THE LOVE-LIFE OF THE PRAYING MANTIS
After reading an interesting essay about the Praying Mantis by the surrealist writer Roger Caillois, I decided to keep a couple of these insects as pets. The mantis, which can grow as big as six inches and mostly lives in warmer climates, adapts easily to a domestic environment and is often incorrectly confused with the incomparable stick-insect.
My intention was just to get a male and a female of some easy to keep species, but in the end I found myself turning the whole bathroom (the only warm room in the flat) into a mess of heat lamps, glass jars, and plastic flowers. This tropical enclave housed at its most busy point a male and female of the Giant Asian Mantis (Hierodula membranacea), two couples of the Ghost Mantis (Phyllocrania paradoxa), and one small polygamist family of the Spiny Flower Mantis (Pseudocreobotra ocellata) with one male and two females.
The praying mantis’ inclination towards live food unfortunately obstructed any domestic bliss among the couples. All individuals had to be strictly kept in separate jars as they can easily take on a prey their owns size and would not decline a bite of their own kin if they had the chance. Still, there is not much about the mantis’ exterior that would give away its carnivorous nature. The famous 19th century entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre described the praying mantis as possessing “a certain appearance of graciousness, with its slender body, its elegant waist-line, its tender green colouring, and its long gauzy wings”. He notes how unlike other insects it has “no ferocious jaws, opening like shears,” but has instead a “fine pointed muzzle, which seems to be made for billing and cooing.” And it is true, my female specimen of the Giant Asian Mantis looked more like a kitten than an insect when she gently cleared away cricket-guts from her face after a meal. There was nothing about her that would reveal that moments before she had been, in Fabre’s words “a cannibal, a ferocious spectre, biting open the heads of its captives after demoralizing them with terror.”
I would often let the Giant Asian Mantis roam around outside her jar. Her way of searching out and killing a cricket was an unmatched spectacle and her slightly translucent body was reminiscent of a precious green gem as she climbed around the white porcelain sink. My ghost mantids on the other hand led a slow and static life on a bunch of dried sticks. There, their perfect mimicking of withered leafs rarely exposed their existence. Upon closer inspection the contour slowly change from one of dead organic matter to the demonic face of a small alien, but besides their occasional swaying like leafs in the wind, they mostly stayed on the same spot.
All the different mantis species have highly captivating physical attributes and it maybe is not so strange that people have associated this insect with the supernatural since ancient times. When the mantis is at rest it draws its large forelimbs close to its thorax, and so assumes a prayer-like posture which has earned it its sacred name. Besides its extravagant camouflage and strange movement, it is the mantis gaze that people seem to find particularly extraordinary. The large compound eyes and the flexible neck of the mantis give it the great field of vision necessary for ambushing its prey, but it is also these elements that give it a surprisingly human-like appearance. Unlike walking in on a cockroach which might be pointing its body and so also its dull eyes in your direction, the mantis traces your every movement by only turning its head as you walk past. In this respect, the microscopic Spiny Flower Mantis had the most disturbing gaze, and it was more than once that visitors to my tropical bathroom got freaked out by being eyeballed by these little beasts.
Roger Caillois claimed in his essay “The Praying Mantis: From Biology to Psychoanalysis” that the mantis anthropomorphic qualities, more than just being captivating, also have the ability to touch the deeper layers of the human unconscious. Just like the bat with its several human attributes (Caillois mentions”the presence of real hands; pectoral breasts; periodic menstrual flow; and a free, dangling penis”), the praying mantis manifests man’s “inclination to be interested in, or even identify with, anything whose external configuration suggests his own body”. I could not help but agree with Caillois when I found a post where a guy was going on about how disgusting and repulsive he found the praying mantis. It was not so much because of the typical insectile qualities, but because of the sexual unease that it induced. He ended the comment by referring to a photo that he found particularly upsetting because the mantis looked like a “hot girl in a sexy pose” (below).
The sexual aspect of the mantis’ anthropomorphism is of central importance to Caillois’ meditation on the insect’s effects on the human mind. Essentially he was not satisfied with the fact that it would only be a matter of humans projecting emotions upon the insect, but that it is equally a case of the insect creeping up within man. He believed common phenomena in nature correspond to “emotional reactions and clusters that sometimes exist only as potentialities in human beings.” So the tragic love-life of the mantis, for example, where the female eats the male after copulation, “perfectly represents in objective terms…the male’s fear of being devoured by the female during or after mating.” He suggested that in order to understand the major psychological complexes, we should look at comparative biology instead of seeking its origins “in the human mind alone”. So for example the fear of being devoured by a woman would not be “a transformation of castration anxiety,” but rather a “specification of the fear of being devoured,” which exists as a vestigial residue in man.
Many of Caillois’ fellow surrealists like Bataille, Eluard and Dali were fascinated by the death instinct and its intertwining with ecstasy, making it easy to see how the mantis’ mating habits would appeal to them. But it should not be mistaken that the consumption of the male by the female is enough to stand alone as a reason for this fascination. The devouring of the male after the sexual act is after all not an uncommon phenomena in the insect world. In addition to the mantis’ generally elegant air, there has to be something more that made the surrealists single it out the as the exemplary femme fatal. Jean Henri Fabre dedicated lengthy passages in his book The Social Life of Insects to the mating of the mantis and I think he brings us closer to understanding why the attraction runs deeper than to other insects: “The custom of eating the lover after consummination of the nuptials, of making a meal of the exhausted pigmy, who is henceforth good for nothing, is not so difficult to understand, since insects can hardly be accused of sentimentality; but to devour him during the act surpasses anything the most morbid mind could imagine. I have seen the thing with my own eyes, and I have not yet recovered from my surprise”. Maybe that’s the critical tipping point, that the mantis does not wait for the act to be over before she takes a bite of her lover. Since insects have multiple nerve centers distributed along the body called ganglia, instead of just one central brain like mammals, the female can easily bite the head off the male without interrupting the lovemaking. The act can even go on for hours after he has been decapitated and scientists even believed that this would increase the reproductive abilities of the male by disconnecting his lower regions from the inhibitory upper parts. So not only is the female a vicious cannibal and brutal mistress, but she also turns her lover into a sex-zombie.
I could only wish things had turned out that well for my couple of the Giant Asian Mantis. They both arrived in the mail in separate cups and as soon as I opened their containers it seemed like their fate was already sealed. When I opened the lid to the female she at once jumped out and climbed to the highest point, which was my head. The male on the other hand was impossible to get out of his container and he stayed there for hours pressing his head against the bottom of the cup with his back turned towards the outside world. I believe he knew that he was being set up, that his life was a trap. But when the time for mating arrived I was surprised by the sudden courage of the male. He made several cautious attempts to conquest the female and although she was well-fed and content, she would not accept his invitation to love. At one point, in a fit of aggression, she threw out her deadly front limb and left him with a laceration across his abdomen. I thought it was a deadly wound since it looked as though his guts were falling out, but he survived this brutal rejection – although I suspected it castrated him. Since I am no expert on insect physiology and could not determine if his reproductive parts were still there, I gave him another chance once he had recuperated. The next time I let him into the female’s quarters I kept her constantly distracted with a cricket, but this second attempt ended up being even more pathetic than the first. I removed the male back to safety where I let him die by natural decay as a virgin, instead of by the erotic self-sacrifice he was destined for.
© 2008 Janina Pedan