Moth down and Autumn Air: the Elusive Spirit of the Mountains

Hidden in these hills and forest is a creature that doesn’t seem to exist, and a spirit that doesn’t seem to live. Yet, it’s there and it does. This spirit creature is extremely elusive for my family, showing up mostly to give messages from the dead. This creature is the Luna Moth which has become my totem-of-sorts and ally over the years.

Now mountain folks don’t deal much into the whole spirit animal business, but we do take head to those creatures that linger on our lands or make their way to the yard. We know how nature speaks and we pay head when told to. The Luna moth has done just that all my life. In Appalachian myth, they deliver messages from the Ancestors usually around the anniversary of a passing or a big event. Even if it’s outside of their season, one still makes its way to show up.

My papaw whom I spoke of before, the blood-stopping preacher, died due to his 7th heart attack on Dec. 17, 2005. His heart attack happened the day after thanksgiving, a year we weren’t able to make it there for dinner. Papaw was the one who always cooked on that day. Lord, his dumplings were amazing and that recipe has become a tradition even now. Since we couldn’t make it, he didn’t cook that night…

For a few years after his passing, we didn’t cook much as it was a hard time for the family. And each year we didn’t cook he threw a tantrum. Shadows down the hall, things falling off shelves, decorations hung on the walls would just drop as if someone on the other side had pulled the nail clean through the wall. The cabinet doors would open and slam shut and the air was always filled with his old spice cologne.

I had always heard of the Luna Moth’s duties in delivering whispers the dead, but hadn’t experienced its presence much. We finally cooked thanksgiving dinner again in 2008. That night the back door in the kitchen was open and the glass raised on the screen door facing the woods outback. As we were all sitting around the table talking and laughing one of us finally noticed the huge Luna Moth that had taken rest on the door. None there noticed it’s huge flapping wings whenever it landed. “Glad, you could make it daddy”, as my mom said. That night and every holiday thereafter that we cooked and made his dumplings, the cabinets stayed closed, wall hanging items remained in their place, and the halls were quite.

Now this just sounds like a good story about closure with the dead, but it gets even more interesting when we look at the Luna Moth itself. Depending on climate, the Luna Moth gives birth to 1-3 generations a year. In the west it’s one generation, up north it’s about two, and here it’s usually three they give.

The larva go through five stages called instars before cocooning. Each instar last 5-7 days. During the first three they remain in their groups after which they go forth independently. At the end of each instar they under go an apolysis, which from what I gather is the rearranging of the innards and the shedding of skin.

It then emerges from the old skin. Sometimes they even eat the old exoskeleton! Each instar varies in color from green to red and black. The larva even keep some of the color from their old sheds which is remarkable and speaks to truth of letting go of something but taking the story of it with you.

After a few weeks spent eating and going through the above stages, the larva spins its cocoon in which it will pupate. Before cocooning, the last instar involves the creature emptying its guts of excess food, feces, and fluid. The caterpillar is also be less active until the cocooning period. Once they have spun their cocoons, they undertake a process of dormancy called diapausing which last two weeks.

After they emerge from the cocoon, the moth’s wings are very small. They enlarge them to their normal size by pumping bodily fluids into the wings while they are soft. Then they climb up towards the sun to let their wings harden before taking flight. The Luna Moth usually has a wing span of 4-7 inches. They are considered common here yet very few people see them. Their status of common is fascinating as their adult selves only live for 7 days. This is due to them not having a mouth once they emerge from the cocoon!

While those old folks presumed it’s duties of the dead by its elusive and spirit like visage, it seems it’s anatomy also gives esoteric credit to this belief. They do not partake in the food of the living world. Having no mouths, their sole purpose in the adult stage is to reproduce and create the next generation. Their purpose is to love essentially.

Not only is their biology amazing and magical, their birth places have credence in magic as well. They host their eggs on tress and plants namely, Willow, Ash, Birch, Sycamore, Sweet Gum, Sumac, Elm, Hickory, Alder, and Hornbeam. They also host on the leaves of Moonflowers. Taking into the accounts and stories behind the Moonflower, it is apparent the the Luna Moth may also list “fae creature” beside “messenger of the dead” in its cultural myths and tellings.

Mountain witches have always been in love with the Luna Moth. Out of respect for its sacred duties, it is not disturbed. No part of its body is used in magic at all nor is its hosting plant harvested during their larva stage. The plants may be harvested when it is adorned with the cocoons, but one must take care to not disturb them. When disturbed they will scramble in their cocoons and make a clicking noise. To disturb them in my family is practically as taboo as stomping around on graves. “Just look and watch,” as my mamas would tell me.

The Luna Moth comes to bring messages from the dead and bring awareness to the presence of the Other. This creature has made itself known to me in meditations, physical appearances, and dreams. It’s spirit and sight calls me back home when my mind is far off. She brings love from the dead and knowing from God. The Luna Moth has become a personal totem of mine in my work, and no work with the dead is began without thanks to that Elusive Spirit of Appalachia who makes itself different from the other animals in these woods. She has a purpose and a power. And I think she knows it.

Copyright © Jake Richards 2017

Offerings to the Luna Moth

When she appears and brings messages from your loved ones, offer the smoke of the tobacco. This is the only suitable offering I have found for this spirit as it doesn’t partake in the foods or waters of this world. It’s image can be used to call upon its ability of traversing worlds when doing work with the Ancestors. Due to its eyes on its wings which protect it from predators, it will also aid in protecting you from the spirits that have no business with you.

While making a personal logo today and including the Luna Moth prompted me to write this and share it’s beautiful mysteries with others. I hope you benefit from this article and from its appearance next thanksgiving too.

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Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Henny) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher who was a blood stopper, wort doctor, and thrush doctor; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather who witched for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost at the foot of Devil’s Nest Mountain. Jake is the author of Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia, available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below: Littlechicagoconjure@yahoo.com

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