Need No Sustenance: Just Cicada Music and Apple Scents

A wish for transcending bodily needs?

Throughout history, humans have had interesting ideas about peoples that don’t need food to live.
They can just live off the scent of apples, or music.

just place the apple near your face, and sniff it.

just place the apple near your face, and sniff it.

This image comes from the fantastical travel stories of Jean Mandeville, which first circulated between 1357 and 1371. The first known edition is French; this is a Spanish edition. He claimed to really have encountered these apple-sniffing people, somewhere far, far away.

The cicada has also been a figure for thinking about living off music rather than food.

backyard cicada on silverbeet, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Socrates told a ‘functional myth’ about cicadas that explained observed characteristics, like their endless humming and buzzing, and apparent lack of any need for nourishment. I quote from Phaedrus, a dialogue between Plato and Socrates:

“The story is that once upon a time these creatures were men —men of an age before there are any Muses— and that when the latter came into the world, and music made its appearance, some of the people of those days were so thrilled with pleasure that they went on singing and quite forgot to eat and drink until they actually died without noticing it. From them in due course sprang the race of cicadas, to which the Muses have granted the boon of needing no sustenance right from their birth, but of singing from the very first, without food or drink, until the day of their death, after which they go and report to the Muses how they severally are paid honour among mankind and by whom….”

So, while this myth tells of a hybrid lineage from people to cicadas, it is more than just fantasy and comes from close attention to the natural world. Still, there is a myth within the myth. While it is true that some insects don’t need food in their adult lives (some moths for example), cicada adults can eat. They suck sap.

Only this empty husk, a cicada moult, is able to cling on to the tree without needing sustenance.

Knights Bush, New Zealand


Functional myths like the cicada myth are explored in David Abram’s book The Spell of the Sensuous (1996).