Sunday, 16 August 2015

Dear Daisy - day 1

I have rewritten this post originally posted in 2012 and I am in the process of making it into a video:

Dear Daisy,

Today I was remembering our walk together when you visited us in March.  With your boots you cracked the ice on the surface of the puddles and stamped your feet on the crisp frost that stubbornly refused to melt in the shade of the hedges. 

Do you remember the strong shafts of light that had filtered through gaps in the trees and made the vegetation look wet, green and new?

Sometimes  in these spaces there were the crowded heads of snowdrops blooming whitely in the weak Spring sunshine.  

We listened together to all the birds singing; they were all excited and noisy at the prospect of building nests, laying eggs and brooding young.

It seemed that the smallest birds made the loudest noise!  We heard the loud melodies of robins and wrens hidden in bushes,

and the great tits that proclaimed themselves with  high pitch trills from the tops of the still-bare branches of Ash trees.

I remember we were wondering, half hoping, that we might hear the first Chiff-Chaff before you returned to London

Since then the summer sun has heated up the hedgerows, the cuckoo has come and gone and chiff chaffs have stopped singing,

on warm evenings the air is sometimes filled with glistening midges that are scooped into the mouths of swooping swallows and martins

and the tight formations of squealing squadrons of swifts that screech in  through the farm yard to their nests in our eves.

New flowers have come and gone.  There was so much I should have liked to share with you.  There were the Daffodils in April.

In May the banks were turned red, white and blue with the blooms of Cow Parsley, Ragged Robin and Bluebell flowers.

As May turned to June clumps of purple bee-buzzing Columbine

appeared in long grasses  amongst the even longer spikes of pink Foxgloves,

and across the meadows there were carpets of cheerful buttercups with their pretty yellow faces turned to the bright blue sky. 

In July there were the lovely deep pinks of the willow herb wands and the pale bramble flowers that dropped their petals

and gradually changed into green, and then red berries.

Now the briars are heavy with their succulent black fruit.

Today I found a place to sit and sketch in the hazy heat of the late August sunshine.

I saw  hoverflies that darted from the purple thistle flowers

to the scented Meadow Sweet.

It was as if the world was opening it's heart to me; in the long grass there were the needle sharp trills of shrews as they passed along the bank in their never-ending  search for grasshoppers and beetles, and mice that ran along the tracks of old vole runs in the direction of our garden.

Why so many mice going in one direction?  This was unusual.  Very softly, on tiptoe and trying not to make a noise, I followed a group of mice to find their destination out.  Well I have some most exciting news for you.  I think I have stumbled upon a Mouse Olympiad that is about to start at the bottom of our garden.

Have you ever heard of the Mouse Olympics?  Well many people haven't because Mouse Olympiads are very private affairs that are only rarely seen.

Mice are shy animals that do not want to get eaten by predators, which is why at their Olympics there are no big opening ceremonies and no large crowds.  They are so secretive that many people have never even heard of them, other people, like your Great Uncle George are simply incredulous and  choose not to believe.

On a bank, to one side from where the main events are happening, the mice have constructed their Olympic Village.

Very few mod-cons in the mouse world, just hundreds of hastily constructed holes in amongst a  tumbling mass dock leaves and seeding grasses.

When the Olympiad starts the ladies and girls will put ribbons on their tails

to go to watch the dressage events they love best

And the mothers will take their children to watch the elegant gymnastics

Whilst the men and boys slink off to the wrestling tournaments

In the running races it is forbidden to use four legs, but there is always one who is tempted to cheat!

Then before the light falls all the mice will disappear for fear of attracting the wrong sort of visitors.

But as soon as the day breaks again they will be back in the arena, and then the games will heat up for the big cat events which draw the biggest crowds.

The track will be lined with groups of mice all watching their dare-devil stars risking their lives for a taste of fame.

It is really exciting that all this is about to happen in our garden.

I wish I could tell your Great Uncle George about it, but as you know he would never believe me, but at least I can write and send you letters with drawings of what happens in our garden over the coming few days.  Doing this will give me a lot of pleasure.

