Description Gallery Bibliography Manuscripts Jump to Home page Help Jump to Contents page Jump to Beast Index page Search Previous beast Next beast

Source: Kongelige Bibliotek (Bestiarius - Bestiary of Anne Walsh (Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º)) Copyright 2003 Kongelige Bibliotek / Used by permission Manuscript description Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 29v



Latin name: Formica

Other names: Formi, Furmi

Ants harvest grain to store for the winter


General Attributes

Ants are said to have these characteristics: they walk in order like soldiers; they carry grains in their mouths, and an ant with no grain will not try to take the grain from one which has it; they break each grain in half to keep it from germinating when it rains, because if it does the ants will starve in the winter; when it is time to harvest the grain, they go into the fields and climb up to the grain, where they distinguish wheat from barley by its smell and reject the barley because it is food for cattle.

Some Physiologus versions and other texts tell of the gold-digging ants of Ethiopia, which are the size of dogs. These ants dig up gold from sand with their feet and guard it, chasing down and killing any who try to steal it. It is said that people safely steal the ant's gold by separating mares from their foals, with a river between them. The mares, carrying packs, are driven to the side of the river inhabited by the ants; the ants, seeing the packs as a good place to hide their gold, fill them with the golden sand. When the mares swim back to their foals on the other side of the river, the ants cannot follow.

Herodotus tells a similar story, but places the gold-digging ants in India (see below).


The ants working together for the common good is to be taken as a lesson to men, who should work in unity.

The splitting of the grain represents the separation that must be made in the interpretation of the Bible, distinguishing the literal from the spiritual meaning, "lest the law interpreted literally should kill you". Some sources compare the ants to the Jews, who have taken the law literally and have "died of hunger".

The barley the ants reject signifies the heresy that Christians are to cast away.

Sources (chronological order)

Herodotus [5th century BCE] (History, book 3): Besides these, there are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Caspatyrus, and the country of Pactyica; these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Bactrians. They are more warlike than any of the other tribes, and from them the men are sent forth who go to procure the gold. For it is in this part of India that the sandy desert lies. Here, in this desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. Those ants make their dwellings under ground, and like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand-heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold. The Indians, when they go into the desert to collect this sand, take three camels and harness them together, a female in the middle and a male on either side, in a leading-rein. The rider sits on the female, and they are particular to choose for the purpose one that has but just dropped her young; for their female camels can run as fast as horses, while they bear burthens very much better. When the Indians therefore have thus equipped themselves they set off in quest of the gold, calculating the time so that they may be engaged in seizing it during the most sultry part of the day, when the ants hide themselves to escape the heat. ... When the Indians reach the place where the gold is, they fill their bags with the sand, and ride away at their best speed: the ants, however, scenting them, as the Persians say, rush forth in pursuit. Now these animals are, they declare, so swift, that there is nothing in the world like them: if it were not, therefore, that the Indians get a start while the ants are mustering, not a single gold-gatherer could escape. During the flight the male camels, which are not so fleet as the females, grow tired, and begin to drag, first one, and then the other; but the females recollect the young which they have left behind, and never give way or flag. Such, according to the Persians, is the manner in which the Indians get the greater part of their gold; some is dug out of the earth, but of this the supply is more scanty.

Strabo [c. 63 BCE - 24 CE] (Geographica, Book XV, chapter I, section 44): Nearchus ... says that he saw skins of the myrmeces (or ants), which dig up gold, as large as the skins of leopards. Megasthenes, however, speaking of the myrmeces, says, among the Derdæ a populous nation of the Indians, living towards the east, and among the mountains, there was a mountain plain of about 3000 stadia in circumference; that below this plain were mines containing gold, which the myrmeces, in size not less than foxes, dig up. They are excessively fleet, and subsist on what they catch. In winter they dig holes, and pile up the earth in heaps, like moles, at the mouths of the openings. The gold-dust which they obtain requires little preparation by fire. The neighbouring people go after it by stealth, with beasts of burden; for if it is done openly, the myrmeces fight furiously, pursuing those that run away, and if they seize them, kill them and the beasts. In order to prevent discovery, they place in various parts pieces of the flesh of wild beasts, and when the myrmeces are dispersed in various directions, they take away the gold-dust, and, not being acquainted with the mode of smelting it, dispose of it in its rude state at any price to merchants. (The History of Herodotus (London, 1858/1997) Rawlinson translation)

