OCTOBER
2002

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

10-24-02

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Ghostly Moths Fitting Halloween Creatures


All Hallows Eve is a time when, according to tradition, ghosts of departed people wander the earth. In olden times, even before the first Halloween celebrations, moths were assumed to be ghosts of the dead. In those days of yore, the name used for the insects that we know as moths was psyche. 

The name psyche was borrowed from a beautiful princess in Greek mythology. As the story goes, the princess Psyche fell in love with a fellow named Cupid. This relationship did not meet with the approval of Cupid's mother, Venus. So, for a time, Venus made life miserable for Psyche.

Like all good love stories, this one involving Psyche and Cupid ends happily. Venus apparently felt bad about her treatment of Psyche. Consequently, Venus granted Psyche immortality. So the name of the immortal Psyche was perfect for  moths, since these insects were believed to be the souls of deceased humans.

Psyche has been depicted throughout the ages as a female form with butterfly or moth wings. Tinker Bell in "Peter Pan" is a modern example. Other mythical creatures depicted in a similar way are the fairies that frequent our woods and gardens.

Today, we use the term psyche for the human mind or spirit. Psyche, as defined in this way, is incorporated in the words psychology, psychopath and psychiatrist. All terms that are associated in some way with the human mind!

This early term for moths shows up in the scientific family name Psychidae. This group of moths includes the familiar bagworm moth, the pest that defoliates trees, such as evergreens. Psyche also is used in the name Psychodidae, which includes a group of flies known as the moth flies.

The relationship of moths and the human spirit or soul has provided ample fodder for the pen of poets. A superstitious belief of these times held that the human souls embodied in the moth flew at night, seeking light.  For example, in a poem entitled "Moths," Frank Dempster Sherman begins with the line: "Ghosts of departed winged things." Sherman concludes this poem, which deals with the subject of the moth to the flame, in this way. He warns the moth of the danger of the fire: 

"Quick -- speed across the dusky blue,

Lest, in a sudden breath,

This tawny tiger wake, and you

Endure a second death!"

In "The Moth Song," Ellen M. H. Cortissoz refers to a moth in these terms:

"--Dim as a ghost he flies

through the night mysteries."

The idea of the ghost moth is included in Richard Conniff’s book called "Spineless Wonders." Conniff titles a chapter "Ghosts on Wings." In the book, he relates that people once believed that moths were the souls of the dead flinging themselves against the windows of the living. In the words of a poet: "Twas Annie's soul that beat outside and 'Open! open! open!' cried." Conniff also mentioned a European species of moths that flutter together at dusk, which are called ghost moths. These moths have the genus name Hepialus, which means shivering nightmare.

Certainly, the most memorable of the poetic versions of ghost moths occurs in an appropriately named poem for Halloween called the "Haunted House" by Thomas Hood. It not only includes a ghostly moth, but one with a skull marking on its back -- the so-called Death's head moth!

"The air was thick, and in the upper room

The bat -- or something in its shape -- was winging;

And on the wall, as chilly as a tomb

The death's-head moth was clinging."

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox