Ghostly Moths Fitting Halloween
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
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
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."