July 22, 2004
The Cicada Complex
As the swarm of periodical cicadas known as Brood X emerged along the Atlantic coast over the past couple months, the American media clambered to track the eruption. Alongside news reports and web sites tending to the cicadas, there were scores of articles detailing the brief, amorous life of the insects and the fascination they arouse. One such article was Martin Marty's "Year of the Locust," which appeared in The Christian Century (June 15, 2004).
According to Marty, biblical scholarship reveals that the locusts of the ten plagues described in Exodus were in fact periodical cicadas -- or "17-year locusts," as they are colloquially (and inaccurately) known. Thus, the hackneyed phrase "of biblical proportions" applied by the media to the contemporary installment of Brood X is justified. But such a phrase merely alludes to the inadequately studied religious dimensions of the cicada phenomenon.
Cicadas enjoy a rich mythological history, saturated with religious meanings and implications. Aside from the divinely ordained plague of "locusts," cicadas have also appeared as sacred manifestations in other myths and cultures. For example, in ancient Greece, the cicadas were emblems of immortality and, as in Plato's Phaedrus, considered divine intercessors, relating human activity to the Muses. In Chinese folklore cicadas are "sacred animal symbols" of resurrection.
These ancient stories underscore, I believe, a thriving contemporary mythology of the cicada. Surrealist essayist Roger Caillois, instrumental in developing the school of "sacred sociology" in inter-war France, both analyzed and enhanced surrealism's mania for insects. His exceptional work on the mythology and sacred aura of the praying mantis (la mante religieuse) led him to conclude that this insect is an "objective ideogram," a material representation that has the "privilege of disturbing the affectivity of ... many different types of people and, at the very least, of arousing in them a shared irrational curiosity."
The cicada, no less than its mantid counterpart, is an objective ideogram that crystallizes a nexus of highly fraught religious and mythological associations. In addition to the periodic resurrection and metamorphosis enacted by cicadas (with ecstasy dramatized by the adult insect bursting from its cuticle), numerous other aspects endow this living entomoid symbol with its sacred aura. I want to describe just three further features of the contemporary cicada complex.
"Brood X." Nomenclature intensifies the aura of the insect. While it is true that the "X" here refers to the numeral and not the letter, graphic identity makes association unavoidable (I've heard the swarm referred to aloud as "brood ex" rather than "brood ten"). This allows the swarm to take on the cultural mystique of the letter X. Consider, in this regard, the supernaturalism of the "The X-Files," or the charismatic "X Games." And, of course, "X" is also the shorthand for Christ ("X-mas"), heightening associations with death and resurrection.
Monstrosity. Monstrosity has always had a place in religion, across cultures and eras. Monsters elicit a contradictory affectivity characterized by simultaneous fascination and repulsion -- "sacred horror." Cicadas are particularly apt for arousing such affections, embodying a host of monstrous characteristics. Giants among insects, and gigantic in number; grotesque in appearance (with red eyes bulging from malevolent, mask-like "faces"); and endowed with a collective clamor that verges on a roar, cicadas fascinate even as they frighten.
Eroticism. Every seventeen years, these cicadas mate in a single-minded frenzy, their orgiastic abundance ensuring future fecundity. It is not only their collective amatory life, however, but their imminent death that bespeaks eroticism. What compels our fascination with these insects is the recognition of a holy desire to be single-minded, devoted, tenacious, and unreservedly loving -- to embody the obsessive, religious impulse to love, even unto death.
Jeremy Biles received his PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is pursuing research in cultural entomology.