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Folklore


Overview

Very little has been written about antlion folklore (e.g., beliefs, sayings or superstitions), but there is evidence of such lore from many cultures around the world. Since most people's experiences with antlions begin in childhood (see Antlion Anecdotes), it is not surprising that antlion folklore typically takes the form of chanted verses, or charms, typically taught to children by their parents or other children. Many of these superstitious charms, sometimes spoken while stirring a finger or piece of straw in the antlion's pit, are intended to coax the animal out of its hole. If the insect happens to move when these charms are spoken, such movement no doubt can be attributed to the speaker's disturbance of the sand pit.

Antlion folklore examples from around the world

United States
U.S. antlion folklore probably dates back to the earliest days of colonization. The most common type of U.S. antlion folklore takes the form of a charm about the colloquial "doodlebug." Perhaps the most well-known example of a doodlebug charm was published in 1876, when writer Mark Twain included one in his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: "Doodle-bug, doodle-bug, tell me what I want to know!"

Here are several other examples of doodlebug charms collected in the southern United States during the early 20th century (Hand 1964, 412-414):

 

1

Doodle, doodle, come and get some bread and butter;
Doodle, doodle, come and get a barrel of sugar.

2

Doodlebug, doodlebug, come up and get a grain of corn.
Your house is burning up.

3

Doodlebug, doodlebug,
   Come out of your hole;
Your house is on fire,
   And your children will burn.

4

Doodlebug, doodlebug, come out of your house;
It's burning up with your wife and all your children,
Except Mary—she's under the dishpan.

5

Doodlebug, doodlebug,
   Come out of your hole;
If you don't,
   I'll beat you black as a mole.

6

Doodle, doodle, doodle,
Your mother and grand-daddy are dead.

Charles


Figure 1. Charles Duke walking on the moon (near the Plum crater). Photo taken by John W. Young, 21 April 1972. Courtesy NASA.
A century after Twain's Tom Sawyer, antlions continue to stir the human imagination, even in outer space. So vivid were his childhood memories of doodlebugs that Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke (fig. 1) compared certain lunar craters to antlion pits. A transcript of his conversations while on the moon's surface includes a version of the antlion chant: "Doodle-bug, doodle-bug, are you at home?"

Antigua and Barbuda
In Antigua and Barbuda, an island country in the East West Indies, an antlion is called "jampeepee" (or "John-pee-pee"). This Caribbean English colloquialism appears in an antlion charm:

Jam-pee-pee! Jam-pee-pee!
Mammy call you for funjee and saltfish.

As with U.S. charms, this charm is spoken while lightly twirling a stick along the edges of the sandy pit to entice the antlion to come out. Antiguan resident Anthony Richards explains that, according to local folklore, this charm also "whets the insect's appetite for our national dish, since it immediately responds with flicks of sand. Funjee is a starchy food made of corn meal, not unlike Italian polenta. It is served with a Creole stew made from tomatoes, onions, and rehydrated salted cod (the bacalao of Portugal and Brazil). These excellent foods, made from ingredients first imported to feed to our slave ancestors, now have pride of place on hotel menus. We look forward to sharing them with you, and with Mr John-pee-pee!"

Australia
Australian indigenous languages scholar G. Porter has described several folk tales in the Ngaanyatjarra language, including "Tjukurrpa mamutjitjitjarra"—"The Story of the Antlion Game." (The details of this story are not yet available in this website.) For more information about Australian Aboriginal culture, see the Aboriginal Studies and Australian Indigenous Languages WWW Virtual Libraries.

China
According to a L.C., a reader from the Chongqing municipality in southwest China, antlions (called di-gu-niu in the local Mandarin) are used in Chinese traditional medicine as a treatment for tuberculosis. As related in this reader's personal antlion anecdote, the effectiveness of this treatment is doubtful.

Mexico
Reader J.M. and her siblings used to play with antlions (called toritos in Mexican Spanish) in southern California and Mexico, where her grandparents lived. She reports learning a superstition that served as a warning about toritos: "We were told not to hold them too long because they would bury themselves in our skin."

Of course, antlions are not able to bury themselves in one's skin; however, one should use caution when handling antlions to avoid being bitten.

