Science Art: Papillons, from Larousse Universe, 1922

Thanks to an unexpected gift from an old friend, I was just reading an article in the print edition of Scientific American about the Sora people of eastern India, who have a unique culture that’s in danger of being forgotten completely, as more of their children convert to Christianity or mainstream Hinduism. One of their core religious beliefs involves a kind of trance mediumship to communicate with departed relatives, very similar to what I’ve seen in a Spiritualist church or read about in the story of the Witch of Endor. As long as a living family member remembers the departed, they can be reached in the underworld and carry messages.

But once the last living descendant of the last living family member has forgotten who the departed spirit was, they become a butterfly.

We don’t have a similar belief in my culture … except maybe some of the stories about Acherontia atropos, the death’s-head hawkmoth. Those stories are not quite so wistful, but maybe they should be. I imagine some spirits can feel angry or fall into despair over being forgotten.

The death’s-head hawkmoth is not on this encyclopedia page. The star attraction is a moth that looks like a luna moth, but is actually a Madagascar moon moth, also called a comet moth. I don’t know any folklore about it, but looking like that and with names like that, I imagine there must be.

The illustration came from Wikimedia Commons, but you can leaf through the book on

Happy 2023, world. Let’s try to remember what we need to remember.