With the rise of the Zika virus, pest-control is in the news. In the days when window screens were not as common, one insect-loving lady adopted a pet praying mantis she called “Queen Bess,” to keep her home insect-free. As a bonus, she discovered that the creature was also an accurate fortune-teller…
I have a strange, a singularly odd company to place before you. If their natural habits have been little understood hitherto their appearance has been less appreciated. The beauty of this adaptativeness to the task to be performed is most wonderfully illustrated in this family; and if a sensation of the uncouth, the eccentric, lingers around them, it is all lost when we know them in the appreciation of the useful. Look first at the Mantis Religiosa Americana —the “American Soothsayer.” We have here a personage famed in legendary lore; who is said to have conversed with saints and children; who mingles now in the worship of the Hottentots; who adds to the pleasure and amusements of the Chinese by exhibiting his pugilistic propensities; who is, among the Turks, considered worthy of religious honors; and who is famed for possessing magic powers of some kind wherever met with, at home or abroad. You will not wonder at it if you study attentively the quaint and weird creature’s face, free, and at liberty to follow her own fancy or instinct, or whatever you may call it. I am fearful that you will think I should be bordering on the marvelous if I should describe many scenes such as this personage and I have passed together; but I shall plead, in return, that you follow my example, and see whether you will not say more than I shall have space to do, by taking one or more as companions the coming season.
To obtain them in perfection at the North you can get your friends to look on the pine rail fences inclosing corn-fields any where south of New Jersey, or in the forks of the branches of the young pine, whose resin she enjoys amazingly, and send you the capsule of eggs; keep it in a warm, dry place, and in June, if the weather is fine, hundreds of these creatures will work their way from their odd-looking cradle. Out of this host you may succeed in raising five or ten, if you are very watchful. In the open air they would all come to maturity, but when in confinement the stronger devour the weaker. Feed them as freely as you can with flies, ants, or aphides; any variety of insect will serve as food. They change their skins four times. At the last moulting they obtain their wings, and have reached the imago state. It will be, if a fine specimen, nearly three inches long from the mouth to the tip of the tail-pieces; and the wings will expand nearly the same. They are longer than this in Texas and Mexico. They will be of a soft, pale, silvery apple-green, all over the shades in white, except the eyes and hooks, which are very black. The abdomen is so transparent that its color varies with the food it has been devouring: dark, if the caterpillars were such; a light color if otherwise. After the last moulting tie a long thread or a silken string around the thorax where it joins the body; place her on the cornice of the window, or on the frame of a picture or mirror, and you will be troubled with no insects near you. But you must watch that she does not starve, by placing near her caterpillars, young grasshoppers, and the like. If you take a little pains you can soon approach her, and hold an insect or a piece of raw pigeon flesh, and she will come and take it.
“Queen Bess,” of famous memory, would alight on my shoulder and take all her food from me half a dozen times a day. When she omitted her visit I knew that she had been hunting on her own account. All night long she would keep watch and guard under the mosquito-net. The silk was fastened to the post of the bed; and woe betide an unfortunate mosquito who fancied for his supper a drop of claret. It was the drollest, the most laughter-moving sensation, to feel one of these trumpeters saluting your nose or forehead, and hear Queen Bess approaching with those long claws, creeping slowly, softly, nearer and nearer; to feel the fine prick of the lancet setting in for a tipple; then you would suppose a dozen fine needles had been suddenly drawn across the part; then, presto! Bess’s strong, sabre-like claws had the jolly trumpeter tucked into her capacious jaws before you could open your eyes to ascertain the state of affairs.
These creatures very seldom fly far, but walk in a most stately and dignified manner. Queen Bess could not bear to be overlooked or slighted; and so sure as she saw me bending over the magnifier with an insect, and I thought she was ten yards off, the insect would be incontinently snapped out of my fingers. Many a valuable specimen disappeared in this way. I learned to put her at these times in the sounding-board of an Aeolian harp, which was generally placed in the window. Her majesty liked music of this kind amazingly; as the vibration was felt though not heard. I presume she fancied she was serenaded by the singing leaves of the forest. I knew she would have remained there spell-bound until driven forth by hunger, if I did not remove her when I was not afraid of her company.
As I have begun my “experiences,” I will go through with them and confess that I was obliged from circumstances to attach more than accident to her prophetic capacity—her fortune-telling. I have not a grain of superstition to contend against in other matters, having so much reverence for the Creator of all things that I certainly have no fear of any thing earthly or spiritually conveyed to the senses. But I was taught by the saddest teacher, Experience, that whenever Queen Bess’s refusal went unheeded I was the sufferer. The first time I ever tried it was to determine a vacillating presentiment I felt about trying a new horse whose reputation was far from good. I placed Queen Bess before me, held up my finger:
“Attention! Queen Bess, would you advise me to try that horse?”
