Let’s folk-us on Folklore…

Tuesday 21st June 2022

…blog by Kaitlyn Elverson, Buglife Assistant Conservation Officer originally written for Insect Week 2022

Have you ever thought about where you favourite fairy-tale stories come from? Or what inspired your favourite fantasy video game? Or even what inspires some music and literature? They can all be traced back to folklore.

I’m Kaitlyn Elverson, the Intern for the Severn B-Lines Project. I’ve made it my mission to inspire connections with nature by telling the stories, myths and legends of trees, flowers, and insects through folklore.

What is Folklore?

Folklore is the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. Made up of the words ‘folk’ meaning people, and ‘lore’ meaning traditional beliefs, it is something that is universal and applicable to all countries, cultures and peoples. It is everywhere! Folklore is a key part of our history and has helped us understand the natural world for thousands of years. Folktales act as moral lessons that aid us in learning right from wrong, good from evil and can be as profound as they are magical. They stand as connections to our ancestors and help connect us to one another as well as nature.

Insect Folklore

Let’s take a quick look into some of the beautiful lore associated with insects and see what wisdom we can learn from them.

Butterfly Folklore

Large White (Pieris brassicae) © Simon Munnery

Considered some of the most stunning insects out there, the butterfly’s gentle but fleeting beauty is a reminder that there is always time for change. The butterfly symbolises transformation; more specifically, the spiritual transformation of the soul. They are regarded as omens of joy, creativity, and limitless potential by many cultures around the world. More locally, they are of great significance in Celtic and Irish folklore, where they are thought to carry souls travelling between this world and the next.

One Irish literary classic tells the tale of The Wooing of Étaín, who was a beautiful woman, torn between two lovers one thousand years apart. In her story, she is transformed into a butterfly and blown away for seven years, to live a harsh and lonely life. However, she finds her way back, but is blown away again, only to land in the goblet of the queen, who swallows Étaín in butterfly form with her drink. The queen becomes pregnant and gives birth to Étaín a second time, and so is famously reborn. Her story is the epitome of rebirth and transformation. It is a powerful Irish tale that teaches us how to make the best of tricky situations and to not let opportunities pass you by.

Moth Folklore

Luna Moth (Actias luna) © Kirsten Pauli

Unlike their fluttery cousins, moths tend to have a bad reputation in folklore. They are seen as omens of death or misfortune and often appear in art and literature as symbols or messengers of ill will. Cornish folklore even associates them with Piskies; mischievous relatives of Pixies that are often out at night causing havoc. It’s thought that people would look out their windows to see hordes of moths in their gardens and think they were Piskies, when in fact they were just moths. However, like many weird and wonderful insects, moths are just misunderstood or misrepresented. The Luna Moth (Actias luna) is a perfect example of how not all moths are seen as harbingers of doom. Native to parts of North America, the Luna Moth (thought to be named after the Roman Moon Goddess Luna) is a beautifully delicate species that acts as a powerful spiritual guide. It only lives for one week in its adult form, where its sole purpose is to reproduce and then die. Some deem this is a message from the Moon moth, that life, although fleeting, is wonderful and that there is always light in the darkness; a far more fitting description for moths in my opinion.

Ant Folklore

Ants © Susan Thompson Photography

Ants are determined little creatures that symbolise resilience, perseverance, discipline and endurance. They are omens that come around when you need a reminder that hard work does pay off and that good things do in fact come to those who wait.

According to the tale of “The Ant and the Bear”, a traditional Native American legend from the Twana tribe, we have ants to thank for day and night. In this story, the little Ant woman wishes to defend her people from the Bear, who comes into their homes and raids their food. The Ant woman pleads to the Creator, when the Bear interrupts and claims that he needs the dark to live comfortably and that the Creator shouldn’t grant the Ant woman’s wish. The Creator decrees that there will be a dance competition and the winner will have their wish. Using her determination and strength, the Ant woman wins, but asks the Creator that she grant both their wishes, so that the Ants and the Bear may live comfortably. If you want to know if this story is true, all you need do is look at the waist of the Ant, which is teeny tiny because of the belt that the Ant woman tightened around her waist during her dance.

Why is Insect Folklore so important?

Insect folklore teaches us that without these tiny creatures, the world wouldn’t be the same.  Whether you want to consider them as spiritual messengers, as protagonists of stories, or just the amazing creatures that live on this earth with us, they remain important.

We rely on insects for many things that go unseen, yet we remain scared or weary of them.  Instead, we should marvel at what they do for us, respect them and pass on the knowledge and wisdom that they offer through their stories and folklore.

If you’d like to learn more, follow the links below to watch Myth, Mystery and Folklore and Insect Folklore webinars on the Buglife YouTube channel: