Variations: Formica maior, Formica aurum
Herodotus originally placed the Gold-digging Ants in the sandy deserts in the land of the Dards, in India, within the Persian Empire. Some later sources, such as the Ortus Sanitatis, move them to Ethiopia. Their story is the same regardless of location.
Gold-digging ants are smaller than dogs, but larger than foxes. Pliny specifies that they are as large as an Ethiopian wolf, and the color of a cat. Skins of those ants brought before Alexander the Great were like panther skins. In the Ortus Sanitatis, the gold-digging ant is given a form unlike any ant – indeed, unlike any living animal, with a rounded, bird-like head and four legs with long talons. These ants are exceedingly fast, strong, and dangerous.
Most importantly, gold-digging ants excavate their nests in an area rich with gold dust. The sand they bring to the surface is full of the precious metal, making them an attractive target for treasure seekers, but they also fiercely defend their gold from anyone who would dare take it.
To steal the ants’ gold, camel caravans approach the nests on hot summer mornings, when the ants are safely underground. Gold sand can be quickly scooped up into bags, but the ants soon catch the scent of the intruders and hurry to the surface. Without a head start for the camels, the ants would easily catch up and dismember them.
Whatever the nature of the gold-digging ants, it is agreed that they definitely weren’t ants, and most likely were some sort of mammal. Suggestions include the hyena, whose Persian name resembled the Greek name for the ant; and the Siberian fox, whose digging and ferocity parallel those of the ant. The most compelling argument is elaborated by Peissel, who identifies the “ants” as Himalayan marmots whose tireless digging would have brought gold to the surface. Herodotus’ usage of murmex for ant may have muddled the distinction between ant and marmot.
Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.
Herodotus, Macaulay, G. C. trans. (1890) The History of Herodotus, translated into English. Macmillan and Company, London.
Peissel, M. (1984) The Ants’ Gold. Harvill Press, London.
Pliny; Bostock, J. and Riley, H. T. trans. (1857) The Natural History of Pliny, v. III. Henry G. Bohn, London.
de Xivrey, J. B. (1836) Traditions Tératologiques. L’Imprimerie Royale, Paris.