Our Lady’s Bird

Yesterday, a delightful ladybug was spotted on the edge of the family room window. She was tiny and might have gone unnoticed if Kitty had not been posing on the shelf in front of her.  If one of her sisters or friends arrives at your residence, treat her kindly for she is Our Lady’s Bird.  I know that sounds silly to some modern ears, but do not let The Scientists and They That Know Better Than The Common Man rob you of little traditions associated with household happenings.

The ladybug has a long history in the affairs of human life as seen in this excerpt from the Mother of All Peoples website:

How did it (the ladybug, added SCF) become known as ‘Our Lady’s Bird?’  No one seems to know exactly. In Elizabethan times many common creatures were attributed names with a sacred association. Such names were usually local in character. In the case of the ladybird, another factor came into play. Not only was it a colloquial name employed in a few areas of England, but it found its way into many languages in forms closely related.

In German the tiny critter was called Marienhuhn (Mary’s chicken), Marienkafer (Mary’s beetle), and Marienwurmschen (Mary’s little worm). Marienkuh was an earlier form related to the English ‘lady-cow.’ The Swedes used the name Marias Nyckelpiga, and the farmers still call the insect ‘the Virgin Mary’s golden hen.’ A slightly different tack is taken in French and in Spanish. In these languages the names link the insect with the protection of God. The French call it la bete a bon dieu (God’s animal), while the Spanish use the name Vaquilla de Dios (God’s little cow).

Both coincidence and cultural exchange fall short in explaining so widespread a view concerning an insect. Scientific names in Latin are common to many nations and languages. But it is extraordinary for folk names to be so closely parallel. Why should people in so many different lands envision the ladybug as enjoying heavenly protection, especially that of Mary?

Here is the most reasonable guess. Persons who have grown up in rural areas know that birds and animals almost always leave the ladybird strictly alone, for the ladybird is proficient in chemical warfare. It produces a yellowish fluid which it discharges in time of danger. Though seldom noticed by the blunted human sense of smell, this serum is highly repulsive to foes of the ladybird. Consequently the bright bug goes about its business with virtual immunity from attack.

Amazed at the beetle’s sheltered and protected life, the human observers probably concluded that it enjoyed the special favor of the Lady whom they themselves venerated and whose assistance they sought. It seemed natural to call the insect Ladybird. One might also conjecture that people saw a similarity in the creature’s charmed life to the preservation of Our Lady from sin. In the England of that time the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was a popular belief and prominently discussed. English dialects included variant titles like Lady-beetle, Lady-clock, and Lady-cow. Standardization of speech erased these names, and gradually the capitalization of the first letter was discontinued. Now only the scholarly reader continues to find in this insect’s name a reference to earlier reverence and Marian relation.

Farmers of Elizabethan England may not have understood clearly the economic significance of the ladybird, but they knew that it fed on other insects. Hops, long a major crop, are vulnerable to the attack of plant lice. Ladybirds abound in hop fields. They were probably observed in action more closely than the lack of written descriptions would indicate. Not until 1861 did scientific records mention that ladybirds feed on the aphids which infest hops.

Folk literature preserves some clues. One is the fact that even today the children of many lands know some form of this rhyme.

Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home!
Your house is on fire,
Your children do roam.
Except little Ann, who sits in a pan
Weaving gold laces as fast as she can.

Children recite that rhyme after a ladybird has been placed on an outstretched finger. This practice has changed little through the centuries as indicated by a woodcut which dates from the reign of King George II. The woodcut depicts a child addressing a ladybird before flight.

Having more rhyme than reason, the jingle’s significance is clearer in view of its historical setting. Farmers often gathered hop plants and burned them when the harvest was finished. Ladybirds swarmed and children enjoyed warning the little birds to flee from danger. ‘Little Ann’ was the name for a young grub of the ladybird attached to a leaf and shedding its skin, or ‘weaving gold laces.’

So, if you spot one of these little ladies in your home, do enjoy her companionship, and may she remind you of Our Lady.