The erebid moth Ascalapha odorata bears the common name Black Witch. It is considered a harbinger of death in Mexican and Caribbean folklore. In Spanish it is known as "Mariposa de la muerte" (Mexico & Costa Rica), "Pirpinto de la Yeta" (Argentina), "Tara Bruja" (Venezuela) or simply "Mariposa negra" (Colombia); in Nahuatl (Mexico) it is "Miquipapalotl" or "Tepanpapalotl" (miqui = death, black + papalotl = moth); in Quechua (Peru) it is "Taparaco"; in Mayan (Yucatán) it is "X-mahan-nah" (mahan = to borrow + nah = house); in Jamaica and the Caribbean, the moth is known as the "Duppy Bat" or "Money moth". Other names for the moth include the Papillion-devil, La Sorcière Noire, or the Mourning or Sorrow moth.
Ascalapha odorata is a large bat-shaped, dark-colored nocturnal moth. Males can attain a wingspan of 16 cm. The dorsal surfaces of their wings are mottled brown with hints of iridescent purple and pink, and, in females, crossed by a white bar. [Males lack this bar.] The diagnostic marking is a small spot on each forewing shaped like a number nine or a comma. This spot is often green with orange highlights. Females are somewhat smaller, reaching 12 cm in width, and lighter in color. The larva is a large caterpillar up to 7 cm in length with intricate patterns of black and greenish brown spots and stripes.
The black witch moth is found throughout Central America and Mexico, with its distribution extending from Brazil to the southern United States. It is the largest noctuid found in the continental United States, Adults feed on overripe rainforest fruit, especially bananas, and larvae consume the leaves of plants. Most of its host plants are legumes. It favors Acacia species, Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus), and Candle Bush (Senna alata). It attacks mesquite and edible fig, and can be an agricultural pest.
The moth undertakes a northward migration during the late spring and summer, moving up through Central America and entering the northern reaches of its range. During this season individual adults and masses of larvae can be found from Texas to Florida. It is also found in Hawaii, but it is not native to the islands.
Folklore and mythology
In many cultures, one of these moths flying into the house is considered bad luck: e.g., in Mexico, when there is sickness in a house and this moth enters, it is believed the sick person will die, though a variation on this theme (in the lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas) is that death only occurs if the moth flies in and visits all four corners of one's house (in Mesoamerica, from the prehispanic era until the present time, moths have been associated with death and the number four). In some parts of Mexico, people joke that if one flies over someone's head, the person will lose his hair.
In Jamaica, under the name duppy bat, the moth is seen as the embodiment of a lost soul or a soul not at rest. In Jamaican English, the word duppy is associated with malevolent spirits returning to inflict harm upon the living and bat refers to anything other than a bird that flies. The word "duppy" (also: "duppie") is also used in other West Indian countries, generally meaning "ghost".
In Hawaii, Black Witch mythology, though associated with death, has a happier note in that if a loved one has just died, the moth is an embodiment of the person's soul returning to say goodbye. In the Bahamas, where they are locally known as Money Moths or Moneybats, the legend is that if they land on you, you will come into money, and similarly, in South Texas, if a Black Witch lands above your door and stays there for a while you will supposedly win the lottery.
In popular culture
Pupae of the Black Witch moth were placed in the mouths of victims by serial killer 'Buffalo Bill' in the novel The Silence of the Lambs. In the movie adaptation the moth was changed to a Death's-head Hawkmoth.
Related migratory moths
- Daniel H. Janzen Costa Rican Natural History Pages 679 & 687, University of Chicago Press, 1983 ISBN 0-226-39334-8 Original from University of Texas, Digitized Mar 26, 2008 - Accessed via GoogleBooks September 5, 2008
- Charles L. Hogue Latin American Insects and Entomology Page 323, University of California Press, 1993 ISBN 0-520-07849-7 - Accessed via GoogleBooks September 5, 2008
-  The Black Witch Moth: Its Natural & Cultural History, by Mike Quinn
- Janzen, D. H. (Ed.). (1983). Costa Rican Natural History. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.
- Frederic Gomes Cassidy, Robert Brock Le Page, A Dictionary of Jamaican English Page 164, University of the West Indies press, 2002 ISBN 976-640-127-6 Accessed via GoogleBooks September 5, 2008
- John Holmes Agnew, Walter Hilliard Bidwell, The Eclectic Magazine Leavitt, Trow & Co., 1844 Page 128, Original from the University of Michigan Digitized Sep 6, 2005 Accessed via GoogleBooks September 7, 2008
- Frederic Gomes Cassidy, Robert Brock Le Page, A Dictionary of Jamaican English Page 32, University of the West Indies press, 2002 ISBN 976-640-127-6 Accessed via GoogleBooks September 5, 2008
- Harris, Thomas (1988). The Silence of the Lambs. New York: St. Martin's. p. 95.
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