Mythology

The death’s-head hawkmoth has one of the direst reputations of any insect.

The skull on the thorax, the yellow ribs on the abdomen and the cloak-like wings of the moth combine to produce an ominous image. Should the moth be disturbed, it hops about, shrugging its wings up and down, all the while making a high-pitched squeaking noise. No wonder the moth was believed to be an evil omen.

"It is regarded not as the creation of a benevolent being, but the device of evil spirits - spirits enemies to man - conceived and fabricated in the dark, and the very shining of its eyes is thought to represent the fiery element whence it is supposed to have proceeded. Flying into their apartments in the evening at times it extinguishes the light; foretelling war, pestilence, hunger, death to man and beast." (Harris, 1840)

Throughout Europe, the common names of this moth all refer to its appearance:

  • death’s-head hawkmoth (English)
  • smrtihlav obecný (Czech)
  • dødningehodesvermer (Danish/Norwegian)
  • Doodshoofdvlinder (Dutch)
  • tontsuru (Estonian)
  • pääkallokiitäjä (Finnish)
  • le sphinx à tête de mort (French)
  • Totenkopfschwärmer (German)
  • halálfejes lepke (Hungarian)
  • zmora trupia-główka (Polish)
  • мертвая голова (Russian)
  • cabeza de muerto (Spanish)
  • Dödskallesvärmare (Swedish)

Nor could entomologists resist the lure of the moth’s appearance when giving names, drawing from Greek mythology:

  • Acherontia derives from Acheron, the River of Pain in the underworld
  • Atropos is the Fate who cuts the thread of life

Three other forms of the species include:

  • Charon, who ferried dead souls across the river Styx into Hades
  • Moira, the Greek goddess of fate or necessity
  • Sculda (or Skulda), the equivalent to Atropos in Norse mythology

The morbid theme continues in the names of the other 2 species of Acherontia:

  • Acherontia lachesis, after the Fate who measures the thread of life and determines destiny
  • Acherontia styx, named after the principal and boundary river of Hades

Forms and other names applied to these species include:

  • Medusa, the only mortal Gorgon
  • Circe, the enchantress who told Odysseus to visit Hades
  • Lethe, another river in Hades - drinking its waters brings forgetfulness
  • Morta and satanas, both rather self-evident

Death's-head hawkmoths have also entered modern mythology. Count Dracula sent these moths as food for his thrall, Renfield. In the film version of The Silence of the Lambs, the killer placed a pupa of Acherontia styx in the mouths of his victims.

All in all, these poor moths have had a hard time - just because of how people view the coincidental arrangement of colours and patterns on their bodies.

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