She was standing on her hind-legs, her antennas erect, wings wide spread. I repeated the question. Antenna fell; wings folded; and down she went, gradually, until her head and long thorax were buried beneath her front-legs. I took her advice, and did not venture. Two days later the horse threw his rider and killed him.
Here was the turning-point. Was I to allow such folly to master me, if French girls do take a mantis to the junction of three roads, and ask her on which their lover will come, and watch the insect turning and examining each road with her weird sibyl head? If French girls commit such follies, should I, a staid American woman, follow their example—putting my faith in the caprices of an insect? Pshaw! I was above such folly. So the next time Queen Bess was consulted a more decided refusal was given; but I disregarded her warning, and most sorely did I repent it. Again she would approve, by standing more erect, if possible, spreading and closing her wings; then all was sunshine with me. So it went for many months. Many others have had the same experience, if they will confess it honestly. I learned to obey the hidden head more carefully than any other, I am sorry to say; and I never, in one single instance, knew her to refuse her opinion; and I never knew it to be wrong in whatever way she announced it.
But, sad to relate, Queen Bess disappeared very suddenly. No searching could bring her fate to light. She had not been tied for some time; and I supposed, of course, that the ungrateful thing had taken her departure for green fields and loving trees, and I thought I rejoiced in being my own mistress once more. Some months after, in changing the bed appurtenances, her majesty’s remains were found. She had been caught by her feet and front claws in some silk fringe, from which she could not extricate herself, and had starved to death—miserable fate for so much intelligence and fame as she enjoyed!
Youngsters try their future expectations by making a mimic chariot, ballasting it with small pebbles, shot, or any thing—(it is astonishing what weight she will carry)—and harnessing her in with silk. Upon being freighted she rises immediately, as if to try the weight; if too heavy she will not fly. Lighten the chariot, and she will soar away to a tree or a field; then her owner is to be a lucky boy. If she will not go at all, or only a short distance, and soon come down, misfortune is to be his doom. But whether there is or is not any prophetic power exhibited she has the fame of it, and in every country where she is known is valued on its account. I never heard a refusal to grant “a something odd about her doings” by any one who has been seriously inclined to keep her company.
“An Orthopterian Defense,” Mrs. C[harlotte] Taylor, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 41, 1870: p. 490-1
This piece comes from Mrs. Taylor’s longer impassioned defense of insects usually feared as pests. The lady must have found Queen Bess a diverting and useful companion, particularly as a mosquito-trap in the bedchamber. Far be it from me to suggest that Mrs. Taylor was non compos mantis, but can sabre-like claws in the nose really be described as “laughter-moving?”
With reference to conversing with saints, when St. Francis Xavier saw a mantis with its forelegs held up in apparent devotion, he called upon it to sing the praises of God, “whereupon the insect caroled forth a fine canticle.” (No doubt accompanying itself on an Aeolian harp.) That interesting volume, Curious Facts in the History of Insects: Including Spiders and Scorpions, by Frank Cowan, gives a lengthy description of the reverence with which the mantis is regarded in Hottentot culture, and tells of mantis boxing-matches in China. Cowan also includes several magical beliefs about mantises:
When the Mantis (Rear-horse) kneels, it sees an angel in the way, or hears the rustle of its wings. When it alights on your hand, you are about to make the acquaintance of a distinguished person; if it alights on your head, a great honor will shortly be conferred upon you. If it injures you in any way, which it does but seldom, you will lose a valued friend by calumny. Never kill a Mantis, as it bears charms against evil.
He goes on to say that “From the great resemblance of many species of Mantis to the leaves of the trees upon which they feed, some travelers, who have observed them, have declared that they saw the leaves of trees become living creatures, and take flight.”
In Greek the word “mantis” means “prophet,” which is why the suffix “-mancy” is often affixed to methods of soothsaying and why it is only too apt that the magical mantis is asked to prognosticate. I thought that insecticides might have killed off belief in the creature’s prophetic powers, but was surprised to find that they are frequently referenced by (primarily) Christian prophetic sites as omens or symbols. The insects’ oracular reputation dates back to ancient Greece; it seems an odd remnant of paganism, even for a religion with many borrowings. Perhaps the rationalization is that they pray without ceasing and could even be said to follow the injunction in a paraphrased Psalm 148: Praise the Lord, all ye creeping things.
Other insectoid methods of prophecy? Shoo them towards the net. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.