Saturday, July 10, 2010

Insects in Maltese culture

Insects have had since antiquity had an important role in culture and tradition.

 Humans have an ambivalent relationship with animals. Some species are seen as competitors for scant resources or dangerous and harmful while others are looked at in a more positive way because they are beautiful, useful or both. 

This rapport continuously influences our culture including the language, art and literature.

 In earlier times it gave rise to myths, folktales and proverbs especially among those who came in contact with animals regularly including those working in agriculture. Interest in insects and small animals continues today although probably there have been changes in the way we perceive these creatures.

Today we constantly hear and read about the need to appreciate and protect nature but this has not always been so. In former times most animals were looked at as either beneficial or harmful and for those who worked closely with nature work consisted mostly of attempts to eliminate competing nature from the immediate surroundings. 

At a popular level one finds various examples of other more intimate rapports with insects. Some of the more popular insects including the dragonfly are the subject of folktales myths and children’s stories. The dragonfly is often associated with hell and the devil, while the ant and honey bee are seen as promoters of thrift and hard work.

In recent years a new area of study known as cultural entomology has appeared. This area of study exposes how insects play a major role in almost every aspect of human culture.

In many parts of Asia for example crickets are kept as pets. They are kept in beautifully decorated cages and taken care of by their owners. In some Mediterranean countries crickets were also kept as pets.

 Cages were purposely built for these insects although in Malta they were more often kept in a metal can. This tradition survived in Malta at least until the early sixties because I remember seeing children collecting crickets to take them home and keep them as pets.

Another well known insect, the silkworm, is also very popular in Asia where it is still bred in large numbers to produce silk. The silkworm which is the caterpillar of a moth was at times also bred in Malta but in spite of several attempts to start this industry it never became commercially viable.

This article appeared in The Times on 02.06.10

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