Dio Chrysostom [c. 40 - 120 CE] (Oratio 35): The heaps which the ants throw up consist of gold the purest and brightest in all the world. They are in regular order like hillocks of gold-dust, 'whereby all the plain is made effulgent. It is difficult therefore to look towards the sun, and many who have attempted to do this have thereby lost their eyesight'. Those who go to plunder the heaps cross the intervening desert on wagons, to which they have yoked their swiftest horses. The ants on discovering them pursue and fight them until they conquer or die, for of all animals they are the most courageous. It appears that they understand the worth of gold and will sacrifice their lives rather than part with it. (from An Account of the Mermecoleon or Ant-lion (1923) Druce)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 11, 36): Ants are strong creatures, able to carry immense loads proportional to their size; they carry smaller loads with their mouths and push larger loads with their shoulders. They share their labor, have a system of government, and possess memory and diligence. They bite the seeds they gather before they store them, to keep them from sprouting; they split larger seeds to fit them in; if seeds become wet from rain they bring them out to dry. They work constantly, even at night if there is a full moon; their travels form paths and wear down rocks. Ants are the only creatures besides man to bury their dead. In the Dardae region of Indian are ants colored like cats but the size of Egyptian wolves, that carry gold out of caves in the earth. This gold, which is dug out in the winter, the Indians steal in the summer when the ants stay in their burrows because of the heat; but even then the the ants are ferocious in defence of their gold, flying out and stinging the men even as they retreat on fast camels.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 3:9): The ant has its name (formica) because it carries bits (ferat micas) of grain. It prepares in the summer the food it will need in the winter; at harvest time it picks wheat but not barley. If rain wets its grain it puts it out to dry. It is said that in Ethiopia there are ants shaped like dogs which dig up grains of gold with their feet; they guard this gold so no one can steal it.

British Library Cotton Tiberius B. v [c. 10th - 12th century CE] (Marvels of the East): The text says that they are as big as dogs, are red and black, and have feet like locusts. The gold-seekers bring both male and female camels and load the gold upon the females. These then hasten back to their young foals, but the males left behind are discovered by the ants and devoured. And while they are busy with them the females get back across the river with the men, for 'they are so swift that you might think they were flying'. (from An Account of the Mermecoleon or Ant-lion (1923) Druce)

Guillaume le Clerc [13th century CE] (Bestiaire): There is another kind of ant up in Ethiopia, which is of the shape and size of dogs. They have strange habits, for they scratch into the ground and extract therefrom great quantities of fine gold. If any one wishes to take this gold from them, he soon repents of his undertaking; for the ants run upon him, and if they catch him they devour him instantly. The people who live near them know that they are fierce and savage, and that they possess a great quantity of gold, and so they have invented a cunning trick. They take mares which have unweaned foals, and give them no food for three days. On the fourth the mares are saddled, and to the saddles are fastened boxes that shine like gold. Between these people and the ants flows a very swift river. The famished mares are driven across this river, while the foals are kept on the hither side. On the other side of the river the grass is rich and thick. Here the mares graze, and the ants seeing the shining boxes think they have found a good place to hide their gold, and so all day long they fill and load the boxes with their precious gold, till night comes on and the mares have eaten their fill. When they hear the neighing of their foals they hasten to return to the other side of the river. There their masters take the gold from the boxes and become rich and powerful, but the ants grieve over their loss. (Bestiaries and Lapidaries (London, 1896) Kuhns translation)

Sir John Mandevile [14th century CE) (Travels, chapter 33): In the isle also of this Taprobane [Sri Lanka] be great hills of gold, that pismires [ants] keep full diligently. And they fine the pured gold, and cast away the un-pured. And these pismires be great as hounds, so that no man dare come to those hills for the pismires would assail them and devour them anon. So that no man may get of that gold, but by great sleight. And therefore when it is great heat, the pismires rest them in the earth, from prime of the day into noon. And then the folk of the country take camels, dromedaries, and horses and other beasts, and go thither, and charge them in all haste that they may; and after that, they flee away in all haste that the beasts may go, or the pismires come out of the earth. And in other times, when it is not so hot, and that the pismires ne rest them not in the earth, then they get gold by this subtlety. They take mares that have young colts or foals, and lay upon the mares void vessels made there-for; and they be all open above, and hanging low to the earth. And then they send forth those mares for to pasture about those hills, and with-hold the foals with them at home. And when the pismires see those vessels, they leap in anon: and they have this kind that they let nothing be empty among them, but anon they fill it, be it what manner of thing that it be; and so they fill those vessels with gold. And when that the folk suppose that the vessels be full, they put forth anon the young foals, and make them to neigh after their dams. And then anon the mares return towards their foals with their charges of gold. And then men discharges them, and get gold enough by this subtlety. For the pismires will suffer beasts to go and pasture amongst them, but no man in no wise. (The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1900) Macmillan edition of 1900)


The bestiary illustrations of ants are almost always poor, showing merely a series of dots or bean-shaped objects with legs.

Description Gallery Bibliography Manuscripts Jump to Home page Help Jump to Contents page Jump to Beast Index page Search Previous beast Next beast