During my walk along the coastal path near Penarth earlier this week, I saw more than 20 Red admiral butterflies. Now, it may be that they had gathered in such large numbers in that particular location because the ivy flowers had recently opened and they fancied drinking deeply of their nectar (as did a huge number of bees and hoverflies) but it may also be that they were heading south on their autumn migration to southern Europe and north Africa.
The Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) was once known as the Red admirable – a bit of a mouthful, which is probably why the name changed – and has a surprisingly ominous history. In Bugs Britannica Richard Mabey reviews the evidence, in various texts and old paintings, and concludes that the Red admiral was once thought to represent sin or temptation:
The flickering band of scarlet on the butterfly’s forewings, vivid against a dark, smoky background, suggests the flames of a smithy – hence its French name, le Vulcain, after Vulcan, the blacksmith of the Gods. But, to Christians, it also suggested the flames of Hell … This surprisingly hellish image of the Red admiral was gradually forgotten during the Enlightenment, when artists started to draw butterflies for their own sake. But perhaps the story of a ‘red butterfly’ said to have been hunted in the north of England and the Borders as a witch is an echo of a previous, more sinister characterisation.
How anyone could imagine something as beautiful as this harmless butterfly could be so malevolent is beyond me!