One of summer’s most conspicuous insects, cicadas, dramatically announce their return each year, filling the air with their distinctive melody. 

This year, trillions of Brood X cicadas that have been waiting underground for the past 17 years have emerged from the earth in the Midwest and eastern United States to begin their new life cycle that lasts only a few weeks.

Lots of people think these flying, buzzing insects are creepy, with their red, bulging eyes, veiny wings and discarded molt shells, bemoan them as a big nuisance and are fearful of being bitten (they don’t bite). They can, however, cause some havoc. A White House press charter plane was delayed Tuesday night because of cicadas, and the insects were blamed for a car crash in Ohio after one flew into an open window and caused the driver to hit a utility pole.

Other people find cicadas fascinating and appreciate how they can be beneficial by pruning mature trees, aerating the soil, and serving as an important source of nitrogen for growing trees once they die. Still others think they are crunchy and delicious, whether fried or dipped in chocolate.

A newly molted Brood X cicada hangs out on a leaf.

A newly molted Brood X cicada hangs out on a leaf.

We’re not the first to take note of these red-eyed bugs, of course; ancient civilizations not only lived with them, too, but artists and writers have been inspired by them for centuries. For at least forty million years, the cicada has also epitomized reincarnation. Nesting beneath the earth — some for as long as seventeen years (in the case of Brood X and other “periodical” cicadas) — they suddenly stir as if by some insectual instinct and burrow to the surface, where they shed their exoskeletons, sing (if male), mate, lay eggs (if female), and then die — all within a month. Their offspring hatch from the eggs, fall from the trees, and burrow underground, from which they will emerge the following year (if annual cicadas) or after another thirteen or seventeen years (if periodical cicadas).

While lots of people are annoyed by the constant high-pitched buzzing in their backyards, or the masses of cicada carcasses scattered across sidewalks, the insects have been revered by different cultures around the world. In China, they have been symbolically significant since ancient times, the ancient Greek poets wrote odes to them and renowned French ceramist Louis Sicard popularized them in Provence as a symbol of good luck and happiness.

A variety of cicada-related antiques and collectibles are also regularly bought at auction by collectors.

Tongue amulet in the form of a cicada (hanchan); China, Han dynasty, 1st century BCE–1st century CE; jade (nephrite); Gift of Arthur M. Sackler.

Tongue amulet in the form of a cicada (hanchan); China, Han dynasty, 1st century BCE–1st century CE; jade (nephrite); Gift of Arthur M. Sackler.

The earliest documented examples of cicada folklore come from China, where stone carvings of the bug date to 1500 BCE. Meanings associated with them range from simply indicating the onset of summer to more complex themes, such as rebirth, resurrection and immortality, an association that owes to the cicada’s life cycle. Ancient settlers carved cicadas from jade and placed them on the tongues of the dead before burial, evoking transcendence and eternal life. The insects have also been symbolically significant in art since ancient times, and they're in classical poetry, like the Tang Dynasty poem "Ode to the Cicada," written from the point of view of a political prisoner.

Cicada on tree branch; Wang Zhen (1867–1938); China, modern period, autumn 1919; fan mounted as album leaf; ink on gold-flecked paper; Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art.

Cicada on tree branch; Wang Zhen (1867–1938); China, modern period, autumn 1919; fan mounted as album leaf; ink on gold-flecked paper; Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art.

Other elements of Chinese folklore portray the cicada as pure and lofty, according to Jan Stuart, curator of Chinese art at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art: “pure because they subsist on dew and lofty because of their perch in high treetops.”

Also in antiquity, the headgear of rulers and nobles incorporated a golden image of a cicada with prominent eyes. The emblem signaled refinement, modesty, and a full awareness of one’s surroundings.

This ornamental plaque from the 4th-5th century features a cicada— an emblem of immortality— is framed by semi-precious stones and once decorated the hat of a government official.

This ornamental plaque from the 4th-5th century features a cicada— an emblem of immortality— is framed by semi-precious stones and once decorated the hat of a government official.

In Greece, ancient poets didn’t just observe cicadas: they admired them and wrote poems for them. For these entomologically inclined poets, cicadas also symbolized death and rebirth, and ancient poets like Meleager and Virgil thought their life cycle was beautiful. According to Rory Egan, a historian of Greek culture and language, who delved into cultural entomology in his paper, “Cicadas in Ancient Greece, Ventures in Classical Tettigology,” the ancient Greeks not only loved the emergence of cicadas from the ground, and their characteristic song, but also believed they survived only on dew and air. The connection between life and death was also bridged by classical poets — the cicada, though buried in the ground, doesn’t die. In The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life, Gordon Lindsay Campbell writes that some cicada poems were “possibly prompted by genuine emotion,” in part because these insects were loved, and even kept as pets.

The sounds of cicadas inspired the ancient Greek poets.

The sounds of cicadas inspired the ancient Greek poets.

In Provence, France cigales (the French word for cicadas) also have ancient roots and today are a symbol of good luck and happiness. They were made especially popular thanks to ceramist Louis Sicard.

In 1895, one of the most famous tileries of Marseille asked him to create a corporate gift that clearly symbolized Provence. Sicard chose the cicada because of its prevalence in Provence; at that time, the insects were popular with the poets and writers in the area. Sicard modeled an earthenware paperweight with a cicada resting on an olive branch and signed it with the motto imagined by the famous Provençal poet, Fréderic Mistral: "Lou Souleù mi fa canta" (The sun makes me sing).

Louis Sicard's earthenware paperweight with a cicada resting on an olive branch, 1895.

Louis Sicard's earthenware paperweight with a cicada resting on an olive branch, 1895.

It was such a success that Sicard became known as the “The Father of Cicadas” and from 1900, the master potter and sculptor developed the insect in a wide range of objects: cicada bouquet holders/wall vases (the best known form today), plates, ashtrays, and candy boxes. These ceramic cicadas were all the rage until 1960, when they went out of fashion, but enthusiasm for them was rekindled in the '90s and these contemporary wall vases, as well as vintage pieces, can be found for sale on eBay and other sites. Sicard's earthenware cicadas are traditionally offered in Provence today as a lucky charm.

René Lalique cicada brooch, c.1905, faithfully capturing every detail of the insect. Its delicate wings decorated with translucent green plique-à-jour enamel, the tips mounted with old European-cut diamonds, the body in rich mottled blue/green glass, and the eyes set with diamonds in gold collets; the reverse is chased yellow gold.

Another renowned French artist, glass and jewelry designer René Lalique, was also inspired to create pieces featuring the insect. For this cicada brooch, c.1905, Lalique faithfully captured every detail of the insect. Its delicate wings are decorated with translucent green plique-à-jour enamel, the tips mounted with old European-cut diamonds, the body in rich mottled blue/green glass, and the eyes set with diamonds in gold collets; the reverse is chased yellow gold. 

A variety of cicada-related antiques and collectibles are regularly bought at auction by collectors, including ones carved from jade, jewelry in the form of the insect, vases decorated with them, perfume bottles and glass boxes by Lalique that show off their form, and lots more. This is just a sample of cicada pieces that have been selling at auction: