The Dearth of the Myth

For thirteen years I had an interest in echolocation jamming, ever since I read Lynne Peeples reporting in Scientific American on Aaron Cochran’s doctoral research into how tiger moths click to blur bats’ acoustic vision. I mean, I talked with engineers who work on radar-absorbing polymer materials in stealth bombers, man. When I light out for the territory, I go over the mountain.

For thirteen years I had an interest in echolocation jamming

William Baxter Closson. Night Moths.

A Nessus Sphinx moth, Amphion floridensis, visits two daphnes in the garden. Now there’s a mythological sentence if I’ve ever read one. Nessus, Sphinx, Amphion, Daphne.

Daphne turned into a laurel in order to keep from being raped by Apollo. Apollo would rape anything that walked. He’d rape a snake. I’m talking about two flowering shrubs, Daphne transatlantica and Daphne burkwoodii.

Amphion of Thebes had a unique masonry technique: he played his lyre so beautifully that the stones jumped into place by themselves.

But Amphion’s magic wall around Thebes didn’t get the job done. The Sphinx plagued Thebes until Oedipus solved her riddle, after which the city had other problems you may have heard about. Don’t talk to me about the Sphinx, man, I’m just trying to look at a moth here. What is it with you people and Thebes?

And then there’s Nessus, the centaur who agreed to ferry Deianira across the river but decided to try to rape her instead. Deianira was married to Hercules, who saw all this and shot Nessus through his heart with a poisoned arrow. For some reason, Deianira trusted the dying Nessus when he told her to use his magic blood as a love charm. Deianira wiped the blood of Nessus on Hercules’s shirt, but the Hydra’s burning venom in which Hercules had dipped his poisoned arrow had by that time run from Nessus’s heart all through the centaur’s bloodstream. Hercules was brave and strong, but not too bright: deianira means husband-killer. Hercules ripped off his venom-poisoned shirt in torment, and some of his own body parts came off with it. Deianira, crazy with guilt, killed herself. Zeus fried the otherwise immortal Hercules with a lightning bolt, to put him out of his misery. And they all died happily ever after. A true story.

That’s some opening move you’ve got there, Johnny. Pawn to E4. Weird to lead with all this cultural tag-along, clanking behind your moth like tin cans tied to the newlyweds’ getaway car, when what you love best about your moth is its being an unmade, unmediated thing, free from the fingerprints of man, whose envenomed touch tends to turn everything to ash. And yet you begin by singing these names and telling their stories. OK. Spirit, answer now my song.

After the whirlwind, the still small voice—after the mythology, the entomology. Less myth, more moth. Animalia, Arthropoda, Insecta, Lepidoptera, Sphingidae, Macroglossina, Amphion, A. floridensis.

Why sphinx? “Almost all sphinx larvae have a soft, harmless spine at the tip of the abdomen and are sometimes called hornworms,” says my Peterson First Guide to Insects. “When disturbed, a hornworm sometimes rears up in a threatening posture that apparently reminded some romantic entomologist of the great Sphinx in Egypt.”

Professor Ian Kitching, co-author of Hawkmoths of the World: an Annotated and Illustrated Revisionary Checklist (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) and Principal Researcher at the British Natural History Museum, emails me that it wasn’t just any old “romantic entomologist”: “It is generally accepted that Linnaeus named the hawkmoths Sphinx (they were all in that genus for the next 50 years or so) . . . because the resting posture of the larvae, particularly the type species, Sphinx ligustri, reminded him of a sphinx. To be honest, it is a bit of a tenuous similarity.”

Why amphion? Not clear. I thought the hummingbird-style sound of its wings might have reminded some other romantic entomologist of Amphion’s magic lyre. On this score, the distinguished tropical biologist Professor Phil DeVries emails: “The genus was described in 1819 by J. Hübner, and I seriously doubt he ever saw a live insect in his life. He was one of the early museum people who described dead bugs.” So my “sound hypothesis by Hübner . . . seems tenuous . . . [but it is] definitely possible that Benjamin Preston Clark [who named the species] in 1920 might have heard the celestial thrumming of its wings.”

And why nessus? Could it be because of the shirt of Nessus that poisoned Hercules, and the furry “shirt” on the moth’s upper body?

It’s a good-looking moth.

DeVries: “I like the hairy shirt hypothesis.”

Could the Nessus-shirt disrupt sonar reflection in bat echolocation?

Alberto Zilli and David C. Lees write, in their Moths: A Complete Guide to Biology and Behavior, that there are three main anti-bat defenses.

1) “One of the most important defence mechanisms in moths is the development of hearing . . . Moth ears can detect the ultrasound emitted by bats, prompting moths to close their wings and fall some distance to avoid being snatched by them.”

