Archive for the ‘Insect Mythology’ Category

On the second day of our staying in San Jose (11th June), we had a chance to visit the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Museo del Oro) – the archaeological museum organized by the Central Bank of Costa Rica in 1950. This Museum hosts temporary exhibitions on a variety of themes and also houses a remarkable permanent gallery of pre-Columbian gold objects crafted between 300 A.D. and the 16th century, the time of the first contact with Europeans.

Objects manufactured during this period present a mixture of styles generated by contact and exchange with neighbouring regions such as modern central Panama and modern Colombia. Objects exhibited in the Museum were used as trade goods between regions and as ritual ornaments and funerary offerings. Many figures depict men with animal masks, apparently pointing to some superhuman qualities of those leaders who wore them. There are many animal figurines, including those of frogs, which are especially numerous, jaguar, alligators, bat, and others. Of the arthropods, only figurines of butterflies, crustaceans and spiders were displayed.

Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, San Jose, Costa Rica

Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, San Jose, Costa Rica

In traditional stories of the indigenous people of Talamanca, the butterfly is a woman who serves as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds. This role of messenger and special being is reflected in the criteria used to select the woman who can be trained to carry out ritual tasks. They must have positive traits such as honesty, bravery and dedication.

Butterfly-shaped pendants, with the body representing alligators - the common practice of combining animals within a single object.

Butterfly-shaped pendants, with the body representing alligators – the common practice of combining animals within a single object.

During the pre-Colombian period the marine environment was intensely exploited for edible species such as shrimps, crabs, lobsters and fish. Figurines of all these animals were manufactured as shown below.

Crab-shaped pendants.

Crab-shaped pendants.

Lobster-shaped pendants and circular pectoral (in the centre). The pectoral was a symbol of high rank among pre-Columbian people.

Lobster-shaped pendants and circular pectoral (in the centre). The pectoral was a symbol of high rank among pre-Columbian people.

I could not photograph the autentic gold spider-shaped pendant in the Museum, and here is a photo of nice replica manufactured by a contemporary artists from the open-air market near the National Museum of San Jose.

Replica of the spider-shaped bell, with a hanging smaller bell.

Replica of the spider-shaped bell, with a hanging smaller bell.

The explanatory text provided above is based on the captions displayed in the Museo del Oro and the book by P. Esquivel (2012) ‘Extraordinary pieces from the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum’


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One of the important aspects of the Manchester Museum’s work is to engage with the visitors, particularly children, in order to stimulate interest in the world around them. As part of this campaign to stimulate interest in the collections the Manchester Museum runs regular Big Saturday events across the year, which encourage visitors (of all ages) to directly interact with museum collections. Members of the museum staff are also available at these events to explain and answer questions about the objects presented on handling tables.

In 2011-12 academic year, the Manchester Museum’s Entomology Department was involved in a collaborative project with Arts, Design & Media students from the Stockport College (tutor – Ian Murray). Working with Dmitri Logunov, the Museum’s Curator of Entomology, and Anna Bunney, the Museums Curator of Public Programmes, the students were given the challenge to create artworks in response to different groups of creepy-crawlers (e.g., flies, cockroaches, butterflies, dragonflies, cicada, sacred scarab, spiders, scorpions, etc.), exploring not only the physical appearance of the creatures but also their historical and symbolic meaning.

In this collaborative project, students were asked not only to develop various artworks (artist books exploring bugs, 3D models or toys of various bugs, badgers with their images, and even bug animation), but also to contribute to a Museum’s Big Saturday event through their art and design skills. Such Big Saturday, called Bug Art, took place in the Museum in partnership with the Stockport College on 28/01/2012. During that day the visitors could get a closer look at some of the insects from the Museum’s collection, watch a family friendly Bugs and Insects film or watch maggots creating abstract art. Activities also included making origami Cicadas, bug headbands, bug badges, printing and stop motion animation.

Here is the short film produced by the students involved in Bug ArtBig Saturday who presented their own view on that great event. Just enjoy it!

Bug Art Big Saturday at the Manchester Museum

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The Sacred Scarab, apparently the most famous beetle on the Earth, was a symbol of resurrection and reincarnation in ancient Egypt, called there Khepri – the life giving force deity. Occasionally, the Scarabs roll their pellets from the east to the west, the same path taken by the sun, that evoked the metaphor of world as dung ball.

Dr Campbell Price (Curator of Egyptology and The Sudan) and Dr Dmitri Logunov (Curator of Arthropods) discuss the Scarab beetle and it’s meaning to the people of Ancient Egypt.

You can read more about the Scarab Beetle on one of our older posts.

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The Manchester Museum’s Entomology Department welcomes a wide array of visitors. Behind-the-scene tours are one of our regular activities. Such tours give our visitors an opportunity to see the Museum’s extensive insect collections (over 3 million specimens) that otherwise are hidden behind the scenes. Helen Clare, who attended one of the tours to the Entomology Department, is a poet and Science teacher (her personal blog). Helen was so inspired by that particular visit that she wrote about 20 insect sonnets. The one devoted to the famous Manchester Moth is given below alongside some of Helen’s impressions of her visit to the Museum.

