THE FABLE OF THE CIGALE AND THE ANT
Fame is the daughter of Legend. In the world of creatures, as in the
world of men, the story precedes and outlives history. There are many
instances of the fact that if an insect attract our attention for this
reason or that, it is given a place in those legends of the people whose
last care is truth.
For example, who is there that does not, at least by hearsay, know the
Cigale? Where in the entomological world shall we find a more famous
reputation? Her fame as an impassioned singer, careless of the future,
was the subject of our earliest lessons in repetition. In short, easily
remembered lines of verse, we learned how she was destitute when the
winter winds arrived, and how she went begging for food to the Ant, her
neighbour. A poor welcome she received, the would-be borrower!--a
welcome that has become proverbial, and her chief title to celebrity.
The petty malice of the two short lines--
Vous chantiez! j'en suis bien aise,
Eh bien, dansez maintenant!
has done more to immortalise the insect than her skill as a musician.
"You sang! I am very glad to hear it! Now you can dance!" The words
lodge in the childish memory, never to be forgotten. To most
Englishmen--to most Frenchmen even--the song of the Cigale is unknown,
for she dwells in the country of the olive-tree; but we all know of the
treatment she received at the hands of the Ant. On such trifles does
Fame depend! A legend of very dubious value, its moral as bad as its
natural history; a nurse's tale whose only merit is its brevity; such is
the basis of a reputation which will survive the wreck of centuries no
less surely than the tale of Puss-in-Boots and of Little Red
The child is the best guardian of tradition, the great conservative.
Custom and tradition become indestructible when confided to the archives
of his memory. To the child we owe the celebrity of the Cigale, of whose
misfortunes he has babbled during his first lessons in recitation. It is
he who will preserve for future generations the absurd nonsense of which
the body of the fable is constructed; the Cigale will always be hungry
when the cold comes, although there were never Cigales in winter; she
will always beg alms in the shape of a few grains of wheat, a diet
absolutely incompatible with her delicate capillary "tongue"; and in
desperation she will hunt for flies and grubs, although she never eats.
Whom shall we hold responsible for these strange mistakes? La Fontaine,
who in most of his fables charms us with his exquisite fineness of
observation, has here been ill-inspired. His earlier subjects he knew
down to the ground: the Fox, the Wolf, the Cat, the Stag, the Crow, the
Rat, the Ferret, and so many others, whose actions and manners he
describes with a delightful precision of detail. These are inhabitants
of his own country; neighbours, fellow-parishioners. Their life, private
and public, is lived under his eyes; but the Cigale is a stranger to the
haunts of Jack Rabbit. La Fontaine had never seen nor heard her. For him
the celebrated songstress was certainly a grasshopper.
Grandville, whose pencil rivals the author's pen, has fallen into the
same error. In his illustration to the fable we see the Ant dressed like
a busy housewife. On her threshold, beside her full sacks of wheat, she
disdainfully turns her back upon the would-be borrower, who holds out
her claw--pardon, her hand. With a wide coachman's hat, a guitar under
her arm, and a skirt wrapped about her knees by the gale, there stands
the second personage of the fable, the perfect portrait of a
grasshopper. Grandville knew no more than La Fontaine of the true
Cigale; he has beautifully expressed the general confusion.
But La Fontaine, in this abbreviated history, is only the echo of
another fabulist. The legend of the Cigale and the cold welcome of the
Ant is as old as selfishness: as old as the world. The children of
Athens, going to school with their baskets of rush-work stuffed with
figs and olives, were already repeating the story under their breath, as
a lesson to be repeated to the teacher. "In winter," they used to say,
"the Ants were putting their damp food to dry in the sun. There came a
starving Cigale to beg from them. She begged for a few grains. The
greedy misers replied: 'You sang in the summer, now dance in the
winter.'" This, although somewhat more arid, is precisely La Fontaine's
story, and is contrary to the facts.
Yet the story comes to us from Greece, which is, like the South of
France, the home of the olive-tree and the Cigale. Was AEsop really its
author, as tradition would have it? It is doubtful, and by no means a
matter of importance; at all events, the author was a Greek, and a
compatriot of the Cigale, which must have been perfectly familiar to
him. There is not a single peasant in my village so blind as to be
unaware of the total absence of Cigales in winter; and every tiller of
the soil, every gardener, is familiar with the first phase of the
insect, the larva, which his spade is perpetually discovering when he
banks up the olives at the approach of the cold weather, and he knows,
having seen it a thousand times by the edge of the country paths, how in
summer this larva issues from the earth from a little round well of its
own making; how it climbs a twig or a stem of grass, turns upon its
back, climbs out of its skin, drier now than parchment, and becomes the
Cigale; a creature of a fresh grass-green colour which is rapidly
replaced by brown.