I hope your mother is well?  Do share my exciting news by reading this letter to her.

love and kisses

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Naming of Nature - Dragonflies

The Naming of Nature - Dragonflies and Damselflies (ordonata)

Whenever we see a dragonfly skimming across a pond we all start pointing and talking. The conspicuous beauty of these insects never fails to capture our attention which is why in olden times every culture, even locality, would have their preferred names for these creatures.  These names mingled and became mutated by folk stories and legends, the names often had very long histories and their own lives, we took them on journeys across empires where we left them to take on new meanings in other lands.   At times they lost their meaning altogether, or new meanings were reinvented for old names, or the names became irrelevant and were allowed lie and fade back into nothingness.  Fortunately some lists were made and kept, in the 1960s Elmwood Montgomery from the University of Indiana made this list of 95 English and 23 Celtic folk names.  There are other lists; One of 150 from Germany (I have not found it) another of 119 and from the US (appendix). 

95 English names collected by Elmwood Montgomery in the 1960s

Some of the loveliest folk names are descriptive and whimsical; for instance the English folk name Waterbutterfly is an idea that occurs across Europe.

Banded Demoiselle - Waterbutterflies?  Pic

Similar names are:

England Peacock 
France Papillion d'amour (love butterfly)
Italy Farfaya (butterfly)
Spain El Parot (butterfly)
Germany Pfaufliege (peacock fly)  Wasserpfau (waterbutterfly)

Then there are descriptive names that tell us about the insects behaviour.  This insect, The Common Blue Damselfly, is called a Water sniffer in Holland.  This refers to the fly's habit of touching the water surface with their tails as they lay eggs.

Common Blue Damselfly / Watersniffer / Enallagma cyathigerum

In Italy they have a similar folk name
Lavaku which means Tail washer.

The Difference between Damsel and Dragonflies 

It is easy to tell difference between Damsel and Dragonflies.

Dragonflies are usually larger fast flying insects that dart and skim over the water surface, which is why groups of dragonflies have been classified as Skimmers, Hawkers Skaters and Darters.   When dragonflies rest they always hold their wings flat like this American Slaty skimmer is doing.  Also notice how the eyes almost meet on the top of the head

A resting Slaty skimmer dragonfly pic

Damsel and Demoiselle flies are often very small and have a weak fluttery flight.  When they land they hold their wing up like a butterfly does.  This is how a damsel fly looks when at rest

Bright Blue Damselfly - California pic

 Also notice how the eyes of a damselfly are widely spaced apart.

The Scientists have classified the damselflies and dragonflies together into one Order; the Odonata which is derived from the Greek word for teeth.  This is appropriate because dragonflies are fierce hunters with strong mandibles that they use to crush their prey.

The Pagan cult of Freya, goddess of Love

Dragonflies and damselflies are as delicate and elegant as swans or butterflies, this beauty has made them revered in many cultures around the world (especially Japan). One of the loveliest traditions comes from the Scandinavian (Æsir) culture that  associates damselflies with maidenhood and Freya, the pagan goddess of love.  From this tradition we have folk names that liken the damselfly to maidenhood and chastity,  like Juffer (Denmark) which translates as Little Miss.   

Our English name Demoiselle is a corruption of the old French word "dameisele" which means a young lady or damsel.  Other names in this tradition are:  

English Merry Maid , Lady and Damselfly
French , Dame de Paris (Parisian lady) mariée (bride) Demoiselle (Damsel)  Moungeto (Little Nun) Papillion d'amour (love butterfly) 
Italy Monaca (nun) Muneghela (little nun) Signorella (Little lady)

German Edeljunfer  (Genteel Maiden) Wasserjungfe (water maiden) Junfer (Maiden)
Spanish/Portuguese Donzelinka (young lady) Le dimuzela (damsel)
Swedish Vattenjunfer (watermaiden)
Danish Vanderjunfer (watermaiden)
Dutch Waterjuffertje (watermaiden)
Portuguese  Donzelinha (damsel)

Then on the Continent, where language has male and female forms, there is a charming twist to this tradition; the smaller flies are given female names, and the larger flies male names.  So we find small flies being called Demoisella and larger Monsieur

Here is a selection of these

Portuguese  Donzelinha - Danzello
French  Moungeto (Nun) - Pretre (Priest)
French Demoisella - Monsieur 
Italy Monaca (nun)  Monaco (monk)

Classical (cult of the snake)

The Earliest known literary reference to the dragonfly is in a volume printed by William Caxton in 1483, he call it an Adder's Bolt (snakes arrow), a name that survived into the 20th century. In 1607 Moffet calls the dragon fly The Greatest Libelle and the Damsel fly the Smallest Libelle. (see later)

1607 - The Greatest Libelle - from The Theatre of Insect by Tho Moffet

The first known use of the folk name Dragonfly is in Francis Bacon's Sylva Syvarum which was published in 1667.


