The wonderful Ming exhibition I wrote about led me to thinking about cicadas. I have always loved their songs, Mediterranean, coastal Georgian and many other versions; to me, their heady, penetrating calls have always symbolised summer days of happiness and peace. There are about 2,500 cicada species in the world, not all identified, and their name derives from the Latin, cicada, or tree cricket. Some cicadas sing at night, others by day. Some live in trees, nestled amid the bark.
Others, such as the eastern North American varieties, live underground, feeding on fluid from tree roots and emerging as nymphs every thirteen or seventeen years in vast numbers of males to live a riotous life for four to six weeks of maturation, singing and copulation, before retreating underground again for another thirteen to seventeen years. Quite a life style! Male cicadas sing not in the usual insect way of rubbing different body parts together, but by thrumming and vibrating tymbals, membranes which are parts of the exoskeleton on the insect's abdomen.
These beautiful, large insects have been regarded as very special by many civilisations down the ages. Already in the Neolithic period in China, jade versions of the cicada or tsan have been found. They were thought to be an important element of burial practices from those early times. These jade cicadas were placed on the tongue of the deceased, part of a set of jade plugs or coverings for the whole body. Cicadas represented rebirth and immortality, and thus their presence at burial sites would help to ensure a rebirth, just as the cicada re-emerges from the ground once more. Perhaps their placement on the tongue also evoked the cicada's song, the loudest of all insects.
The poor man's version of these burial cicadas was made of glass, cut with a wheel to shape the flat wings.
During the late Shang period ((1766–1122 BC), cicadas had also been incorporated in Chinese bronze vessels and other objects.
To this day in China, cicadas may not be used for burial rites, but they still occupy an important part in artistic inspiration in different media.
Cicadas became revered insects in other early cultures across Asia and beyond. Some theorise that their shedding their skins and emerging once more, together with their reappearance from underground, all meshed with Buddhist beliefs, thus echoing the earlier associations of rebirth and immortality. Of course, the Japanese celebrated the cicada in netsuke, such an appropriate use.
The nomadic Huns carried this reverence for cicadas with them as they roamed Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and beyond into Central Asia during the 1st-7th century AD.
Probably the Huns stimulated the next wave of "cicada mania" to roll west towards Europe.
While cicadas were inspiring artists and craftsmen down the millennia, they were also inspiring writers. Homer talks of them in the Iliad, Artistotle describes them in his History of Animals, as does Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. The Greeks and Romans had many stories about cicadas that are delightful. In the Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji, cicadas become a metaphor for a beloved shedding her gown as does the insect shed its shell when molting. The classic 14th century Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, combines the name of the sable tails (diāo) and jade cicada decorations (chán) on the hats of high-ranking officials for the name of the heroine, Dianochan.
More recently, the cicada's symbolism has widened. The French regard them as insouciant, as was illustrated by Jean de la Fontaine in his story, La Cigale et la Fourmi (The Cicada and the Ant), based on one of Aesop's famous fables. The Japanese associate the end of summer with them. The Argentinian composer-poet, Maria Elena Walsh, drew on the cicada's connections with immortality to write a famous song of defiance and survival, "Como la Cigarra", ("Like the Cicada").
I understand why so many of us relate to these amazing insects. They remind us of the complexities of nature with their unusual life cycles. They intimate that life can go on again after seeming pauses. Their elegance of wing patterns and unusually large size draw our attention and respect. They sing of love, loudly, insistently, with their own particular tunefulness. Most of all, they have inspired wonderful creativity down the ages,for which we are all the richer.