Butterflies and moths in myths and legends
Text Steve Woodhall Photographs Steve Woodhall and others
A little-known field, but butterflies have a long history in ancient art.
Africa, like many continents colonised by Europeans in the past 300-400 years, has a reputation for being a rich source of superstition, ignorance, and illogical beliefs. In researching this article, I found that Europe (and by extension, the Americas) and Asia are richer in butterfly and moth superstitions than Africa appears to be. They are well represented in art and literature, but there are few documented articles on where or why the interest originated.
But first a caveat. I could only find two peer reviewed articles on this subject. One was on the internet: ‘Cultural significance of Lepidoptera in sub-Saharan Africa’, by Arnold van Huis, in Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (2019) 15:26. It deals mostly with central, northern, and west Africa. There were a few references from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, so I’ll concentrate on those. The other was ‘Cockburn, J. J., Khumalo-Seegelken, B., & Villet, M. H. (2014). IziNambuzane: IsiZulu names for insects. South African Journal of Science, 110(9/10), 13.
I have many friends of all races in South Africa, and my polite enquiries turned up very little – what I did find, I’ll cover below. This type of article has the potential to inflame passions, so right up front I’ll say that ultimately, it’s mostly hearsay, and I will not name my sources apart from the two learned articles I found. If anyone feels strongly that I’ve insulted their beliefs, or got something plain wrong, please tell me privately rather than flaming me or this Journal on social media. Clearly, little has been published officially in this field (and I won’t be doing anything ‘official’ other than this) but where there is such a lack of knowledge on a subject, there’s an opportunity for a bona fide researcher to find out more and publish it.
Although they featured in ancient Egyptian funerary art, butterflies appear to have had no obvious religious significance. There is no God in the Egyptian pantheon associated with a butterfly, and experts believe that they are depicted because of their visible beauty. It is also possible that they had a positive image because they would have emerged after the Nile had flooded and used similar host plants to the ones they use here. The floods were central to Egyptian life before the Aswan Dam was built, and the transition from dry, dusty desert conditions to green, moist beauty would have been stark. Anything that helps people remember good times is likely to be used in art.
© Wikimedia commons – British Museum. Butterflies have been depicted in ancient art around several cultures, including Egypt, which of course is in Africa. This recognisable Tawny Plain Tiger Danaus chrysippus dorippus (a different subspecies to our local African Plain Tiger Danaus chrysippus orientis that is predominant in north-east Africa) is from the tomb chapel of Nebamun, an accountant at Karnak, who died in around 1350 BCE nearly 3500 years ago.
Tawny Plain Tiger Danaus chrysippus dorippus is typical of the forms of Plain Tiger found from Kenya to the Middle East and is to this day found in the green swampy areas around the Nile.
© Wikimedia commons – Metropolitan Museum of Art – Rogers Fund, 1915. This silver, carnelian and faience amulet is about 500 years older than the Nebamun painting and comes from an excavation of the Tomb of Senwosret. Its colours are, however, extremely reminiscent of the Tawny Plain Tiger Danaus chrysippus dorippus.
What are the myths and legends?
Souls of dead people
This is a common belief across the world; the Greek word for ‘soul’ and ‘butterfly’ is ‘Psyche’ and indeed, that name is used for a whole family of moths – the Bagworms – more on these later – and in India the Pierid genus Leptosia is known as ‘Psyches’. Our local Leptosia alcesta is known more prosaically in English as ‘African Wood White’, probably because it resembles a similar, but only distantly related, white British butterfly. Its Afrikaans common name, Fladderpapiertjie, is far more descriptive! The belief in butterflies representing departed souls appears to be more widespread in Eurasia than Africa although in Senegal and Chad, a butterfly entering one’s house is assumed to be a visiting ancestral spirit and must not be harmed.
