The Significant Cultural Symbolism Of Dragonflies Around The World

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The humble dragonfly has inspired humans for generations. However, far beyond admiring the insects for their simple beauty, many cultures have attached significant meanings to the fascinating creatures. So, if you often notice dragonflies, the universe may be trying to send you an important message.

Image: Didier Descouens/Muséum de Toulouse

Dragonflies are ancient creatures and it’s thought that they took to the skies around 300 million years ago, long before dinosaurs ruled the earth. Back then, they were among the first insects to evolve with wings. And unlike our dainty dragonflies of today, they boasted wingspans of up to two feet.

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Today, there are around 5,000 known kinds of dragonflies on our planet. They are closely related to the damselfly, with both species belonging to the odonata group of insects. Odonata translates as “toothed one” in Greek, apparently referring to the carnivorous species’ teeth.

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Image: Krzysztof Niewolny

Meanwhile, it’s since been established that dragonflies don’t actually have teeth. Instead, they have powerful serrated mandibles, which allow them to crush insects and feed on their prey. Because, while the insects may look fragile, they are actually ferocious killers with an insatiable appetite for anything they can grind up in their jaws.

Image: Andre Mouton

Dragonflies tend to be larger than their damselfly cousins, with wings that stick out to the side rather than held high. As adults, they are distinctive creatures, with their long bodies and see-through wings. They also sport large, multifaceted eyes and often boast bold, metallic colors.

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Dragonflies start life as an egg – but after they hatch they enter a larval stage, during which they are known as a nymph. At this point in their lifecycle, dragonflies live on water, and could remain there for up to four years, until they are ready to emerge as adults. And even at this early stage, dragonfly lymphs are predators, feasting on anything from insect larvae to fish and tadpoles to stay alive.

Image: Loz

When a dragonfly’s larval stage comes to an end, the nymph crawls out of the water and cracks open its exoskeleton. It’s then that the insect’s distinctive abdomen and four wings emerge. Though dragonflies’ bodies are soft at first, they strengthen over the coming hours and days. Until then, though, the insects are vulnerable to predators.

Image: André Karwath aka Aka

As a result, many new dragonfly adults are eaten by birds and other carnivores. As a result, lots of the insects do not make it. And even those who survive the first few days of their adult lives will only live for up a year. Indeed, for some species, life on the wing lasts for just a precious few weeks.

Image: Tony Hisgett

But as master predators, dragonflies make every second of their adult existence count. And they are extraordinarily good fliers – they can move up and down, forwards and backwards and can hover just like a helicopter. Furthermore, they can move each of their wings independently, enabling them to make hairpin turns in the blink of an eye.

Image: Boris Smokrovic

And this agility enables dragonflies to catch prey using only their feet – and they can even mate in mid-air. The insects are also incredibly fast – they can travel forwards at 100 body lengths per second, which translates roughly to 30 miles per hour. As a result, many dragonfly species choose to migrate in search of vital resources.

Image: Oosman

In fact, it is a dragonfly known as the globe skimmer that holds the record for the insect with the longest migration. That’s because, true to name, the globe skimmer makes an impressive 11,000-mile journey across the Indian Ocean, traveling between Africa and India. But that’s not the only fascinating dragonfly fact.

Image: Alex Perez

Indeed, not only are dragonflies master fliers, they also have impeccable vision. The insects’ eyes dominate their heads, giving them almost 360° vision. Furthermore, they see a greater variety of colors than us humans. As a result of their excellent eyesight, they are able to pick up on other insects’ movements, therefore avoiding mid-air collisions.

Image: Vincent van Zalinge

Meanwhile, dragonflies are found in all corners of the Earth, and live on every continent apart from Antarctica. However, despite their widespread distribution, populations are in decline across the world. This is due to the loss of the wetland environments that dragonflies rely on for survival. Consequently, in 1997 the International Union for Conservation of Nature established a status survey for the insect, in the hopes of producing a conservation plan for them.

