Archive for the ‘Spiritual Ants’ Category

Today, I came across this picture:


This is Figure 1 from a massive manuscript on Cephalotes by de Andrade and Baroni Urbani (1999). It includes the following caption:

Aerial view of one of the lines of Nasca (Peru) representing abstract animal contours (left) and the contour of a worker of Cephalotes atratus (LINNAEUS) drawn in the same style (right). The Nasca design was interpreted as a spider, essentially because it has four pairs of legs. We contend that the Nasca design might refer to a cephalotine ant as well. The reasons for this claim are twofold: (1) cephalotines are much more common and impressive than spiders, and, (2) the Nasca design bears a typical insect character contradicting the spider interpretation, namely the separation between head and thorax. This latter character is considered as being of easier observation than the number of appendages.

I find this interpretation to be quite compelling. At the very least, it’s entertaining to think that the pre-Columbian Nazca people appreciated turtle ants so much that they incorporated them into such fascinating artwork. We really shouldn’t be surprised if this is this case – turtle ants are famous for their well-documented behavior of using their heads to block the nest entrances, and several species have highly specialized soldiers so dedicated to this form of defense that their heads are basically just saucers:

Cephalotes varians
(Image: Alex Wild)
Cephalotes varians defense
(Image: Alex Wild)

Although the true inspiration for these Nazca lines may never be known for certain, I’m adding this to the pile of evidence that clearly shows that cultures around the world hold a timeless appreciation for ants.



De Andrade, M. L. and Baroni Urbani, C. Diversity and adaptation in the ant genus Cephalotes, past and present. Stuttg. Beitr. Naturk. Ser. B (Geol. Paläontol.) 271:1-889.


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I’ve already mentioned two brilliant men this week who have considered ants in some way. I will now add Abraham Lincoln to this list. In a fragment of a speech given somewhere around 1854, Mr. Honest Abe looked to the ant as a poignant metaphor:

… Made so plain by our good Father in Heaven, that all feel and understand it, even down to brutes and creeping insects. The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest, will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. So plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged. So plain that no one, high or low, ever does mistake it, except in a plainly selfish way; for although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself.

I’m not sure what it is about ants that inspires people. Oh wait, yeah I do. It’s because they’re ants. From writers (herehere, and here) to civil rights activists (here and here) to the founder of Sikhism to saints to Laozi to journalists to philosophers to veterinarians to countless others, ants seem to carry a universal appeal for anyone who stops to consider the human condition. So, have you thought about ants recently? If not, I guess you don’t care about mankind.

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Arab proverb:

God can see a black ant walk on a black stone in a black night.

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Even kings and emperors with heaps of wealth and vast dominion cannot compare with an ant filled with the love of God.

— Guru Nanak

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Saint Basil, in his letter “against Eunomius the heretic”, used mankind’s insufficient knowledge of the ant to make his argument. It’s rather interesting, even if relatively straightforward, so I think it best to quote his Letter XVI in full:

He who maintains that it is possible to arrive at the discovery of things actually existing, has no doubt by some orderly method advanced his intelligence by means of the knowledge of actually existing things. It is after first training himself by the apprehension of small and easily comprehensible objects, that he brings his apprehensive faculty to bear on what is beyond all intelligence. He makes his boast that he has really arrived at the comprehension of actual existences; let him then explain to us the nature of the least of visible beings; let him tell us all about the ant. Does its life depend on breath and breathing? Has it a skeleton? Is its body connected by sinews and ligaments? Are its sinews surrounded with muscles and glands? Does its marrow go with dorsal vertebrae; from brow to tail? Does it give impulse to its moving members by the enveloping nervous membrane? Has it a liver, with a gall bladder near the liver? Has it kidneys, heart, arteries, veins, membranes, cartilages? Is it hairy or hairless? Has it an uncloven hoof, or are its feet divided? How long does it live? What is its mode of reproduction? What is its period of gestation? How is it that ants neither all walk nor all fly, but some belong to creeping things, and some travel through the air? The man who glories in his knowledge of the really-existing ought to tell us in the meanwhile about the nature of the ant. Next let him give us a similar physiological account of the power that transcends all human intelligence. But if your knowledge has not yet been able to apprehend the nature of the insignificant ant, how can you boast yourself able to form a conception of the power of the incomprehensible God?

It is rather humbling to consider how little we know about the vast majority of over 10,000 species of ants, even 1,600 years after Saint Basil laid bare the extent of man’s myrmecological ignorance. While we do know much more about ants than we did back in the 4th century, things like the average age of individuals or the average period of gestation are still unknown for most species. We really aren’t sure how eusociality evolves. Whole new subfamilies are still being discovered. Maybe it is in fact pure hubris for anyone to pontificate on the exact nature of things like God. Alternatively, perhaps the ant is as complex as any spiritual being? We may never know!

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All good work is done the way ants do things, little by little

— Lafcadio Hearn, pen name Koizumi Yakumo

Lafcadio Hearn portrait.jpg

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I have several times noted occurrences where Chinese history and culture intersect with ants (see here, here, here, here, here, here, or even here). However, finding myself in Japan, I realized that I know nothing about the place of ants in Japanese history and culture. Not surprisingly, it took me less than a minute to find something relevant: The Dream of Akinosuke.

This story follows the experiences of Akinosuke, a wealthy man who falls asleep under a tree in the presence of his friends, and has a remarkable dream. He finds himself the receiver of bountiful blessings, including being adopted by the King through marriage to a beautiful princess who bears him five boys and two girls, and becoming governor of a pleasant realm. However, misfortune befalls the man when his wife dies. After a period of mourning, he is called back by the king, only to awake just as he is departing.

After waking, Akinosuke discusses the dream with his friends, and learns that a butterfly floating near his head had been pulled into an ant’s nest, emerging only after he awoke. An insightful friend opines that “The ants might explain it. … Ants are queer beings – possibly goblins… Anyhow, there is a big ant’s nest under that cedar-tree.” After investigating, Akinosuke finds that the nest is laid out exactly like the kingdom in his dream, including the “King”. Furthermore, he finds, underneath a pebble, the body of a dead female ant.

All of this sounded very familiar to me, and for good reason – it is apparently based on the Tang Chinese story The Governor of Nanke, which I have discussed previously. Like in the Chinese story, Akinosuke has a dream, finds that his life of blessings ends in sorrow, and then finds an ant’s nest under a tree that represents the life in his dream. Furthermore, both stories mistakenly describe a “king” at the head of the ant colony, which is erroneous for reasons I discuss in the other post. However, the moral of the Japanese story is less clear, whereas The Governor of Nanke makes its message explicit in its closing poem:

The noblest emolument and position
Power to overthrow cities and lands –
The wise man regards these things
As nothing different from swarming ants.

All of this is, of course, further evidence that the ways of the ant have permeated all human societies.

Aikido Bruxelles / Kwaidan / akinosuke

(Depiction of The Dream of Akinosuke, from here)

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