Friday, October 22, 2010

Petrified By Pests? Rare Books To Fuel Your Phobias

By Nancy Mattoon

HERBST, Johann Friedrich Willhelm
Kurze Einleitung zur Kenntniss der
Insekten für Ungeubte und Anfänger.

Berlin : G.A. Lange, 1784-1787.
(All Images Courtesy of W.E.B. Du Bois Library)

With Halloween nearly upon us, the time has come for Booktryst to feature some scary rare books. An online exhibit created by the W.E.B. Du Bois Library of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was meant to celebrate the beauty of insects and arachnids, as shown in rare books from the 16th through 19th centuries. But if the image at the opening of this post gave you the shivers you're not alone. The number one phobia in the United States, affecting 50% of women and 25% of men is Arachnophobia, the irrational fear of spiders, scorpions, ticks, mites, and other eight-legged creepy-crawlies.

ROEMER, Johann Jakob
Genera insectorum Linnaei et Fabricii
illustrata a Joanne Jacobo Roemer
Vitoduri Helvetorum, prostat apud Henrjc.
Steiner et socios, 1789

The irrational fear of insects in general is known as Entomophobia, and is an outgrowth of our instinctive recoil at the sensation of having swarms of tiny legs and feelers brush against our skin. Some scientists believe this is a form of self defense: one of the ecological functions of bugs is to transport small organisms. While harmless to their hosts, these microscopic creatures cause infection and disease in humans. This instinctive fear is normal, but the abnormal fear of insects is so pervasive it has spawned a slew of sub-phobias.

MOFFETT, Thomas.
Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum:
olim ab Edoardo Wottono, Conrado Gesnero,
Thomaque Pennio inchoatum:
tandem Tho. Movfeti Londinâtis operâ sumptibusq;
maximis concinnatum, auctum, perfectum:
et ad vivum expressis iconibus suprá quingentis illustratum.

Londini : Ex officinâ typographicâ T. Cotes,
et venales extant apud Guiliel. Hope ... 1634

The fear of bees is a common phobia, known as Apiphobia or Melissophobia. And although it is doubtful a person in the grip of full blown panic could take the time to tell the difference, there is a separate name for fear of wasps, Spheksophobia. The previous phobias cover not just the fear of the insects, but also of their hives and nests. But if it's only the sting that frightens you, that's called Cnidophobia.

DONOVAN, Edward.
The natural history of British insects :
explaining them in their several states,
with the periods of their transformations, their food,
&c. together with the history of such minute insects

as require investigation by the microscope :
The whole illustrated by coloured figures,
designed and executed from living specimens, vol. 16.

London : Printed for the author, and for F. and C. Rivington, 1792-1813

Fear of earthworms is especially common among children, and has close links to Ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes. If you find snake-handling a walk in the park, but The Very Hungry Caterpillar makes you reach for the Xanax, then you've got Scoleciphobia, fear of worms.

Illustrations of natural history.
Wherein are exhibited
upwards of two hundred and forty
figures of exotic insects,
according to their different genera ...
With a particular description of each insect:

interspersed with remarks and reflections
on the nature
and properties of many of them. By D. Drury.

To which is added a translation into French, vol. 1.
London, Printed for the author and sold by B. White, 1770-82

Perhaps it isn't so surprising that some people have Mottephobia, the fear of and/or hatred of moths. Their dark outline, jagged wings, attraction to light and flame, and disregard for humans, make them the stuff of nightmares for some, rather like that other frightening winged creature, the bat. (See Chiroptophobia.) Dark, flying shapes in general seem to spark more than a few phobias: one of the birds that most often inspires Ornithophobia is the raven or crow.

EDWARD, William H.
The Butterflies of North America, vol. 1
Philadelphia: American Entomological Society, 1879

But what is unexpected is that there are two different words for the fear of the moth's magnificent cousin, the butterfly. Both Lepidophobia and Leptorrhinianphobia are used to name the fear of a creature most find among the most beautiful in the insect world. It appears that some who suffer from this fear find the metamorphosis of the butterfly, from egg, to larva, to pupa, to adult, extraordinarily disturbing. (And speaking of Metamorphosis, fear of the cockroach is known as Katsaridaphobia, rather than Kafkaphobia.)

REDI, Francesco
Esperienze intorno alla generazione
degl'insetti fatte

da Francesco Redi ...
e da lvi scritte in vna lettera all'illvstrissimo

Signor Carlo Dati..
Firenze, All'insegna della Stella, 1668.

Rounding out the hit parade of Zoophobias, insect branch, is Myrmecophobia, the fear of ants; Pteronarcophobia, the fear of flies; Pediculophobia or Phthiriophobia, the fear of lice; Isopterophobia, the fear of termites; and Coccinellidaephobia, the fear of ladybugs. And if it's the itching bites of the insect you fear, not the critter itself, you're a victim of Acarophobia, and always have your Raid at the ready to fight off mosquitoes, bedbugs, and fleas.

Illustratio iconographica insectorum quae in musaeis parisinis
observavit et in lucem edidit Joh. Christ.
Fabricius, praemissis ejusdem descriptionibus;
accedunt species plurimae, vel minus aut nondum cognitae, vol. 3
Paris: P. Didot, 1799

While many have a slight aversion to insects and arachnids, full blown phobias are much more extreme. Those with true insect phobias not only refuse to go outdoors, but often fear going to sleep, being certain an insect will find its way into their ears or nose. A pleasant day of reading at home becomes impossible once a spider is spied in the corner, or a moth approaches the reading lamp. In the most extreme cases, victims imagine their skin is literally crawling with insects. This is called Formication, (not to be confused with fornication) and may cause the sufferer to scratch the skin to ribbons. A variation is Delusional Parasitosis, in which a victim believes insects are crawling under the skin.

Historia insectorum generalis, ofte,
Algemeene verhandeling van de bloedeloose dierkens :
waar in, de waaragtige gronden van haare langsaame aangroeingen
in leedemaaten, klaarelijk werden voorgestelt :
kragtiglijk, van de gemeene dwaaling der vervorming,
anders metamorphosis genoemt, gesuyvert : ende beknoptelijk,
in vier onderscheide orderen van veranderingen,
ofte natuurelijke uytbottingen in leeden, begreepen
t'Utrrecht : By Meinardus van Dreunen ..., 1669.

All of which might lead you to think that being a psychiatrist who specializes in phobias must be the world's most disturbing job. Not so, however. That honor, at least according to one survey, went to the forensic entomologist, the professional who examines the effect of insects on dead bodies. An occupation which combines the triple-threat phobias of Necrophobia, Entomophobia, and Hemophobia. Happy Halloween!


  1. Very interesting, and beautiful.

  2. Scary AND fascinating at the same time!

    Thanks for the great post ahead of Halloween!

    Read Aloud Dad

  3. I have never been afraid of these creatures, but have always found them to be intriguing and in some cases, gorgeous.
    I would like to own this book, and have some of the pictures framed.

  4. I have never been afraid of these creatures. I think they are intriguing and wonderful in the sheer numbers of species and the intricacy of their colors and designs.
    I would love to own this book. Is there some place that you could find some of the photos framed?


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