“As luscious as locusts”: Othello and locust-eaters in the early modern world

Hiob Ludolf, Iobi Lvdolfi Dissertatio de locvstis anno praeterito immensa copia in Germania visis, 1694 (Wellcome Images, Public Domain) Folger 250379 (folio)

In Act 1, Scene 3 of Othello, the manipulative Iago urges Roderigo, a wealthy Venetian recently disappointed in love, to join him in a plot to humiliate Othello. Reveling in the destruction he plans to inflict upon Othello’s romance with Desdemona, Iago declares that “The food that to him now is as luscious as locusts shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida.”

It will strike many readers as unusual that Iago describes locusts – large, winged insects of the order Orthoptera – as “luscious.” To the twenty-first-century American or Western European, locusts might conjure up images of crop failures, biblical plagues, and swarms large enough to darken the sky, but their flavor probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

The eating of locusts – or ‘acridophagy’ – has deep roots in Judeo-Christian tradition. In the dietary laws of Leviticus 11, locusts and grasshoppers were numbered among the clean animals fit to be eaten:

“Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.” (Leviticus 11:22)

According to Matthew 3:4, John the Baptist lived upon “locusts and wild honey” during his sojourn in the wilderness. The Greek term ἀκρίδες (‘acridae’ or ‘grasshoppers’) leaves little room for interpretation, but this didn’t stop early modern theologians from devoting a great deal of time and ink to the Baptist’s choice of food. “The word which we render locusts,” wrote the Anglican minister Hezekiah Holland in 1650, “signifies not living creatures, as some have ignorantly conceived, no by no means, but the tops of hearbs and plants.” Others argued that the word described not insects but the sweet fruit of the carob tree, an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean and Middle East (and also the source of ‘locust bean gum’, a present-day thickening agent). Yet another theory held that the ‘locust’ was in fact “a kinde of Crabbe, somewhat like the locusts in shape.”

Thomas Moffett, Insectorum sive minimorum animalium, 1634. Folger STC 17993b

The practice of eating locusts was not universally condemned by Europeans. In 1609, the French navigator Marc Lescarbot described the locust-heavy diet of Ethiopians as “very sweet and wholesom”; later in the century, the English pirate William Dampier reported that he had tried a ‘native’ dish of locusts on his travels in Mexico, “and liked it well enough.” Still, the reaction of most European writers was one of disgust and aversion. Despite the assurances of Leviticus, locusts and grasshoppers were commonly numbered among “vile and contemptible creatures”, unfit for human consumption. When the Flemish writer Nicolas Cleynaerts visited Morocco around 1530, he reported witnessing whole cartloads of edible locusts being sold in street markets daily. “For my own part,” he confessed, “I am so tender-palated that I should rather have one partridge then twenty locusts.”

Hiob Ludolf, Iobi Lvdolfi Dissertatio de locvstis anno praeterito immensa copia in Germania visis, 1694 (Wellcome Images, Public Domain) Folger 250379 (folio)

Early modern European travelers encountered locust-eaters all over the world, from North America to Persia to China to East Africa, and their representations of the practice were rarely positive. The sixteenth-century English chronicler Raphael Holinshed reported that “In Barbarie, Numidia, and sundrie other places of Affrica … are they eaten to this daie powdred in barels, and therefore the people of those parts are called Acridophagi: neuertheles they shorten the life of the eaters by the production at the last of an irkesome and filthie disease.”

Medical writers frequently touted this belief that feeding upon insects could engender disease and drastically shorten lifespan. “The Scab of Ethiopia,” wrote the physician John Browne in 1684, “did arise from their excessive Eating, they commonly feeding upon Locusts, which bred this depraved disposition in them.” The Scottish writer Alexander Ross provided one of the more graphic descriptions of this illness:

A little before their death, their bodies grow scabby and itchy, so that with scratching, bloody matter and ugly lice of divers shapes, with wings, swarm out of their belly first, then from other parts, so that they pine away and die in great pain.

Europeans’ responses to locust-eating was often couched in racialized assumptions about the hygiene of non-European peoples. “It is certain,” Ross concluded of the ‘Ethiopian scab’, “that wild and savage people are most given to them, because of their carelesse uncleanlinesse.” Playwright Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta is described as having “lived upon pickled grasshoppers and sauced mushrooms, and never put on a clean shirt since he was circumcised,” channeling a popular antisemitic stereotype of the depraved appetite of Jews. The Church of England clergyman Lancelot Addison, who spent seven years as a chaplain in Tangiers where he witnessed locusts eaten firsthand, advised his readers “to leave the Moor to this sort of flys, whereof he hath no scarcity.”

It is plausible that, in penning this line from Othello, Shakespeare was self-consciously drawing on the longstanding literary trope of dietary othering which recurs across many genres of early modern writing. Iago’s choice of words suggests that locusts, while unappealing to the European palate, would have been “luscious” to Othello because of his ‘Moorish’ heritage. This suggests that an Elizabethan audience might have been expected to recognize the association between ‘Moors’ and locust-eating.

Johann Paul Hebenstreit, De Locustis, Immenso Agmine Aerem Nostrvm Implentibvs, Et Qvid Portendere Pvtentvr, 1693 (Wellcome Images, public domain)

Today, the locust – as well as its smaller cousin, the grasshopper – continues to be eaten in many parts of the world. Various species of edible cricket can be found on street markets in Thailand, deep-fried and leavened in soy sauce. In parts of Mexico, wild-caught grasshoppers (chapulines) are toasted in salt, garlic and lime juice and served in warm tortillas with guacamole and salsa made from pasilla chiles. While many Americans and Europeans remain reluctant to incorporate whole insects into their diets, cricket protein – in the form of powders, bars, or shakes – has grown in popularity in recent years. And, as the issues of climate change and resource scarcity grow ever more urgent, some are now touting insect-farming as an ethical and sustainable solution to global food insecurity.

Many of us might still feel a shiver of revulsion at the prospect of incorporating winged, antennaed, many-legged insects into our diets. But it’s worth pausing to consider how much of this reaction is learned, rather than innate, and whether that might be on the cusp of changing. Perhaps, a decade from now, the phrase “as luscious as locusts” will have taken on a whole new meaning.

One Comment

  • While the background information provided by the writer is interesting, and while the writer does touch upon the reason why the insect is mentioned in Othello, the correct interpretation is not identified. Once again, there is a subtext having to do with the religious controversies of the day.

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