Odonates in human culture

Jill Lucas has provided the bulk of the following information which I hope will serve to answer many of the queries we receive on the subject of dragonflies in mythology, folklore and art. Should any reader like to con­tact Jill regarding the following, please email me (Jill Silsby) and I will pass on the message. Jill Lucas does not have access to the Internet nor is she on e-mail.

In almost every culture dragonflies and damselflies feature in myth, folklore, art and literature. They have inspired, revolted and been made use of by Man, from prehistoric times to the present day.

Gastronomically, both adults and larvae appear as ingredients in recipes from Africa, South America and Asia and, in the Far East, larvae are considered a real delicacy.

Medicinally, they figure in the materia medica and pharmacopoeia of China, Japan, Tibet, Brazil & Madagascar.

Decoratively, Kofan Indians in Colombia wear nose-pins decorated with the coloured wings of dragonflies.

Folknames. The European impression of odonates has been that they are dangerous and malevolent; they are associated with snakes and the devil, as shown by many of their colloquial names. There are some seventy English folk names, ‘Adderbolt’ and ‘Devil’s Darning Needle’ being two of them. In Yorkshire, small boys still use ‘Hos-stinger’ to indicate a dragonfly and ‘Horse-stinger’ is used in Australia. The earliest reference to a folk-name, ‘Adderbolt’, is found in Caxton (1483) and the earliest mention of the word dragonfly is in Bacon’s Sylvia (1626) “The delicate coloured Dragon Flies”. .

Folklore. Attitudes towards odonates vary enormously from country to country, the Far Eastern perception differing markedly from that of the European. The folklore of many western countries holds that they are snakes’ companions. In America, a superstition was that dragonflies were capable of stitching the mouths, and sometimes the eyes and ears, of lying children, scolding women and cursing men. Satan is often said to have sent dragonflies into the world to cause mischief; in Italy and among the Dakota Indians, the insects are known as witches’ animals. If the witch is the devil’s creature then, by association, so are dragonflies. This is in sharp contrast to the Orient, where they were never considered evil.

To the Chinese, they are an emblem of summer – but also a symbol of feebleness and instability. In Japan, they are revered and respected, being symbolic of happiness, strength, courage and success. To the Japanese, the dragonfly (Tombo) is an important cultural symbol and was believed to be the spirit of the rice plant and a harbinger of rich harvests. Akitsushmi, which means Dragonfly Island, is an alternative name for Japan.

Art. Authors, composers and poets have used these beautiful insects as motifs in their work and artists have portrayed them on carvings, paintings, porcelain and textiles.

Some of the earliest depictions of odonates are found engraved on Late Bronze Age Cretan seal-stones, dating from 1500 BC. What may be the oldest sculptured images are found on a piece of bronze apparatus which is thought to have been used, by the Japanese, as a festival instrument in the period 300-200 BC.

The eleventh century saw the birth of Japanese heraldry and noble families ornamented their carriages with designs originating in nature. The Samurai adopted a mon (heraldic crest) and the dragonfly, as an insect of victory, was a fitting monfor a military family. They occasionally feature in leather armour, as helmet décor­ations or as a complete helmet, and ontsubas (sword guards). Inros, which are cases for carrying pills, andnetsukes can be found depicting dragonflies and they also appear on textile designs, porcelain and paintings. They have been illustrated on hand scrolls, manuscripts and paintings throughout the centuries, and it is per­haps surprising that the Chinese rarely used a dragonfly motif on their porcelain during the Ming dynasty. Early representations fit uncomfortably on many porcelain bowls and are neither well nor accurately painted. Ancient Egyptian art does not, as far as is known, depict odonates, nor do they apparently appear in Indian or New Zealand decorative art. Dutch and Flemish flower paintings of the 17th Century are particularly rich in dragonfly and damselfly motifs. Today they are represented on the postage stamps of many countries and on postcards and cigarette cards.

Craftwork. Their aesthetic appeal has attracted attention from craftsmen of all disciplines; they have been depicted on greetings cards and embroidered on altar cloths, on 18th Century Swedish purses, on ties and scarves, and been fashioned into jewellery, from the cheap and nasty to the expensive and beautiful.

Literature. The earliest known Japanese poem dedicated to a dragonfly was composed seven hundred years ago by an emperor after he had been bitten by a gadfly which was then killed by a dragonfly. Over the years they have been commemorated in song, poetry and prose.

Religion. Prior to 1840, it appears Christian churches were not decorated with dragonflies in stone, wood or glass. They are, however, commonly illustrated in the margins of illuminated manuscripts such as Books of Hours, Missals and Psalters dating from the 14th Century. The Belleville Breviary was illustrated in the Pucelle workshop between 1323-26 and the damselfly depicted on one of its pages represents the punning trademark of Jean Pucelle: pucelle being an old word for a maid, virgin or damsel (demoiselle)!

All these and many other artefacts and objets d’art testify to the enduring interest taken in odonates by Man throughout the ages.

Jill Lucas & Jill Silsby 28 January 2001