JANUARY
1996

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

01-25-96

Mysical, Magical Beetles Found In Ancient Beliefs

Based on the number of species, beetles are the most common order of insects. Of all named species of animals, one-quarter are beetles. Because beetles are numerous and live almost everywhere on the surface of the earth, humans frequently come into contact with them. In some instances, such as in Greek mythology, humans have assigned supernatural powers to beetles.

Consider the story of Zeus, the eagle and the dung beetle. A problem arose when the eagle devoured the hare that had been granted protection by the dung beetle. So the dung beetle tried to get revenge by destroying the eggs of the eagle. The eagle, as a bird of Zeus, tried to avoid this destruction by placing its eggs in the lap of the king of gods. The dung beetle then flew with a big ball of dung and tossed it into the lap of Zeus, who immediately jumped to his feet to brush off the offending material. When Zeus stood up, all of the eagle eggs were dislodged and broken.

This tale might have been the inspiration for a beetle that played a prominent role in the Aristophanes comedy "Peace." In this comedy, Trygaeus, despairing that the Peloponnesian War could not be brought to a halt by normal means, takes a trip to the palace of Zeus. The mode of transportation was not a bird, not a winged horse, but a beetle. A giant dung beetle!

The ancient Egyptians accepted a beetle as the symbol of eternal life. The specific beetle was a scarab beetle that symbolized the sun god Khepera, who was considered the creator by these ancient people. Images of the sacred scarab became part of the mortuary beliefs of the Egyptians. Practices involving a beetle included removing the human heart and inserting a carving of a scarab in its place. These stone renderings are known as heart scarabs. Images of scarabs were painted on the sarcophagus, and sometimes the actual beetle was placed in the tomb. All of these efforts were designed to assist the individual in getting by Osiris, who was the Egyptian god of the underworld and judge of the dead.

In North America, at least two groups of Native Americans held beliefs that beetles played a part in the creation of the earth. According to Cherokee legend, in the beginning all was water. A diving beetle known as "beaver's grandchild" dove to the bottom and scooped up mud, which he brought to the surface. This mud spread and became the land.

In another version of the earth's creation, the Cochiti Indians of the Southwest believed that a beetle was assigned the job of placing the stars in the sky. The beetle became a bit careless in his work, and the stars were scattered widely, forming the Milky Way. This beetle exhibits a defensive posture, where it appears to stand on its head. Ancient people interpreted such behavior as an expression of guilt for messing up the star deployment detail!

Such ancient beliefs support what biologists have long known — beetles are very successful animals.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann