Nature
2:17 pm
Tue August 9, 2011

Poor Will's Almanack: August 9 - 15, 2011

Poor Will’s Almanack for the first week of Late Summer

In Middle and Late Summer, the fat, green, annual cicadas come up from the earth where they have spent the last eleven months. They leave their ectoskeletons behind on twigs or walls, fly out into the sun and begin to sing.

If science offers facts about all this, a little cultural entomology may help to interpret those facts.

According to Greek mythology, Tithonus, a Trojan, fell in love with Eos, goddess of the dawn, and was rewarded for his love with the gift of immortality. Immune to death, the body of Tithonus withered until it became a cicada that reappeared each year.

In Plato’s dialogue, Phaedrus, Socrates explains that cicadas were once humans who fell so much in love with music that they forgot to eat, and their bodies shrank to the size of insects. The Muses, charmed by their obsession, turned them into immortal cicadas.

Among the many cicada stories from around the world, one of my favorites is by the 18th century Japanese samurai, Tadaaki. A student of Buddhism and Taoism, Tadaaki presents a dialogue in which a cicada discusses life and death with its cast-off shell.

The newly emerged insect, feeling guilty for leaving behind the hull of his former self, tries to comfort the empty ectoskeleton by telling it that he will perform memorial rituals for its soul.

The brittle remnant, however, realizes that it has arrived at the “Buddha’s bliss,” reasoning that if the living creature experiences joy, it will likewise experience sorrow.

Because I haven’t got anything inside of me,” the shell tells its alter ego, “I’ve escaped the world of pleasure of and pain, of gain and loss…. Without loving life or hating death, I myself will know nothing of good luck or bad fortune, of honor or shame.”

Next week in Poor Will's Almanack notes for the second week of Late Summer. In the meantime, listen for the shrill calls of the cicadas…. and the musings of their ectoskeletons.

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