Edward Hopley, Puck and a moth
In this post I want to explore some persistent and intriguing connections between fairies and moths. They are very scattered, but fascinating nonetheless.
John Gibson (1790-1866), Cupid pursuing Psyche
A lot of the material linking fairies with moths is highly romantic and literary. As we began to conceive of tiny winged fairies from the eighteenth century onwards, the association between fays and pretty insects made more and more sense.
We might date this connection from as early as Midsummer night’s dream and the fairy ‘Moth’ although Dr Beachcombing on the Strange history website has argued that this is really a misreading for ‘mote.’
The pairing subsequently manifested itself in several ways:
- fairies acquired moth and butterfly wings– as we see in many pictures including the illustration by Warwick Goble included below. Another source for these may come from classical representations of winged nymph Psyche (see above);
- instead of riding horses, fairies started to be imagined riding moths and flies. Julius Cawein tells us in ‘Dream road’ that “the moths they say the fairies use as coursers;” Alice Cary in ‘Fairy folk’ described fairies travelling “in coaches/ That are drawn by butterflies”;
- as the poetic faes drew closer to nature, they started to care for insects and other wildlife. In Menella Bute Smedley’s poem ‘The butterfly and the fairies’ it’s the fays that make the butterfly’s gorgeous painted wings whilst in Peter John Allan’s ‘The dead butterfly’ Faery seems to be the lepidoptera heaven, where the deceased insect goes to dance with the ‘elfin band.’
Richard Doyle, The fairy queen takes an airy drive
These conceits were taken to an extreme in the anonymous poem ‘The fairies fancy ball,’ published in 1832, in which the vernacular names of every species of butterfly and moth are played upon in a dream of a dance put on by the fairy queen.
This evolution of the ‘artistic faery,’ as we might call it, directly informs our thinking today. If, for example, we look at the encounters reported in the recent Fairy Census, small flying fays are very common indeed and insect wings are a feature of quite a number of reports (see below).
John George Naish, Midsummer fairies
Pixies and the dead
The rather disparate folklore evidence is very partial, but it’s far more interesting than the cute literary conceptions, I would say.
Our starting point is a brief remark by Robert Hunt in his Popular romances of the West of England (1865, p.82):
“Mr Thoms has noticed that in Cornwall ‘the moths which some regard as departed souls, others as fairies, are called Pisgies.’ This is somewhat too generally expressed; the belief respecting the moth, so far as I know, is confined to one or two varieties only. Mr Couch informs us that the local name, around Polperro, of the weasel is Fairy. So that we have evidence of some sort of metempsychosis amongst the elf family. Moths, ants, and weasels it would seem are the forms taken by those wandering spirits.”
The Mr Thoms mentioned by Hunt wrote about ‘The folklore of Shakespeare’ in The Athenaeum in 1847 (no.1041, p.1055). In this article he says little more than Hunt repeats, except to say that the moths as pixies was the belief in the Truro area of mid-Cornwall and adding that it was thought that when the moths were very numerous, there would be great mortality to follow. It’s also fascinating to learn that in Yorkshire the night flying moth Hepialis humali was called ‘the soul’ and that, in the Lake District too, moths were traditionally regarded as a sign of death.
There seems to be a link with death then, which is probably quite unsurprising if you think of a ghostly white moth seen at night. Equally, as I’ve described previously, there are strong associations between fairies and death and it’s another Cornish belief that unbaptised infants may become piskies.
There are some other fragments of folk belief to add to these tantalising remnants. According to J. Henry Harris, Cornish mothers would also tell their children that the little brown pisgie moth will play tricks on them in their sleep (Cornish saints and sinners, 1907, c.20). In her story of ‘The little cake bird’ North Cornish author Enys Tregarthen says that the belief around St Columb is that the fairies will pass over your nose and arrange your dreams whilst you sleep. We know that Queen Mab is the midwife of dreams, so all of this seems to be interrelated.
At St Nun’s Well near Looe on the south coast of the Cornish peninsula, there is a tradition of leaving a bent pin as an offering. If you fail to do this, you will be followed home by a cloud of the pisgey moths. We looked at fairy wells in a previous posting and this particular local tradition underscores both that connection and the need to show proper respect by making respectful offerings to the fairies.
Lastly, in a story from the Blackdown Hills of Somerset, a woman is brushed across her brow by a large moth and thereby receives the ‘pixy-sight’ which enables her to see an old pixy man who has come to ask for her skill in nursing his sick wife. We know fairy powers can be transferred by touch, so this again fits in with other lore, although the medium of the moth is unusual.
Some modern evidence
The recent Fairy Census confirms that there is still felt to be some common association between fairies and lepidoptera. Some beings seen in Ohio flying around flowers were described as being “Small, pale, with long limbs and wings similar to moths.” A man waiting for a train in Scotland saw a small ball of light hovering around one of the platform lights:
“At first I thought it was a moth being illuminated but then realised that it was too big to be a moth and also it was very, very bright. It hovered for a few moments then shot across the platform and it joined another ball of light opposite.”
He assumed it had to be a fairy because this was the “first thought that came into my head after I realised it wasn’t moths.” (Census numbers 169 & 350). Several other witnesses made comparisons too to butterflies: consider for instance a Texan sighting of “a beautiful butterfly with a lovely body of a lady” or “bright, white light about five foot long with wings like a butterfly and a short dress” or “like a white butterfly” (numbers 375, 419 & 435).
This posting is just a first outline of this subject. Doubtless with further reading other examples will be found and we will form a surer picture of the link, but it seems clear even at this preliminary stage that diminutive size, nocturnal habits, ghostly colours and some sort of spiritual aspect are all combined in this group of beliefs.
Readers may be interested to note that the Scottish mythical and mystical poet Fiona Macleod makes considerable use of moth imagery. They are often equated with spirits, perhaps ghosts: “In the grey-gloaming where the white moth flies” or “Not even the white moth that loves death flits through her hair.” It is a a mysterious and silent symbol.