Image: Dustin Iskandar

Crucially, the loss of dragonflies would undoubtedly be detrimental to the rest of the planet. For one, dragonflies do great work in keeping the mosquito population under control. That’s because a single insect will eat somewhere between 30 to several hundred mosquitoes every day. And that’s without taking into account the cultural significance that dragonflies hold across the world.

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It seems that dragonflies have captivated our ancestors for thousands of years. English archaeologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie found a blue-glazed dragonfly amulet while exploring the ancient town of El Lahun. The trinket was believed to have dated from the late Middle Kingdom era of Ancient Egypt, which occurred between around 2050 and 1710 BC.

Image: Vincent van Zalinge

Since then, the simple dragonfly has captured imaginations across the world. And in several cultures they have garnered unique meanings, which are often inspired by the insect’s distinctive lifestyle, characteristics and behavior. One prevalent myth suggests that dragonflies are called as such because they descended from dragons.

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And in many parts of the world, dragonflies are symbolic of change. This also encompasses a change in perspective or a personal epiphany. And these developments may come from gaining emotional or mental maturity, or discovering a new meaning of to life. Because they live on the surface of water, some believe that dragonflies encourage us to look deeper into different aspects of our lives.

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Many people also take inspiration from the dragonfly’s agile movements, and the insect’s ability to fly in any direction. Some consider this quality to be a sign of their poise and power. And because they only acquire these skills in their adult lives, it’s thought that these traits are only earned with maturity and age.

Image: Krzysztof Niewolny

The dragonfly is also seen as a symbol of power and elegance. That’s because the insect flaps its wings just 30 times each minute, despite its agility in the air. To put this into perspective, houseflies flap their wings up to 1,000 times each minute, creating a much less graceful result. With that in mind, dragonflies have been compared to ballerinas, matching the dancers in both strength and grace.

Image: Naveen Kumar

Furthermore, some admirers of dragonflies see them as the personification of the “you only live once” philosophy. That’s because the smallest section of their lives is lived as adults. Nevertheless, they achieve all they can in this small period of time, encouraging all of us to live each day to the fullest, as if it’s our last.

Image: Balaji Malliswamy

However, alongside these universal beliefs regarding the significance of dragonflies, they also have culturally specific meanings too. For many years the humble insect has been a source of inspiration for Japanese poets. Matsuo Bashō, one of Japan’s most influential haikai masters, lived between the years 1644 and 1694. And in one of his verses he writes about the “crimson pepper pod” of the “darting dragonfly.”

Image: Ginko Adachi

In fact, dragonflies have been symbolic in Japan for centuries. This is, in part, down to a legend involving Emperor Jinmu, the country’s mythical founder. The ancient leader was reportedly bitten by a mosquito who was trying to steal his imperial blood. However, the bloodsucking insect soon met its demise when a dragonfly came along to eat it.

Image: Kitagawa Utamaro

As a result of the myth, Japan become known as the “Dragonfly Islands.” To this day, the insects still influence Japanese culture and continue to feature regularly in literature and art. Furthermore, they are closely associated with the fall, and commonly represent strength, courage and happiness.

Image: Parvana Praveen

With that in mind, the dragonfly was adopted as a symbol for ancient samurai warriors. It’s thought that the insect represented agility, power and most of all – victory. It’s believed that samurais wrongly thought that dragonflies didn’t fly backwards. As a result, they took this as telling of the creature’s drive and unwavering spirit.

Image: Shawn Kenessey

And it’s not just Japanese culture that holds dragonflies in high esteem. The insects are also revered by a number of Native American tribes, for whom they represent speed, happiness and purity. In these cultures, dragonflies are also thought to bring change and are regarded as messengers from the elemental world.

Image: Gianluca Montomoli

Furthermore, dragonflies have separate significance for many individual Native American tribes. For instance, in Navajo culture, the insects represent pure water. Furthermore, Hopi Shamans believe dragonflies possess supernatural powers. Indeed, they are thought to bring protection, fertility and abundance, preventing starvation.

