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The Allegorical Value of the Cicada

If I'm lucky enough to find Cicada casings, I keep them. And even luckier still to find a live Cicada. I've
only seen 2 this season, this one was on my front door when I got home yesterday, and then it jumped on
my leg. My son was cutting the grass, so it's possible it was in the grass when it flew to the door to escape
the mowing.

Cicada Fly, on my door October 6, 2010 Cicada on my leg, October 6, 2010

Is an insect (Hemiptera), there are over 2,500 species around the world. They are most recognizable by
their size, the sounds they make. They are often confused with locusts, and as a child, you may have been
taught that they are 'heat bugs' attributed to the loud shrilling they make on particularly hot days. They
have a 13-17 year life-cycle depending on the species. The majority of their lives are lived underground,
about a foot deep. They feed on roots, and come up to mate. After they molt, they emerge as a fully
matured Cicada Fly. The casings are often left behind on tree bark in tact, aside a slit on the top where the
fly has emerged. For that reason, they are often called tree nymphs. The loud 'singing' is a defense
mechanism against predators such as the praying mantis, cicada wasp, and birds. Cicada, in Latin, means
'buzzer' and in Classical Greece, they were referred to as tettix, and modern Greek, tzitzikas
The Allegorical Value of Cicadas

The earliest record of Cicadas comes from Ancient Greece, about 2nd Millennium B.C. Archaeologists in
the 19th century, discovered coinage at Mycenae, (the home of Agamemnon who led the Greek forces at
Troy) a Bronze Age site. There were also statuettes of the wingless cicada, and it is speculated that
Mycenaean Greeks of the pre-historic era may have known the life-cycle of the Cicada, and used it to
represent immortality, and the underworld. About a thousand years later, Thucydides and later Plato would
write about the Cicada, both lived and worked in Athens which gives us an idea, that both Mycenaeans and
Athenians, were influenced by the life-cycle of the Cicada. Thucydides (Greek Historian) wrote, that the
people of Athens wore gold Cicadas in their hair, and Cicadas were ornamental throughout the city. It is
asserted, that the Cicada is part of their "autochthony", a concept that the earliest ancestors of the Athenians
sprang from the soil, and therefore gave them explicit rights to the land.

The Cicada, is found in myth with the story of Tithonus, the Cicada-man. Tithonus was lover to the
goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and in return for his love granted him the gift of immortality. Gifts from the
gods, are often not what they seem. more often they come with a catch. Tithonus aged, and shrunk smaller
and smaller, until he was nothing but a shrill of a voice, and turned into a Cicada. The mythology teaches
us of renewable youth. There is a hymn to the goddess Aprhodite which dates back to 500 B.C, in which
the poet suggests the Cicada metamorphosis (in so many words). The earliest explicit reference, comes
from Homer in the Illiad. Homer writes of elder men likened to Cicadas, perched in trees 'shrilling', after
their city has been besieged. The Greeks have an adjective for this type of descriptor: leirios derived from
leirion, which means 'lily', so the 'shrilling voices' of the elder men, likened to Cicadas are 'lily-like'. If
you've ever heard a Cicada shrill, it sounds like a small child screaming.

Once, I was in the parking lot at work, and the shrilling of a Cicada startled me, because it literally sounded
like a child was injured and screaming out in pain. When I looked around, what I found was a Starling
(bird) pecking at a Cicada and eating it, bit by bit. First the wings, then jabbing it as it desperately tried to
get away. I know this is natural and part of the cycle of life, but it broke my heart so I chased the bird
away. The poor thing, struggling, I was going to put it out of its misery but as soon as I approached it, the
Starling returned, snatched it up and flew away and I heard the shrill of the Cicada fade into the distance.
There was nothing 'lily-like' about it. When you think of the Lily, you might imagine some celestial voice,
not the shrill of the Cicada. When I first discovered the Cicada and its symbolism, I did a lot of research as
to what the Greeks may have meant by referring to the Cicada shrill as 'lily-like'. Cicadas generally feed on
tree sap, and the dew often found on lilies at dawn. All of the scholarly attempts to decipher have failed, in
my opinion -even by linguists. I think they were taking 'lily-like' too literal, rather than metaphorically and
even allegorically. I have an extremely metaphoric mind, it made perfect sense to me when you consider
the symbolism and the mythology. Cicadas kiss the dawn. Remember our Cicada man, and his love for the
goddess of the dawn? The shrilling of the Cicada, isn't what is being referenced when using leirios, but
rather the deep metaphor attributed to the metamorphosis of the Cicada, and the romance of the dawn.

In one of Plato's works, he writes about a deep philosophical discussion between Phaedrus and Socrates,
they are sitting on a grassy knoll by the river, in the background is a chorus of Cicadas. Plato inserts this,
for its allegorical value. Cicadas, have also been used to represent symbolic wordsmithing, so the 'chorus
of Cicadas' is not meant to simply represent the background noise of their discussion, but as a complex
symbol inserted in a very simplistic way. The Phaedrus, is a complex dialogue with twists and turns at
every line, a deep philosophical work, Eros...the emotional yearning and in the case of this dialogue a
yearning for learning, and to achieve the next level, and the next, and so on. Plato advises Phaedrus, that
they should not do something so foolish, like falling asleep in the shade under the tree, where the Cicadas
are singing. He points out, that the Cicadas are just as much a part of the dialogue, and they can carry with
them their song to the muses. Songs, and music tell stories of what has been seen, heard and experienced.
The Cicadas would therefore, carry back with them a good report having experienced the dialog vs.
watched two men napping in the shade. Phaedrus, doesn't quite understand what Socrates is talking about,
they were merely insects to him. Socrates tells him of a time long ago, when the Cicadas were once men,
and were gifted music by the Muses. After experiencing the affects of music, they did nothing else but
devote themselves to it, so much in fact that they forgot to eat and drink, withered away and nearly died.
For their dedication, the Muses turned them in to Cicadas, and charged them with how mankind was
honoring the Muses. So, any good report would grant them blessings in Muse. The symbolism is more
complex than withered men turned into insects, Socrates is stating, very poetically, that the Cicada
represents the disembodied soul, it needs the physical body to carry out it's bidding, and in the case of
thoughts put to action - the body is needed, for what the soul can not carry out. In the Renaissance era,
scholars believed that Socrates meant that the cicadas themselves represented souls. For a time, the cicada
was used to represent the human soul, so when you observe Renaissance works, especially allegorical
artwork, this is what the symbol was attempting to communicate. This was not what Socrates was
discussing, it's far more complex than that. Unless you know the life-cycle, and metamorphosis of the
cicada, much will get lost in translation.

The Cicada, wingless, in its underground existence would be more appropriate to represent the human soul.
Socrates stated, that when the soul has lost its wings, it is carried along until it settles on something solid,
then assumes a more terrestrial body. It appears to move by its own power, even though it is really the soul
within that causes it to move. I believe Socrates, is stating that the soul lives in many stages, as with the
Cicada it lives underground and then when the time has come, and the soul will know when the time is
right, it will emerge and settle into its new form. It no longer has the need for this terrestrial body, and
frees itself. The gods, bestowing their gifts upon mankind, for their purpose - to work through man, to
ascend. So, least to me, represent ascension.

Cicadas are used in symbolism all over the Mediterranean world, as well as Japan, China and Mexico. The
symbolism, includes everything from re-birth to body parts. In Italy, 'Cicala' is derivative from Cicada to
represent the vagina.

Further reading:

Greek Myth: Aurora and Tithonus

Homer: The Iliad

Archaeology: The Jade Cicada

Cicada Research: Scientific American, The 17 year itch


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