In Africa, ancestors are revered or worshipped, and the disembodied spirits of people are said to be incarnated in, for example, birds, snakes, lions, bees (superstitions about those abound but are outside the scope of this article) and, of course, butterflies and moths. Many people see a white or brightly coloured lepidopteran as a sign of good fortune. However, in Cameroon, Madagascar, and Kenya, certain groups of people see visiting black butterflies and moths as ill omens bringing death or illness.
One large moth species that South Africans living in the warm wet north-east may be familiar with, is Erebus walkeri, Walker’s Owl. It’s huge – as much as 100mm across – and fond of hiding in dark places during daylight hours. Many Madagascans are terrified of this moth, which they name ‘‘lolo-paty’, meaning ‘spirit of the death’. The ablution block at Harold Johnson is very attractive to them, which is where one of these photos was taken. They are also common in the Upper Highway area – I often see them in my garden hiding behind creepers. I can very much understand them giving people a ‘skrik’ when they are disturbed and come lumbering out of the darkness!
Harbingers of rain
This is a myth that could very well be rooted in reality. Those who read my article in the last ‘Leopard’s Echo’ may remember these words, which were firmly rooted in modern science: ‘(Painted Ladies) follow the rainfall patterns that result in a ‘movable feast’ of large amounts of available larval food. High rainfall in savanna areas like the Sahel cause a peak in host plant availability that leads to mass emergences of millions of individuals’… the cause and effect seem to be reversed here, but perhaps in some areas they arrive with the rains just in time to take advantage of a sudden rain-derived flush of new growth.
The genus Spodoptera (Noctuidae: Xyleninae) has many similarly marked pest species like the African Armyworm S.exempta and the American Fall Armyworm S.frugiperda, which has recently invaded SA. Depicted here is the very similar Lawn Worm, S.triturata. Larval photo kindly supplied by the industrious caterpillar lady, Sun Bradley of LepSoc Africa’s Caterpillar Rearing Group. The adult I photographed in Zululand. They probably also migrate following rain patterns like the Painted Lady does, but being nocturnal are less often seen.
In large areas of Africa, Spodoptera Armyworms are the subjects of many myths and legends. The adults lay eggs on newly germinated wild plants and complete their life histories quickly. When crops are sown the moths lay on them and the larvae can cause a lot of damage and even require re-planting, and the second crop will be more fruitful than normal. Surviving plants are said in Tanzania and Kenya to bear more heavily than they would without the actions of the larvae. In Zanzibar this was given as a reason NOT to spray insecticides (sound familiar?) and closer to home in Zimbabwe, they are viewed as a punishment by the ancestors for reasons not given – and in the article I found an unreferenced quote from (presumably) the Zimbabwe Sunday Mail on 29 January 1995 of Shona spirit mediums advising NOT to spray insecticides. This is regarded as an insult to the ancestors and a violation of the laws of the land, which could lead to disaster. Rituals are performed ‘involving the brewing of millet beer and dancing’ to atone for the infraction.
‘Both in the insecticide-sprayed crops and in the ritual-treated crops the pest disappeared. However, it happened that the insecticide-treated crops were invaded again, and the people took this as a sign that they had violated the law of the country’.
There must be several moral lessons there!
Beliefs surrounding adult lepidoptera
As we know nowadays, lepidoptera are holometabolous, which means they have a complete metamorphosis, which includes four life stages – egg, larva (over several growth moults), pupa and adult.
van Huis’ study found that this is not known in many areas. For example, in Tanzania and Zanzibar Spodoptera Armyworm larvae are believed to fall from the sky with the rains. This is very logical since the dull grey, nocturnal, camouflaged moths arrive just as the rains start, lay eggs, and voilá! Caterpillars everywhere. You can’t blame people for not making the connection. There are many reports of beliefs about adult lepidopterans that don’t give any significance to metamorphosis. Dr Americo Bonkewitzz, an Argentinian lepidopterist who runs a butterfly house in Eshowe, confirms that ‘Zulu people do not relate caterpillars with butterflies. They think they are two different animals. And I noticed that during the school group visits. They get surprised to know that a caterpillar eventually will turn into a butterfly.’