But sphinx moths have no ears.

2) “Elongated tails on the hindwings . . . deflect bat attacks away from the moths’ vital organs and towards expendable parts of the body, particularly the tails themselves . . . the tips of the tails are twisted to deflect bat sonar in misleading directions . . . the tails form, in effect, a larger surface whose echolocation footprint draws bat attack away from the body.”

But sphinx moths have no tails.

That leaves

3) A hairy shirt might “absorb the sonar produced by bats. . . . Bats spot their prey by echoes returning from sounds they emit, so a soundproofing coat helps absorb bat sounds and disrupt echoes, thus enhancing their chances of escaping predation.”

For thirteen years I had an interest in echolocation jamming, ever since I read Lynne Peeples reporting in Scientific American on Aaron Cochran’s doctoral research into how tiger moths click to blur bats’ acoustic vision. I mean, I talked with engineers who work on radar-absorbing polymer materials in stealth bombers, man. When I light out for the territory, I go over the mountain.

If it is true that its furry upper body disrupts echoes, then the envenomed Nessus shirt that destroys Hercules has reversed its meaning to become a Nessus anti-predator defense that saves the moth. And that is, as we know, what the Greek pharmakos means: the death that gives life, the poison that preserves—

Easy, tiger moth. Let’s take a few deep breaths. The patient and tolerant Professor DeVries says the Nessus Sphinx is “apparently a diurnal flying species. If that is correct, all conjectures regarding bat defenses seem a bit tenuous.” Yes, that’s why they call me Mister Tenuous. I have often seen these moths in daphnes at dusk, when local bats begin to hunt. But Johnny has often seen doesn’t qualify as scientific evidence.

Professor Kitching is willing to entertain the possibility that the Nessus shirt could have “some sound absorbent or deflective property, a bit like the shapes used in anechoic chambers, I am not sure. I don’t know offhand of any research in this direction, though it seems plausible.” And there you have it, my doctoral thesis in entomology writes itself.

Nessus, Sphinx, Amphion: runes of flame. Or maybe not. Professor Kitching, again: “Many early species names, and many following since, are adjectival. However, many of the early authors also named species after characters from Greek and Roman mythology and there are a lot of examples. I doubt there was much more of a reason than a classical education and to search [for] reasons why this species was named after Antaeus or that one after Caesar may be just us thinking that there must be a deeper reason when there actually isn’t one. Sometimes, there may have been (Coscinocera hercules and Attacus atlas are after all both large moths) but in most cases I think the authors were just following one of a number of trends at the time—just as there is a widespread trend these days to name species after your buddies.”

(A pertinent point, as Benjamin Preston Clark [1860–1939], having named the Nessus sphinx, later named a sphinx moth after his daughter, Xylophanes katharinae, and another after his wife, X. josephinae —straddling this trend line, or maybe even helping to start the new trend.)

It’s true about these mythological names, you know. There’s another hummingbird moth who likes to visit the daphnes: the common clearwing, Hemaris thysbe. But I don’t suppose she’s been whispering to a Pyramus moth through a crack in a wall.

Thinking that there must be a deeper reason when there actually isn’t one. Quoting yourself is a vice, and I am vicious: “People searching for meaning in their lives, people who want more meaning from life than life has to give. Their normal hunger for meaning has become a greed for meaning, an excessive appetite which calls for an excess of meaning. But there isn’t much meaning available, so they have to trick it up out of whatever happens to be lying around. ‘All of this must be happening for a reason.’ Not only is it not happening for a reason, it is not even happening.”

In 1995, I was an exterminator at an airfield in Louisville, Kentucky. Every morning I drove down Fern Valley Road to Grade Lane in my black pickup truck, and every night I drove back home to Fern Creek, having killed garbage bags of Japanese beetles on outbound cargo planes in the defense of our country’s citrus industry. Animalia, Arthropoda, Hexapoda, Insecta, ColeopteraPolyphaga, Scarabaeoidea, Scarabaeidae, Rutelinae (“shining leaf chafers”), Popillia japonica. Years passed before I stopped dreaming of the Insect Building, where all night in my sleep I rebuilt beetles on an assembly line in order to replace the many beetles I had killed. — Only last weekend I found a pretty little black-and-gold shining leaf chafer, the scarab beetle Anomala spp., on the arm of my sofa. I took a photo, carried him outside and set him free. After all, that tiny scarab has to push our sun across the sky every day. — No, he doesn’t. — Yes, he does.

But why is the moth called Amphion? Nobody knows.

And why is it called Nessus? No reason.

Why, why, why, like a three-year-old.

Sing, muse, of the wrath of the three-year-old.

Shut up, muse.

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