“I came to Manchester Museum to see the Manchester moth almost a year ago on a bright autumn day. I remember the time of year very clearly because I very pleased with myself in my new bright green coat. By that time I’d been writing a series of sonnets inspired by insects for many months and was looking for fresh inspiration. I’d seen an article about the Manchester Moth in a local paper and followed it up on the internet and wanted to see the insect in the flesh.

 The moment I walked through the museum doors the fire alarm sounded. I almost went home, but decided to be patient and went for a coffee. Eventually the throng of people in the museum courtyard started to funnel through the doors and I went back and talked to the member of staff on duty at reception.

 She told me I wouldn’t be able to see the moth as the specimen was so fragile but that there was a video I could watch. I went up and watched the video, which is very interesting and made notes. I was a little disappointed because while facts are important, the stuff of poetry comes from having an emotional reaction to something and it helps to see it for real.

 But I was glad to have found out more and went up to visit the snakes and frogs in the top gallery – something I’ve done on a regular basis since my student days and then made my way out, ready to console myself shopping.

 As I was about to leave the building the assistant, recognising my coat, called me over and told me that there was a tour of the Entomology stores about to start. A little group of people had begun to gather and Dr Dmitri Logunov, Curator of Insect Collections, came to take us all of to the hidden and rather less imposing part of the museum.

 It was a wonderful session. Looking at my notes now I can see that we looked at a brilliant collection of tortoise beetles, we learned that elephant beetles can push 80 times their body weight, that taxonomists must extract the genitals of butterflies to identify them and that the brilliant colour of butterflies that derives from structure rather than pigment never fades. All of which was shared with us by the infectiously enthusiastic Dmitri.

 At the time I was most impressed by the sheer numbers of insects tucked away, by the sense of being among things that had fascinated and perhaps even obsessed many generations of people, of being somewhere that was part of the bustle of a working museum and also a strangely chaotic contemplative space.

 I drafted the first part of the Euclemensia woodiella sonnet (see below) almost immediately, but it took almost another year to get the final six lines in place. Many other things I’d seen and learned about on that visit also made their way into other poems – including the idea that it was perhaps cockroaches as much as dogs and horses which have been humans most loyal companions since our cave days.

 I was very glad that the fire alarm had gone off and delayed my visit to the museum until the tour was imminent – and that my bright green coat had made me so recognisable!

The Manchester Moth that inspired Helen to write a poem

Sonnet on Euclemensia woodiella (the Manchester Moth) by Helen Clare


Through an unmarked door, we climb the stairs,

concrete and unadorned. The insect store

smells of mothballs. Three million specimens


are under glass, in Dymo labelled drawers, pinned

through their ID cards like meat on skewers.

But only one is ours, is Manchester’s –


this one – small and brown, no abdomen

no legs, three wings, its one antenna broken –

one of three netted by Cribb and passed to Wood.


Cribb, robbed of nomeclature, accused of fraud,

sells the boxful for ten shillings, five up front,

then leaves it with a landlady in lieu of rent.


She burns the lot. He slips into Salford’s

seeping slums, his moth not seen before or since.


Please, visit Helen’s personal blog in order to enjoy by other insect sonnets she has written.

I am very grateful to Helen for sharing her impressions with me and for the permission to post her excellent sonnet devoted the Manchester Moth to our blog (Dmitri).

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The Sacred Scarab (Scarabaeus sacer) is the most famous species of scarab beetles (family Scarabaeidae), and one of many thousands species that make their living from utilizing dung. On average, about 40% of the food intake of animals is either excreted as urine or passed out of the body as faeces. This waste is decomposed and returned to the soil by insects that use dung as food for themselves and for their larvae, thereby preventing it from building up. If left unprocessed, livestock wastes may present a serious health risk to the human population, because they contain some pathogenic microorganisms.

 The Sacred Scarab is famous for making spherical dung balls, rolling them away and burying intact in shallow burrows. Occasionally, the Scarabs roll their balls from the east to the west, the same path taken by the sun. This activity of the Scarabs provided an ideal allegory for the movement of the sun across the daytime sky.

 When the ball of dung has been buried, beetles lay their eggs in it. The eggs would then be incubated by the warmth of the sun’s rays, and newly hatched larvae would feed on dung in the safe harbour provided by parent beetles. Ancient Egyptians saw in the life-cycle of the Scarab a microcosm of the daily voyage of the sun emerging from the Duat to cross the daytime sky before sinking below the horizon again at sunset. Furthermore, the Sacred Scarab was a symbol of resurrection and reincarnation in ancient Egypt, called there Khepri – the life giving force deity. See here for more details.

 The photographed specimen is just one specimen from the large Manchester Museum’s collection of scarab beetles, numbering over 3,000 species.

A specimen of the Sacred Scarab from the Manchester Museum's collection

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