We cannot suppose that the Greek peasant was so much less intelligent
than the Provencal that he can have failed to see what the least
observant must have noticed. He knew what my rustic neighbours know so
well. The scribe, whoever he may have been, who was responsible for the
fable was in the best possible circumstances for correct knowledge of
the subject. Whence, then, arose the errors of his tale?
Less excusably than La Fontaine, the Greek fabulist wrote of the Cigale
of the books, instead of interrogating the living Cigale, whose cymbals
were resounding on every side; careless of the real, he followed
tradition. He himself echoed a more ancient narrative; he repeated some
legend that had reached him from India, the venerable mother of
civilisations. We do not know precisely what story the reed-pen of the
Hindoo may have confided to writing, in order to show the perils of a
life without foresight; but it is probable that the little animal drama
was nearer the truth than the conversation between the Cigale and the
Ant. India, the friend of animals, was incapable of such a mistake.
Everything seems to suggest that the principal personage of the original
fable was not the Cigale of the Midi, but some other creature, an insect
if you will, whose manners corresponded to the adopted text.
Imported into Greece, after long centuries during which, on the banks of
the Indus, it made the wise reflect and the children laugh, the ancient
anecdote, perhaps as old as the first piece of advice that a father of a
family ever gave in respect of economy, transmitted more or less
faithfully from one memory to another, must have suffered alteration in
its details, as is the fate of all such legends, which the passage of
time adapts to the circumstance of time and place.
The Greek, not finding in his country the insect of which the Hindoo
spoke, introduced the Cigale, as in Paris, the modern Athens, the Cigale
has been replaced by the Grasshopper. The mistake was made; henceforth
indelible. Entrusted as it is to the memory of childhood, error will
prevail against the truth that lies before our eyes.
Let us seek to rehabilitate the songstress so calumniated by the fable.
She is, I grant you, an importunate neighbour. Every summer she takes up
her station in hundreds before my door, attracted thither by the verdure
of two great plane-trees; and there, from sunrise to sunset, she hammers
on my brain with her strident symphony. With this deafening concert
thought is impossible; the mind is in a whirl, is seized with vertigo,
unable to concentrate itself. If I have not profited by the early
morning hours the day is lost.
Ah! Creature possessed, the plague of my dwelling, which I hoped would
be so peaceful!--the Athenians, they say, used to hang you up in a
little cage, the better to enjoy your song. One were well enough, during
the drowsiness of digestion; but hundreds, roaring all at once,
assaulting the hearing until thought recoils--this indeed is torture!
You put forward, as excuse, your rights as the first occupant. Before my
arrival the two plane-trees were yours without reserve; it is I who have
intruded, have thrust myself into their shade. I confess it: yet muffle
your cymbals, moderate your arpeggi, for the sake of your historian! The
truth rejects what the fabulist tells us as an absurd invention. That
there are sometimes dealings between the Cigale and the Ant is perfectly
correct; but these dealings are the reverse of those described in the
fable. They depend not upon the initiative of the former; for the Cigale
never required the help of others in order to make her living: on the
contrary, they are due to the Ant, the greedy exploiter of others, who
fills her granaries with every edible she can find. At no time does the
Cigale plead starvation at the doors of the ant-hills, faithfully
promising a return of principal and interest; the Ant on the contrary,
harassed by drought, begs of the songstress. Begs, do I say! Borrowing
and repayment are no part of the manners of this land-pirate. She
exploits the Cigale; she impudently robs her. Let us consider this
theft; a curious point of history as yet unknown.
In July, during the stifling hours of the afternoon, when the insect
peoples, frantic with drought, wander hither and thither, vainly seeking
to quench their thirst at the faded, exhausted flowers, the Cigale makes
light of the general aridity. With her rostrum, a delicate augur, she
broaches a cask of her inexhaustible store. Crouching, always singing,
on the twig of a suitable shrub or bush, she perforates the firm, glossy
rind, distended by the sap which the sun has matured. Plunging her
proboscis into the bung-hole, she drinks deliciously, motionless, and
wrapt in meditation, abandoned to the charms of syrup and of song.