First known usage of Dragonfly - Sylva Syvarum which was published in 1667.

Bacon almost certainly did not make this name up, it was probably an oddball amongst a cluster of old European names that connect this insect with snakes, horses, needles and the devil; Adder Bolt, Eye Snatcher, Snake Doctor, Gwas y neidr (Welsh for: Snakes Servant), Horse Stinger, Devil's Darning Needle, Eye Poker, and
Tarbh-nathair-neimh (Gaelic: venomous bull-serpent).  It may seem that Dragonfly has no connection with any of these names which sound evil.  How did these beautiful butterflies of the water get connected with malice?

I want to start my explanation by looking at the names that conjoin the devil and horses.  This connection is widespread, here are a sample of the names from around Europe..

English  Devil's Riding Horse
French Chevau du diable (Devils horse) 
 Cavaleta del diavola (Devils horse)
USA Devils Horse / Devil's Riding Horse / 
German Tenfelspfred  (Devils Horse)
Danish  Fandens ridehest ("Devil's riding horse")
Spanish Caballito del Diablo ("Devil's horse")
Portuguese Cavallo d'o demo (Devils horse)
Romanian  Calul Dracului (Devils Horse) Pitingdul Dracului (The little horse of the devil)
Swedish trollslända (hobgoblin fly)
Australian Horse Stinger 
Finnish Pirum Hevonen (the devils little Horse)

There are other insects involved in our story.  One of the most obvious is a large nocturnal predatory drove beetle (Staphylinus ocypus olens) that looks like a giant earwig.  Although they do not live in water and are unrelated to dragonflies these insects share a similar collection of folk names that are to do with devils and horses (but not snakes or needles); Devil's Coach Horse, Devil's Steed, Devil's Coachman and Devil's Footman.   In Ireland the beetle is known as a deargadaol (Devil's beast).  The Irish said it gained it's magical powers by feeding on the bodies of sinners. 

English  Devil's Coach Horse, Devil's Steed, Devil's Coachman  Devil's Footman and Black Cocktail
Gaelic   deargadaol / darbhada (Devil's beast)
French  Le Diable (The devil) /  l’ocype odorant (the fragrant ocype)/ Le Fantassin du diable (One reference only Devils Soldier)
Maltese  Katarina-għolli-denbek (Catherine raise your tail) 
Italian scorpione-elaterio (Scorpian click beetle)
Spanish  Asnillos
Dutch Stinkende kortschildkever
German  Schwarzer Moderkäfer
(please let me know if you can add more names and myths to my list)
A drone beetle - The  Devils Coach Horse

The Devil's Coach Horse has wings that are tucked and folded in small wing cases on its back, it has a strong bite and if it is disturbed it
raises its tail like an earwig or scorpion does and makes an offensive smell.  For this reason the beetle is also call the Black Cocktail and in Italy
scorpione-elaterio (Scorpian click beetle) and in Malta Katarina-għolli-denbek (Catherine raise your tail).  Can someone tell me who Catherine was?

This has gained it another name Black Cock Tail. (Photo

When they unfold their wings, which are quite big,  they look a bit like ugly black dragonflies. 

Devils Coach Horse with wings unfolded

Devils coach horse live in rotting vegetation where they hunt insects and worms.  They must have been a common sight in amongst the strewing on medieval floors.  One can imagine how the superstitious rural people of the middle ages grew to dislike these big black flying insect and believed they were evil. 

As if this were not enough there is an even more revolting aquatic insect.    The beautiful The Great Diving Beetle (Dytiscus marginalis) and Great Silver Water Beetle (Hydrophilus piceus)

The Great Diving Beetle Dytiscus Marginalis

have disgusting larval forms that even today are called Water Devils or Underwater Devils Coach Horses.  Water Devils are as large as newts (7cms), they wiggle through the water like little water snakes catching small fish that they crush with their mandibles.  The also bite!

Water Devil (Dytiscus larva)
A few years ago my pond was infested with these creatures.  I have always loved insects, but these make even me nauseous.  To the innocent medieval mind the predatory water nymphs of immature dragonflies must have looked quite similar to Water devils; they might have thought they were the aquatic relation of the Devils Coach Horse.

