It must be mating season for the Sphodromantis viridis, or African Giant Mantis. We’re seeing them everywhere. They especially like to take turns with the geckos at night, hanging out by the front door to harvest bugs drawn to its light.
Our manti are the West Africa cousins of the European Praying Mantis, or Mantis religiosa. They look strikingly similar in their prayerful posture, just larger and greener.
Praying Mantis have such fun expressions, sometimes looking like they are laughing with you, other times expressing curiosity, cocking their triangular heads to staring right at you. Or so it seems. Like most insects they have compound eyes, still there is something about their eyes that makes it seem like they have pupils, and are can stare right at you.
The females are generally larger than males, and can be identified by a six segmented abdomen, while the males have eight segments. Even though males engage the females in an elaborate courtship dance before mating, the females are known to turn cannibalism. That said some males will bring a snack offering before, to try not to become the snack after.
Folklore and the Mantis
Translated from the Greek, Mantis means ‘soothsayer’. It is a Chinese belief when one is lost they should look for a praying mantis. By observing it for a while, it will somehow know soothsay the direction you must go, and point that way by flicking it’s forelegs.
In Ghanaian folklore, the praying mantis is Anansi the Spider’s slow witted friend. Anansi is the trickster who’s stories came with the slaves across the Atlantic, but on the other side of the pond became known as Briar Rabbit. [read about Anansi]
In the world of Pokémon there is Scyther, a pokémon that resembles a “primarily green, human-sized praying mantis with accents of cream coloration.”
“Scyther’s blade-like forearms are capable of slicing through logs, and become sharper by cutting through hard materials. Using swift movements, it camouflages itself and enhances the effectiveness of its scythes, just like a praying mantis.
Perhaps the most interesting stories come from South Africa, where there is a trickster god named Kaggen. Kaggen’s natural state is in the form of a praying mantis, but with a round tummy and long stick-like limbs. Kaggen is also a shapeshifter who is known to turn his appearance into an antelope or fire, or even a human.
The bushmen tell stories of him trying to capture the moon, or being shot by an arrow when in the form of an antelope. After being show, he was skinned, quartered and carried way for meat. Kaggen opens his eyes and asks the one holding him “why did you hurt me so badly?” Suddenly all his pieces wiggle, and free themselves to reassembled and jump into their skin and run away. After this, the bushmen are very respectful of Kaggen’s power and magic.
So when I see the praying manti around our bungalow it is easy to imagine the truth in these folk stories. Stare at him long enough and he points me in a direction I should go. Watch her shake like a leaf, and think of Anansi, tricking his friend. Gaze into all their compound eyes and wonder what is she thinking about? And what are those red jelly bean like sacks attached to their wings.