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“The whale is endangered, while the ant continues to do just fine” – Bill Vaughan, Journalist

Is this the way the world ends?

Is this the way the world ends?

I have a near pathological hatred of ants.  Chateaux EsoterX (my humble home, adequately mined and with excellent field of fire in case of zombie apocalypse) backs up to several acres of idyllic forest, complete with grazing deer and wild turkeys, as well as an attitudinal resident groundhog.  I moved out here four years ago from Manhattan, after my son was born due to some weird white-picket fence compulsion that ensues when one becomes a parent and social status changes from DINK (Double Income, No-Kids) to Yuppie Scum (with 1.5 children – I gave my dog a half vote).  Said hound was a shelter dog, believed to be the spawn of a swinging Harlem Pekingese and a Beagle, which essentially looked like a stunningly large, mutant Fu Dog, and I’m inexplicably convinced would have had a Russian accent if it spoke English (“Please to be giving me kibble”).  I was an urban acclimated creature, which in and of itself puts me a little off kilter, since I grew up in Illinois, mucking stalls on horse farms, baling hay, and celebrating the joy of corn, but we learn and grow. I have great respect for farmers, but that doesn’t mean I want to be one, what with the fact that grocery stores exist.  For those of you who are puzzled by the term “mucking”, this is the rural American term for “shoveling horse shit”, literally.  I distinctly remember, one night when my wife was nine months pregnant, we had bought the house, but were still living out of our Battery Park apartment in New York City, primarily due to the fact that our obstetrician was in Manhattan and the fact that my darling dearest (a South Bronx girl, tried and true) had the occult belief that being born in New York City proper conferred some sort of karmic superiority on one’s children.  In the male equivalent of nesting, I spent a night at my newly purchased, but empty home, painting my son’s room the same shade of nice, bright yellow as my childhood room, and changing the ubiquitous off-white in other rooms to something more interesting.  As I merrily painted, I heard a sound.  Confident that someone was trying to break into my house, I searched until (1) I realized I had lived in a city for far too long (2) I was a moron.  I was so used to the sounds of city streets at night (the equivalent of white noise to any long term urbanite), that the silence of my forest abode was unnerving, particularly when the complete absence of noise was suddenly punctuated by an unidentifiable sound.  Was someone breaking in?  Defend the castle! With lethal paint-brush, adrenalin surging, and my intimidating 150 pounds soaking wet, some vestigial remnant of rural sanity finally arose.  I was hearing crickets in the otherwise silent night.

You might think that I would have been relieved by the obvious lack of threat, but my baseline disposition is decidedly not “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, rather it is closer to “When life gives you lemons, build a lemonade stand and make lemonade. Then use the profits of your lemonade business to buy a machine gun. Let’s see if life makes the same mistake twice”.  The point is, despite the fact that as a youth I was well acquainted with nature per se, particularly in its nastiest, smelliest, and most unpleasant forms, I had forgotten that even though a forest is nice to look at, it puts you at closer proximity to insects, who still outnumber us humans 200 million to 1.  And the most ubiquitous critter is the ant. I recommend a healthy level of suspicion when it comes to ants.  They’re clearly planning something.  Etymologist Lewis Thomas keenly observed, “Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labour, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.”  So far.  Every Spring the ants appear.  We poison them.  They come back next Spring.  I’ve begun to suspect that ants have a subtle and no doubt evil plan.  A little historical research unearthed a disturbing possibility.  Not only are ants an inherently organized bunch, but they have a substantial source of funding to finance their nefarious insectoid conspiracy, which they have been accumulating for a considerable time.  I would like to raise the warning about the Mermecolion (variously referred to as the “ant-lion”, formicoleon, or myrmeces) described by numerous classical scholars including Herodotus, Strabo, Megasthenes, and Aelianus, and further elaborated upon by the authors of the hippest medieval bestiaries.  The Mermecolion is reputed to be the fox-sized spawn of an ant and a lion.  Now a hefty ant is pretty creepy, but when the main activity of said mega-ant is the accumulation of gold, one begins to wonder if there is an end game that results in humans serving obscenely rich ant overlords.

Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) had quite a bit to say about the Mermecolion, and identified northern India as their home, offering a detailed description of the process used by locals to steal gold from the monster ants.  Apparently the ants spent most of their time digging for gold, which they piled in little heaps.  Leaving their gold out in the open is a notable flaw in the Mermecolion strategy for world domination, but as I have yet to build even a single evil lair or accumulate any gold whatsoever, perhaps my criticism is premature.

Others however of the Indians are on the borders of the city of Caspatyros and the country of Pactyïke, dwelling towards the North of the other Indians; and they have a manner of living nearly the same as that of the Bactrians: these are the most warlike of the Indians, and these are they who make expeditions for the gold. For in the parts where they live it is desert on account of the sand; and in this desert and sandy tract are produced ants, which are in size smaller than dogs but larger than foxes, for there are some of them kept at the residence of the king of Persia, which are caught here. These ants then make their dwelling underground and carry up the sand just in the same manner as the ants found in the land of the Hellenes, which they themselves also very much resemble in form; and the sand which is brought up contains gold. To obtain this sand the Indians make expeditions into the desert, each one having yoked together three camels, placing a female in the middle and a male like a trace-horse to draw by each side. On this female he mounts himself, having arranged carefully that she shall be taken to be yoked from young ones, the more lately born the better. For their female camels are not inferior to horses in speed, and moreover they are much more capable of bearing weights. As to the form of the camel, I do not here describe it, since the Hellenes for whom I write are already acquainted with it, but I shall tell that which is not commonly known about it, which is this:–the camel has in the hind legs four thighs and four knees, and its organs of generation are between the hind legs, turned towards the tail. The Indians, I say, ride out to get the gold in the manner and with the kind of yoking which I have described, making calculations so that they may be engaged in carrying it off at the time when the greatest heat prevails; for the heat causes the ants to disappear underground. Now among these nations the sun is hottest in the morning hours, not at midday as with others, but from sunrise to the time of closing the market: and during this time it produces much greater heat than at midday in Hellas, so that it is said that then they drench themselves with water. Midday however has about equal degree of heat with the Indians as with other men, while after midday their sun becomes like the morning sun with other men, and after this, as it goes further away, it produces still greater coolness, until at last at sunset it makes the air very cool indeed. When the Indians have come to the place with bags, they fill them with the sand and ride away back as quickly as they can, for forthwith the ants, perceiving, as the Persians allege, by the smell, begin to pursue them: and this animal, they say, is superior to every other creature in swiftness, so that unless the Indians got a start in their course, while the ants were gathering together, not one of them would escape. So then the male camels, for they are inferior in speed of running to the females, if they drag behind are even let loose from the side of the female, one after the other; the females however, remembering the young which they left behind, do not show any slackness in their course. Thus it is that the Indians get most part of the gold, as the Persians say; there is however other gold also in their land obtained by digging, but in smaller quantities (Herodotus, Histories, Book 3, Section 102-105).

By the time Roman naturalist Gauis Plinius Secundus (23-79 A.D.), or as he is more commonly known, Pliny the Elder, get around to describing the Mermecolion, they’ve grown from fox-sized to wolf-sized, and the suggestion that the methods used to steal the gold from the ants were not always successful, resulting in some limb tearing for the guy with the slowest camel.  Stealing gold form the Mermecolion wasn’t just a matter of setting really large ant traps.  It evidently involved serious risk to life and limb and only the bravest would attempt it.   Being torn into bite-sized bit by angry ants appears to have been a common result of failed Mermecolion muggings.

