We Americans love our ladybugs, butterflies, and bees. While we create cute caricatures of these friendly insects, we fear and loathe other critters that go crick in the day and night. One of these is the cicada.
Many people confuse the cicada, a type of cricket, with a locust, a type of grasshopper. Both make headlines when they
appear after years of absence and then swarm. However, unlike the locust, the cicada does not intentionally destroy crops or descend upon whole communities to wreak havoc. Recently, both the locust and the cicada have been in the news: the locust for devastating farmlands in Africa since last year; and the cicada for recently delaying President Joe Biden's trip to the Europe in early June as a swarm of cicadas grounded his plane for several hours at Dulles International Airport, outside of Washington D.C.
Cicadas are quite extraordinary insects. Here in the Eastern United States, the genus Brood X appears from the ground every seventeen years. It then spends several weeks mating, eating, and then dying again, just to disappear for another seventeen year hiatus. Many people await the bug's return and celebrate its life cycle with city-wide parties, art-in-the garden festivals, and educational events, but most people fear the appearance of these bugs and wait with anticipation for their disappearance. Not in Provence, France though.
Since the nineteenth century, the cicada, or "la cigale" has been revered as a symbol of luck. In 1895, Louis Sicard, a ceramics maker, was asked to create a gift for customers of a tile factory in Marseille. To this day, replicas of his ceramic cigales can be found throughout Provence (see photo above). Residents often place flower-potted cigales outside of their entryways as a sign of good luck. Most souvenir shops carry everything from coasters to herb grinders with these famous chirping bugs. I even carry tablecloths and napkins with cigales on olive branches (see photo below)! So how did they get so lucky, and so famous?
In 1668, the poet Jean de la Fontaine wrote the tale of "La Cigale et La Fourmi" based on Aesop's fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper. Like the original fable, the cicada sings, dances, and plays all summer long while the ant builds his shelter and prepares for the winter. Once the winter months appear, the cicada founds himself woefully unprepared for the cold. We know the moral of this tale is to be responsible and take care of one's self, but la cigale still came out a star.
In the mid-1800's, the Nobel Prize winning poet and Langue d'oc revivalist, Frédéric Mistral coined the phrase "Lou souloù mi fa canta" in the Occitan language, which literally means, "The sun makes me sing." When the male cicadas begin to sing to attract their mates, residents know that le Mistral, the cold and blustery winter wind that originates from the Massif Central is gone for now. In its place is sunshine and long summer days. Sounds like luck to me!