Water nymph of Dragonfly

So it is not very altogether surprising that in the imagination of the medieval mind the folk names of these three insects became entwined.  My hunch is further confirmed when I find Coach Horse and Devils Riding Horse on the lists of folk names for dragonflies. 

The Dragonfly's Connections with Romanian Dracula Myths

When we look across Europe to Romania we find tales that closely relate horses, evil flying insects and the devil.  The myths tell how the devil cast a spell on St George's beautiful white horse; turning it into a giant, flying insect.  The Romanian's folk names for the dragonfly include Calul Dracului (Evils Horse),   Pitingdul Dracului (The little horse of the evil) , Calul St George (St Georges Horse), thus directly connecting this myth with the dragonfly.   The German's also seem to have shared this myth since one of the recorded folk names is  Gorgen pferdlein (St Georges Horse)

There is a popular theory that this Romanian  name travelled across Europe as Dracului fly, Drak fly or Drakon Fly to eventually land in England as Dragon Fly. 

There are long traditions of putting the devil on horseback. The Mongols who attacked Europe in 1240 were loosely known as the devil's horsemen. Perhaps this thought came easily to the frightened Christian victims who believed that the end of the world would be preceded by the arrival of the four riders of the apocalypse who would bring war, plague, famine and death.

The four horsemen as featured in the “Bamberger Apokalypse” Folio 14 recto (ca. 1000 AD) 

It is a fascinating to read that the third horse (famine) was a black horse (the colour of Devil Coach horse beetle) and the rider carried a weighing scales.

"When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard something like a voice in the centre of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; but do not damage the oil and the wine.”

The black horseman had come to weigh wheat and barley and bring famine, but everyone was aware of another more directly threatening use of the weighing scales. His scales could be used
to weigh their souls after they had died of famine.  Belief in weighing the souls of the dead was ancient and very widespread.  The Egyptian God Anubis weighed the hearts of the dead and against the weight of a feather.  If the weight was wrong Anubis fed the soul to Ammit, the Devourer of Souls.

The Christian belief was that sinful souls were heavier than virtuous souls, so the devil was looking to take the heavy souls of sinners to Hell.  For this task he would need an assistant with weighing scales or balance.

In Scandinavian there were beliefs that when dragonflies flew around your head they were weighing your soul for the devil.  
An old Swedish name for dragonflies is Skams besman ("Devil's steelyard"), a steelyard is a Roman weighing balance.  There are many other examples of dragonfly names alluding to balances and scales.  

Sweden Skams besman ("Devil's steelyard")
Norwegian Bismar (Steelyard) 
Italian  Blansette (Balance fly)  Bilancelle (little scales)
Britain Balance Flies / Libelle (1607 Moffet) 
France (Libellule) , 
Germany (Libelle) , 
Spain (Libelue)
Romanian (Libelula)
Holland Libel / Libelle

Portugal (Libelinha) which are all varients of Libella/libra which is Latin for Balance or Scales

NB Some say the etymological root is libre (Book) because the wings of a dragonfly look like the pages of a book

Roman steelyard from Pompei

Mixed in with the allusions to horses, balances and devils are many names that mention needles that are used maliciously to darn, pierce, cut and poke eyes and ears.

French Couturiere (Dressmaker)
French l'aiguille du diable ("Devil's needle")
Gaelic (Ireland) Devils Needle,  Big Needle, Battle Needle, Horse Needle

Italian Mattassaro (Needle)
German Tenfelsnadel  (Devils Needle)
Norwegian ore-sting (Ear piercer) Øyenstikker (Eye poker)
English  Devils Darning Needle,  Blue Needle, Horse Needle,  Spindle
Eye Poker, Ear Cutter
USA Devils Darning Needle / Spindle / Devils Needles /
New Jersey US  Spindle
Australia Horse Stinger 
Swedish Blindsticka  (Blind Stingers - because their sting the eyes)
Portugal  tira-olhos (Eye snatcher)

These tales have been transported to many parts of the United States where they are very prevalent, for instance in Iowa there are stories about how the Devils Darning Needle will sew together the fingers and toes of sleeping people, and in Kansas the mouths of scolding women.  Other stories tell how the Devils Darning Needle will enter a persons Ear and penetrate the brain, a story that is also found in Norwegian Folk law.  These stories are similar to the earwig's reputation for creeping into ears whilst people sleep and then burrowing through the eardrum and into the brain to lay their eggs.  (Devil Coach Horse beetles look like giant earwigs)

In Celtic tradition the Dragonfly is also reputed to look after snakes, the Welsh said the Adder's Servant stitched the wounds of injured snakes and these same stories are found in Ireland and America. But even outside Celtic traditions the connection between dragonflies and snakes is very widespread.