Image: Andrew James

With that in mind, dragonflies feature prominently in Hopi rock art. However, the insects are also a popular motif in other Native American tribes too. As a result, they appear often in Pueblo necklaces and Zuni pottery. And the powers of dragonflies are thought to extend way beyond protection in other cultures.

Image: Fikri Rasyid

Dragonflies have been used in the traditional medicine of China and Japan for many years. The insects are also consumed in Indonesia, where they are considered a delicacy. In order to ensnare the rapid fliers, people use poles covered in sticky birdlime. Once captured, dragonflies are deep fried and gobbled up as a tasty treat.

Image: Marv Watson

Meanwhile, in the Mayan civilization, dragonflies were believed to carry the spirits of passed loved ones. Furthermore, Mayan folklore links the insects to rebirth. The ancient society also thought that dragonflies represented creativity, as outlined in the story of Ix Chel, a goddess saved by the song of the insects’ wings.

Image: Krzysztof Niewolny

Meanwhile, in Celtic tradition dragonflies are thought to be fairies in disguise. According to one Irish myth, so-called “wee ones” used the insects as a kind of winged chariot, in order to get from place-to-place without being spotted by non-magical beings. Celtic symbolism also links dragonflies to mythical dragons, which were said to guard magical wells and Ireland’s Sacred Stones.

Image: Timothy Rhyne

However, dragonflies aren’t prized by every culture. Indeed, in some parts of Europe in particular they have a somewhat sinister reputation. For example, one English nickname for the insect is the “devil’s darning needle,” which suggests they have been sent by Satan to wreak pain and havoc here on Earth.

Image: Joey Csunyo

The ill-feeling towards dragonflies was also spread to Australia when the British colonized the continent in the late 1700s. Down Under, the insects were predominantly known as “horse stingers.” This nickname came from the belief that dragonflies were bothersome to equines, which seemed to kick out whenever they were around.

Image: Alex Konokh

However, as we’ve come to learn more about dragonflies, it seems unlikely that they were ever responsible for “stinging” horses. In fact, they probably hung around the animals to prey on the parasitic insects that were harming them. So, they were probably doing the equines more good than they were harm.

Image: Thomas Giotopoulos

In reality, dragonflies are capable of biting animals – and even humans – with their mandibles. But they will only do so if they feel threatened. What’s more, most species aren’t capable of breaking the skin or causing harm. There are, however, a few kinds of larger dragonflies that could create a nasty bite.

Image: Erda Estremera

With that in mind, negative connotations of dragonflies still persist in some parts of the world. Like the English, the Swedish traditionally associated the insects with the devil. However, they believed that that dragonflies were sent by Satan to weigh the souls of his victims. As a result, if you spotted one circling above you, you should expect something bad to happen.

Image: Greg Froning

In fact, dragonflies are quite curious around humans. As a result, they will often hover around a person, as if to get a closer look. And while this might appear ominous to some, they are not the kind of creature to cause harm. As a result, any perceived circling behavior is usually not menacing.

Image: Егор Камелев

But the Swedish mistrust of dragonflies doesn’t end there. In fact, the insects have been known as “blind stingers” in the past. The name comes from the belief that they could pick out eyeballs, or even sew eyelids together. And similar nicknames exist in Norway and Germany, while in Portugal dragonflies are known as “eye-snatchers.”

Image: Shreyas Bhosale

In other parts of the world, dragonflies have been associated with snakes. In Wales, for instance, the insects are regarded as “gwas-y-neidr” – the snake’s servant. Similarly, in some Southern States, dragonflies are known as “snake doctors.” Here, folklore suggests that they stitch serpents together again, if they’ve become injured.

Image: Jude Infantini

However, it’s believed that most of these negative viewpoints are based on the dragonfly’s striking appearance, which could have been considered frightening to some people. As a result, before science taught us more about these fascinating creatures, they held a fearsome reputation.

Image: Jack Kaminski

What is clear is that dragonflies have captured our imaginations for generations, and by better understanding them we can hopefully maintain this relationship long into the future. After all, what other insect can claim to inspire fear, hope, happiness, mistrust and wonder like the dragonfly does? And they do so making it look so effortless.

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