If you watched the vice-presidential debate you couldn’t help notice that rather brave fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head at what seems to be a very critical moment in the debate. Pence was on the defensive when Kamala Harris criticized President Trump for refusing to directly condemn white supremacy. Pence, with the characteristic composure of a cadaver or a zombie (depending on your perspective), began by attacking the liberal media and noting that Trump has Jewish grandchildren. He added, “This is a president who respects and cherishes all of the American people.” Viewers at home gagged at this ridiculous statement; but it was precisely at this moment that a housefly, which had been buzzing around the studio, had enough of the blatant evasiveness, obfuscation, diversion, deflection, and deception on the part this obsequious sycophant, that it landed on his head to make a bold statement: Mike Pence — Lord of the Flies. The black fly stood out starkly on Pence’s helmet-like snowy white hair and it sat there for an astounding two minutes and nine seconds, while Pence’s head swiveled from side to side in a robotic manner as he spoke. After all, black flies matter! Of course, it didn’t take long for viewers to turn to social media to unleash a torrent of snarky commentary. Viewers wanted to hear from the fly. Republicans feared that the bug was placed by the Democrats. Democrats feared that the fly was feeding Pence the answers. Viewers were concerned that the fly was exposed to coronavirus and needed to quarantine. Trump was furious and wanted the fly deported. And so on…
Since the fly was the most memorable character and moment of the debate, it invites the question: what is the symbolism of the fly? Since I alluded to William Golding’s chilling 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, an enduring staple of high school English literature curriculum, let’s begin our discussion there. The title is extremely critical to the meaning of the novel. “Lord of the Flies” of course, is what one of the characters (Simon, the shy, sensitive boy, who represents goodness) names the severed pig head that is impaled on a stake by Jake (who represents savagery and evil). It is a memorable scene in the novel: a pig head, oozing in blood, surrounded by a cloud of buzzing flies, feasting on the pig’s flesh and blood. Thus, the flies symbolize death and decay. By coupling this term with “lord” that conveys unbridled power, Golding is creating a compelling and prescient metaphor: power and corruption lead to decay and death. A perfect metaphor for the Trump administration, wouldn’t you say? But further, Golding is keenly aware that “Lord of Flies” is a literal translation of the Hebrew word Beelzebub (or Beelzebul), found in the Old Testament (Books of Kings; 2 Kings 1:2–3,6). In the Old Testament, Beelzebub is a demonic deity worshipped by the Philistines. This paints quite a distasteful picture: a Philistine deity is that is the lord of flies — disgusting pests that feast on excrement. Moreover, in the noncanonical Testament of Solomon, ascribed to King Solomon, Beezlebul is synonymous with Lucifer (meaning “morning star”; shining one, light bearer”). Solomon describes Beelzebul as the prince of demons, a former heavenly angel gone rogue. Beezlebul’s goal is to encourage worship of demons, empower tyrants, incite wars, and instigate murder and mayhem throughout the world. Thus, “lord of the flies” is synonymous with “lord of demons.”
More generally, the fly is a symbol of evil and pestilence. In the landmark work A Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier writes: “Their ceaseless buzzing, whirling around and stinging make flies unbearable. They breed from corruption and decay, carry the germs of the foulest diseases and breach all defenses against them.” In the Dictionary of Symbolism, Hans Biedermann notes: “Flies of all species are creatures with negative symbolic associations… In ancient Persian mythology the enemy of light, Ahriman, slips into the world in the form of a fly.” Biedermann adds that in several cultures, swarms of flies represent satanic beings or demonic powers.
In A Dictionary of Literary Symbols, Micheal Ferber describes the symbolism of the flies in the context of great literature. Ferber points to the plague of flies that Moses unleashes on the Egyptians (Exodus 8.21–31). “Flies, not surprisingly, are usually considered unpleasant, disease-ridden, and evil.” He turns to Homer who emphasizes the boldness of the fly (Iliad 17.570–72): “the boldness of the fly / which, even though driven away from a man’s skin, / persists in biting out of relish for human blood.” In literature the fly can also mean anything that is insignificance. Recall the famous line from Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear (Lear 4.136–37): “As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ Gods. / They kill us for their sport.”
The website History of Painters has a fascinating article on the hidden symbolism of insects in western painting: “Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism regarding insects. From the of time of the Roman persecution Christians used signs and symbols to secretly identify each other. The Church commissioned sacred images that acted as moral instruction to illiterate serfs who clamored for spiritual enlightenment of the holy scriptures. The religious images, carvings and stone work served as a constant reminder of the hellish suffering that awaited heretics and sinners if they strayed from Gods word and church law. Byzantine, Gothic, Northern Renaissance and Italian Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical Christian symbolism regarding Insects.” In particular, the fly symbolizes “rot, wasting away, decay, death, and melancholia.” But it gets even more specific, and perhaps more germane to Pence’s fly: “A fly hovering over a church official or nobleman indicates disfavor with the king or corruption and dereliction of duty.” Bingo!
If you enjoyed this essay, you might enjoy my book, Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf, based on my popular blog, Atkins Bookshelf. The blog explores the world of ideas — through books, movies, music, quotations, and the English language — for the intellectually curious. At the heart of Atkins Bookshelf is a lifelong love of books and literature; its goal is to educate, entertain, and inspire.
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