Underwings & Salem witch Hysteria.

Joe Kunkel joe at bio.umass.edu
Wed Aug 18 06:56:35 EDT 1999

There is a catocaline which is the largest noctuid in North America
called the Black Witch, URL:


I was not aware that any of the Catocala themselves were referred to as
witches.  Interesting! I will ask Ted Sargent my local expert.  He is
also interested in local lore in the mountains of western Massachusetts,


Joe Kunkel

Mothman617 wrote:
> While I was out in the woods day searching for Underwing Moths (Catocala) This
> past weekend. I was approached by a woman whom I never met before and she
> referred to the moths I was collecting as "witch moths". Since I have never
> heard or read of Catocalae being called this, I asked her why. She then
> explained to me she was a retired high school teacher, an avid birdwatcher and
> local historian. She said that when she was a young girl, her great grandmother
> was very superstitious about moths resting on her house. Catocala are well
> noted for resting on buildings particularly during rain, high winds etc. Her
> great grandmother told her that the "witch moths" in question meant bad luck
> and misfortune to anyone living in the home, and on a daily basis in late
> summer-early autumn she would inspect the outside of her home and sweep away
> any moths resting behind shutters or under eaves with a broom. The great
> grandmother was a godfearing christian with puritan descent. The great
> grandmother told her that  the bright colors of the hindwings represented the
> fires of hell, hidden behind a dark cloak - the forewings. The great
> grandmother also told her that  in Salem around the 1692 witch hysteria, some
> people were accused of being a witch if these moths were present upon their
> home. At first I thought this was a ridiculous and quite amusing bit of New
> England folklore. OK as I sit at this computer, I am two houses down from the
> Salem witch house. So I am quite familiar with local history, my fiance is a
> history teacher and I have been collecting and studying this group of moths for
> a very long time with some of the best and current literature on Catocala to
> boot. Nothing is mentioned of a connection with underwings to witches in 17th
> century Salem or of the huge hysteria in Europe. (Another part of the world
> where Catocala are well represented). As I thought about this later, I wondered
> if there 'might be' a connection however small or insignificant. If anyone has
> seen a Catocala at rest, especially C. cara or amatrix, they do look a little
> creepy. Something in a 'hooded cloak' hiding in a dark crevace only to show
> their 'true' colors when the darkness of night descends. Superstitions about
> moths are well known are well known throughout many cultures, in many parts of
> the world. The Deaths Head Hawkmoth is an example. The horror movie "Silence Of
> The Lambs" featured this. So what I am looking for is any information
> connecting Underwings or any other moths to witches or witchcraft. I find this
> quite intriguing and will welcome any comments or information.

Joseph G. Kunkel, Professor
Biology Department             joe at bio.umass.edu
University of Massachusetts    http://www.bio.umass.edu/biology/kunkel
Amherst MA 01003

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