Yosi Gordon writes from St. Paul, Minn.:
That most adorable of insects, the ladybird or ladybug, is in Hebrew parat Moshe rabbenu, ‘Moses’ cow.’ A myth or legend must be lurking behind that name, but I have been unable to find it. Can you help?
Indeed I can. It is not only Mr. Gordon who finds the ladybug (“ladybird,” the older of the two words, is the British term) “adorable.” This pretty little red-winged beetle with its seven black spots, known to entomologists as Coccinella septempunctata, would very likely score first in any worldwide insect popularity contest. All over Europe, it is called by a variety of names that testify to the affection and almost religious veneration in which it has been held. Here are some of them:
French: la bête á bon dieu (“the dear Lord’s bug”), la vache de la Vierge (“the cow of the Virgin”). Russian: bozha kapovka (“God’s little cow”). Danish: Mariehone ( [the Virgin] Mary’s hen).” Spanish: mariquita (“little Mary”). Turkish: Ugurbocegi (“good luck beetle”). Dutch: Lieveheerbeestje (“the dear Lord’s little animal”). German: Marienkaefer (“Mary’s beetle”), Himmelskindchen (“heaven’s little child”), Sonnenkindchen (“the sun’s little child”), Herrgottspferdchen (“the Lord God’s little horse”). Our English “ladybug” or “ladybird,” too, was originally “Our Lady’s bird,” the reference being to the Virgin Mary again.
The ladybug owes its special status to several things. Most important of them is that it not only isn’t harmful or annoying to human beings like many insects, it is immensely helpful. It is a carnivorous creature that, despite its tiny size, consumes large quantities of plant pests, especially aphids — of which an adult ladybug is estimated to eat some 5,000 in its lifetime. Each ladybug larva can consume hundreds more while it matures. In many places, ladybugs are used systematically by farmers as a form of pest control, and this “domesticated” aspect of them may be the reason they are compared in so many languages to cows, horses, chickens and other barnyard animals.
Ladybugs are also remarkably “friendly” insects. They will let themselves be picked up and held in the palm of the hand without flying away, and they will crawl freely over you without stinging, biting, scratching or tickling. Everywhere they are the subject of appreciative folk beliefs, such as that a ladybug landing on you will cure you of what ails you; that ladybugs are a sign of good weather; that a man and a woman who see a ladybug simultaneously will fall in love; that killing a ladybug brings bad luck, and so on. Why they are so often associated in Christian countries with the Virgin Mary is unclear; perhaps their polka-dotted wings that, cloaking their body, suggest a woman’s gown, have something to do with it. In any event, many cultures take a protective attitude toward them. Probably all of you, for example, know the old children’s rhyme that goes, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home,/ Your house is on fire, your children will burn.” This jingle comes from medieval times, when farmers who burned the stubble at the harvest’s end to clear and fertilize their fields for the next year’s planting “warned” the ladybugs and their larvae to escape while they could.
(One of the facts I discovered in writing today’s column is that this jingle had a second couplet that went, “Except little Nan, who sits in a pan, weaving gold laces as fast as she can.” The “nan” was the ladybug’s pupa, which, immobilized within its cocoon or “pan” of reddish-gold threads while metamorphosing from its larval to its mature stage, could not get away like a larva.)
Yiddish was no different from other European languages. It too had names for ladybug bearing religious associations, such as mashiakhl (“little Messiah”); Moyshe rabbeynus beheymele or Moyshe rabbeynus kiyele (“Moses’ little cow”), and moyshe rabbeynus ferdele (“Moses’ little horse”). These names are interesting, because while they show clear Slavic and German influences, they are Judaized forms of them in which not only — as would go without saying — is the Virgin Mary shunted aside, but God’s name is considered too holy to be coupled with a lowly creature like a beetle. Instead, the ladybug is named for the messiah or for Moses (literally, Moyshe rabbeynu, “Our master Moses,” which is how Jewish tradition always refers to him), Judaism’s most revered figures.
The modern Hebrew parat Moshe rabbenu is, therefore, a translation of Moyshe rabbeynus beheymele or kiyele. Although today it is the only way of saying “ladybug” in Hebrew, there was a time when it had competitors. There is, for instance, a Hebrew poem of Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s named “Zohar” or “Splendor,” written in 1901, in which the poet, writing about his childhood, lists the many little things that sparked his interest and imagination as a boy. Among them he mentions “Moses’ little horse” — ben-suso shel Moshe rabbenu. Most likely, the different Yiddish terms for a ladybug were regional and Bialik, who came from Ukraine, had grown up speaking of Moyshe rabbeynus ferdele. Eventually, though, it was the cow that won out. I hope that answers Mr. Gordon’s question.