South Africa
There are two names for "antlion" in Afrikaans: mierleeu (formal) and joerie (colloquial). According to Die Afrikaanse Woordeboek, the name joerie comes from a chant that children would say when trying to bring the antlion to the surface of its pit with the use of a stick:

Joerie, Joerie, botter en brood,
as ek jou kry, slaat ek jou dood.

English translation:

Joerie, Joerie, bread and butter,
if I get you, I will kill you.

Sri Lanka
According to Sinhalese folklore, children enjoy placing a bingundha (antlion) in their hands and, as it moves round and round, singing "bingundo bolla bingunodo ubath natapan math natam." The English translation is: "antlion, if you dance I will also dance."

Historical and thematic analysis

A thematic comparison of antlion charms from the United States, Antigua and Barbuda, and South Africa reveals some obvious similarities (see Table 1). Most of these charms rely on two primary motivators to entice the antlion: food or threat of harm (or both). In some charms, food is offered as a reward by itself, or as an inducement to escape a harmful situation. (Note that the food items for Antigua and Barbuda have been "localized" for the local culture.) Other charms warn the antlion of possible violent harm—to itself, its family, or its home.

Table 1: Comparison of Antlion Charm Themes
Food Threat of Harm to Self, Family or Home
United States • grain of corn
• bread and butter
• barrel of sugar
• your house is burning
• your children will burn
• I'll beat you black as a mole
• Your mother and grand-daddy are dead
Antigua and Barbuda funjee and saltfish [not present in this charm]
South Africa bread and butter I will kill you

These similarities are striking when one considers the geographical, historical, and cultural distances that separate the charms' countries of origin. Several questions come to mind: Why do antlion charms of such different countries employ such similar themes? Did these charms come from a common source or did they arise independently of each other? Why do these charms contain themes of food and violence?

The following discussion tries to answer these questions—first by examining the possible historical and cultural origins of the charms, then by looking more closely at the meaning of their thematic content. [Note that this discussion is limited to the antlion folklore of only a few countries and a small number of examples. A more thorough study of children's folklore (especially charms and nursery rhymes) would be very instructive but is beyond the scope of this website.]

Origins of the charms
What do the (southern) United States, Antigua and Barbuda, and South Africa have in common? All three countries have been significantly influenced by European cultures. More specifically, all were colonized by Great Britain at some point in their histories: the U.S. from 1607 to 1794; Antigua and Barbuda from 1632 to 1981; and South Africa from 1806 to 1961 (following colonization by the Dutch Boers). Naturally, such long periods of British rule gave ample opportunity for the English language and folk customs to root themselves or be adopted by indigenous peoples.

Do these antlion charms, then, have a British (or other European) origin? Quite possibly, though perhaps not directly. The available research makes no mention of European antlion charms, however, an examination of the charms of an even more popular insect—the ladybug—might be useful in answering this question. One such ladybug charm from the U.S. (Hand 1964, 414) is nearly identical to the doodlebug charm #3 above:

Ladybug, ladybug,
   Fly away home,
Your house is on fire,
   And your children alone.

Iona and Peter Opie (1955 p. 74), scholars of British children's folklore and nursery rhymes, have also documented ladybug (or ladybird) charms. For example:

Ladybird, ladybird,
   Fly away home,
Your house is on fire
   And your children all gone;
All except one
   And that's little Ann
And she has crept under
   The warming pan.

Recall that the U.S. doodlebug charm #4 is virtually the same, with only minor differences ("Mary" in place of "Ann," a "dishpan" in place of a "warming pan," etc.) In his notes for the doodlebug charm, Hand states that variants of this ending are "taken from related ladybug verses" (1964 p. 414). [As with antlion charms, children chant ladybug charms to provoke a response from the insect: "Traditionally the insect is set on a finger before being addressed. . . . When the warning has been recited (and the ladybird blown upon once), it nearly always happens that the seemingly earthbound little beetle produces wings and flies away." (Opie 1951, p. 296).]

Given this research, one could reasonably infer that antlion charms—at least the U.S. variety—probably can be traced to British ladybug charms. Both Hand and Opie note that other European ladybug/ladybird charms are similar to the U.S. and British varieties already discussed. Opie goes so far as to conclude that "the rhyme is undoubtedly a relic of something once possessed of an awful significance. It is closely matched by incantations known in France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and Sweden, sometimes even to the detail of the name Ann." (1951 p. 263).