The African Leopard Phalanta phalantha aethiopica is widespread across most of Africa and into the Middle East. van Huis’ paper refers to a common belief in Muslim countries (such as Senegal) is that the ‘pumping’ action of some butterflies’ wings when at rest represents the physical actions of Muslims praying to Allah. African Leopards are noted for their restless wing pumping and could be the origin of this rather touching belief (as a Liverpool fan I’m familiar with Sadio Mané and Mo Salah’s prayers after scoring a goal).
This is reflected in butterfly common names. In Chad ‘(Kanembou) ‘Kouli malimi’ (insect = kouli; malimi = marabout)’ is used, species not specified. ‘The name is explained by the wings moving up and down, like a Muslim who is praying.’
Of course, many Nymphalids, such as Pansies, also pump their wings – so this would serve to reinforce the belief.
In other areas, such as Zambia, ‘the Ngangala and Chokwe believe that they do so to fan and refresh themselves. However, the Nkoya (or Mashasha) in the same country believe that it is to free themselves of excrements, as they suffer from continuous constipation’… I’m sure many of us can sympathise with that!
van Huis’ paper refers to ‘Lepidopterans’ fluttering flight with chops to the sides is considered to be a sign of madness by the Chokwe and Nkoya in Zambia. Insane or intoxicated persons who walk aimlessly are named butterflies/moths (also mentioned by the Lozi in Zambia).’
Further north (Sudan, Rwanda) ‘naming a person a butterfly or moth means that he/she is a “nasty quarrelling and unreliable person”’.
This male Red-line Sapphire Iolaus sidus is sitting alertly on a hilltop tree spoiling for a fight with any rival male encroaching on his territory. Anyone who has seen Lycaenid males ‘dogfighting’ on a hilltop, furiously chasing one another high into the sky will see the sense in this.
Aggressive territorial behaviour is not limited to hilltops. In my Gillitts garden the males perch on the edge of open patches of woodland, as shown by this Orange-barred Playboy Deudorix diocles.
Charaxes can often be seen rudely muscling each other out of the way to get to a fallen fruit or a juicy scat, but these (Satyr C ethalion, Bushveld C.achaemenes, and Green-veined C. candiope) Charaxes are peacefully sharing the bounty with a tiny Black Pie Tuxentius melaena melaena.
van Huis’ paper refers to other cultures, such as the Ashanti in Ghana, who use in fabrics and pottery visual symbols called ‘Adranka’ that represent concepts or aphorisms. The Adinkra motif termed ‘Fafanto’ or ‘Esono Nantam’ is a butterfly symbol of tenderness, gentleness, honesty, and fragility.
Beliefs surrounding metamorphosis
Many cultures, especially those that utilise wild silk, are very much aware of metamorphosis. van Huis’ paper refers to ‘some countries in West Africa (Liberia, Guinea, the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone), the Bondo initiation is performed; the genital mutilation prepares girls for marriage and motherhood, symbolising the transformation from girls into adulthood. The mask used represents a pupa. The metamorphosis of lepidoptera universally exemplifies transformation and change all over the world and Africa is no different.
Charaxes varanes varanes Pearl Charaxes from fully grown larva to adult and emerging from the chrysalis. This miracle of nature must have been witnessed many times by ancient peoples, but not everyone. Those that have witnessed it might not have understood it as we do today but could have attributed the astonishing change to the actions of a higher power.
The amazing Bagworms
Bagworms are the larvae of Psychid moths that make shelters out of sticks, grass stems, thorns etc and spend the entire larval stage inside these. Most species’ males are the only sex to have wings – the wingless. legless females look like worms, never emerge from the shelter and can’t readily be told from the larvae.
