The nature of a dragonfly: weigher of souls | Helen Sullivan

The nature of a dragonfly: weigher of souls | Helen Sullivan

A dragonfly: weigher of souls

Helen Sullivan

Upside down, they resemble a pair of scales

The Southern hawker or blue hawker dragonfly, Aeshna cyanea (Aeschna maculatissima), and brown hawker, Aeshna grandis, nymph, and during metamorphosis.

Last modified on Sun 15 Aug 2021 21.58 EDT

Dragonflies have a near-perfect hunting record, successfully grabbing their prey in mid-air 95% of the time: they do this while flying skywards, earthwards, side to side, backwards and upside down. In one experiment, a dragonfly with numbers drawn on its clear wings alights backwards from a reed, legs raised above its head like a person making an offering to God, and scoops up the bug flying behind it. The dragonfly appears to catch its prey both benevolently and malevolently: snatching it and saving it, like a ball or a falling baby.

Dragonflies transform from their larval stage with similarly precise acrobatics: the skin splits, the insect wriggles its head and chest out with the awkwardness of someone trying to get into a sleeping bag while standing up, and then it hangs upside down for a while, its tail still trapped in the skin. The almost-dragonfly regains its strength, then does an upside down sit-up at the same time it pulls and flicks its tail out: a perfectly controlled dismount, a precisely calibrated monkey acrobat toy.

After this, it will fly around in its buzzy way for a few months, in Derek Walcott’s words: “In the hot green silence a dragonfly’s drone / crossing the scorched hill to the shade of the cedars”. In Swedish folklore dragonflies are “weighers of souls“: upside down, they resemble scales. Their comprehensive flight round your head is an appraisal, conducted on behalf of the devil, of how badly you have lived your life.

The third horseman of the apocalypse, famine, carries scales in his hands to weigh barley, wheat and the souls of those who have died of hunger. In Revelation: “I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard something like a voice in the centre of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; but do not damage the oil and the wine.'”

“Something like a voice.” The horror!

The Danish writer Inger Christensen, whose translator compared her to a dragonfly and a goldsmith – the word for both in Danish is guldsmed – wrote: “We as human beings are not only able to imagine a condition of ongoing want, but are also able to maintain this condition of want and moreover to call it life.”

How long does a dragonfly live? A few months. But before this, it may have spent up to five years in the larval stage, hunting underwater with snatching jaws. Then one day the nymph grows tired of swimming and decides to do the next best thing: fly. It finds a reed that grows above the water and begins to climb. Its head rises above the water and it stops to catch its breath: its respiration system needs to adapt to inhaling air. Then it continues – up a staircase that was always right there, through a door it has long resisted opening.

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