone will remember who has read the famous tale in Plato’s Phaedrus (259a-d).

The Parnassus ( )

The Parnassus ( ) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to this ostensibly popular tale, the cicadas were once men, who happened to have lived before the Muses were created. Once the Muses appeared, however, their delightful song amazed these men so much that they gave up all thought of eating and drinking: song was all they could care about, and they spent all their time singing. As a result, they died of starvation, although in their death they somehow gave birth to the race of cicadas, which were granted by the Muses the prerogative of singing till the end of their days without ever being in need of food or drink. Moreover, when cicadas die they go to the Muses to report on which men give due honours to the Muses here on earth.

So far so good, but what’s with the roasting in Posidippus’ epigram? Well, it’s apparently to do, on the one hand, with the idea of erotic desire as a burning flame (the Greeks too experienced lust as fire) and, on the other, with the idea that desire is at the same time a torment.

Ахиллес, оплакивающй Патрокла - Ге Николай Ник...

Ахиллес, оплакивающй Патрокла – Ге Николай Николаевич. Achilles and the body of Patroclus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Subtly, Posidippus uses the verb trizei (admittedly, an emended reading) to describe the sound emitted by the roasted cicada. The verb trizein can mean both “to utter a shrill cry” (hence my translation “shrieks”) but also “to crackle”, as one would if burned in the fire. In Homer, the soul of a dying person is sometimes imagined as emitting a shrill cry, which is again rendered by the verb trizein. Typically for a Hellenistic epigrammatist, Posidippus has reworked the grand epic usage into a much more mundane, and distinctly unheroic context.

What we need to take further into account in order to appreciate fully the subtlety of Posidippus’ epigram is that Greek cicadas, like their modern American counterparts, produce their characteristic shrill sound during the mating season. So, it is apposite that Posidippus’ poetic cicada is made to shriek precisely at the moment when he is tormented by lust.

Lovelorn hemiptera don’t look like a promising poetic subject, but Posidippus has pulled the trick more than decently, I should think. The world would have to wait another 2,300 years for a master littérateur to manage a comparably impossible combination of sexology and entomology: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a nubile adolescent whose charms are described repeatedly in a lepidopterist’s vocabulary — an exercise that, among other things, enriched the English language with the word “nymphet”. But that would be the subject of another disquisition.

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2 Responses to Randy Cicadas on Fire

  1. Steve says:

    A word from 1954, a seven-year old’s memory of ‘man-eating’ cicadas: http://simplicitylane.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/building-blocks-for-the-written-word/

  2. Vayos Liapis says:

    Thank you, Steve! Who knew cicadas had such literary potential, right?

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