Moths, an introduction

With butterflies, it’s color that attracts us first, but with moths, it’s their names. Just to scratch the surface, to get a hint of what they offer in North America, let the following names fall trippingly from your tongue: Rufous-banded Crambid, Pigeon Acrobasis, Frosty Olethreutes, Crepuscular Rock-rose Moth, Spun Glass Slug Moth, Ferruginous Eulin, Feather-duster Agonopterix, Gray-blue Swammerdamia, Ruddy Metarranthis, Black-blotched Schizura, Wavy Chestnut Y, Large Mossy Glyph, Spectacled Nettle Moth, Marble Green Leuconycta, Rosy Rustic, Reniform Helotropha, Pavlovski’s Monopsis, Pale-winged Midget, Wheat Head Armyworm, and the Owl-eyed Bird-dropping Moth.

Some names express a not-very-subtle moral judgement on a creature that probably lacks a well-developed code of ethics: Horrid Zale, Abrupt Brother, Obtuse Yellow, Turbulent Phosphila, Ignorant Apamea, False Pinion, Cynical Quaker, Heterodox Wainscot, Rascal Dart, Wretched Olethreutes, Impudent Hulda, Deceptive Apotomis, Exasperating Platynota, the Bad Wing, Plebian Sphinx, Morbid Owlet, Deceptive Snout, Disparaged Arches, and the Dubious Tigermoth.

On the other hand, several bear names that acknowledge more positive qualities or simple, out-and-out approval of their general bearing: the Joyful Virbia, Sociable Renia, Charming Underwing, Indomitable Melipotis, Delightful Dagger, Sensitive Fern Borer, Adorable Brocade, Laudable Arches, Venerable Dart, Delightful Donacaula, Likeable Gretchena, Graceful Ghost Moth, or the Elegant Prominent.

Then there’s a category of moths that we neither praise nor blame but that demand a kind of grudging admiration for the steady, workmanlike way they conduct their affairs, even when afflicted with melancholy or depression: Modest Furucula, Sober Renia, the Old Maid, the Dowdy Pinion, the Forgotten Frigid Owlet, Confused Meganola, the Ambiguous Moth, Abstruse Looper, Nondescript Dagger, Doubtful Apamea, Intractable Quaker, Confused Woodgrain, Neighborly Arches, Grieving Woodling, the Sad Underwing, the Tearful Underwing, and the Mournful Thyris.

White-spotted Sable
White-spotted Sable

Not to blaspheme, but some moths could be used to illustrate the Life of Christ: The Angel, The Herald, the Little Virgin Tiger Moth, the Vestal, the Visitation Moth, Immaculate Grass-veneer, The Infant, the Little Devil, Transfigured Hydriomena, and the Glorious Habrosyne. Or for that matter, they could fill out the casting card for a porn flick: Splendid Palpita, Fervid Plagodis, Dirty Notocelia, Delicate Cycnia, the Stout Spanworm, Red-headed Inchworm, the Splendid Dagger, the Slippery Dart, the Little Nymph, Beautiful Eutelia, Wanton Pinion, Unsated Sallow, Grote’s Satyr, and the aging but still-dependable Stormy Arches.

Of course, some moths are better suited to a more respectable art, say a nineteenth-century potboiler with shades of the Grand Guignol. Only consider The Pale Beauty, otherwise known as Impulsive Apamea, The Sweetheart of Honest Pero, The Cobbler. Responding to Pero’s manly advances, Apamea becomes first The Betrothed and then The Bride, who achieves married bliss as the Connubial Underwing. There things rest until, seized with jealousy, a Hag Moth known as the Black Witch intervenes by waving her Subgothic Dart to introduce The German Cousin and his Confederate, George’s Midget, nicknamed The Laugher. Seduced and abandoned, poor Apamea is soon wandering the streets with her illegitimate child, The Little Beggar. She comes to be known as the Once-Married Underwing and then The Penitent who, unable to bear the guilt and disgrace any longer, makes her quietus one fine day with a Funerary Dagger.

You could do the same sort of thing in a comic-book context with the Cloaked Marvel, The Pink Streak, the Joker, the Dusky Hooded Moth, a Night-wandering Dagger and a Clandestine Dart, The Brother and The Skunk (one and the same?), the mighty Mouse Moth, and that superhero whose defining characteristic is the ability to insert himself into even the tiniest spaces, the notorious Wedgling.

With all these literary references, it’s no surprise that a certain number of moths have been set aside just for writers. I count among them The Thinker; The Scribbler, of course, and his amanuensis, the Metallic Casebearer; the overeducated-to-little-purpose Lettered Sphinx; and the patron saint of scribblers everywhere and for all time, The Slowpoke.

Among so many and so diverse a collection of names, is it really possible to choose one as a personal favorite? For me it is. I’ve always loved the Nameless Pinion, not so much for its dingy coloring and almost featureless appearance, but because in its namelessness it contains all names. It’s something like an altar to the Unknown God, who contains within himself all gods, who by his unknowability reveals himself as the only god worth worshipping.

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