16 July 2015

For The Muse

This last week I abandoned Garden65 to its watery realm and flew to the Greek island of Kephalonia, land of immense heat and freddo cappuccinos.

I am staying in a newly built villa, air conditioned, maid service, screens on every window and door, so the natural world in all it's worrying exoticism is kept at bay. It is true that on walks in the hills I've seen spider webs with funnels so wide you could roll a billiard ball down them, and local bees are like flying bears. There are ants and armies of invisible biting insects, but generally speaking I can do the floating about in the pool and sipping margaritas activities as though I was doing them in Manchester during a particularly aggressive heatwave.

However, the illusion can't be sustained when you take into account the surrounding soundscape: it is cicada season. There is a constant, 24 hour chattering chorus.

Cicadas live in the ancient olive trees that have been cleverly included in the landscaping of the villa’s garden. Thankfully, they are so well camouflaged you can't see them. I managed to get a photo of the one above because he had drowned in the pool overnight.

It is the males (not surprisingly) that do the singing. They rattle a specially adapted part of their abdomen to make the sound. It is piercingly loud, and has been measured at 95 decibels, which is as loud as a hairdryer or screaming child. If that level of noise was made artificially you would have the right to sue the creator for damage to your health.

Putting Annoyance to one side to be open minded and accepting of foreign climes, the cicadas are a way to connect with the deep history of Greece. If you close your eyes, feel the heat on your skin, and listen to the lapping waves on the beach and chirping cicadas it is easy to imagine being alive on this spot 3000 years ago. Which is something you couldn't do in Manchester. What did Manchester sound like when the Mycenaeans were making gold effigies of cicadas?

Mythologically cicadas have been associated with immortality and resurrection. All this singing is done in the summer months as adults to attract mates. Before this they emerge from the ground as nymphs, crawl up into the trees, and begin feeding and maturing there. This life cycle echoes ancient beliefs about human souls. The cicada comes from the ground – the underworld – then rises to sing. Early Athenians took the cicada as their totem animal because it grew out of Athenian soil, just as they did.

Plato extended the metaphor further when he recounted a story that cicadas were once humans who lived before the birth of the Muses. Once they heard music they were so enthralled they got carried away and forgot to eat or drink with the result their bodies wasted away (much like Bez of Happy Mondays fame I imagine). The Muses rewarded them for their devotion by turning them into cicadas. Who do, I can confirm, sing all day and night.

Interestingly, the Muses gave them a job to do. They had to watch humans and report back on how they were honouring the Muse.

So here is my little act of worship: a blog post cobbled together from imagination and the Internet.

O muse, o alto ingegno, or m’aiutate;