8: Cicadas

It’s Sunday afternoon, June 10th, 2007 and I’m standing on a trail in the Chippewa Woods Forest Preserve in Des Plaines, Illinois, just a mile or so northeast of O’Hare Airport. You hear that constant, high-pitched, hissing noise in the background? It’s so load, it almost seems deafening and I’m wondering if it’ll going to leave a ringing in my ears. No, it’s not a 747 ready for takeoff. Just a few short weeks ago, the most prominent sounds you’d hear here were birds chirping, a nearby babbling brook, maybe some crickets, distant traffic, and jets overhead. This noise hasn’t been heard here on such a scale in quite a few years … 17 to be exact … and in just a few weeks, it won’t be heard here again for another 17. This is the sound of cicadas. Millions of insects singing their song. An elaborate symphony of percussion. This year — 2007 — marks the return of the 17-year swarm of the magicicada to much of the Midwest, known to the biologists and cicada enthusiasts under the austere moniker of Brood XIII.

17 years ago in early July, hundreds of billions of tiny cicada grubs hatched and burrowed on down into the earth to hang out and such on tree roots. Well, now they’re back, a lot bigger, and they mean business … of an adult nature. [love music] After 17 years of waiting underground, the surviving troopers have dug their way out, shed their hard shell, and are flitting about singing a song in hopes of attracting a mate. The noise you hear is their mating call. I’m in the midst of an insect orgy, here. They make that sound by vibrating little tymbals on the sides of their abdomens. Actually, only the males do the singing, so magnify the sounds by 2 and that’s how many cicadas we’ve got here.

Now, why is it that they come out every 17 years? Well, one of the more prominent theories — sounds a little too much like folklore to me, though — it says that particular species of cicadas have an emergence cycle of the high prime numbers 13 and 17 as a survival mechanism. The idea being that no predator of the cicada is likely to adapt its emergence to synchronize with the cicada.

It should come as no surprise that an article in the magazine “The Economist” manages to express this cicada emergence survival theory best, and I quote:

“It is no coincidence that the span of each brood’s cycle is a prime number of years. If a brood were to emerge in cycles divisible by a smaller number, then local predators could reap rewards by synchronising their own shorter cycles with one of the divisors.”

Of course! It’s simple economics!

But you may be wondering about the buzzing noise you swear you hear every year, and you’re probably right. There is such a thing as annual cicadas. In fact, the periodical cicadas that emerge in intervals greater than one year exist only in the eastern half of the United States, but annual cicadas live on every continent except Antarctica. Annual cicadas are often called “dog-day” cicadas, referring to the “dog days of summer,” the hottest days of summer in the northern hemisphere, around July to early September. The term “dog days” actually derives from the Dog Star, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky (well, except for the Sun, of course). The Latin Sirius comes from the Greek Seirios meaning “glowing” or “scorcher,” referring to the extra heat it’s annual appearance seems to bring, but since Roman times it’s commonly been called the Dog Star since it’s the major star of the constellation canis major, Canis Major, the big dog. The Egyptians placed particular significance on Sirius, the Egyptian Sopdet, or Sothis when translated into Greek. The Egyptians kept a close lookout for the first annual appearance of Sothis, its heliacal rising, the first morning of the year when you could just barely make it out in the Eastern horizon only moments before the Sun begins to rise and wash out any other stars in the sky. Problem was, the Egyptians reckoned a 365-day year, so every year the rising of Sirius got nudged back a quarter day and some change. So it took a long time before the rising of Sirius coincided again with the start of the 365-day year. About 1,460 years. This span of time is the so-called Sothic cycle. Whew! Clear as mud, huh? Good thing you can rewind to hear that part again.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky … it’s a scam! It’s actually a binary system … two stars! Sirius A and Sirius B. No, I’m serious. Ha!

Over the past couple months, folks in the Midwest have been all a-buzz about cicadas. The media’s been churning out story after story on crazy cicada enthusiasm. The Ravinia Festival, the annual music festival just north of Chicago, actually moved some outdoor concerts inside and even rescheduled the performances of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra so they wouldn’t have to compete with the din of cicadas. And some adventurous folk have been serving up recipes on crispy, batter-fried cicada tempura, soft-shelled cicada bites, and — hey, why stop at entrees? — anyone care for a chocolate-chip cicada cookie? Of course, less discriminating palettes needn’t waste time with preparation. Birds, squirrels, raccoons, fish, and even the neighbor’s dog have taken up knife and fork to partake of this copious all-you-can-eat buffet. Getting back to cicada economics, safety in numbers is a much more practical means of survival of the species … and numbers we’ve got when you’re talking cicadas. They call that “predator satiation” — flooding the market with supply to curb demand through overeating. Of course, numbers — as in sheer quantity — are a tactic no natural predator can compete with in the case of the cicada, what with their numbers being estimated at two to three billion in Brood XIII alone. Prime numbers eat your heart out.

But the enthusiasm and fascination for cicadas is nothing new to humanity. The fascination stretches far back to the earliest of human civilization. The collection of Chinese jade figurines at the Art Institute of Chicago contains some of the most ancient art objects in the museum. The Art Institute’s Sonnenschein collection of over eight hundred Chinese jades includes a wide array of different figural forms and designs, some even dating to about 3000 BC. Most of these jades functioned as preservation jades, offering physical or spiritual protection when placed on and alongside a body in a wealthy person’s tomb from the Neolithic period, Shang and Zhou Dynasties, and beyond. Some jades were even placed inside the body, specifically within the mouth of the deceased, and even more specifically in the case of jade cicadas. Here we see a few examples from the later Han Dynasty, specifically the Eastern Han Dynasty, around AD 9 to 220. Although, here’s a little secret: the two on the right … they’re actually modern. The ancient Chinese considered jade in general to have a sort of life-preserving or longevity property and cicadas were regularly associated with rebirth, regeneration, and immortality, and a symbol of continuity between the generations. These associations, of course, likely arose from the observation of cicadas emerging very punctually in the same locations year after year. Don’t forget, periodical cicadas live only in the eastern US.

