Locusts, Grasshoppers and Cicadas as Muses

Different Ways of Visualising Insect Music in Antiquity

in Greek and Roman Musical Studies
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The music of the τέττιξ and the ἀκρίς is a prominent topos in ancient literature, especially in Hellenistic poetry. However, the musical ability of these insects is also depicted in ancient art and could be distinguished in three categories: first, artists realistically represent the stridulatio; second, they show the juxtaposition of animal and instrument, and third, the anthropomorphized insects playing instruments like human musicians. The last option in particular reminds one of the equation of the cicada with both the Muses and the Hellenistic poet himself.

Locusts, Grasshoppers and Cicadas as Muses

Different Ways of Visualising Insect Music in Antiquity

in Greek and Roman Musical Studies



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Männlein-Robert 2007209-43especially 209-12. For a compilation of ancient references for the sound production of the ἀκρίς/locusta see Gossen 1912; Keller 1913 455-9; Beavis 1988 71f.; Davies and Katirithamby 1986 134f. Of the cicada: Keller 1913 401-6; Steier 1934; Beavis 1988 99-102; Davies and Katirithamby 1986 116-22. I thank the moisa-Committee for the possibility to discuss my ideas at the conference in Athens. I thank my colleagues M. Danner M. Steinhart and C. Weiss for their helpful advice and C. Leitmeir for his great effort to correct my English paper.


Cf. Bährmann 2008 96f.; Hennig 1968179-83. A further subdivision in the species we could neglect here. For such a detailed study the depiction of the animals in ancient art is seldom sufficiently specific.


Cf. Keller 1913406; Davies and Kathiritamby 1986 113f. Beavis (1988 93-6) lists many other words for the cicada in general used as synonyms of specific regional species and only recorded by ancient lexicographers.


Cf. Beavis 198862-9; Davies and Katirithamby 1986 144-9. Fundamental is Gow 1956.


Davies and Katirithamby 1986134-44.


See Ingrisch and Köhler 1998220-7. Cf. Arist. ha 535b11-12; Plin. hn 11.112 167; ap 7.195 (Meleager).


Claridge 1985. Already Aristotle informs us about the diverse sound production: Arist. ha 532b17 535b7; also Plin. hn 11.266.


Davies and Katirithamby 1986134-44.


Weiss 2015.


Paris Louvre A 1228blue chalcedony tabloid. Boardman 2001 338 nr. 893.


Silver medallion London British Museum 18530314.1 from Tarentum usually dated to the fourth-third centuries bc but more likely to late Republic/early Augustan period (Zahlhaas 1975 39); see also Walters 1921 16 nr. 71 fig. 22; Reinsberg 1980 260-2; Merriman 2009 9. Even here one cannot distinguish between locust and grasshopper.


See Birch 1852271 (this scholar however interpreted the panpipes as a letter-box). Mayer (1910 44-6) singles the two instruments out but proposes a different reading of the relief: the female person should be the personification of Cos the girl of Nisyros and the boy of Telos. The instruments and the animals (“raven and cicada (sic!)”) should be symbols for Asklepios and the poets Theocritus and Philetas both praising the isle of Cos. In spite of this improbable interpretation of the whole relief Mayer connects the animals with the musical instruments.


Pataki 2013; Männlein-Robert 2007209-43.


Sard London British Museum 1867.0507.212 Walters 1926 1472: beneath an Eros playing the kithara (not visible). Sard London British Museum 1923.0401.323; Walters 1926 2562: grasshopper in front of a burning altar/cippus with conical top and butterfly/small column with a winged figure (?).


Sard London British Museum 1814.0704.1447; Walters 1926 2550. The cloak behind around the neck of the cicada has been explained as a lion-skin. If this is true another part of the lion-skin is fixed on the kithara. See also Vandlik 2016 comparing a gem with a lyre-playing ass (Basel Historisches Museum 1987.252) wearing the same lion skin as the cicada.


Sard sealstone London British Museum 1889.0810.18 Walters 1926 1207 (no figure) (grasshopper?).


Kenner 197049-59.


Cf. Kenner 1970especially 26 28 49. She explains the popularity of the grasshoppers and cicadas but also of the mice for example with their character as “Seelentier”. Furtwängler (1900 3.298) instead refers to a depiction of “volkstümliche Kobolde”. For the apotropaic interpretation see also Lullies 1960 146f.


Böhme 1954; Schauenburg 1996.


Schauenburg 1996120f.


Davies and Kathiritamby 1986126f.; Kossatz-Deissmann 1997.


See Beavis 198897f. Furthermore the victory over Ariston of Rhegium with the support of a Delphic cicada stresses the political hegemony over Rhegium. Cf. Beavis 1988 98 n. 40.


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    Two Silver Medallions, Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, SL 661a/b.

    © photo: renate kühling.

  • View in gallery
    Silver Medallion, London, British Museum 1853,0314.1.
  • View in gallery
    Sard, London, British Museum 1923.0401.323.

    © trustees of the british museum.

  • View in gallery
    Sard, London, British Museum 1814.0704.1447.

    © trustees of the british museum.

  • View in gallery

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