Delahoyde & Hughes
We hear about these ant-men in Metamorphoses and in Homer’s Iliad, where they are Achilles’ warriors. Ovid gives the origin: Aeacus, father of Peleus and Telamon and grandfather of Ajax, comes to an uninhabited island and prays to Jove for a populace. He dreams that ants, “grain-bearers,” he saw on a tree magically transform into men. He awakens to his son Telamon bringing word that masses of people have inexplicably shown up, as Aeacus says, “greeting me as a ruler” (Ovid 172). He specifies “their customary talents” as “Industry, thrift, endurance; they are eager / For gain, and never easily relinquish / What they have won” (172). “Although Achilles comes from Thessaly, the ethnic title Myrmidons descends to his followers through his father, Peleus” (Powell 518); so we hear in passing about the Myrmidons as Achilles’ men in the Iliad. Unfortunately, they never appear sufficiently to characterize themselves as ant-like or not.
But the mythological impulse to connect ants with warriors may be based on key ant features and behavior. From the outside in, ants first have armor in the form of exoskeletons, as do all arthropods (insects and crustaceans). You can see the derivation: “arthro-pod” = jointed foot (or limbs), needed because of the external armor. So, in contrast to us, insects have their skeletons on outside, muscles attached internally.
Entomologist Carol Anelli (Washington State University), citing Edward O. Wilson (“the Harvard entomologist we all love to love because he is so famous and makes others of our ilk appear quasi-normal”) and his sidekick of many years, Bert Hölldobler, informs Orpheus that ants “make war, and use propaganda and surveillance.” The noted myrmecologists devote chapters to army ants as well as to “War and Foreign Policy” and “Conflict and Dominance.” So “army” consciousness is a valid, if perhaps anthropomorphic, phenomenon regarding ants.
What do ants best represent in the cosmos? Anelli reports Wilson insisting that they “do it all” and dominate on a number of fronts. They are exceedingly diverse — predators, farmers, architects — and are highly social. “In our view, the competitive edge that led to the rise of the ants as a world-dominant group is their highly developed, self-sacrificial colonial existence. It would appear that socialism really works under some circumstances. Karl Marx just had the wrong species” (Hölldobler and Wilson 9). In terms of mass, all ants in the world weigh as much as all human beings, so Aeacus is vindicated for his prayer.
The ultimate sacrifice in public service is to destroy enemies by committing suicide in defense of the colony. Many kinds of ants are prepared to assume this kamikaze role in one way or another, but none more dramatically than workers of a species of Camponotus of the saundersi group living in the rains forests of Malaysia. Discovered in the 1970s by the German entomologists Eleanore and Ulrich Maschwitz, these ants are anatomically and behaviorally programmed to be walking bombs. Two huge glands, filled with toxic secretions, run from the bases of the mandibles all the way to the posterior tip of the body. When the ants are pressed hard during combat, either by enemy ants or by an attacking predator, they contract their abdominal muscles violently, bursting open the body wall and spraying the secretions into the foe. (Hölldobler and Wilson 67).
Regarding their recent book, Journey to the Ants, Hölldobler and Wilson announce that it
condenses the best myrmecology to a more manageable length, with less technical language [referring to fact that their earlier tome, The Ants, published in 1990, literally weighed in at 3.4 kg and contained 732 pages of tables, figures, and double-columned text, printed on pages 26 x 31 cm]. …Our approach is thematic at the beginning, then opens out increasingly into natural history. We start with an explanation of why the ants have been so amazingly successful. The reason, we argue, is the swiftly applied and overwhelming power arising from the cooperation of colony members. Combined action at this level of efficiency is made possible by the advanced development of chemical communication: the release of a medley of substances from different parts of the body that are tested and smelled by nestmates and evoke in them, according to the substances released and the circumstance of the moment, respectively alarm, attraction, nursing, food offering, and a diversity of other activities. Ants, like humans, to put it in a nutshell, succeed because they talk so well.
Berenbaum includes chapters titled, “Insects as Symbols” and “Insects in Art,” and she notes:
Salvador Dali … wrote on several occasions about his own insect experiences and frequently incorporated insects into his works. Ants appear in Accommodations of Desire (1929), Great Masturbator (1929), and Portrait of Gala (1931). (Berenbaum 323)
Not that it illuminates mythology, but it is gross and interesting to note the phenomenon of trophobiosis: certain insects (homopterans) release sugary excretions from their anuses in exchange for protection by the ants.
More pertinent to the arts, Australian Aborigines do beautiful art decorated with honey pot ant motifs andAfricans use soldier ants’ mandibles to suture wounds.
Antz. Computer animated film with voices of Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone. Dreamworks Pictures, 1998. A neurotic worker named Z hopes to prove his individuality and win true love.
Berenbaum, M.R. Bugs in the System. Addison Wesley, 1995.
Empire of the Ants. Starring Joan Collins. 1977. Giant mutant ants round up real estate speculators at a sugar refinery and brainwash them to do their evil ant bidding. Based on an H.G. Wells story.
Gordon, Deborah. Ants at Work: How an Insect Society Is Organized. Gordon is a biologist who has been called “the Jane Goodall of entomology.”
Hölldobler, Bert, and Edward O. Wilson. A Journey to the Ants. Cambridge, MA: Belknap (Harvard) Press, 1994.
Marabunta. 1998. Entomologist and others battle deadly ants.
Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 2001.
Them! Starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, James Arness. Warner Brothers, 1954. https://michaeldelahoyde.org/science-fiction/them.