A Right Royal Visit

I was nodding off yesterday afternoon (don’t ask) when my partner rushed in announcing that she’d found “a fantastic moth”.  I grabbed my camera and followed her out to our small garden, where a wonderful buff, grey, and white female Emperor moth was perched in a perfect viewing position.  Her mate, the smaller male, with ‘brownish pink forewings and chestnut brown hindwings’, and lovely ‘pectinate’ (comb-like, toothed, feathery) antennae, that may have detected her pheremones from over a mile away, was clasped against her.  Two naturalist friends, one of whom is a keen ‘moth-er’, hurried over, and the four of us stood basking in the sheer beauty of these impressive creatures.  We were all quietly excited and felt intensely protective.  It was a lovely moment.  I was particularly impressed by how long the moths’ delicate embrace lasted.  We must have watched them joined together for over 20 minutes, but had no way of knowing how long this had been going on for previously.  Was it the chilly weather?  Were they comatose?  Were they dreaming?  Were they locked in unimaginable bliss?  I’ve no idea, but it was beautiful to watch.

Female Emperor Moth, Saturnia Pavonia.

Female Emperor Moth, Saturnia Pavonia.

Pair of Emperor Moths, showing the male's feathery antennae.

Pair of Emperor Moths, showing the male’s feathery antennae.

Our friend told us that the female would only just have emerged.  The beautiful moth form is the culmination of an extraordinary process of metamorphosis.  The caterpillars make a cocoon of coarse silk -this being Britain’s only silk moth- that apparently has a lobster-pot style trap door designed to prevent predatory insects or spiders from entering.  Once safely inside the cocoon, the caterpillar’s internal organs liquify, and then, gradually, the moth ‘condenses’ -one might say- cell by cell.  This pupa stage can last up to three years, but the moth only lives for four or five days, using up its fat reserves, but not eating.  What an incredible body-mind process.

We photographed our motionless royal visitors.  Then, eventually, the top corner of one of the male’s wings began to flicker.  He was, we were told, ‘revving- up’ his wings to fly.  As if suddenly weightless, he fluttered effortlessly skywards.  Our moth-er friend decided to move the female (with the aid of an egg-box) across to some heather, the caterpillar’s favourite food plant, on the nearby hillside.

Female Emperor Moth.

Female Emperor Moth.

Emperor moths are formally referred to as Saturnia Pavonia, and are part of the family Saturniidae, named from the ringed planet Saturn because of the ringed ‘eye’ spots on their wings.  As an astrologer, I’m curious about this.  Names are often meaningful, but I don’t want to press the question of symbolism, other than to say that we are both sun Capricorn, so Saturn is our ‘ruling planet’.  She-who-found-them has Saturn rising, and, I think, was in need of a lift.  This was her best ever moth encounter.  She said it felt as though they were saying ‘you’ve appreciated us all this time, now we’ll show you what we’re like’.  So, there she was, grinning from ear to ear, clapping with joy!  Don’t forget that Saturn is the planet of the Walled Garden of Paradise, and the proverbial Golden Age.  Its’ not all doom, gloom, and duty!  But the female’s exquisitely patterned buff, grey, and white regalia does have an unmistakeably restrained Saturnine quality.

I don’t want to interfere with the memory of the moment, so I’ll go no further along the symbolic track, except to warn readers that there’s some dire New Age material on the web claiming, for instance, to summarise the ‘wisdom’ of this species.*  As a confirmed symbolic thinker and paid-up believer in other dimensions (of reality/cosmic Nature), my response to such guff is to suggest that the Emperor moth’s story is a prime example of the extravagant complexity, wonder, and ‘sacredness’, of ‘vital materiality’.  It needs no mythopoetic adornment.  Appropriating the Emperor moth’s metamorphosis as an allegory of transcendence would be an affront to the miracle of embodiment.


Learn About Butterflies.com/Britain website.  Sorry I can’t get the web address for the page to work here.


* One website, having wrongly stated that the female Emperor moth is smaller than the male, claims that the species teaches us ‘respect for male and female differences’, and how to ‘use smell to good effect’.  You couldn’t make it up!

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“What a wonderful encounter and sensitively described. I especially like your ending about an affront to the wonders of embodiment and the last bit about male/female differences!  Cultural values get everywhere!  Beautiful moths.  I shall have to look them up to find the size, though I think they are quite big.  Great photography too.  I’ve seen spiders mating; they go on for hours.”  Jo Pacsoo.


These jottings are dedicated to the memory and presence of a very dear friend, Peter Goode, who ‘passed over’ in August.  Our discussions in the months before he died were increasingly squeezed between the demands of visiting care workers, nurses, and helpful neighbours, and periods when the physical toll of pain and exhaustion made thinking and talking difficult for him.  But when we did talk, Peter consistently expressed the view –  hopefully my words convey his sentiment accurately – that he would be more than happy to melt back into the living world, even perhaps to transform into some other-than-human life form, a Cat, a Silver Birch, a Pigeon, a Jackdaw, a Peony, any of the plants or animals that lived in, or visited, the garden that surrounded the prefab that he was only given during the last three years of his life, when too disabled by chronic illness to take care of it himself.

Peter didn’t have a rose-tinted view of the natural world, and I certainly don’t have a rose-tinted view of human culture, but it became clear that I was more of an unreconstructed spiritualist than he was.  His conviction about metamorphosis made me wonder why I was resistent to the idea that he, or I, might become other-than-human.  Did I not respect my animal companions as equals, after all these years?  Like many of Peter’s friends, I understandably wanted to hold on to his memory in human form.

Wherever he went, he still seems to be ‘around’, not least in his life affirming art.  I am devoting a page – ‘All Life Lives on A Leaf’ – to some reflections on Peter’s deeply animist work, and how the natural world responded to our shared appreciation of primal beauty.