The horns of an Indian ant, suspended in the temple of Hercules at Erythrae have been looked upon as quite miraculous for their size. This ant excavates gold from holes, in a country in the north of India, the inhabitants of which are known as the Dardae. It has the colour of a cat, and is in size as large as an Egyptian wolf. This gold, which it extracts in the winter, is taken by the Indians during the heats of summer, while the ants are compelled, by the excessive warmth, to hide themselves in their holes. Still, however, on being aroused by catching the scent of the Indians, they sally forth, and frequently tear them to pieces, though provided with the swiftest camels for the purpose of flight; so great is their fleetness, combined with their ferocity and their passion for gold! (Pliny’s The Elders Natural History. Book XI. Chapter 36, Bostock & Riley translation).

Greek geographer and historian Strabo (64 B.C. – 24 A.D.) had even more to say about the Mermecolion, with the somewhat odd addition of the fact that they had their genital organs reversed.  Strikes me not only as slightly perverse, but I’m not even sure what that entails anatomically.  You’ll also notice that the Mermecolion have grown from fox-sized, to wolf-sized, to leopard-sized.  The more they were written about, the bigger they grew, although the classical world seemed to agree on the salient point that (a) they were giant ants, (b) they dug for gold, (c) if you stole their gold, they would come looking for you.

Along the coast there are both pillars and altars of Pytholaus, Lichas, Pythangelus, Leon, and Charimortus, that is, along the known coast from Deire as far as Notuceras; but the distance is not determined. The country abounds with elephants and lions called myrmeces (ants). They have their genital organs reversed. Their skin is of a golden colour, but they are more bare than the lions of Arabia (Strabo, Geographica, XVI, Book 4, Section 15).

This writer says that he saw skins of the myrmeces (or ants), which dig up gold, as large as the skins of leopards. Megasthenes, however, speaking of the myrmeces, says, among the Derdæ a populous nation of the Indians, living towards the east, and among the mountains, there was a mountain plain of about 3000 stadia in circumference; that below this plain were mines containing gold, which the myrmeces, in size not less than foxes, dig up. They are excessively fleet, and subsist on what they catch. In winter they dig holes, and pile up the earth in heaps, like moles, at the mouths of the openings.  The gold-dust which they obtain requires little preparation by fire. The neighbouring people go after it by stealth, with beasts of burden; for if it is done openly, the myrmeces fight furiously, pursuing those that run away, and if they seize them, kill them and the beasts. In order to prevent discovery, they place in various parts pieces of the flesh of wild beasts, and when the myrmeces are dispersed in various directions. They take away the gold-dust, and, not being acquainted with the mode of smelting it, dispose of it in its rude state at any price to merchants (Strabo, Geographica, XV, Book 1, Section 44).

Because Strabo mentions Greek ethnographer and historian Megasthenes (350-290 B.C.) we should probably take a look at him to.  Megasthenes is believed to actually have been part of a Seleucid Dynasty diplomatic mission to Pataliputra, India, and authored the Indica, the first account of India by a Westerner.  Unfortunately, we seem to only have fragments of the original Indica, and much of Megasthenes writing is known only through quotation by other classical scholars.  Megasthenes points out the disturbing fact that the Mermacolions not only mine gold, but seem to understand its value (in the human world).

They get the gold from ants. These creatures are larger than foxes, but are in other respects like the ants of our own country. They dig holes in the earth like other ants. The heap which they throw up consists of gold the purest and brightest in all the world. The mounds are piled up close to each other in regular order like hillocks of gold dust, whereby all the plain is made effulgent. It is difficult, therefore, to look towards the sun, and many who have attempted to do this have thereby destroyed their eyesight. The people who are next neighbours to the ants, with a view to plunder these heaps, cross the intervening desert, which is of no great extent, mounted on wagons to which they have yoked their swiftest horses. They arrive at noon, a time when the ants have gone underground, and at once seizing the booty make off at full speed. The ants, on learning what has been done, pursue the fugitives, and overtaking them fight with them till they conquer or die, for of all animals they are the most courageous. It hence appears that they understand the worth of gold, and that they will sacrifice their lives rather than part with it (Megasthenes, Indica, Fragment XXXIV and XL, as quoted in Dio Chrysostom’s Oration 35).

