The Much-Maligned Moth by Keeping it Wild Trainee Omar

Jersey tiger moth credit Vaughn Matthews

When talking to people about the different creatures they come across in London, you will understandably get different reactions. Some animals such as songbirds and deer are universally loved, some like foxes and parakeets induce conflicting responses and a small minority are overlooked at best and unfairly maligned at worst. One in that minority happens to be the marvellous moth.

Belittled as the butterfly’s drab cousin, moths rarely receive the same sort of positive attention that London’s more charismatic creatures do. So they are often relegated towards the bottom of the pile by those who take any interest, passing or passionate, in the capital’s wildlife. Although this is a common attitude here in Britain, in many cultures around the world moths have played an important and even positive role in local beliefs.

An example of this is in history is the with the communities that settled in and around the Appalachian Mountains in North American: The Appalachians believed that white moths were the spirits of their ancestors and therefore respected them. A similar belief is held in modern China where moths, including the owlet moth with its huge eyespots, often start emerging in spring at the same time that the Qingming Festival or “Tomb-Sweeping Day” takes place. It is taboo to harm or even bother a moth during this time as they are seen as a physical manifestation of an ancestor’s souls.

In the Bahamas, black witch moths are called “money bats” (bats being a catch-all term for any flying animal that isn’t a bird) with the belief that if a moth alighted on someone then that individual would experience monetary success. In the folklore of the Native American Blackfoot tribe, moths and butterflies were believed to transport dreams so mothers would often embroider the insects on strips of animal skin and tie it into their baby’s hair, so that good sleep may come to their children.

In Java, Indonesia, the cocoons of the cricula silkmoth were considered so beautiful they were turned into jewellery and the Kanembu people of Chad call moths and butterflies “kouli malimi” meaning “marabout insect” as the flapping of their wings resemble the movements of the Muslim marabouts as they repeatedly bow and stand or kneel and prostrate whilst praying.

Cinnabar moth larvae

Cinnabar moth larvae - Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Knowing that moths are not just appreciated but revered in other cultures show that the disinterest, dislike and even fear of them that many Londoners have is not an innate human trait but something that is learned so it makes sense to ponder how our own historical beliefs have shaped the way we view moths today. British folklore frequently portrayed the moth as a negative being. As most moths are nocturnal they became connected to darkness and the supernatural. In 19th century Cornwall, it was believed that when moths (locally called “pigsies”, modern pixies) formed a swarm it was an omen of death. It was also believed that if a child died unbaptised it would become a “restless pigsie”. Similarly, in Northern England, the ghost moth earned its name because locals believed they were the tiny white souls of those who had died. Scottish writer William Sharp under the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod often utilised moths in his poems, describing white moths as an animal that “loves death” and in Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy” the reader is urged not to give in to “the death moth” which in the poem represents depression and a longing for your own passing.

Certain groups of moths have suffered especially specific accusations of dark-doings, none more-so than the Death’s-head Hawk-moth whose name describes the markings on its back which vaguely resemble a human skull. Although not common in Britain, it has many strange implications surrounding it in British folklore. George III also referred to as the “Mad King” had a psychotic episode triggered by the presence of two Death’s-head Hawk-moths in his bedroom, so fearful was their image. 18th century English entomologist Moses Harris wrote that the moth was the “device of evil spirits” and in Gothic horror novel “Dracula” the antagonist feeds his servant Renfield these moths as a treat. In modern media it is most greatly associated frequently with the book and film “Silence of the Lambs” in which serial killer Buffalo Bill leaves the cocoons of the Death’s-head Hawk-moth with his murdered victims.

Knowing all this, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that British folklore, contemporary media and the trappings of modern life combined have probably impacted the image of the moth in our national psyche. The wonderful thing is that all of these can be rectified! Modern folk stories can be created with positive connotations regarding moths, stories that force us to use our imagination and turn the more ordinary things around us into something magical (a wonderful thing to do with kids!). There can be kinder portrayals of moths in books and films in today’s media so people in the present and future may recognise their mild gentleness, huge importance and fascinating beauty.

Cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae)

Cinnabar moth credit Vaughn Matthews

The final point has already started to be challenged in the midst of the current pandemic. Because of the lockdown, many people were forced to slow down, giving them the ability to pause and properly experience the incredible wildlife around them – in some cases for the first time. This increased exposure to and interest in wildlife is especially important in an urban area like London because doing so is the final piece in the jigsaw to helping Londoners and the population beyond create new relationships with the incredible natural world – including with the marvellous moth!