How cicadas became immortal


A moulted cicada shell left on my neighbor’s fence

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

It’s cicada season here in Illinois. Hidden in the trees, they start buzzing every evening around dinnertime. During the day I spot their empty skins clinging to fences and mailboxes.

Cicadas are harmless, but the way they screech unseen and then disappear the rest of the year makes them sort of creepy, like ghost bugs. Of courses, the same individuals don’t some come out every year (or two to 17 years, depending on the species). The whole reason they emerge is to call to mates and produce the next generation.

But through the years, human saw this behavior and decided maybe cicadas have some supernatural power. In a break from my usually science-centric posts, I present:

The Story of Tithonus

So the ancient Greeks saw the spooky cicada and thought, This is good material for a story.

Tithonus was a prince living in Troy. His father was Laomendon, the king of Troy, and his mother was Strymo. Weirdly, his mom’s mom was the river Scamander. I guess that’s not too weird for the Greeks.

The excitement in Tithonus’ life came when he met Eos. Eos was the daughter of two Titans. She was also the goddess of dawn, and she was known for having rosy forearms. Tithonus was apparently hot for forearms, and he fell madly in love with her.

The problem was that Eos had a lot of lovers. She eventually kidnapped lovesick Tithonus from Troy, but she also kidnapped lovesick Ganymede too (conflicting stories have Ganymede kidnapped by Zeus). As any soap opera fan can tell you, having two lovers can lead to problems. When Eos asked Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality, she forgot to also ask to grant him eternal youth. So for every day of Tithonus’ endless life, he got older.

Eventually, Tithonus was an absurdly old man. He had to be carried by Eos as he ranted and babbled. The story of Tithonus has evolved over time. According to later versions of the myth, Zeus turned the crazed Tithonus into a cicada.

As the rest of the world aged and died, Tithonus would emerge from the ground every year. He wouldn’t age anymore, wouldn’t die. He’d climb into the trees and call out, begging for death.

Hear the call of the Tibicen resonans cicada

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About Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

I'm a science writer specializing in biological sciences and animal behavior.
This entry was posted in Insects and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How cicadas became immortal

  1. R. E. M. says:

    Very poignant ending! The exoskeleton does not look at all as I imagined. Thanks for the photo.

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