Bagworms are often seen in the wild in SA, but few people except those like Sun Bradley of the Caterpillar Rearing Group have the patience to rear them to adulthood. This Gymnelema vinctus (no common name!) is in the family Psychidae and was found in a garden bordering Roosfontein Nature reserve in Westville, feeding on Senecio tamoides.
van Huis’ paper refers to beliefs about the larvae being wood collectors, and ‘in Zambia (Chokwe and Ngangala), the local words used for bagworms denote girls undergoing initiation rites at puberty. These girls are kept isolated in especially erected huts covered with grass, like the shelter of (many) bagworm (species). This is also mentioned by the White Fathers in Zambia (Bemba) where the bagworm ‘kantebele’ is used as a charm in the beginning of the cisunga ceremony, which is performed at the appearance of the first menstruation. The same authors mention that the term is also used metaphorically for a dandy (a man who dresses elegantly and fashionably) which is an allusion to the insect covering itself with many pieces of grass’.
Bagworms are also used in medicine and as charms in many countries. According to Jessica Cockburn in ‘iziNambuzane: isiZulu names for insects’, they have their own special name, omahambanendlwane, which is different to the isiphaphalazi or uvemvane names used for butterflies and moths – which seems to depend on what side of the Tugela River you hail from! That name refers to the Bagworm itself and is the only reference to a larva as opposed to an adult that Jessica’s study picked up. Dr Bonkewittzz has recently confirmed that this name is used by Zulu people he knows in Eshowe. This is an interesting point – in South Africa, as in the rest of the continent, these insects have their own unique etymological (and mythological?) tag. He also confirmed that isiPhaphalazi refers to the rapid clapping of the butterflies’ wings. Direct etymological links like that are rare.
The relatively few references in van Huis’ paper to southern African Lepidoptera mention their use in dancing and displays. ‘The Zu/′hoasi are a !Kung-speaking San group living in the western Kalahari on the Namibia-Botswana border. Zu/’hoasi women engage in a caterpillar dance escorting a young woman to the cleansing hut as she approaches menses. She will wait there until her first period is over when the women ritually clean her.’ The women move in an undulating line reminiscent of the way a caterpillar moves.
The adult African Moon Moth, Argema mimosa, is one of the most beautiful and striking local species. They are occasionally found in the Kloof area, but there are stronger colonies in the Shongweni and Umgeni valleys further inland. There, the host plants are more prevalent because they prefer more arid conditions than the cool misty forests, that we live in.
Perhaps the best-known local use of moth cocoons in dance are those of the African Moon Moth. The huge green, well camouflaged larvae feed on Marula Sclerocarya birrea and Paperbark Commiphora leaves, but the cocoons are left exposed when the trees drop their leaves in winter. Which makes it easy for those ‘in the know’ to harvest them and use them to make ankle rattles. To do this, the cocoon is cut open, the pupa removed and replaced with small stones, shell fragments etc. These are sewn in rows onto anklets of goat, antelope, or monkey skin, so they rattle loudly when shaken during dancing. As well as Zulu people, this is done by Sotho, and Venda. Other species of cocoon spinning Saturniidae are used in a similar way by the San people of the Botswana Kalahari.
Which are ‘practical use’ as opposed to myths and legends?
Cocoons as sources of silk
The familiar flightless silkworm moth Bombyx mori is thought to have been first domesticated in China. The fibres are unwound from the cocoons to create the shiny yarn used to weave the well-known diaphanous but strong silken fabric. In Africa, the cocoons of other species are usually used as ‘staple’ fibre – short, chopped fibres being spun into yarn as cotton is. The cocoons of several species of Eggars (Lasiocampidae), Silkmoths (Saturnidae), and Bagnests (Notodontidae) are used in this way.