Welsh Adder's Servant

Celtic Adder Fly

Cornwall UK Horse Adder
English Adderbolt / Snake Arrow/ Snake Doctor / Snake Fedder / Horse Snake / Flying Adder
German Schalangentoter (Snake Killer)
Norwegian  "Dragonflies are the brothers of Adders"
Spanish Aspie dimonis (Devil's serpent)  El kabal de ser (serpent's horse)
USA Snake Flies

America Southern States Snake Doctor / Snake Feeder  

Dragonflies will land on watersnakes

The dragonflies association with snakes is the last piece of the jigsaw.  A Dutch linguist, Bostjan Kiauta, has traced 2,500 European Folk Dragonfly names that are connected to the snake, when he mapped them out he discovered their layout closely mirrored the territory of the Bronze age Urnfield Venetic culture.  

The Urnfield culture buried their dead in Urns and spoke a pre Indo-European language that is most similar to modern Slovenic - hence this culture has been named Urnfield-Slovenetic, shortened to Vanetic.  This culture was submerged about 2000 year ago under the expansion of Celtic and Roman influence over their lands, however Venetic territory is mapped through traces of their language that are still surviving in place names.    Kiauta's conclusion is that the myths associating dragonflies with snakes have come down to us from the Bronze age.

Our word Dragon is derived from the Greek word draco or drakon (Feminine form), which comes from the Indo-European source, derk, to see or look.  A drakon was a beast with an evil eye, usually a serpent of some sort. The Roman's Latin word draco was used for a particular sort of Temple Snake.  In Christian tradition it was the snake that tempted Eve and in St John's Revelation (Rev 12:9) both dragons and snakes are used  as descriptions of  the devil.  Early images of St George, like this icon, often depict St George slaying a serpent rather than a dragon.  The image is an allegory of good  slaying evil (the devil)

St George and the dragon - 14th century icon - origin unknown

The medieval Monks were fond of adding pictures to the margins of their illuminated manuscripts, and from these doodles we can see how inventive and plastic the medieval mind was. In this illustration we see two mating vipers with dragon ears and feet; the female is eating her husband as the young snakes emerge through her skin.

Two vipers mating - Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633

We will probably never know where Francis Bacon picked up the name dragonfly but it seems certain to have developed from very old beliefs that have roots in Bronze Age traditions that were shared with paganism in Northern Europe and Christianity in Southern Europe.  It is natural that ancient folk names blurred and interchanged snakes, dragons and the devil. 

When I made my picture of a dragonfly I was inspired to draw something elegant and cute.  To my modern mind dragons and fairies are quaint and non-threatening.  Modern cultures have dropped most of their fear of the devil and we have sanitised medieval images of evil.  This sanitising of evil has continued to happen during my lifetime, at university forty years ago we watched Hammer horror films about vampires, today we watch TV series about friendly vampires with guilt complexes. Our cultures are never static, and with these changes we invent new names and legends to use as names for the plants and animals.


Writing this summary has been exciting and also frustrating.  It is surprisingly difficult to find new source material, every website seems to repeat the same stories. If you have knowledge of more lists of dragonfly names please share them with me so that I can add the information to my  summary in the appendices.  It would be wonderful to know how widespread these traditions and folk law spread. 

 I could find no information about the folk names given to rove beetles and larva of water beetles and earwigs in other countries.  This knowledge would be very useful to either debunking or reinforcing my my theories.  (please contact me at this address)


USA Dragonfly names "Evolution of Englishes" Sarah Buschfeld


Celtic Dragonfly names collected by Elmwood Montgomery in the 1960s




  Finding new species of Dragonflies in Africa



With thanks to Stephen Moran for showing me this!

German dragonfly folk law:

Japanese dragonfly culture:
British Species guide:

How did the Dragon get it name?:


The Dazzle of Dragonflies dragonfly&f=false

Bugs Britannica :

Survey of Dragonfly names used in USA

Study of dragonfly names (1960)

Urnfield Venetic Culture -