While many people find insects to be cringe-worthy, the dragonfly is one of the few that humans tend to enjoy gazing upon. The insects have a certain grace similar to butterflies, but also have impressive features that make them a threat in the bug world. Many cultures have developed beliefs about the dragonfly. Some are positive, viewing them as symbols of prosperity. Others dislike dragonflies, seeing them as omens of tragedy. Read on to discover what makes these insects so incredible, what different cultures have to say about them, and some of the ways that dragonflies have impacted how we interpret the world around us.
A Mesmerizing Creature
There is a reason that the dragonfly has received so much attention. Researchers estimate that the complex insects date back to somewhere between 180 and 300 million years ago. Today there are more than 5,000 kinds of dragonflies.
The unique insects don’t have teeth, making them harmless to humans. The dragonfly starts as an egg, then lives in the water as a nymph, and eventually molts to become a mature dragonfly. With the ability to control each of their wings separately, the dragonfly is amongst the most impressive species in terms of flying.
The Japanese Believe That Dragonflies Are Good Luck
In Japan, dragonflies are thought to be a sign of good luck. This has to do with a legend about the ancient emperor Yuryaka Tenvo. According to the myth, an insect bit the emperor’s arm while he was out hunting.
After the injury occurred, a dragonfly appeared and ate the insect. Thus, the dragonfly represents power and victory. Some also believe that dragonflies appear during the Buddhist celebration called Bon as a symbol of the spirits of the deceased.
Native American Beliefs
Dragonflies appear on various Native American paintings, necklaces, and pottery. One myth that was widely circulated was that dragonflies come from dragons. According to the story, a coyote convinced a dragonfly to shapeshift into the dragonfly we know today.
Unable to change back into a dragon, the dragonfly represented change and illusion. It was also believed by some Native Americans that if a dragonfly landed on your fishing pole, it meant you would have success catching fish. Further, the color of the dragonfly predicted the color of the fish that would be caught.
Good Luck Charms In China
In China, the dragonfly is viewed similarly to how Americans view a ladybug: as a good luck charm. The insect is also believed to bring harmony and prosperity. It is also associated with tranquility since watching a dragonfly in flight can put you into a meditative state.
According to the Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui, the dragonfly also represents new beginnings and prosperity. Some also believe that the dragonfly represents the soul of the dragon, a legendary creature in Chinese folklore.
In Vietnam, It’s Believed That Dragonflies Predict The Weather
In Vietnam, dragonflies are thought to be predictors of the weather. If you see a low-flying dragonfly, it means that it’s going to be rainy. Conversely, a high-flying dragonfly predicts that the day will be a sunny one.
If the dragonfly is flying somewhere in the middle, it forebodes an overcast day. In addition to predicting weather patterns, some Vietnamese follow suit with other Asian countries, believing that the dragonfly is a positive symbol predicting harmony.
The Swedish Term For Dragonfly Translates To “Hobgoblin Fly”
Contrary to many Asian cultures, in Sweden dragonflies are seen as anything but welcoming. Rather, the belief is that dragonflies are a foul omen, predicting tragedy or injury. The negative opinion of dragonflies is also apparent in the Swedish names for the insects, one of which translates to “hobgoblin fly,” and the other meaning “blind stinger.”
The latter name may have to do with a myth that dragonflies would sew the eyes shut of disobedient children or liars. This relates to the notion that the insects look out for bad souls, and that having one hover over you meant you had some shaping up to do.
Dragonfly Folklore In Germany
Germany is notorious for its dragonfly folklore. Perhaps the largest reason for their famed dragonfly mythology is due to the 150 names that they have for the insect, many of which are unflattering, to say the least.
One German origin story about the dragonfly centers around a princess who refused to talk to a small man while riding horseback. She rode over him. So he cursed her to forever be joined to her horse. Somehow, she and the horse fused to become the dragonfly.
Many of the German names for dragonflies incorporate the word “devil.” Likewise, other European countries belief that dragonflies are associated with the devil or black magic. These beliefs stem from a Romanian tale.
In the story, the devil needed to get across a lake. He asked a fisherman, but the man refused to carry the devil on his boat. Thus, the devil took the form of a dragonfly in order to fly across, birthing the existence of the insect.
Snake Healers In England
In England, dragonflies are generally disliked, as seems the tradition in much of Europe. English folklore is unique in that the tall tales involve the relationship of the dragonfly to the snake.
The saying goes that dragonflies have been spotted sitting on the heads of snakes that had been put into a trance. It’s also been said that dragonflies will stitch up snakes who are injured. These tales about dragonflies as a sort of snake healer may have to do with their association with the devil in parts of European culture.
Female Power, Beauty, And Love In Norse Mythology
On a lighter note, dragonflies have also been associated with the Goddess Freya. According to Norse mythology, Freya is the mother of the gods and represents female power, beauty, love, and fertility.
