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While the Civil War was raging to the south, one very unusual man was haunting the halls of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  His name was Frank Cowan (1844-1905) and he was working on a book that would see the light of day as the war ended in 1865. In the chaos of the war his research seemed out of place, as it was on the folklore of insects and arachnids! The project was started in 1863, the same year as the Battle of Gettysburg, and shares the year's 150 anniversary.  

Frank Cowan became a lawyer (starting in 1865), served as secretary to President Andrew Johnson for over a year, and later became a medical doctor.  He wrote a number of books, including novels and books of biography, poetry, history and folklore.  He also was involved in several hoaxes in regard to the Viking presence in the New World.  All in all he seemed quite the character as well as being multi-talented in several areas of literature.

However it is his book titled "Curious Facts in the History of Insects; Including Spiders and Scorpions. A Complete Collection of the Legends, Superstitions, Beliefs, and Ominous Signs Connected with Insects; Together With Their Uses in Medicine, Art, and as Food; and a Summary of their Remarkable Injuries and Appearances," a typically long-titled Victorian tome, in which I am most interested. It has served as the major reference on arthropod folklore for works prior to 1865.  What made Cowan write such an esoteric book in the midst of the worst disaster in our country's history I can not even guess.  In any case, he wrote it and I am lucky enough to own a copy in its original binding. I used it regularly when I was a coach for the Linnaean Games (College Bowl style insect trivia contest for university students) for a branch of a national entomological society. I was easily able to make up questions for submission to the Linnaean Games Committee for use in the contest.  

Lucy Clausen of the American Museum of Natural History in New York utilized Cowan's book as a major reference for her 1954 book "Insect Fact and Folklore."  She added more material from sources published after Cowan's monograph. Since then there has been one book that I know of in English that covers insect mythology (but not  more recent folklore.) However the old standbys are the two books published separately nearly 90 years apart by Cowan and Clausen.

Folklore associated with arthropods (including especially insects and arachnids - there is a bit of a blank in regard to other arthropod classes) is fairly complex.  Humans have lived with, been bitten or stung by, had their crops destroyed by, had diseases transmitted to themselves and their domestic animals and plants by, and in the case of the honey bee and silkworm moths, exploited arthropods for thousands of years. Although the connection between insects and arthropod-bourn diseases was unknown until the 19th Century, people have always been affected by such diseases and we can, for example, trace bubonic plague (transmitted by fleas) directly to the Black Death of the Middle Ages using modern biochemical techniques.

More after the fold.

Honey bees are a special case, as the exploitation of wild bees dates back to prehistory, based on cave art in Spain. In fact honey bees have been utilized in one way or another for at least 8,000 years. Before the huge sugar plantations in the Caribbean, honey was used as a sweetener and was also fermented to produce an alcoholic drink called mead, so central to the saga of Beowulf. Folklore associated with honey bees is quite well developed.  Honey bees were often thought to take a special interest in the beekeeper and his (or rarely her) family. This led to the tradition of "telling the bees" of some important happening, such as the death of the beekeeper or a wedding in the family.

Silk was first produced from the pupal cocoon of the silkworm moth several thousand years ago in China and the legend of its discovery by the Empress Si-Ling (or Hsi-Ling-Shih) is a classic. The Chinese (who are still the world's leading producers of silk) guarded the secret of the production of silk for several thousand years, until Justinian, Emperor of Byzantium, had spies bring it back from China.  It was then stolen by the Venetians in short order and soon the production of silk became a cottage industry in rural Europe, even involving the services of the great medical researcher Louis Pasteur to find a cure for a disease that ravaged the silkworms. An attempt to stimulate a silk industry in the United States led to the introduction of the Gipsy Moth, now a great pest of trees in the eastern United States. The use of the Chinese white mulberry to feed the silkworm larvae (the adults do not eat) spread this tree over much of the temperate world, along with the pollen produced by the male trees, one of the worst allergens!  In China it was for a long time a crime, punishable by death, to destroy a mulberry tree. Now some cities limit or forbid the trees from being planted.