The formidable, huge larvae of the African Wild Silkmoths (Gonometa spp.) which are actually Eggars (Lasiocampidae) spin cocoons spiked (literally!) with the viciously urticating hairs from their prothorax. Despite this, people have developed techniques for boiling the empty cocoons (often found on Vachellia twigs) with chemicals to neutralise the bristles and chopping them up to provide staple fibre that can be spun to create yarn. Reinier Terblanche photographed the early stages in the arid west of South Africa, and the closely related male Gonometa rufobrunnea by Bernard du Pont of France in Letaba Camp, Kruger National Park.
In the Upper Highway area we find an even bigger and more brightly coloured ‘Wild Silkmoth’ Eggar, the Toothed Cream Spot Catalebeda cuneilinea. The pink tail bristles are a clear warning not to touch! These larvae can more than cover one’s entire palm. They are found on many species of plant including the invasive Black Wattle, Acacia mearnsii, and Climbing Flat-bean Dalbergia obovata.
Anaphe Bagnest caterpillars (Notodontidae) are colloquially known as ‘Processionary caterpillars’ and are known all over tropical and subtropical Africa for marching along in long head-to-tail lines. There is a myth locally – of unknown origin – that if one can guide the leader of such a string so that it follows the tail of the last in line, they will keep going in a circle until they die of starvation. This doesn’t happen because they are being driven by hormones to leave their host plants and travel until they are ready for the final pupal moult when vital internal changes have completed. They then cluster together, and sooner or later, they will start gathering and spinning silk to spin a communal cocoon. The larvae feed on Mitzeerie, Bridelia micrantha, or a range of Tiliaceae in the genera Dombeya or Grewia. The probable purpose of the march is to put some distance between them and the host plant, to lessen the chances of predators finding them en masse on the plant.
Anaphe reticulata Reticulate Bagnest tends to be found further north. Anaphe panda Banded Bagnest is commonly found in the Upper Highway area, as well as up and down the coast. Its communal cocoons can be huge – the one in the photo (supplied by my friend Luelle Watts of Bazley Beach) was approximately 200 x 200 x 100mm. Dozens of adults emerged as well as many parasitoid wasps and flies.
Anaphe reticulata Reticulate Bagnest adult
Anaphe panda Banded Bagnest adult
Anaphe reticulata Reticulate Bagnest adults and those of Anaphe panda Banded Bagnest are very similarly marked. They often come to lights at night. Bagnest cocoons find many uses in Africa. According to van Huis’ paper, the Yoruba in Nigeria ‘(process) the cocoon into silk yarn and woven into special cloth called ‘sanyan’ or ‘aso oke’. These cloths are worn during special ceremonies such as funerals. Only rich people can afford them.
The Baksossie in Cameroon use the cocoons as childrens’ purses, and the adults use them to conserve gunpowder when hunting. So far, I can find no references such uses in South Africa, where the caterpillars are seen to be covered in irritating hairs, which may put people off trying to eat them.
Edible larvae – some well-known, some surprising!
Yes, it’s those Anaphe Bagnest larvae again. Here’s a close-up showing those irritating hairs.
Banded and Reticulate Bagnest larvae are found all over tropical and subtropical Africa. They are eaten in Cameroon, Nigeria and have been farmed for their silk as well as a food source. The irritating hairs are ‘burned off by flames, and cooked fresh, fried or powdered for storage’. They are valued for their high fat content.
In southern Africa, the larvae of several species of Saturnid moths are relished as food. The best-known is the so-called ‘Mopane Worm’, Gonimbrasia belina. Shown here is G. tyrrhea, the related Zigzag Emperor, which seems to be commoner in the Upper Highway area, but my Zulu colleagues tell me is also ‘nyam nyam’.
Nudaurelia wahlbergi, Wahlberg’s Emperor, is one of the commonest Emperor Moths in our area and its larvae use a vast range of host plants including exotics like Mango. The larva doesn’t look very appetizing, but I am assured that when starved to empty the gut contents, dried and cooked, it’s just as good as a Mopane Worm.
van Huis refers to many other caterpillar species – more than 100 – being used as food across Africa. Many are Saturniidae (Emperors etc) but there are some surprises. The Bagnests are one such; the larvae, being covered in itchy hairs, seems to make them unappetizing to some people who don’t know how to prepare them. The really weird one mentioned by van Huis is, ‘Taboos involved. For example, in the Ntomba tribe (Democratic Republic of Congo), the eating of certain caterpillars, probably Acraea sp. (Nymphalidae), are not allowed to be eaten by twins’!
Acraea larvae are reportedly full of cyanogenic toxins, so one wouldn’t expect any to be used as human food. However, Cuckoos find them irresistible, and I often get up to five species of Cuckoo cleaning out all the gregarious Acraea or Telchinia larvae in my garden. So maybe they know something we don’t know.
I’m reluctant to assign medical use to mythology, because far too often, ‘folk remedies’ have been found to be grounded in fact, like the development of Aspirin from the salicylic acid in willow bark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, van Huis refers again to Anaphe Bagnest moths in medicinal use… ‘The very large cocoon of A. panda is burned, and the fumes cure severe headaches (Uganda: Ganda, Nyoro)’.
Bagworms are also used: I’m going to quote van Huis directly here because there are so many references. ‘(As) medicine and in witchcraft (Cameroon: Bamileke, Bani-Pahuin, Beti-Eton; Uganda: Ganda, Zambia: Bemba, Tonga). In Madagascar, it was mentioned as medicine against nocturnal enuresis in children. Similarly, for the Gbaya in the DRC, explaining the name given to this insect ‘pisseusse’ (DRC is Francophone – use your imagination!) Other ailments that can be cured by the Bagworm are tonsil problems (Zambia: Bemba), iodine deficiency (Zambia) and ear trouble (Zimbabwe: Shona). In Zambia the Nkoya and Mbunda use Bagworms for a number of health problems: hiccups, coughing, nose bleeding, haemorrhage (mouth; menstrual) and at childbirth, when the afterbirth is late. He also mentions that Nkoya women in Zambia smear the belly with Bagworms’ ashes during difficult deliveries, remedies also used by doctors.
Some adult butterflies (specifically seven species, sadly unnamed) are reported to be used in Togo, soaked in water with herbs, as a wash to facilitate child delivery.
To sum up, there is very little literature to be easily found on lepidoptera in African myths and folklore. And from southern Africa, less is to be found than in West, Central, East and North Africa. My friend Dr Jessica Cockburn, who has been steeped in butterfly lore by her father Kevin since babyhood, is perhaps the only person in SA to take on isiZulu insect nomenclature, and she covered all insect orders, not just Lepidoptera – so time and space prevented a more in-depth study. She didn’t pick up too much on butterflies and moths, other than the fact that they generally go by only two different names, divided by the Tugela Valley. Lepidoptera are silent, unlike birds, so there’s no rich tradition of onomatopoeic isiZulu names for them. They aren’t notably dangerous, like snakes, or totemic like mammal megafauna.
I must admit I wasn’t able to do much in-depth research so I relied on Google, which is, despite its owners’ claims, not omniscient! I’d like to thank the people who came to my aid here. I also suspect that there are more little-known traditions to be teased out and this article is going to pique someone’s curiosity about this. To repeat what I said at the outset, there are opportunities for research here.
Note: I had a lot of help from a various of people on this…
Kevin and Stella Cockburn and their daughter Dr Jessica Cockburn
Suncana Bradley and Hermann Staude of LepSoc Africa’s Caterpillar Rearing Group
Dr Americo Bonkewitzz of the Eshowe Butterfly House
Steve Woodhall is a butterfly enthusiast and photographer who began watching and collecting butterflies at an early age. He was President of the Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa for eight years, and has contributed to and authored several books, including Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa and Gardening for Butterflies. His app, Woodhall’s Butterflies of South Africa, is described as the definitive butterfly ID guide for South Africa.