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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/April 1874/The Mantis, or Praying Insect

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 4‎ | April 1874


SPECIES of insects known as Mantids belong to the order Orthoptera, which includes crickets, grasshoppers, cockroaches, locusts, etc. The following figure illustrates the appearance of one of these. They are of bright, variegated colors, and are sometimes quite large, even three or four inches in length. The mantis lays its eggs at the end of summer, in rounded, fragile shells, which it attaches to the branches of trees, and which do not hatch till the following summer. It differs in locomotion from its orthopterous relatives, which travel by jumps, while the mantis crawls so slowly that its progress can only be appreciated by careful and prolonged watching. This trait is connected with another character by which the mantis differs from the foregoing groups, for, while they are vegetarians, this insect is carnivorous, and its insidious movements are part of the policy by which it

PSM V04 D731 Praying mantis.jpg
Mantis Religiosa (Male).

captures the various creatures upon which it feeds. But the mantis is not only a carnivore which lives by killing and devouring other insects, it is also a creature of the most quarrelsome disposition; in fact, it is a ferocious cannibal. If two of these insects be shut up together, they engage in a desperate combat; they deal each other blows with their front legs, and do not leave off fighting until the stronger has succeeded in eating off the other's head. From their very birth the larvae attack each other. In their contests, the male, being smaller than the female, is often the victim. This pugnacity of the mantis is the source of amusement to children in China. Two mantids are shut up together in a bamboo cage, and the young heathen view with delight the inevitable battle, and the resulting cannibal feast.

And yet, while its inoffensive orthopterous brethren have got but little credit for their virtues, and are generally reviled as nuisances, this atrocious little savage has had the fortune to acquire a peculiar reputation for wisdom and saintliness. For thousands of years, and in all parts of the world, it has borne this character. The cause has been that it habitually assumes an attitude that appears devotional, and it was supposed to spend a large portion of its life in prayer. Settled on the ground, it raises its head and thorax, clasps together the joints of its front legs (see cut), and raises them as if in supplication, and remains in this posture for hours together. To our illogical and superstitious forefathers what could the upraised and crossed arms indicate but an attitude of devotion?

The name mantis (diviner) was given to this insect, it is said, by the Greeks, in accordance with the notion that, when the creature assumes its peculiar attitude of meditation, it is engaged in the contemplation of futurity. Naturalists have encouraged the superstition by giving names to the different species which imply some kind of sanctity; thus, we have Mantis oratoria, Mantis religiosa, Mantis superstitiosa, etc. With the French it is the Prega-Dieu (that prays to God), Le Prêcheur (the preacher); with the Germans it is Gottesanbeterin (worshiper of God), while the English-speaking nations have dubbed it the Praying Insect. The names familiarly given to it in Southern Europe are sufficiently expressive of the veneration with which it is regarded—nun, saint, suppliant, mendicant, etc. "In the eyes of the Languedoc peasants," says Figuier, "the Mantis religiosa is held sacred, and they firmly believe that it performs its devotions." Mr. Spicer, writing in Science Gossip, remarks: "Nor was this feeling of veneration confined to the nations of Europe. At the present day (and doubtless it was the same in old times also) a Mantis is an object of worship with certain tribes of North Africa." Sparmann also tells us ("Travels in Africa") that "in the southern part of the same continent it is venerated by the Hottentots; and that, should one of these insects chance to settle on an individual, he is looked upon in the light of a saint, and as specially favored by Heaven."

That the superstition should have gone to greater lengths than mere inference was natural: somebody was certain to make the mantis open his mouth and give audible expression to his devout sentiments. Of course we should expect this in the middle ages, when credulity was unbounded, and there was a universal belief in the semi-divine nature of this wicked bug. "The great Saint Francis Xavier is said to have held a conversation with one which he came across in a forest, and to have induced it to chant a hymn!"

Dr. James Mann, author of the "Guide to the Knowledge of Life," and who was for some years superintendent of education in the province of Natal, South Africa, has written a very interesting account of the insects of that region, which was published in the Intellectual Observer, and from that article we quote the following passage regarding the mantis, from which it will be seen that the insect still contrives to keep up its theological reputation: "Of orthopterous Natal insects, the large green mantis is certainly a distinguished chief. He is a very remarkable fellow, powerful alike upon wing and leg, but much given to fits of lethargy and brown study. His traditional religious exercise, indeed, is simply a lying in wait for what the gods may send in the way of food. He fixes himself, as if in rapt contemplation, upon some convenient stalk or leaf, and then bends up his chest and shoulders into an almost erect position, pressing together his arms in front, and looking well out before him, with the palpi of his lips slightly vibrating. In this expectant mood he allows himself to be coaxed with the finger, merely staggering back a pace or two, and fixing his goggle-eyes upon the biped who vouchsafes this personal attention. If he lights upon a perpendicular window or wall when in this vein of 'religious' ecstasy, he seems to remain for hours together without motion, but all the while he mounts imperceptibly up and up until he reaches the ceiling or roof which limits the chamber in the upward direction. The closest watching does not show how this most gradual of all climbings is accomplished. Not a limb can be seen to move, yet up, minute after minute, he glides. It is while he is in these fits of expectant ecstasy that he seizes his prey. He is essentially a carnivorous feeder, and pounces stealthily upon any unwary insect that settles within convenient reach, seizing the victim between his upraised legs, and fixing it there between the row of spikelets with which these prehensile limbs are fringed. After a deliberate inspection of the morsel held in this position, he goes to work with his jaws....

"It was the author's fate upon one auspicious occasion," writes Dr. Mann, "to watch one of these 'religious' insects engaged in a remarkably appropriate occupation. A dignitary of the Natal Church, who has since made some noise in the world (Bishop Colenso), was, one warm summer evening, with all the windows and doors of his chapel open to the refreshing breeze, preaching by candle-light, when a huge green mantis whizzed into the assembly and perched himself upon the preacher's white neckerchief; and, first folding his arms into the prayerful attitude, he raised his chest and shoulders into rapt attention, turning his goggles from side to side, and following responsively each motion of the spectacles, that glanced, now on this hand and now on that, from above. He remained fixed in this convenient position until properly dismissed with the rest of the congregation at the close of the sermon, and he did not even then depart at once, being puzzled and staggered, in all probability, by some of the novel doctrines he had been listening to."