Moths in the royal bedchamber
The story behind the specimens
How the moths came to be in the Museum is described by the details on this label which accompanied the moths in the drawers of the British Lepidoptera collection.
It is not uncommon for stories to present themselves alongside specimens in this way, or in accompanying archives. For example, the notebooks of the collector or donor. Sometimes the stories are incomplete, which can make an enquiry the Museum receives rather like detective work, unraveling a mystery from the past by piecing together information from various sources.
The moths went on display in 1999 and can currently be seen in the upper gallery of the Museum.
The Death’s Head Hawk moth, Acherontia atropos, is the largest European Hawk moth. It is a regular summer visitor to Britain from Southern Europe and Africa, but is unable to survive the winter. Note that, unlike most hawk moths, it has a short proboscis and therefore cannot take nectar from deep-throated flowers. Instead, it feeds on honey from bees nests and sap from trees. Because of its association with bees, it is known in some parts of Britain as the Bee Robber. It can produce a loud shrill squeak by forcing air out of its proboscis. This is supposed to subdue and control the worker bees, whose honey it is robbing.
Lives in a very fragile cocoon below the soil and is said to produce a squeaking sound shortly before the adult emerges.
The larva is very large and handsome. It feeds on potato and other Solanaceae, including the Duke of Argyll’s teaplant and woody nightshade. Like the adult and pupa, it can make a sound, in this case by grating its mandibles together. There are several colour forms. The brown form feeds mainly at night.
The moth in myth and legend
Because of its skull-and-crossbones markings and its unexpected ability to make quite a loud sound, the Death’s Head has been an object of terror throughout the ages. Its sinister qualities are enshrined in its name: Acheron is the river of sorrows that flows through the infernal regions; Atropos the eldest of the three fates, the one who severs the thread of life.
Throughout Europe, the moth was thought to be a harbinger of war, pestilence, and death to man and beast alike. Its appearance in a candlelit room, especially if it managed to snuff out the candle, was an omen of death in the house. In France, dust from its wings was thought to cause blindness if it entered the eye. The moth brought fear and panic in Brittany when large numbers appeared at the time of a widespread pestilence.
The moth’s awe-inspiring properties are markedly enhanced by the sounds it makes: these have been described as a ‘dismal, melancholy cry’ and like the ‘plaintive squeaking of a mouse’. In Poland, where it is known as the ‘wandering death-bird’, its cry was heard as a voice of anguish, the moaning of a grief-stricken child.
The Silence of the Lambs
The Death’s Head has entered modern mythology in its role as an emblem of perverted evil in the book and film of The Silence of the Lambs.
The species in Thomas Harris’s book is the related Malaysian A. styx. The distinctive trademark of the serial murderer is a hawk moth pupa placed in the mouth of his female victims, whom he later skins. Although the pupa is identified by a museum curator in the film as that of the Death’s Head, this is clearly a misidentification: the pupa has a long, jug-handled proboscis, whereas that of the Death’s Head is short and stout.
The above is a selection of text and images from a display written by Dr William Foster, the curator of the insect collection.
Why not visit our galleries to see the actual moths which were found in the King’s bedchamber?