Beetles have a fairly complex folklore and their own impact on human history.  We have several species, such as the boll weevil (one of the few beetles to have a song written about it and a monument erected to it!), whose economic impact was so large as to be really noticed (most beetles are obscure and only known to entomologists).  Beetle larvae in furniture and house wood, often make ticking noises, and this led to the "Death Watch" legend that during a terminal illness the beetles were ticking away the remaining time. However probably no beetle has more folklore surrounding its name than the ladybird beetle. Many times this relates to "Our Lady's Beetle," or the beetle is somehow associated with the Virgin Mary.  In some languages the name for these colorful beetles translates to "Our Lady's Cows." Lady beetles that land on people are considered a sign of good luck.  To the gardner they are very good luck as almost all (exceptions being the Mexican bean beetle and the squash beetle) of them feed on aphids and related sucking insects, such as the cottony-cushion scale and whiteflies.

Parasitic insects often feature in history, but mostly for reasons unknown to the victims. Although the people of the time were unaware of it, populations and armies involved in war were often more damaged by insect-borne diseases than were killed in battles or bombing. Napoleon Bonapart's army was one of the most affected by such disasters.  When Napoleon marched on Moscow with his Grande ArmĂ©e of 500,000 soldiers he had to face more than the Russian Imperial Army under Mikhail Kutuzov at Borodino, partisan snipers and the cold of the Russian winter.  His troops, unwashed and in rags, were infested with body lice which transmitted typhus to the cold-stressed stragglers as they retreated from Moscow. Napoleon reached France with only 27,000 able-bodied men. A total of 380,000 had died, many from typhus, and 100,000 had been captured.  Napoleon again met insect-borne disease in Syria when flea-vectored bubonic plague ravaged his troops. He eventually retreated back to France and gave up his dream of domination of Egypt and the Middle East.  Finally the French army sent to Haiti to put down the slave revolt was almost totally destroyed by mosquito-vectored yellow fever. The "Little Corporal" literally never knew what hit him as these insects were not suspected as transmitting the diseases!

Spiders and scorpions have their own folklore, from the spider's web that protected Robert the Bruce to the malevolent aspects of the Zodiacal sign Scorpio.  The origin of the Italian folk dance , the tarantella, was that it was supposed to be danced as an antidote for the effects of the bite of a local wolf spider, Lycosa tarantula, which lived in the countryside around Taranto.  It is now thought that the wolf spider got a bad rap and the actual bites were inflicted by the European black widow, (Latrodectus tridecimguttatus.)  One of the symptoms of Latrodectism is aggitation and dancing may have actually alleviated the symptom.  It was also a good excuse to dance during a period when the church frowned on such levity.

In regard to spiders, Anansi is the trickster spider of Africa, brought to the Caribbean by the slave trade and still quite popular there. Anansi is always getting into trouble and most the time escapes through trickery. In many ways Anansi is the African equivalent of the Native American trickster Coyote. There are many Anansi stories and the reader can find at least some on the Internet.    

Other insects, spiders and scorpions, have fairly long histories in folklore, but of course in a phylum with over a million species currently known, including some as small as a half millimeter in body length, the vast majority were never even noticed by humans. Still the stories are fairly abundant and I could go on for a long time, but this should give the reader a taste.

Literature References:

Clausen, Lucy W. 1954. Insect Fact and Folklore. The Macmillan Company, New York.

Cowan, Frank. 1865. Curious Facts in the History of Insects; Including Spiders and Scorpions. A Complete Collection of the Legends, Superstitions, Beliefs, and Ominous Signs Connected with Insects; Together With Their Uses in Medicine, Art, and as Food; and a Summary of their Remarkable Injuries and Appearances. Lippincott and Company, Philadelphia.  

Internet References:  


Boll Weevil Monument

Boll Weevil Song Lyrics

Frank Cowan


The Napoleonic Campaigns and Historical Perception



Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Tue Dec 04, 2012 at 01:25 PM PST.

Also republished by Backyard Science, SciTech, and Community Spotlight.

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