Let us watch her awhile. Perhaps we shall witness unlooked-for
wretchedness and want. For there are many thirsty creatures wandering
hither and thither; and at last they discover the Cigale's private well,
betrayed by the oozing sap upon the brink. They gather round it, at
first with a certain amount of constraint, confining themselves to
lapping the extravasated liquor. I have seen, crowding around the
honeyed perforation, wasps, flies, earwigs, Sphinx-moths, Pompilidae,
rose-chafers, and, above all, ants.
The smallest, in order to reach the well, slip under the belly of the
Cigale, who kindly raises herself on her claws, leaving room for the
importunate ones to pass. The larger, stamping with impatience, quickly
snatch a mouthful, withdraw, take a turn on the neighbouring twigs, and
then return, this time more enterprising. Envy grows keener; those who
but now were cautious become turbulent and aggressive, and would
willingly drive from the spring the well-sinker who has caused it to
In this crowd of brigands the most aggressive are the ants. I have seen
them nibbling the ends of the Cigale's claws; I have caught them tugging
the ends of her wings, climbing on her back, tickling her antennae. One
audacious individual so far forgot himself under my eyes as to seize her
proboscis, endeavouring to extract it from the well!
Thus hustled by these dwarfs, and at the end of her patience, the
giantess finally abandons the well. She flies away, throwing a jet of
liquid excrement over her tormentors as she goes. But what cares the Ant
for this expression of sovereign contempt? She is left in possession of
the spring--only too soon exhausted when the pump is removed that made
it flow. There is little left, but that little is sweet. So much to the
good; she can wait for another drink, attained in the same manner, as
soon as the occasion presents itself.
NOTABLY THE ANT, FLOCK TO THE DRINKING-PLACES OF THE CIGALE.]
As we see, reality completely reverses the action described by the
fable. The shameless beggar, who does not hesitate at theft, is the Ant;
the industrious worker, willingly sharing her goods with the suffering,
is the Cigale. Yet another detail, and the reversal of the fable is
further emphasised. After five or six weeks of gaiety, the songstress
falls from the tree, exhausted by the fever of life. The sun shrivels
her body; the feet of the passers-by crush it. A bandit always in search
of booty, the Ant discovers the remains. She divides the rich find,
dissects it, and cuts it up into tiny fragments, which go to swell her
stock of provisions. It is not uncommon to see a dying Cigale, whose
wings are still trembling in the dust, drawn and quartered by a gang of
knackers. Her body is black with them. After this instance of
cannibalism the truth of the relations between the two insects is
Antiquity held the Cigale in high esteem. The Greek Beranger, Anacreon,
devoted an ode to her, in which his praise of her is singularly
exaggerated. "Thou art almost like unto the Gods," he says. The reasons
which he has given for this apotheosis are none of the best. They
consist in these three privileges: [Greek: gegenes, apathes,
hanaimosarke]; born of the earth, insensible to pain, bloodless. We will
not reproach the poet for these mistakes; they were then generally
believed, and were perpetuated long afterwards, until the exploring eye
of scientific observation was directed upon them. And in minor poetry,
whose principal merit lies in rhythm and harmony, we must not look at
things too closely.
Even in our days, the Provencal poets, who know the Cigale as Anacreon
never did, are scarcely more careful of the truth in celebrating the
insect which they have taken for their emblem. A friend of mine, an
eager observer and a scrupulous realist, does not deserve this reproach.
He gives me permission to take from his pigeon-holes the following
Provencal poem, in which the relations between the Cigale and the Ant
are expounded with all the rigour of science. I leave to him the
responsibility for his poetic images and his moral reflections, blossoms
unknown to my naturalist's garden; but I can swear to the truth of all
he says, for it corresponds with what I see each summer on the
lilac-trees of my garden.
LA CIGALO E LA FOURNIGO.
Jour de Dieu, queto caud! Beu tems per la Cigalo,
Que, trefoulido, se regalo
D'uno raisso de fio; beu tems per la meissoun.
Dins lis erso d'or, lou segaire,
Ren plega, pitre au vent, rustico e canto gaire;
Dins soun gousie, la set estranglo la cansoun.
Tems benesi per tu. Dounc, ardit! cigaleto,
Fai-lei brusi, ti chimbaleto,
E brandusso lou ventre a creba ti mirau.
L'Ome enterin mando le daio,
Que vai balin-balan de longo e que dardaio
L'ulau de soun acie sus li rous espigau.
Plen d'aigo per la peiro e tampouna d'erbiho
Lou coufie sus l'anco pendiho.
Si la peiro es au fres dins soun estui de bos,
E se de longo es abeurado,
L'Ome barbelo au fio d'aqueli souleiado
Que fan bouli de fes la mesoulo dis os.
Tu, Cigalo, as un biais per la set: dins la rusco
Tendro e jutouso d'uno busco,
L'aguio de toun be cabusso e cavo un pous.
Lou siro monto per la draio.
T'amourres a la fon melicouso que raio,
E dou sourgent sucra beves lou teta-dous.
Mai pas toujour en pas. Oh! que nani; de laire,
Vesin, vesino o barrulaire,
T'an vist cava lou pous. An set; venon, doulent,
Te prene un degout per si tasso.
Mesfiso-te, ma bello: aqueli curo-biasso,
Umble d'abord, soun leu de gusas insoulent.
Quiston un chicouloun di ren, piei de ti resto
Soun plus countent, ausson la testo
E volon tout: L'auran. Sis arpioun en rasteu
Te gatihoun lou bout de l'alo.
Sus tu larjo esquinasso es un mounto-davalo;
T'aganton per lou be, li bano, lis arteu;
Tiron d'eici, d'eila. L'impacienci te gagno.
Pst! pst! d'un giscle de pissagno
Asperges l'assemblado e quites lou rameu.
T'en vas ben liuen de la racaio,
Que t'a rauba lou pous, e ris, e se gougaio,
E se lipo li brego enviscado de meu.
Or d'aqueli boumian abeura sens fatigo,
Lou mai tihous es la fournigo.
Mousco, cabrian, guespo e tavan embana,
Espeloufi de touto meno,
Costo-en-long qu'a toun pous lou soulcias ameno,
N'an pas soun testardige a te faire enana.
Per l'esquicha l'arteu, te coutiga lou mourre,
Te pessuga lou nas, per courre
A l'oumbro du toun ventre, osco! degun la vau.
Lou marrit-peu prend per escalo
Uno patto e te monto, ardido, sus lis alo,
E s'espasso, insoulento, e vai d'amont, d'avau.
Aro veici qu'es pas de creire.
Ancian tems, nous dison li reire,
Un jour d'iver; la fam te prengue. Lou front bas
E d'escoundoun aneres veire,
Dins si grand magasin, la fournigo, eilabas.
L'endrudido au souleu secavo,
Avans de lis escoundre en cavo,
Si blad qu'avie mousi l'eigagno de la niue.
Quand eron lest lis ensacavo.
Tu survenes alor, eme de plour is iue.
Ie dises: "Fai ben fre; l'aurasso
D'un caire a l'autre me tirasso
Avanido de fam. A toun riche mouloun
Leisso-me prene per ma biasso.
Te lou rendrai segur au beu tems di meloun.
"Presto-me un pan de gran." Mai, bouto,
Se creses que l'autro t'escouto,
T'enganes. Di gros sa, ren de ren sara tieu.
"Vai-t'en plus liuen rascla de bouto;
Crebo de fam l'iver, tu que cantes l'estieu."
Ansin charro la fablo antico
Per nous counseia la pratico
Di sarro-piastro, urous de nousa li cordoun
De si bourso.--Que la coulico
Rousigue la tripaio en aqueli coudoun!
Me fai susa, lou fabulisto,
Quand dis que l'iver vas en quisto
De mousco, verme, gran, tu que manges jamai.
De blad! Que n'en faries, ma fisto!
As ta fon melicouso e demandes ren mai.
Que t'enchau l'iver! Ta famiho
A la sousto en terro soumiho,
Et tu dormes la som que n'a ges de revei;
Toun cadabre toumbo en douliho.
Un jour, en tafurant, la fournigo lou vei,
De tu magro peu dessecado
La marriasso fai becado;
Te curo lou perus, te chapouto a mouceu,
T'encafourno per car-salado,
Requisto prouvisioun, l'iver, en tems de neu.
Vaqui l'istori veritablo
Ben liuen dou conte de la fablo.
Que n'en pensas, caneu de sort!
--O rammaissaire de dardeno
Det croucu, boumbudo bedeno
Que gouvernas lou mounde eme lou coffre-fort,
Fases courre lou bru, canaio,
Que l'artisto jamai travaio
E deu pati, lou bedigas.
Teisas-vous dounc: quand di lambrusco
La Cigalo a cava la rusco,
Raubas soun beure, e piei, morto, la rousigas.
So speaks my friend in the expressive Provencal idiom, rehabilitating
the creature so libelled by the fabulist.
