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I was playing some video games, and eventually came face to face against giant bugs. When I realised it's a very common trope which I keep seeing in many games, I jokingly told myself: "Giant bugs. Why did it have to be giant bugs?"

But then I wondered: which fictional work first brought up the concept of giant bugs to begin with?

Granted, giant bugs were a things a long time ago on Earth, but I'm asking for fictional works.

By "giant bugs", I mean the kind that is at least as big as an average healthy human-being, such as the antlions in Half-Life for example.

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  • 7
    Giant anything is pretty damned scary. Except Oreos.
    – Valorum
    Jul 30, 2023 at 20:01
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    Franz Kafka's 1915 story "Die Verwandlung" = "The Metamorphosis" is an obvious one but hardly the earliest.
    – user14111
    Jul 30, 2023 at 21:36
  • 8
    Herodotus mentions ants "which are in size smaller than dogs but larger than foxes", so while quite old (approx 430 BC), smaller than you're looking for.
    – Shawn
    Jul 30, 2023 at 23:19
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    @Clockwork Spiders are known to be larger than foxes? The largest known tarantula is the Goliath birdeater (Theraphosa blondi) considered to be the largest spider by weight and body length (up to 13 cm) and although I find values for a leg span of up to 30 cm, the largest spider in leg span is considered to be the giant huntsman spider (Heteropoda maxima), with a leg span of also 30 cm. Even the smallest fennec fox (Vulpes zerda) is about 34.5 to 39.5 cm in head-to-body length ;) Jul 31, 2023 at 6:14
  • 3
    As opposed to the first appearance in non-fiction?
    – Davislor
    Jul 31, 2023 at 23:03

7 Answers 7

29

Aristophanes’ play Peace, written in 421 BCE (six centuries before The True History), has its protagonist feed a dung beetle until it grows to gigantic size, and then fly on its back to meet the gods. It’s a farce about ending the then-ongoing Peloponnesian War.

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    This is an interesting take, because instead of the typical mutants or aliens, this is just an ordinary bug mysteriously growing to gigantic proportions.
    – Clockwork
    Aug 1, 2023 at 0:58
  • @Clockwork Please don’t insert someone else’s plot summary without attribution.
    – Davislor
    Aug 2, 2023 at 16:51
  • I had also added a Wikipedia link to where the quote came from, although I admit I didn't explicitly mention it came from there. I just wanted to add some form of source, because the answer as is doesn't have any, which means any reader would be forced to check if it's actually true.
    – Clockwork
    Aug 2, 2023 at 17:47
  • 1
    @Clockwork I don’t think your link worked. I added one to the version at MIT’s Classics Archive.
    – Davislor
    Aug 2, 2023 at 18:01
43

True History by Lucian of Samosata (before 200 AD) has giant fleas, gnats, and spiders.

The giant fleas and gnats are mounts of some of the armies in the battle between the Sun and the Moon:

...these Psyllotoxotans ride upon great fleas, of which they have their denomination, for every flea among them is as big as a dozen elephants...

...In the right wing were ranged the Aeroconopes, of which there were also about fifty thousand, all archers riding upon great gnats...

The spiders form a sort of combat engineer corps. They spin a web connecting the Moon to Venus, allowing the forces of the Sun to attack the Moon, and the king of the Moon is forced to surrender.

...there are many spiders in those parts of mighty bigness, every one in quantity exceeding one of the Islands Cyclades: these were appointed to spin a web in the air between the Moon and the Morning Star, which was done in an instant, and made a plain champaign upon which the foot forces were planted...

spiders from True History

Artist: William Strang

Quotes from an edition translated by Frances Hickes, published in 1894, and made available at Project Gutenberg.

25

Another answer might be Herodotus' Histories (~430 BC), which mention gold-digging ants (not the size of humans though), and are:

...and in this desert and sandy tract are produced ants, which are in size smaller than dogs but larger than foxes,...

You can read the full text on WikiSource. See Book III called Thalia, section 102-105.

It should be noted here that Herodotus was not, and is not, considered to be fictitious in general. This part of his Histories is a tale that he acquired from somewhere, not necessarily something seen/experienced first-hand by him, but overall his Histories are considered largely factual. I will leave it to the reader as to whether this is a fictitious bit or not.

