When I saw the beetle pictured below on a mountain bike ride in northern New Mexico this past fall, I knew for certain that there had to be something really interesting in this insect’s history to give it such a profound appearance.
The insect is called Megetra, and it is a member of the blister beetle family, a group of beetles that emit a toxic substance when handled. That’s the reason for the bright coloring. The toxin benefits the insect, but not at all if the creatures that would eat it aren’t warned beforehand. Better to be a glaring red stoplight if you are toxic, then blend in and get eaten all the same.
The shape, the huge bulbous body, is completely unlike the other members of this beetle’s family (and totally different from beetles with which I am familiar.) Certainly, something drove this insect to this unique shape.
Science is filled with wonderful answers; but for them to exist, someone has to jump down into the weeds and begin looking. As far as my online searching revealed, no one had pursued the amazing girth of this beetle, either that the answer is self-evident to the beetle folks and not worth comment. In any event, I was left with little more than a scientific name.
Science, though, isn’t the only repository of animal histories. People, before science, provided their local wildlife with all sorts of stories to explain the world around them. This singular beetle, for example, is represented in Diné (Navajo) Tradition as didzé yooyéełii, the Pot Carrier.
According to a story published in the Intertribal News, the story of the beetle is this:
Long ago, before the Navajo existed, there was a much smaller world where only two types of people lived, the insects who were the first practitioners of witchcraft and medicine, and nebulous beings that needed to pass from this early small world to become fully formed.
This world was flooded, and all of the people had to flee. In the new world, for the first time, there were human people, and they relied on the pot carrier to carry water from the old small flooded world to the new, larger upper world. The beetle, in her haste to leave the lower world, forgot her pot and had to go back and retrieve it.
For a thing to exist for the Navajo people, it must have a name. By forgetting, the beetle introduced the word ‘forget’ to the Navajo people. Before that time, they were able to remember everything. Now they were able to forget, and with that came all the ramifications of forgetting, both good and bad.
To prevent the beetle from forgetting the pot again, the First Man, Ásté Hastiin, blew on the beetle’s back to glue the pot into place forever more.
All stories, whether they are scientific, mythical, or cultural, provide us with the pieces that, together begin to form the whole of a thing. They illuminate what is otherwise dark, and make real what was before unknown. A name is the beginning, but it is the story that follows that ignites our imagination. Only with the illumination of story does a strange little insect become a heroine, the carrier of the pot that made a new world habitable.