A plague of biblical proportions

It’s a real shame there were no entomologists on hand to advise the scholars tasked with translating the Bible for King James. Admittedly insects don’t feature too often. But even so, it’s still a bit like the Today Programme on Radio 4, whenever someone mentions insects, you just know what follows will be nonsense.

First, there’s that business in Leviticus (11: 21-23) about which animals, that have legs above their feet and which goeth upon all four, it’s OK to eat — namely four-legged locusts, bald locusts, beetles and grasshoppers. Yum. All other four-legged insects, it seems, are unclean.

Then Samson makes a rather dubious bet with the uncircumcised Philistine in-laws at his wedding, offering them 30 bedsheets and 30 changes of clothes if they can solve his riddle: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness”. Whilst he’s under the impression it was honeybees, nesting in the corpse of a lion, it was much more likely to be drone-flies (honeybee-mimicking hoverflies) breeding in the putrescent carrion.

Perhaps the best known insect protagonists in the Bible are the plagues rained down by a wrathful god on the Egyptians, in Exodus. Three of the ten plagues appear to be insects. Locusts crop up in plague number 8. Plague number 4 was of flies. John Obadiah Westwood (1805-1893) reckoned they were ‘musquitoes’.

But here we get to it — plague number 3 says ‘lice’. On exactly what discomfort the lice caused, or how they were got rid of, Exodus remains silent. There is no mention of tea-tree oil, or permethrin, or even vinegar. Frogs, flies and locusts seems to have caused more trouble, and at least the narrative tells us what happened to them. Perhaps the plague of lice was a bit of a dud. The Egyptians had perfectly good nit combs; maybe they weren’t too bothered by them.

Get out the shaving brush now

Not surprisingly, head louse pictures are not very thick on the ground, so we had to scour far and wide to find interesting and varied images for the book. Justine found this reference to the Hortus Sanitatis, ‘The Garden of Health’ printed around 1491.

Grooming 15th century style.

In the end, we didn’t get to use this great image in the book. The picture budget did not stretch far enough. So I’ve taken the liberty of snatching a screen-grab from the University of Aberdeen Library website (you have to click on the ‘printed collections’ tab to see it).

At first, it seems an unlikely implement being used to ferret out the lice — more like a shaving brush than a nit comb. But the text below is very particular, and although I can’t read the Latin, I can make out ‘pedicula’, ‘pediculisunt’ and ‘pediculosi in corpe’. The anatomy (and size) of the lice leave a lot to be desired, too, but I suspect the bored tolerance of the groomer is very true to life.

How to judge a book — by its cover

We have a cover. Darned good it is too. Here it is:

The path to happiness: Buy - Read - Look - Find - Remove - Rejoice. Eat only if really necessary.

And we have a contents list:

We've highlighted the important bit.

And we have an index that goes from Albatross and Alligator, via Brimstone, Stavesacre and Voldemort, to Woodlice. Despite its small size, this is a very thorough book on nits. A very thorough book indeed.