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    However I'm not sure this counts as fiction rather than folklore. The question specifies "fictional work".
    – user14111
    Jul 31, 2023 at 3:26
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    Regarding the giant ants I find it quite interesting that there might have been gold-digging animals of that size, however they were not (furry) ants but rather marmots. See the Wikipedia article on Herodotus' Histories under Reliability > On biology: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Histories_(Herodotus)#Reliability Jul 31, 2023 at 6:31
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    @user14111 I agree; Herodotus certainly wrote as if he believed this were true, though like much of these sorts of histories the tale is a "I heard this from my cousin who heard it from a friend who was told by a sailor" sort of thing. As to where folklore ends and fiction starts - that's a difficult one; Herodotus was writing seriously, so perhaps not fiction?
    – bob1
    Jul 31, 2023 at 21:40
  • It’s an important source of literary inspiration. But we don’t normally call all books that contain errors “works of fiction.”
    – Davislor
    Jul 31, 2023 at 23:20
  • 1
    @Davislor I agree, however much of Herodotus is disputed in terms of accuracy and in how much is fiction, whether of the author's intent or not. He does seem to be reliable on his Greek history, but there are whole sections on gods and events that are "said" to have happened. He's certainly the first real attempt at a proper epistemiological history, so on the whole not fiction and I will amend the answer to suit.
    – bob1
    Aug 1, 2023 at 0:11
9

R. E. Raspe's satirical Baron Von Munchausen has several adventures involving large insects, though they aren't major plot points typically. These first of these stories was published in 1785.

In that state of humiliation my daily task was not very hard and laborious, but rather singular and irksome. It was to drive the Sultan's bees every morning to their pasture-grounds, to attend them all the day long, and against night to drive them back to their hives. One evening I missed a bee, and soon observed that two bears had fallen upon her to tear her to pieces for the honey she carried.

Everything in this world is of extraordinary magnitude! a common flea being much larger than one of our sheep.

You can read a modern (1895) edition of The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe, with foreword on R.E. Raspe and The Baron at Project Gutenberg

1

The book of the dead Published before 1000 BC has Khepri.

Khepri was principally depicted as a scarabaeus sacer scarab beetle

A beetle large enough to push the sun across the sky, much as a regular sized dung beetle pushes dung across the grounds.

I don't know if a God that is sometimes a giant beetle large enough to push the sun across the sky and sometimes a man with a beetle head counts as a giant insect. But if it does, then Khepri from the book of the dead is the clear winner in both size and published date.

Note: this does depend on if the Book of the Dead is considered a work of fiction.

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    Still an honourable mention, as it shows that "giant bugs" was a thing long before our time.
    – Clockwork
    Aug 2, 2023 at 18:38
  • 2
    The Book of the Dead is not considered a work of fiction, hence wouldn't be on-topic on this site. It's a work of religious significance like the Bible or the Koran
    – Valorum
    Aug 2, 2023 at 19:03
-1

The earliest giant insects appear to be the overgrown wasps from H. G. Wells' novel "The Food of the Gods" (Pearson's December 1903-June 1904), but those insects were less than man-sized. The following passage is from the novel: "When Colonel Rupert Hick came to measure the thing, he found it was twenty-seven and a half inches across its open wings, and its sting was three inches long. The abdomen was blown clean off from its body, but he estimated the length of the creature from head to sting as eighteen inches - which is very nearly correct. Its compound eyes were the size of penny pieces."

Insects of human scale or larger seem to date from Curt Siodmak's 1926 tale "The Eggs from Lake Tanganyika", which appeared in Amazing Stories.

enter image description here

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    You're off by at least 2300 years for earliest mention of big (but not human sized) insects. They go way back (see my comment on the top level question)
    – Shawn
    Jul 30, 2023 at 23:23
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    Even Wells wrote about human-sized bugs before that, in that the Selenites of The First Men in the Moon are clearly insectoid. Jul 31, 2023 at 10:10
-2

Not the earliest due to the classical examples mentioned in other answers but we see giant wasps (literally brobdingnagian) in Gulliver's Travels (1726).

above twenty wasps, allured by the smell, came flying into the room, humming louder than the drones of as many bagpipes. Some of them seized my cake, and carried it piecemeal away; others flew about my head and face, confounding me with the noise, and putting me in the utmost terror of their stings. However, I had the courage to rise and draw my hanger, and attack them in the air. I dispatched four of them, but the rest got away, and I presently shut my window. These insects were as large as partridges: I took out their stings, found them an inch and a half long, and as sharp as needles.

The narrator in this passage is human sized as there is no 'Alice in Wonderland' style growing or shrinking in Gulliver's encounters with smaller and larger peoples.

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    "least as big as an average healthy human-being". Partridge-sized is too small.
    – Valorum
    Aug 1, 2023 at 6:19

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