The Sun Makes Them Sing
When the warm days of summer arrive in Provence, the air is filled with the song of the cicadas, or cigales in French. They’re the loudest insects on the planet and their “song” has been measured at up to 120 decibels, which is comparable to a motorcycle.
It’s the male cicada who produces that characteristic chirping sound by rapidly contracting a special membrane in his abdomen. This noise, or song for those more poetically inclined, is a mating call. However, Monsieur Cigale can only serenade the ladies when the temperature is about 25°C (77°F) or higher, because at lower temperatures, his noise-making membrane loses its elasticity.
So when all those male cicadas get heated up and start crooning, Provence can get pretty noisy. With so much racket going on during the hottest part of the day, you might wonder how the good Provençal folk are able to enjoy their long midday siestas. Well, according to legend, the cicadas may have been sent to this area just for the purpose of shortening those afternoon naps.
Why the Cicadas Came to Provence
A very long time ago, when such things were normal occurrences, two angels decided to spend their summer holiday in Provence. As they packed their bags, visions of an earthly paradise filled their thoughts. They arrived on a warm afternoon, and much to their surprise, they found empty streets, untended gardens, and buildings in need of repair. What on earth was the matter?
They went to the local church in search of the priest, hoping he could shed some light on this sad state of affairs. When they found him, he was sound asleep, snoring away on a little cot, under an olive tree behind the church.
They gently shook him awake and asked him why the town had fallen into such disrepair. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, the priest replied that Provence had been blessed with so much sunshine, that in the afternoon, it was just too hot to do any work. So everyone took a nap. Their siestas lasted for hours, and when they awoke, it was time for dinner. After that, it was too late to work.
The angels weren’t very happy about this, and hurried back to heaven to tattle on the Provençal folk. God listened attentively, with a slight smile on his lips.
He replied, “Don’t worry, I have a plan. And I’m just about ready to put it into action. I’ve created a little insect called the cicada. It will climb into the trees in summer, and the hotter it gets, the louder it will sing. There’s no way the people of Provence will be able to sleep away the afternoon with all that noise going on.”
God smiled in self-satisfaction as he sent a cloud of cicadas to earth and watched them take their place in the trees. It seemed like the perfect plan.
However, the sun was so hot that the people of Provence still fell asleep after lunch. The sound of the cicada, which was meant to keep them awake, became a soothing lullaby during their siestas. And now, it’s only the visitors to Provence who are disturbed by the cicadas’ song.
There is still a saying in Provence that says, Il ne fait pas bon de travailler quand la cigale chante, or “it’s not good to work when the cicada is singing.”
Instead of being disturbed by the cicada, the people of Provence adopted the noisy critters as their mascot. They are reproduced in ceramic, they decorate regional fabrics, and their likeness can be found on tchotchkes of various sorts in all Provençal markets. They’re regarded as good luck charms, and seem to burrow their way into many a tourist’s suitcase.
You can read even more about Provence in my new book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France.
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