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Locust Attack: An ancient threat of damage and destruction

As locusts cause real-life devastation in India, here’s how books, art and films have represented this pestilence

The locust swarm in 'Days of Heaven'.
The locust swarm in 'Days of Heaven'.

From biblical times to the present day, locusts have posed a devastating threat. Since last year, huge swarms have laid waste to crops in several African countries. More recently, they have caused widespread damage in Pakistan and are being reported in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and other Indian states. As a reminder of how dangerous a locust swarm has always been and continues to be, we rounded up famous depictions in literature, art and cinema.

Bad omens

Locusts are harbingers of bad omens since as far back as they go. They appear on ancient Egyptian burial sites. Aristotle and Livy mention the threat of pestilence they carry. Most famously, the vengeful god of The Old Testament sends a swarm of locusts to teach the Egyptians a lesson for refusing to free the Israelites. It is the eighth plague that visits Egypt—after a thunderous hailstorm has ravaged the country.

“(The locusts) will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields," god rages.

This metaphorical association of locusts with destruction endures through millennia. In 1939, American writer Nathaniel West invoked this trope in the title of his novel The Day of the Locust, a story of greed and violence set in Hollywood. In Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), an invasion by locusts of a Nigerian village is followed by another kind of conquest—by European rulers and missionaries, who change the fate of generations.

While locusts are fearsomely greedy insects which can wipe out entire harvests, they are also easy prey—devoured by rats, as well as by humans, in many parts of the world. A plague of locusts is not only associated with crop failure and starvation, but also with rodents who feed on the insects and spread germs and disease.

By itself, a locust is a paltry creature. But moving in swarms of millions, they can raze entire populations of the far mightier humans. Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, marvelled at this power of locusts to act as a unified indomitable force—a lesson, he felt, might serve human beings well.

On the edge of hearing

Locusts have turned up in cinema in surprisingly different contexts. In Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), which tells the story of Ramesses II and Moses, they’re a CGI plague bearing down on Egypt. Far more impressive is the real thing, shown in the “Desert" episode of the stunning BBC documentary series Planet Earth II (2017)—filmed from within the swarm. “The locusts don't hit you or fly into you—instead they part like a stream around a rock, flying within a few inches of you," producer Ed Charles said in an interview. “Also, the sound made by so many billions of wings all beating in unison was incredible, like a deep roar of a waterfall, but almost on the edge of hearing."

But the most spectacular locust infestation in cinema has to be the classic scene from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). It starts in the daytime, with morbid close-ups of the insects on stalks of wheat and the farmhands desperately trying to brush them off. Day turns to dusk and there’s an indelible image of figures framed against the landscape as locust swarms rise from the fields (this was achieved by dropping seeds from a helicopter and running the footage in reverse). The losing battle continues into the night, as the fields catch fire and simmering resentments among the characters boil over.

Fear and loathing

Locusts have long fascinated artists. For Salvador Dali, the group of orthopterans—crickets, locusts and grasshoppers—was a source of fear. And he responded to this emotion in several of his paintings. There have been various other depictions of locusts through time, whether in impressionist art, scientific studies or interpretations of biblical themes.

One of the foremost is The Plague of Locusts (1896-1902) by James Tissot, a French painter and illustrator who moved to London and worked on a series of paintings from the Old Testament.

Then there is Dali’s Locust and Grasshopper (1967), a lithograph on heavy rag paper. In the paper Surreal Entomology: The insect Imagery of Salvador Dali, Gene Kritsku, Dan Mader and Jessee J Smith analyse the recurrence of insect themes in his paintings. “In a survey that included museum collections, printed compendia and web resources, the authors examined 1,176 works by Dali, of which 111 (10%) incorporated insect imagery," they write. The painter’s interest in insects began at the age of 5, and “represented fear and destruction because he was tormented as a child by other children throwing them at him," adds another article on Artsy.

Today, artists are using locusts as metaphors to express the plight of farmers. In 2016, Prabhakar Pachpute presented his evocatively-titled show, No, It Wasn’t the Locust Cloud (Te Tolanche Dhaga Navhate) at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. “A locust is an insect that looks like a cloud and can eat away an entire farm. It is used as a metaphor for land-grabbers," said Pachpute in an interview to the Hindustan Times.

(Compiled by Somak Ghoshal, Uday Bhatia and Avantika Bhuyan).

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