January 31, 2007

Circus of the Spineless #17: The Symbology of Invertebrates

Welcome to the 17th Circus of the Spineless, the only blog carnival devoted to all things invertebrate. This is the third carnival hosted this month at The Voltage Gate, and since the semester has started, the last one for a while.

Other animals have always meant something to Homo sapiens. Today they (and we) are like living libraries, holding the secrets of life's origins on Earth, essential in learning what it is to be alive and live in communities. In ancient times - and to some degree, today - tribal cultures regarded animals as messengers and talismans of good and evil, actors in a cosmic play where human beings took center stage.

Demonized or analyzed, animals - invertebrates in particular, for our part - have always been symbols of psychological and philosophical meaning for us. For this edition of CotS, we'll discuss some of the more obscure mythology related to the submissions I've received, and relate a fraction of the stories told before the dawn of science. What stories do we tell today?

Cephalopods Octopi, squid and cuttlefish are commonly described as bearing aspects of fire or the infernal in folklore around the world. Most of us are familiar with the Norwegian tales of the Kraken, but in the traditions of the Native American Nootka tribe, the cuttlefish was the keeper of fire (stolen by a deer; a more or less Promethean story). In a Hawaiian myth, the god Kanaloa is depicted as a squid or octopus, causing storms or other aberrant phenomena.

Much of Cephalopod life is still a mystery to us, though science has woven a much more tapestry of their traits. PZ Myers shares a neat video displaying the near flawless camouflage of an octopus and from Deep Sea News, CR McClain reveals the broad range of body size in cephalopods and the rest of the mollusks.

Shrimp Not much has been recorded in the way of shrimp folklore, but there is a reference to the mythical first people of Hawaii (the Menehune) being gifted a single fresh water shrimp apiece for their efforts in digging the famed Menehune Ditch for King Ola:

After the king gave a shrimp to every menehune, there were two shrimp left, one for the menehune king and one for king Ola. King Ola gave the last shrimp to the menehune king. Then the menehune disappeared.

Who knew shrimp were so valuable? Coturnix from A Blog Around the Clock points us in the right direction.

Snails Perhaps the most important aspect of the snail in folklore is the helical nature of the shell, the motif of the spiral. It represents "motion outwards from a fixed point [...] cyclical but progressive continuity and rotational creation." The spiral (a structure inherent in nature), and therefore the snail, were used to represent the evolution of life and the individual. At Snail's Tales, Aydin tells us a bit about the aquatic snail Theodoxus fluviatilis.

Spiders The amount of literature covering spiders in mythology is staggering, but spiders are most often mentioned with regard to web spinning, as in the Greek myth of Arachne. The idea of the web is also essential in grasping the fundamentals of certain forms of Hinduism and Buddhism (typically called Brahmanism), which teach that all reality is like a web of illusion (Maya), hiding the truth; that we are all one in the same, a Drop (Atman) temporarily outside of the Waterfall (Brahman).

The spiders themselves are much more beautiful: Bev from the Burning Silo shares the habits of the Goldenrod crab spider complete with a handful of vivid pictures, while Grrl Scientist from Living the Scientific Life is all fired up about the visual range of the jumping spider. Mites might not be a forerunner in the ideals of beauty, but Matt from Behavioral Ecology Blog seems to think so with this picture of a velvet mite (yeah, not a spider, but you try to find some lore about mites).

Butterfly Another invertebrate with millennia of mythology behind it, most of it referring to the butterfly's metamorphic abilities, with the chrysalis representing a latent self, or the death of self, only to resurrect or become enlightened upon emergence. The Japanese have long held butterflies to be a symbol of womanhood, with two butterflies representing the unity of a happy marriage. Thingfish23 of Taming of the Band-Aid is looking forward to witnessing a swallowtail's metamorphosis on a Dutchman's Pipe in the backyard.

Bees A symbol of royalty to the ancient peoples of Sudan, Niger and Egypt, for obvious reasons. Napoleon later adopted the bee as a symbol of his empire. The bee, along with the ant, is the quintessential social animal and worker both in mythology and in the animal kingdom. MC from Neurophilosophy discusses social behavior of bees and how a certain chemical may be responsible for their dancing, while RPM from evolgen reviews aspects of sex determination in the Hymenoptera (specifically wasps).

Cricket To the Chinese, the cricket represented the a threefold symbol of life, death and resurrection, since it lays eggs in the ground, lives there as a larva and rises from the depths as an adult. Singing crickets were considered good luck charms and kept in little cages. This little cricket, a beach cricket from Earth, Wind and Water by Tai Haku, is avoiding capture well with its clever coloration.

Mantis The shamanic !Kung people of Namibia, Botswana and Angola regard the mantis as a trickster god, bending (sometimes breaking) the instituted rules of the culture in order to prove a point: Rules are not always hard and fast. Other cultures have a special attachment to the mantis as well:

In France people believed a praying mantis would point a lost child home. In Arab and Turkish cultures a mantis was thought to point toward Mecca, a site of considerable religious interest. In Africa they were thought to bring good luck to whomever they landed on, and could even restore life into the dead. Here in the U.S. they were thought to blind men and kill horses. Europeans believed they were highly reverent to god since they always seemed to be praying. And in China, nothing cured bedwetting better than roasted mantid eggs (Sargent 4).

Mantises are perhaps best known for their deadly embrace. Nic shares some pics from KeesKennis.

Flies The ancient Syrian deity Beelzebub, meaning "Lord of things that fly" was supposedly distorted by the Hebrews and interpreted to mean "Lord of the Flies" (implying that the god was lord of animals that eat dung). It was later equated with Baal, and became synonymous for Satan. Budak, from The Annotated Budak, asks us to look beyond the bad reputation of Dipterans and consider their benign majority.

Worms In Icelandic tradition, the death of the frost giant Ymir signaled the beginning of life for man. His corpse served as the raw material for the Earth (Midgard), and the gods called forth the worms from Ymir's depths to rise and become men. We are all made of worms. Except for Lori Witzel of Chatoyance, however, who requests our discerning eyes; can you find the worm?

Mystery Bugs Care to give a hint as to what these bugs are: A giant crawly from KeesKennis and a dead hanger from The Blog Pound.

That does it for CotS #17. Number 18 will be hosted by PZ at the end of February, so start sending in your submissions. Thanks to all the contributors and readers.

For more carnival goodness, Tangled Bank #72 is up today at Ouroboros. Chris did a wonderful job, so check it out.


The Praying Mantis, by Dan Feldman

The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant


  1. Let me be the first to say a hearty congratulations for such a cool method of "threading" these seemingly unrelated posts together. Well done.

    And thanks for the link and putting up with the torrent of emails I sent trying to get the information to you, Jeremy.


  2. This was a lot of fun, Jeremy. Thanks!

  3. Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for a super Circus.

  4. Great job, many thanks!