I’d like to take this last moment of ant monster flicks to talk about Literary Entomology. Entomology is the branch of zoology that deals with insects. Insects has been a part of the arts as long as man has been around. There’s a 6,000 year old cave painting near Valencia that shows the gathering of wild honey. In France, a place called the Chauvet Cave has paintings 30,000 year sold showing centipedes and butterflies.
Time and again in literature, we see narratives using insects to explore a large range of topics, either scientific or emotional. The depictions can be direct or metaphorical depending on the author’s needs. Many of us are familiar with some classical uses of entomology, so let’s begin with the more familiar.
For me it started with mythology. Whether it’s the scorpions in the Egyptian Osiris myth or the Greek myth where Apollo send scorpions to battle Orion, or stories like the Greek myth of Arachne (why spiders spin webs) or in Ovid’s Metamorphosis there’s a story of ants being turned into men, these early stories have a certain fascination they carry with them.
There are stories involving insects in The Bible. Plagues of locusts in Exodus, bees and honey in the carcass of a lion in the Sampson story, a Psalms that recounts the Moses story talking about plagues of flies and lice in Psalms 105, Proverbs 6:6 says “Go to the ant, though sluggard and consider her ways and be wise.” There’s more, but moving on…
In poetry we have William Blake’s “The Fly”, Robert Burns “To a Louse”, Charles Bukowski’s “40,000 Flies”, several poems by Emily Dickenson (“From Cocoon Forth a Butterfly”, “Two Butterflies went out at Noon”, “The Spider as an Artist”, and “Death is like an Insect”), R.W. Emerson wrote of “The Humble-Bee”, Robert Frost does mental battle with a mite in “A Considerable Speck”, Hermann Hesse wrote about a “A Swarm of Gnats”, Ted Hughes gave us “Gnat-Psalm”, “In the Likeness of a Grasshopper”, “A Cranefly in September,” “Two Tortoiseshelled Butterflies”, and “The Honey Bee.” John Keats likewise gave us “To Autumn” and “On the Grasshopper and Cricket”. Pablo Neruda came up with “Fleas Interest me So Much”, “Life and Death of a Butterfly, and “Ode to Bees”. Octavio Paz wrote “Obsidian Butterfly” and “Stars and Cricket”. One of my favorite poems EVER is Karl Shapiro’s “The Fly”. There’s Dylan Thomas’s “To-Day, This Insect”. William Wordsworth wrote “To a Butterfly.” William Butler Yates wrote of a butterfly as teacher in “Another Song of a Fool.” This is by no means an exhaustive list. Just some of my favorites.
The epics Gilgamesh, The Iliad and The Odyssey all contain insect references. The dramas Wasps by Aristophanes and Jean-Paul Sarte’s “The Flies” both yield interesting perspectives. I was in a play in college called The Insect Comedy but I can’t remember who wrote it. I think I was a moth.
As for short stories we have Katherine Mansfield’s “The Fly”, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” and “The Sphinx”, and probably the most famous of all…Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis”. Yeah, we all probably remember having to read about poor Gregor Samasa waking up transformed into a giant cockroach! As for novels, my favorite that includes an insect element has to be The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. A kind of cheat has to be Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman.
There’s “McEwin and the Shining Slave Makers” by Theodore Dreiser, a wonderful fantasy about a guy in a park on a picnic who is reading and is about to fall asleep and right before he does, he swats an ant. Then he dreams he is an ant in the middle of an ant war. Very cool. There’s H.G. Wells “Empire of the Ants” and there’s all the Aesop’s fables regarding ants and grasshoppers.
There’s also tons of children’s literature about insects: The Hungry Caterpillar, Charlotte’s Web, James and the Giant Peach, Pinocchio and his friend Jiminy Cricket. The children’s picture book market is flooded with insect narratives. Even in the Harry Potter book Goblet of Fire, Rita Skeeter turns herself into a beetle.
So it’s no surprise, then, when films turn to these critters for their plotlines: Animations Antz, and The Ant Bully, A Bug’s Life, and Bee Movie. Horror movies like Mimic, Them!, Eight Legged Freaks, Arachnophobia, Conenberg’s The Fly, Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game and the comedy Joe’s Apartment. From TV’s X-Files episode “War of the Coprophages” where a town is being threatened by killer cockroaches to Gil Grisom’s fascination with insects on C.S.I….narratives are filled with our little friends.
Wow, that’s a long list and it’s just scratching the surface of the narratives being written that include insects as a key element of the plot or as characters. So why are we so fascinated with these creatures? Good question, here’s what I think. They fascinate us because they are so physically different from us, either they are so ugly the put fear into our hearts and souls or they are beautiful. They can transform and that’s always good as a metaphor for the changes we make in our lives. In the case of ants, they are the only other animal, other than humans, who make war. That is fascinating but also frightening because of their hive mentality and that threatens our loss of individuality. The final reason is that there are just so darned many of the critters. The thought of an ant scares nobody. The thought of a swarm of them covering us and getting into our mouths and eyes and ears terrifies us. Spiders can bite and kill with their venom. Scorpions can sting us. Bees can kill…hell, we even call some of them Killer Bees…but we want their honey, so it’s a dilemma.
Whatever the reason or reasons may be, we will continue to be fascinated by these narratives.