When dragonflies mate, their long tails form the shape of a heart. Being that humans associate the shape with love, it was thought that dragonflies were somehow associated with Freya since she represents both love and fertility, perfectly symbolized in the mating ritual of the dragonfly.
Maturity And Wisdom
The relationship between dragonflies and water is an important one. When a dragonfly flies over a body of water, it is said to represent the ability to look beyond the surface. This ties in with the belief that they represent mental and emotional maturity.
Like water, there is so much to life that lays below the surface. When the dragonfly permeates the water’s surface, it represents gaining a deeper understanding of the meaning of life.
Where Power Meets Grace
The impressive mobility functions of the dragonfly provide it with the ability to change direction rapidly while in flight. The strange part about the dragonfly’s flight isn’t just the fact that it can control all four wings independently, but also that it flaps its wings tremendously slow compared to other flying species.
Though dragonflies can move at 45 mph, they only need to flap their wings 30 times per minute, while a mosquito averages 800 flaps per minute. Even with the extra set of wings, that’s incredible. Thus, the seemingly effortless power of the dragonfly associates it with grace and poise.
Illusions And Truth
The iridescence of dragonfly wings causes them to change shades and sometimes even color depending on where the light hits. Thus, the true image of any given dragonfly is difficult to discern when the light strikes at different angles.
This phenomenon has led some to believe that dragonflies are a symbol of the illusions we fall for in life while on the quest for truth. Conversely, it can also be seen as an encouragement to wear your true colors.
The dragonfly only lives for a handful of years from the time it is an egg to the time it dies. However, most of its life is as a nymph. Once a dragonfly has matured into an adult, it only has a few months longer — at best, six.
Since the dragonfly only spends a matter of months in flight, they are sometimes associated with the phrase “carpe diem,” or “seize the moment.” Their whole lives lead up to a short window of adulthood. For humans, it may seem that life becomes shorter as you age. That’s all the more reason to live each moment fully immersed in the experience.
Seeing Beyond Limitations
Compared to other mammals, humans are known to rely more heavily on their sight than other senses, like smell. However, our vision is nothing compared to that of some insects, especially dragonflies. These little guys can see 360 degrees around them, which explains their round, bulging eyes.
Being able to see that much isn’t an easy feat. In fact, 80% of their brainpower goes to their eyesight alone. Symbolically, they represent the ability to see an entire situation or aspect of life, not just a tiny sliver of it.
Change And Adaptability
Perhaps one of the most popular associations with the dragonfly is that of change. Like all living objects, the dragonfly undergoes various stages throughout its lifespan. What is unique about them is that they spend their life in part underwater, and part above water.
Once the dragonfly has transitioned from an egg to a nymph, it lives in streams for up to four years. The insect then makes it onto land where it sheds its exoskeleton and hopefully survives long enough to grow into its stronger body. These various forms represent the impressive adaptability of the insect, symbolizing resilience in the face of change.
Emergence Into Adulthood
As mentioned previously, the dragonfly lives most of its life underwater. When it emerges from the water, it means that the dragonfly is transitioning into its life as an adult. However, things only get more difficult from there.
The insect has to remain protected during the coming days when its exposed body has yet to regain durability after shedding its exoskeleton. Emerging from its protection into a state of vulnerability is something most can relate to when entering adulthood. However, once they make it past this phase, they become one of the most ferocious of the insects.
A Resource For Medicine
Dragonflies are a prominent part of certain medicines throughout China, Japan, Tibet, Brazil, and Madagascar. They are also considered a delicacy in Africa, South America, Asia, and the Far East.
While the idea of consuming an insect may seem terrifying to some, it is quite normal in other parts of the world and is one of the more sustainable food resources. It makes sense that cultures that tend to have more positive beliefs about dragonflies would use them as medicine and food, while those who view them more disdainfully wouldn’t dream of such a thing.
Art And Jewelry
Given all of their symbolism, it’s understandable that dragonflies have been a popular inspiration for brooches and other jewelry. They were also often a part of paintings, carvings, and textiles throughout the centuries.
Eleventh-century Japan saw these figures on armor, helmets, scrolls, and manuscripts. These were likely positive symbols and a way to ward off danger. Seventeenth-century Dutch art also used the insects as a motif. Today they adorn postage stamps and postcards in several countries.
Dragonflies In Literature
Remember the myth about a Japanese emperor who had been bitten by an insect, which was consequently eaten by a dragonfly? That story was translated into a poem and is the earliest known piece of writing dedicated to the bug.
Since then, songs, stories, and more poems have been written in honor of the dragonfly. These writings not only perpetuate beliefs about dragonflies, but also act as a footprint to help us trace back where these beliefs come from.