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Melancholy and Myrmecology

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Morton Overwham
1116290.  Tue Feb 03, 2015 6:48 pm Reply with quote

Robert Burton wrote the first textbook on depression in the 17th century, The Anatomy of Melancholy, a huge work revised obsessively over many years. 'There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than business', the book argues. Rumour has it that Burton used astrology to predict the date of his own death. When that day arrived he hanged himself, to prove a point.

The word melancholy itself derives ultimately from the Greek for 'black bile', which, along with blood, phlegm and yellow bile, made up the four 'humours' recognised in primitive medicine. Certain psychiatric conditions were understood to be due to imbalances in these humours, and there is an interesting modern parallel in the use of SSRIs to treat depression, an organic cause still being blamed for mood disorders.

This concept of the melancholic personality was a familiar character trait in popular culture, used more often than not to comic effect. Perhaps the most famous example of this was used by Shakespeare in As You Like It in the character of Jaques, who 'do love it better than laughing'. With Jaques it is a self-conscious pose, suggesting melancholia was often adopted by the rich and idle, to make themselves appear more interesting.

Melancholy is linked etymologically with the name Melanie. Originating from the Greek for 'black', it is therefore factually inaccurate to name a blonde child Melanie. This is a cause pedants have yet to champion.

In a similar vein, black-headed Tapinoma melanocephalum is a species of ant, commonly known as the ghost ant. Its scientific name comes not from the fact that its head colouring is particularly unusual in itself but from the fact that the rest of its body is mostly colourless. According to Wikipedia its diet 'consists mainly of sweets.'

For thousands of years ants have been seen as the model of an ideal society in which life is organised efficiently and all have their role to play and one which humans should emulate. 'Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise,' said Solomon.

In Greek mythology the Myrmidons, a brave and disciplined race of warriors, were created by Zeus from ants, bringing the best qualities of the ants into the human sphere. 'Myrmidon' of course comes from the Greek word for ant, murmex.

This reputation of ants is justified. So perfectly arranged is their society that they are credited as being a 'superorganism', large numbers of individuals operating as one mind. Ants are highly adaptable, and have colonised most of the world, with the exception of Antarctica (practical-minded ants having no inclination towards puns). Whether all this busyness helps them stave off melancholy is not known.


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