The dragonfly has been around for more than 300 million years. Therefore, it would stand to reason that Europe has some the oldest myths and beliefs regarding the dragonfly. In Europe, the dragonfly has often been regarded or viewed as something sinister or evil.
The dragonflies reputation may have been tarnished a bit around 15th-century Europe, when the insect was associated with snakes and the devil. They were actually thought to be dangerous! In fact, dragonflies are not, in anyway, dangerous to humans. In many cultures, dragonflies have been the objects of superstition. European folklore is no exception. Many old myths have been lost over time, but some fragments remain and are still living in old local names of the dragonfly.
The Europeans have some of the more terrifying tales of the dragonfly. With the following examples, it’s no wonder why.
Some of the English names, such as “devil’s needle,” “devil’s darning needle” or “ear cutter,” are derived from superstition.They have been associated with evil or injury. This particular (and terribly disturbing) belief, came from telling children who misbehaved that a dragonfly would come and sew up their eyes, ears or mouths while they slept!
In Germany, dragonflies have had over 150 names. Some of these are Teufelsnadel (Devil’s Needle), Wasserhexe (Water Horse) and Hollenross (Goddess’Horse); Teufelspferd (Devil’s Horse) and Schlangentöter (Snake Killer). The name “Snake Doctor” has also been used in Germany and other countries. The referral to the horses are from a common misbelief that the dragonflies were trying to harm the horses, by stinging them or biting them. As we now know, they cannot bite or sting. The dragonflies were actually going after the other insects that were around the horses, but because the dragonflies were the larger, more fierce looking creatures, they got the bad reputation. The name “Snake Doctor,” refers to dragonflies that may have been seen shadowing snakes to stitch them back up, should they get injured, according to the myths. It has also been said that dragonflies conspired with snakes and were able to wake them from the dead or warn them of impending danger. None of this is true.
In Denmark, the dragonfly has received such different names as Fandens ridehest (Devil’s riding horse) and Guldsmed (Goldsmith). Different names of dragonflies referring to them as the devils tools have also occurred in many other European cultures, some examples are the Spanish Carballito del Diablo (Devil’s Horse) and the French l’aiguille du diable, (Devil’s Needle.)
The Swedish name for dragonfly is Trollslanda, which means “hobgoblin fly” in English. Long ago, people in Sweden believed that hobgoblins, elves, brownies and such creatures lived in the great woods. In that folklore the dragonflies were considered to be the hobgoblins twisting tools. An old Swedish name for dragonfly is Blindsticka (Blind stinger), this name comes from the opinion that a dragonfly could pick your eyes out. Other people thought the dragonfly could sew your eyelids together. Again with the gruesome tales! The same name appears in Norway (Öyenstikker)-this means eye-poker, as in Germany (Augenstecher).
Another old Swedish name is Skams besman (Devil’s Steelyard), this name probably depends on the dragonfly’s body shape that, with some imagination, looks like the weighting tool. In the folklore this was interpreted as the Devil used the dragonfly to weigh people’s souls. When a dragonfly flew around your head, your soul was being weighed and you could expect to be seriously injured as punishment. It is interesting that, despite the ideas that the dragonfly should be the Devil’s tool, the dragonfly has been a holy animal in Scandinavia. In the Æsir cult the dragonfly was thought to be the love goddess Freya’s symbol. During this time in history, the dragonflies have even been connected with love and woman.
In certain parts of Norway, the dragonfly is also known as “ørsnildra”. The exact meaning of this word is a little unclear, but the part “ør,” does refer to the Norwegian word for “ear,” as people (and especially children) often thought that the dragonfly would poke holes in their ear-drums if it got inside their ears!
The Lithuanian word “Laumžirgis” is a composite word meaning “the Lauma’s horse,” while in Dutch, Aeshna mixta is called “Paardenbijter” or “horse biter.”
Some of the Latin names of dragonfly families have interesting meanings: The name Libellula might have been derived from the word libella (“booklet”) referring to the resting dragonfly, with some imagination, looks a little like the pages of an open book. In Portugal they are also called ‘tira-olhos’ – Taker of eyes or eye-snatcher.
So many stories with the dragonflies attacking the eyes and ears! Get over it already!
For a species of insects that have inhabited our planet for almost 300 million years, it is only natural perhaps that they have such a wide and varied perception amongst the various civilizations.