With the exception of France, all of these countries' languges have roots in the Germanic language group. Opie (1951 p. 264) cites several German examples of ladybird charms. This charm was originally recorded by Karl Simrock in his 1848 book Deutsches Kinderbuch:

Marienkäferchen, fliege weg!
   Dein Häuschen brennt,
Dein Mutterchen flennt,
   Dein Vater sitzt auf der Schwelle:
Flieg in Himmel aus der Hölle.

Ladybird, fly away!
   Your house is burning,
Your mother is crying,
   Your father sits on the threshold:
Fly into Heaven from Hell.

A similar charm was recorded by Jacob Grimm (compiler, with brother Wilhelm, of the Grimms' fairy tale collection) in his 1858 book Deutsche Mythologie (Opie 1951 p. 264). This Germanic connection is particularly interesting because of the violent themes contained in the Grimms' tales. Perhaps the Boer colonists (of Dutch and German descent) brought this aspect of their culture with them to southern Africa, including the morbidly-themed antlion charms. The European colonizers of the Americas would have spread the same folklore to those areas.

This linguistic evidence makes for a compelling argument:

  • The languages of all three of the similar antlion charms—English, Caribbean English, and Afrikaans—are rooted in European languages.
  • European cultures influenced the cultures of the U.S., Antigua and Barbuda, and colonial South Africa.
  • Therefore, the strong similarities between old ladybug/ladybird charms and contemporary antlion charms point to a European (and possibly Germanic) origin for these antlion charms.

While the European connections are certain, however, the evidence presented here doesn't provide a specific chronology or proof of direct descent.

Meaning of the charms' themes
What could account for the origin of the themes themselves, in particular the curiously morbid content of some charms? Explanations of folkloric thematic content are probably more speculative than explanations of the folklore itself. Therefore, instead of offering definitive answers, the editor will limit his discussion to possible approaches to the interpretation of antlion folklore, which he has grouped into two broad categories: social/functional and aesthetic/symbolic interpretations. They are not intended to be mutually exclusive.

1. Social/functional interpretation. This approach interprets the charms as functional tools for society. Perhaps some food-themed charms serve as proclamations of cultural pride (e.g., Antigua and Barbuda's funjee). Violent charms possibly function as basic morality lessons for children, indirectly reminding them that dire consequences lie in store for those who disobey a (parent's) command.

2. Aesthetic/symbolic interpretation. This approach views charms as creative attempts by humans to understand natural phenomena and communicate them to others.

Such an approach is supported by a mythological explanation offered by Opie for the ladybug/ladybird rhyme:

A theory in Germany is that the rhyme originated as a charm to speed the sun across the dangers of sunset, the house on fire symbolizing the red evening sky. In The Rosicrucians the beetle is compared with the Egyptian scarab and the rhyme thought to be a remnant of beliefs associated with Isis. It has also been pronounced to be a relic of Freya worship (1951 p. 264).

Food-themed charms might represent our recognition of the antlion larva's most salient behavior—feeding—while the morbid imagery reflects the violent and deadly nature of this feeding behavior. To communicate this observation in a memorable way, the food-related charm might employ common food names ("butter and bread") simply to faciliate a rhyme ("dead").

This approach would also include psychoanalytic interpretations. For example, the violent imagery in antlion folklore might be projections of our own violent impulses.


Do you know an antlion folktale or rhyme? Send it to the editor using the Antlion Pit's contribution form.

References

Aboriginal Papers bibliography (Australian National University, Canberra, website).

Edelmuller, Heidi. Letter to editor. 31 October 1997.

Hand, Wayland D., ed. 1964. Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina. Vol. 7 of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Jones, Eric M. 1995. Apollo 16 transcript "Return to LM." Apollo Lunar Surface Journal (NASA website).

Kodituwakku, Charmini. Letter to editor. 26 February 1998.

L.C. Letter to editor. 26 July 2005.

J.M. Letter to editor. 20 July 2006.

Opie, Iona and Peter, eds. 1951. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. London: Oxford Univ. Press.

Opie, Iona and Peter, eds. 1955. The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book. London: Oxford Univ. Press.

Richards, Anthony. Letter to editor. 29 April 2001.

Twain, Mark [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. 1903 [1876]. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York and London: Harper & Bros.

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