Cicada (mythology)

Cicada lore and mythology is rich and varied as there are c 2500 species of cicada throughout the world, many of which are undescribed and remain a mystery to science. Cicada has been prized as a delicacy, and [1] are famed throughout the world for their song.

The cicada is an ancient polyvalent symbol: resounding themes are resurrection, immortality, spiritual realization and spiritual ecstasy. For the ancient Greeks and Romans they sang in intoxicated ecstasy and were sacred to Apollo and cognate with the dionysiac bacchae and maenad.

Eunomos and his cithara

Egan (1994) affirms that there are several independent Greek sources that tell the story of Eunomos and the cicada. Eunomos, an accomplished cithara[2] player and singer, was performing in a competition when one of the cithara strings snaps. A cicada as offering, alights on his cithara, sustaining the note of the broken string. Eunomos, thereby attributed accolade, wins the competition.


Aristotle, fond of eating cicada, described them with decisive brevity in his investigatory Historia Animalium. From this, we know that he was aware of their periodic lifecycle, their emergent resurrection from the earth, their progression to their winged form and song. Aristotle is attributed with seeding Grecian culture with cicada symbolism of resurrection and immortality; though it may be asserted that their liminal quality and propensity to incite awe pre-date Aristotle.

Phaedrus, Plato and Socrates

In Phaedrus, a dialogue authored by Plato, a sagely Socrates and his student of rhetoric Phaedrus engage in thoughtful repartee in an earthy setting by a lush riverbank in the shade of a tree occupied by a chorus of cicadas.[3]

These cicada are not supernumerary; they provide metaphorical richness, a salient musical motif and liminal hierophany to the dialogue of Socrates and Phaedrus.

It is in Phaedrus that Socrates states that some of life's greatest blessings flow from mania [4] specifically in the four kinds of mania: (1) prophetic; (2) poetic; (3) cathartic; and (4) erotic. It is in this context that Socrates' Myth of the Cicadas is presented. The Cicadas chirp and watch to see whether their music lulls humans to laziness or whether the humans can resist their sweet song. Cicadas were originally humans who, in ancient times, allowed the first Muses to enchant them into singing and dancing so long that they stopped eating and sleeping and actually died without noticing it. The Muses rewarded them with the gift of never needing food or sleep, but to sing from birth to death. The task of the Cicadas is to watch humans to report who honors the Muses and who does not.

In the dialogue, Socrates affirms that nymphs and local divinities or spirits of place inhabit the countryside; talks of the Muses and nature gods such as Pan; in addition he indulges in an extended exegesis of his own dæmon; waxes lyrical, connecting divine inspiration to religion, poetry, art and love; all of which are informed and rendered in poignant relief by cicada chorus.


  1. Dalby (2003: p.86) states that: "The cicada was a better-known food in Greece than in Rome. The grubs or nymphs were nicer to eat than the mature insects, says Aristotle. Boiled cicada was recommended in the treatment of bladder disorders. The cicada is Greek tettix, Latin cicada."
  2. The cithara, as an instrument of professional musicians, is a potent attribute of Apollo.
  3. Phaedrus is Plato's only dialogue where Socrates is conveyed in the country and outside of Athens.
  4. Plato's Phaedrus, R. Hackforth, 1952, Cambridge U. Press

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