Entomologists place grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, and mantises in a single order, the Orthoptera, while cicadas belong to the order Homoptera. But modern taxonomies do not necessarily reflect popular perception of animals today, much less the ways in which creatures have been regarded over the centuries.
For the ancient Greeks, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, and sometimes mantises went under the single name of akris, and modern translators of their works have to determine which insect seems most appropriate from the context. All of these insects were usually difficult to see and were known to people primarily through their sounds in open fields. These noises, produced by the insects’ rubbing parts of their bodies together, are often amazingly loud for the tiny creatures that generate them, and they are often synchronized. They are mating calls, produced almost exclusively by males, and some ancient myths suggest a surprising aware ness of this fact. In the case of the orthopterans, people also knew the insects through the enormous damage they inflicted on crops, which was only partially compensated for by their popularity as food. The Bible tells us that when the pharaoh refused to let the people of Israel leave Egypt, locusts were the eighth plague sent by Yahweh in punishment: “The locusts invaded the whole land of Egypt. On the whole territory of Egypt they fell, in numbers so great that such swarms had never been seen before, nor would be again. They covered the surface of the soil till the ground was black with them. They devoured all the greenstuff in the land and all the fruit of the trees” (Exod. 10:14-15).
In North Africa and the Near East, plagues of locusts have continued to occur up through the twentieth century, sometimes darkening the sky and confirming the general accuracy of the biblical descriptions. In similarly vivid terms, the prophet Joel compared locusts in their vast numbers and their destructiveness to an invading army (2:25). The same imagery was used by the Egyptians and in an inscription commemorating the deeds of Ramses II, the very pharaoh who was defied by Moses, at the battle of Kadesh, where the armies of the Hittites are said to have covered the mountains like locusts. For all the trouble such insects caused, however, the Egyptians do not seem to have hated or despised them, and one text from the Old Kingdom speaks of a ruler ascending to Heaven in the form of a grasshopper. According to an Islamic folktale from Algeria, the Devil looked scornfully on the newly created world and said, “I can do better than God.” “Very well,” replied God, “I will give you the power to bring to life whatever creature you create. Stroll about the world and return in a hundred years.” The Devil took up the challenge and put together a creature with the head of a horse, the breast of a lion, the horns of an antelope, the neck of a steer, and parts from several other animals. Since the parts did not fit properly, he began to whittle away at the creature, until all that was left was a tiny locust. The Lord said, “Oh, Satan . . . What is this! To show your impotence and my power I will send swarms of this creature around the earth, and thus I will teach people that there is only one God” (Dähnhardt, pp. 10-12). Perhaps because locusts in the Bible were always a scourge of God, the insects have usually not been heavily stigmatized. People will hardly ever eat creatures that they find repugnant except in times of severe hunger, but locusts and grasshoppers are eaten in much of Africa. They are also mentioned as a possible food in the Bible (Lev. 11:20-23). The New Testament states that John the Baptist lived on “locusts and wild honey” (Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6).