And here’s a remarkably realistic, 3-D jade cicada from the Shang or Western Zhou Dynasty around the 13th to 11th century BC. Jade is a particularly interesting material. Actually, the term “jade” was used by the ancient Chinese to refer to a couple different types of stone: jadeite and nephrite, and even other stones of similar qualities. And it took some serious elbow grease to carve jade. Well, it wasn’t so much carved as it was meticulously ground down with a lot of effort, skill, and determination using drills and some sort of abrasive like quartz and water.

Another art form that you’re likely to encounter nearby a collection of ancient Chinese jades is the piece-mold bronze vessel. As with many of the jades, these are also grave objects. Vessels of this sort come from the Shang Dynasty, around 1700 to 1050 BC, and also from the succeeding Western and Eastern Zhou Dynasties. They’re really remarkable for a number of reasons. One is that the technological skill involved in crafting vessels of bronze on this scale and with such intricacy is completely without equal at this time. In fact, we don’t see anything of this quality elsewhere in the world until the much later Archaic Greek period. Across the large region of China united under the Shang kings, we notice a strongly controlled decorative schema to the bronze vessels. This suggests a very centralized top-down ruling authority with little room for artistic innovation and stylistic variation. These vessels were all crafted under the strictest guidelines from the nobility above. And that’s where you’d originally find them too. They aren’t gonna be found in yer common bloke’s grave. The most prominent decorative motif encountered on nearly all bronze vessels and other contemporary arts is that of a sort of monster face or mask called a taotie. You can make out the taotie quite easily on this one particular large tripod vessel called a jia, used for holding and warming ceremonial wine at the Shang royal funerary rites. See the two large round nobs or bosses? Those are its eyes. In between you see the long raised nose ridge? Then above the eyes are some elaborate, curled horns and the smaller curls below the eyes are its fangs. You can follow the evolution of this taotie monster figure as it gradually morphs into later more familiar and recognizable forms, like dragons and ogres. But the thing I really want to point out on this vessel is further up the body. You see that neat triangular motif running around the rim? These are actually stylized cicadas. They’re facing downward, so the tips at the top are their butts and their eyes are at the bottom.

And here’s another Shang Dynasty bronze vessel called a fanglei, also used for wine. As common decorative motifs at this time, the taotie and cicadas emblazon this vessel too. Well, here, what if we just … zoom in a bit to the lid … and then … flip it upside down? There. The taotie. And then further on down the body at the tips of each one of these triangular wedges, we see a little cicada. Yeah … a little hard to see. If you can’t see it, you’ll just have to believe me. A little more gratifying, though, is this impression of the cicada that’s cast inside the vessel’s lid. So with the taotie and cicadas, we see an interesting use of both the imaginary and natural bestiary decorating these ancient bronze funerary vessels.

Much later on, the archaic bronze vessel shape and decorative patterns were emulated as a sort of archaism, a taste for antiquity, in the new precious material of high artistic and aristocratic achievement, porcelain. This blue-and-white square vase comes from the late Ming Dynasty, the Wanli period (1573-1620).

“’Late 14th century Ming Dynasty. Oh, it breaks the heart.’ ‘And the head. You hit me, Dad!’ ‘I’ll never forgive myself.’” (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

Thank you Dr. Jones. The shape is meant to mimic the bronze vessels from a couple thousand years earlier, like the fanglei we were just looking at. Notice the similar four-cornered shape bulging in the center, tapering at the shoulders and base, and a squat square box-like neck. This vase was probably in the ownership of a well educated scholar-bureaucrat. Something to show off his lofty classical education. The antiquarian taste seen in its archaic shape goes well with the highfalutin symbolism of the decorations. You see the regal dragon with its five-fingered claw, an ancient and generally auspicious symbol, little jade chimes, cranes and phoenixes skirting about wispy clouds, and flutes with cute little ribbons, which when played, draw down the phoenixes from the clouds. And above all that running along the neck of the vessel we see a somewhat familiar band of triangular shapes. This is yet another archaism on this Ming Dynasty vase, a band of highly stylized cicadas, just like on the Shang tripod jia we looked at earlier. So, just as the cicada is a symbol of resurrection and continuity, we see a great interest among Chinese art forms in the resurrection and preservation of ancient shapes and motifs.

And if that’s not all you ever wanted to know about cicadas, I urge you to hop on over to scarabsolutions.com to check out some good photos and video clips that I wasn’t able to squeeze into the podcast, plus links to various cool cicada resources, including a breathtaking award-winning video Return of the 17-Year Cicadas from Indiana University and some cicada recipes. But now that the Brood XIII magicicadas are all gone, you’ll just have to hold out for the “dog-day” cicadas to have your choco-fudgy-twirl cicada-sicle. And lastly, I’d like to thank Catherine Savage of Lake County Forest Preserves in Libertyville, Illinois and Dr. Gene Kritsky, Editor of American Entomologist and Professor of Biology at the College of Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati for their help in answering some of my stickier questions about cicadas.

Thanks for listening. So long and see ya next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

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