Translated with a little necessary freedom, the English of it is as
Fine weather for the Cigale! God, what heat!
Half drunken with her joy, she feasts
In a hail of fire. Pays for the harvest meet;
A golden sea the reaper breasts,
Loins bent, throat bare; silent, he labours long,
For thirst within his throat has stilled the song.
A blessed time for thee, little Cigale.
Thy little cymbals shake and sound,
Shake, shake thy stomach till thy mirrors fall!
Man meanwhile swings his scythe around;
Continually back and forth it veers,
Flashing its steel amidst the ruddy ears.
Grass-plugged, with water for the grinder full,
A flask is hung upon his hip;
The stone within its wooden trough is cool,
Free all the day to sip and sip;
But man is gasping in the fiery sun,
That makes his very marrow melt and run.
Thou, Cigale, hast a cure for thirst: the bark,
Tender and juicy, of the bough.
Thy beak, a very needle, stabs it. Mark
The narrow passage welling now;
The sugared stream is flowing, thee beside,
Who drinkest of the flood, the honeyed tide.
Not in peace always; nay, for thieves arrive,
Neighbours and wives, or wanderers vile;
They saw thee sink the well, and ill they thrive
Thirsting; they seek to drink awhile;
Beauty, beware! the wallet-snatcher's face,
Humble at first, grows insolent apace.
They seek the merest drop; thy leavings take;
Soon discontent, their heads they toss;
They crave for all, and all will have. They rake
Their claws thy folded wings across;
Thy back a mountain, up and down each goes;
They seize thee by the beak, the horns, the toes.
This way and that they pull. Impatient thou:
Pst! Pst! a jet of nauseous taste
O'er the assembly sprinklest. Leave the bough
And fly the rascals thus disgraced,
Who stole thy well, and with malicious pleasure
Now lick their honey'd lips, and feed at leisure.
See these Bohemians without labour fed!
The ant the worst of all the crew--
Fly, drone, wasp, beetle too with horned head,
All of them sharpers thro' and thro',
Idlers the sun drew to thy well apace--
None more than she was eager for thy place,
More apt thy face to tickle, toe to tread,
Or nose to pinch, and then to run
Under the shade thine ample belly spread;
Or climb thy leg for ladder; sun
Herself audacious on thy wings, and go
Most insolently o'er thee to and fro.
Now comes a tale that no one should believe.
In other times, the ancients say,
The winter came, and hunger made thee grieve.
Thou didst in secret see one day
The ant below the ground her treasure store away.
The wealthy ant was drying in the sun
Her corn the dew had wet by night,
Ere storing it again; and one by one
She filled her sacks as it dried aright.
Thou camest then, and tears bedimmed thy sight,
Saying: "'Tis very cold; the bitter bise
Blows me this way and that to-day.
I die of hunger. Of your riches please
Fill me my bag, and I'll repay,
When summer and its melons come this way.
"Lend me a little corn." Go to, go to!
Think you the ant will lend an ear?
You are deceived. Great sacks, but nought for you!
"Be off, and scrape some barrel clear!
You sing of summer: starve, for winter's here!"
'Tis thus the ancient fable sings
To teach us all the prudence ripe
Of farthing-snatchers, glad to knot the string
That tie their purses. May the gripe
Of colic twist the guts of all such tripe!
He angers me, this fable-teller does,
Saying in winter thou dost seek
Flies, grubs, corn--thou dost never eat like us!
--Corn! Couldst thou eat it, with thy beak?
Thou hast thy fountain with its honey'd reek.
To thee what matters winter? Underground
Slumber thy children, sheltered; thou
The sleep that knows no waking sleepest sound.
Thy body, fallen from the bough,
Crumbles; the questing ant has found thee now.
The wicked ant of thy poor withered hide
A banquet makes; in little bits
She cuts thee up, and empties thine inside,
And stores thee where in wealth she sits:
Choice diet when the winter numbs the wits.
Here is the tale related duly,
And little resembling the fable, truly!
Hoarders of farthings, I know, deuce take it.
It isn't the story as you would make it!
Crook-fingers, big-bellies, what do you say,
Who govern the world with the cash-box--hey?
You have spread the story, with shrug and smirk,
That the artist ne'er does a stroke of work;
And so let him suffer, the imbecile!
Be you silent! 'Tis you, I think,
When the Cigale pierces the vine to drink,
Drive her away, her drink to steal;
And when she is dead--you make your meal!
Next: THE CIGALE LEAVES ITS BURROW