Cultural Odonatology References

This page lists odonatology references I have come across which pertain to the impact of dragonflies on art and culture.

1999 Nov - additions temporarily suspended
1998 Dec 15 - added info from ancient Japanese songs & Symnet, Philippines, Tiwi tribe, new stamp links
1998 Feb 03 - added reference to Ornament article entitled Dragonfly Brooches
1997 Jan 24 - added link to Martin Peterson and Montgomery reference
1996 Sep 13 - fixed bad reference to dragonfly pin - 13 Sep 1996


An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols by J. C. Cooper pg 56 1960 (reissued from 1931 with a slightly different name)
- can share butterfly symbolism of immortality and regeneration
- Native Americans - whirlwind, swiftness, activity
- China - summer, instability, weakness
- Japan - national emblem of the Dragonfly Island, also irresponsibility, unreliability

Encyclopedia of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives by C.A.S. Williams pg 140 1960
- lists same symbolism as Cooper
- sometimes called typhoon-fly, apparently due to large numbers present before storms
- slang term translates as "Old Glassy" based on appearance of wings

Navaho Indian Ethnoentomology by L.C.Wyman and F.L.Bailey pg 144 1964
- symbolic of pure water

Ritual / Religious

Navaho Indian Ethnoentomology by L.C.Wyman and F.L.Bailey pg 144 1964
- used in some drypaintings (often called sandpaintings) from Navaho ritual ceremonies
- often shown around the center of a symbolic pool of water
    particularly in Shootingway complex paintings
    also in Hailway, Waterway, Mountain-top-way and Beautway paintings
- main theme figures in Mountain-top-way (Shootingway branch) and Plumeway
- differentiating characteristic of representation is the spotting on the body
- Plate IV presents examples of stylistic variations

World Folklore

The Boy Who Made Dragonfly A Zuni Myth retold by Tony Hillerman (ISBN 0-8263-0910-0)
Two small children having fallen asleep are accidentally left behind when their parents and the rest of the villagers abandon their village in a hard times to find food. As time passes, the young boy constructs a toy insect out of corn and grasses to comfort his younger sister. Eventually, the toy comes to life and operates as a messenger between the children and the gods. The insect later takes the name Dragonfly. This teaching story of the Zunis, a Pueblo People based in New Mexico, was first recorded by Frank Cushing in 1883.

Japanese Folklore in English by Masa Ohta volume 5 page 42-45
This short story, titled ``Dragonfly Millionaire'', concerns a poor farmer who fell asleep after tilling his fields. While asleep, he dreamt of a superior quality sake nearby. While he was dreaming, his wife had seen a dragonfly dipping its tail into his mouth several times. Near the rocks where the dragonfly had been they found a small stream that tasted like sake.

Ancient Tales in Modern Japan an anthology of Japanese folktales by Fanny Hagin Mayer page 82-83
This story, titled ``Dragonfly Choja'' is a shortened version of ``Dragonfly Millionaire'' by Masa Ohta.

A Japanese Miscellany by Lafcadio Hearn, pages 81-121 (c 1901)
interesting folklore, descriptions, drawings and haiku with comments and translations
The dragonfly, now called "tombo" in Japanese, used to be called "akitsu". Japan was once called Akitsushima meaning "The Island of the Dragon-fly".

Songs They Sang in Ancient Japan by Noah Brannen and William Elliott c 1995, Heine/Japan
See Poem 98. The earliest source of Japan's poetry is the Kojiki, the first chronicle of the Japanese nation compiled in 712 A.D. and based on older oral literature. The authors, in Poem 98, relay the story of the Emperor being bitten by a horsefly which was subsequently eaten by a dragonfly. In honor of the dragonfly, he named Japan (Yamato) the Isles of the Dragonfly.

Symnet - newsletter of the Aka-tombo network (scan issues for Japanese folklore about Red Dragonfly)
    includes Secret stories about the song of "Aka-tombo" by Shigeo Eda
    includes Run after the seasons of Akatombo by Tetsuyuki Ueda - dragonfly haiku
    I just picked these two but there were a number of others.

Animal Stories from Bellona Island (Mungiki) by Rolf Kuschel pg 110-111 c 1975
pub. by National Museum of Denmark
The firefly wanted a drink but was unwilling to go about during the daytime. If they went at night, his friend the dragonfly could light the way with his lantern. The firefly drank first, and then the firefly held the lantern for the dragonfly. The firefly ran away with the lantern, leaving the dragonfly in the dark. Because of the theft, the dragonfly now sleeps at night, and lives in and near the water. The firefly roams at night, his way lit by the stolen lantern. (Bellona Island is a raised atoll in the Solomon Islands.)

Martin Peterson's page - follow link for some European folklore

Why Snakefeeder? Why Dragonfly? Some Random Observations on Etymological Entomology by B.E. Montgomery in Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 82, pg 235-241 1972
- includes 95 English and 23 Celtic names for the Odonata
- names grouped into 23 categories, the largest of which is associated with snakes
- English names include Jacky breeze, heather-flee, balance fly, and water dipper
- Celtic names include spearadoir (in English, mower) and snathad mor na sciathain (in English, big needle of the wings)

CED1: Two Odonata Citations in Ancient Mesopotamian Literature

Superstitions / Beliefs

Myths and Legends of Japan by F.H.Davis pg 282 1932?
- tracing a certain ideograph in the air, paralyzes the dragonfly one wants to catch

Dictionary of Philippine Folk Beliefs and Customs by R. Francisco and S. Demetrio pg 201 c 1970 (Xavier University Cagayan de Oro City, Modern Press Pasay City)
If a dragonfly is tied on one's hair he/she becomes crazy.

Ancient Tahiti by Teuira Henry pg 391 c 1928 (Bernice Bishop Museum - Bulletin 48)
``All insects were regarded as mysterious agents of the gods and spirits, notably, butterflies, moths, crickets and dragonflies......
The dragonfly was the shadow of Hiro, god of thieves. It was a god that flew and halted before and behind. It was carried by thieves in their chothes, so that when they entered the dwelling of those they wished to rob, they let the dragonfly go, and it dazed the inmates so that they did not notice that they were being robbed.''

Literature and Poetry

The Dragon-fly by Alfred Lord Tennyson apparently from ``The Two Voices''

Today I saw the dragon-fly
Come from the wells where he did lie.
An inner impulse rent the veil
Of his old husk: from head to tail
Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.
He dried his wings: like gauze they grew;
Thro' crofts and pastures wet with dew
A living flash of light he flew.

Dragonfly in Haiku by M. Kiauta in Odonatologica 15 pg 91-96, 1986
- includes a discussion of dragonflies as a seasonal theme and symbol in China and Japan


Insects are a common motif in jewellry - necklaces, pins, bracelets, earrings. Dragonflies are often depicted. Interestingly, perhaps because they look incomplete to the designers, many of these dragonflies have significant antennae. The boldest dragonfly pin I have seen had a winspan of 3-4 inches. The wings were filled with blobs of baltic amber; the sterling silver body and head were fully articulated. Needless to say this was a unique piece, costing about $180 U.S. It is not in my collection.

Heart of the dragonfly: historical development of the cross necklaces of the Pueblo and Navajo peoples
by Allison Bird c 1992 (ISBN 0-936755-20-2)
The author shows how the crosses brought by the missionaries were incorporated into the cultures and designs of the Native Americans of the southwest deserts. Their ready acceptance lay to some extent in its symbolic connection, particularly the double-barred cross, to the dragonfly, an important insect in Zuni lore.

Dragonfly Brooches by R.K. Liu (Ornament Summer 1997 page 24-25) This short article comments on the dragonfly as a motif in jewellry. There are several nice pins shown, including the one available in the link above. In addition, there is a picture of a beautiful carved boxwood netsuke, showing a damselfly and its reflection in water.


Spectacular Helmets of Japan 16th-19th Century (organized by Japan House Gallery and the Assoc. for the Research and Preservation of Japanese Helmets and Armour) by A .Munroe c 1986
color photograph of a Samuri helmet from the 17th century adorned with a dragonfly

American Indian Art by Norman Feder (1995 Edition) pub. by Harry N Abrams Inc.
On pg. 72 in a discussion about carved stone pipes and pipe stems Feder says, ``Teton Sioux specialize in shallow relief carvings of deer, turtles, sheep, elk and dragonflies.'' Black and white plate 45 pictures a carved wooden pipe stem, collected in 1900 and catalogued in the Denver Art Museum as item number PiS-25, which has a dragonfly carved in low relief. The accompanying note says that the pipe stem has the typical form of a Sioux pipe stem.

A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest by Alex Patterson c 1992 Johnson Books (ISBN 1-55566-091-6)
Rock art images from the Hopi Mesas in Arizona, Zion Nation Park in Utah, and kiva murals in the Awatovi and Kawaika-a ruins in Arizona are shown. (The kiva images are from Kiva Mural Decorations at Awatovi and Kawaika-a by Watson Smith pg 218-220 c 1952 pub. by the Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Mass.) In general, a dragonfly is represented by a vertical line with two, or occasionally one, horizonal cross line. The lines are sometimes fleshed out, and the bodies sometimes have dot-like heads. The first dragonfly image shown by Patterson looks to me more like that of the water skate (or water strider) shown later in the book.

The Mythic World of the Zuni by Frank Hamilton Cushing (1865-1900)
edited and illustrated by Barton Wright pg 151-152 c 1988
pub. by University of New Mexico (ISBN 0-8263-1387-6)
Dragonflies are shamanistic creatures with supernatural powers. Images are most often found on altars, pottery and petroglyphs. The Zuni Indians are Pueblo Peoples of the American Southwest (New Mexico).

Origami Insects and Their Kin by Robert J. Lang c 1995, Dover (ISBN 0-486-28602-9)
Are you up to the challenge? In 92 paper-folding steps you can construct an origami dragonfly. (I haven't tried yet, but I am intrigued.)

Denver Museum of Natural History 2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver Colorado USA 80205
The museum sells a very nice dragonfly-patterned silk tie, produced for the opening of its ``Prehistoric Journey'' exhibition. If you are there, check out the exhibit. There is an interesting movie clip of a dragonfly in a wind tunnel. There is also a model used to study the dynamics of dragonfly flight.

There are several prehistoric-sized dragonfly models hanging in the dining area at the Desert Museum in Tucson Arizona.

Time Before Morning - Art and Myth of the Australian Aborigines by Louis Allen c 1975, Thomas Crowell Co.

On page 91, there is a picture showing the dragonfly after creation by Mudungkala. The story of Mudungkala related in the text is from the Tiwi tribe of Bathurst and Melville Islands.

Miscellaneous Impacts

Odonata on stamps in Odonatologica 18, pg 111, 1989 abstract 6449
- Nick Prendergast's list of odonate related postage stamps to about 1987 listed by category
- same list but sorted by country (preformatted)
- selected stamp images

A most exclusive preserve by Norman Moore in New Scientist 13 pg 64, 1987
a brief report on a dragonfly sanctuary set up in Japan

Please feel free to send additions to my cultural list to me and thanks!

Ron Lyons(volunteer 1990-1999)
Chula Vista Nature Center, 1000 Gunpowder Point Drive, Chula Vista, CA 91910-1201