One could certainly argue that Megasthenes read Herodotus, Strabo read Megasthenes, Pliny read Strabo, and so on and so forth, in a classical version of an internet meme a la “Can I has Cheezburger.”

The word appears in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) version of Job (4:11) as the Hebrew term lajisch–“ant-lion”, more frequently translated as “tiger” or “old lion” by later editors and in other versions of the Old Testament, which would have been an odd and rare Hebrew understanding of the term.  The Greek term, closer to the original Hebrew is Mermecolion (literally, “ant-lion”).  By the time we hit the Dark Ages, when bestiaries were all the rage, the Mermecolion turned out to be a popular inclusion (Likely because he was mentioned by so many classical scholars).  While the essential description was the same (dog sized ants who dug gold and chased people), but note that a creeping cynicism has entered the discussion, as Spanish Archbishop and scholar Isidore of Seville (560-636 A.D.)attempted to make the very logical explanation that the Mermecolion (which he calls “formicloeon” in his Etymologiae) looks small to other animals (hence, the “ant”, and enormous to everyday ants i.e. “big as a lion”, comparatively, therefore resulting in the classical description of an “ant-lion”.  Strangely, Isidore also moves the home of the Mermecolion from India to Ethiopia.

It is said that in Ethiopia there are ants in the shape of dogs, who dig up golden sand with their feet – they guard this sand lest anyone carry it off, and when they chase something they pursue it to death. The ‘ant lion’ (formicoleon) is so called either because it is the lion (leo) of ants or, more likely, because it is equally an ant and a lion, for it is a small animal very dangerous to ants because it hides itself in the dust and kills the ants carrying grain. And thus it is called both an ‘ant’ and a ‘lion,’ because to the rest of the animals it is like an ant, but to ants it is like a lion (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, Chapter 3, 7th Century AD)

The Mermecolion also appears in Pope Gregory’s (590-604 A.D.) commentary on the Book of Job called Moralia in Iob as well as numerous medieval bestiaries: Philip de Thuan’s 12th Century Bestiaire gives it a few lines: “There is also a beast which is master of the ant/it is the formicaleon, that is its name/it is the lion of ants, whence it is thus named/it is a very little beast, puts itself in the dust/where the ant goes, and does it great outrage/but of this matter I will make no more discourse”; Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Naturale (pretty much everything Western Europe knew about science and natural history in the 13th Century A.D. in a mere 32 books and 3,718 chapters), and Guillaume le Clerc’s de Normandie’s 13th Century Divine Bestiaire.  And yet, the Mermecolion seems to have vanished from our catalog of modern day monsters.  When was the last time Hollywood made a horror movie about gold-digging ants?  Our current entertainment monster de jour is the Zombie (from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Days Later to The Walking Dead).  They’re disorganized.  They don’t have any money.  They eat brains and human flesh because they smell, and the finer restaurants won’t serve them.  Kind of pathetic for a monster.  You just need an adequate supply of bullets to deal with the problem.  The Mermecolion are ants, thus well organized, administered, and directed, experienced at warfare, and incredibly well financed, since they’ve spent at least the last 2500 years stockpiling gold.  I’m not scared of ghosts, ghouls, and goblins.  I’m scared that I’ll wake up tomorrow and my paycheck will be getting signed by a giant ant.  We would all be wise to heed the Danish proverb, “Though your enemy is the size of an ant, regard him an as elephant.”  You have been warned.

Herodotus. Histories. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1839.
Isidore of Seville.  The Etymologies.  7th Century AD. Trans. Barney, Lewis, Beach, & Berghof, ed. 2006.
McCulloch, Florence. Mediaeval Latin and French Bestiaries. [Rev. ed.] Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962.
Pliny, the Elder. The Natural History of Pliny. London: G. Bell & sons, 1898.
The Geography of Strabo. Literally translated, with notes, in three volumes. London. George Bell & Sons. 1903.