When the summer months are upon us, a very special group of seasonal sentinels will arrive to herald in the dog days of summer. These are a unique group of winged visitors that never fail to install panic and terror even in the most robust of tourists.
Traditionally, our busy season has always been in winter. This year, however, because of the tight lockdown of the pandemic, Marco and the Isles of Capri are experiencing many newcomers that have never been to Southwest Florida in summer - visitors that have never seen the “Little Horses of the Devil.”
Almost on a daily basis, we watch new arrivals walking down to the beach. Along the way, near the landscaping, the trees, and the shrubbery, the newcomers will stop in their tracks before running the rest of the way down to the sand in a panic.
“What are those strange flying creatures?” Our new guests will gasp as they look back to where large dragonflies are hovering near the grass and landscaping. “Look at the size of the stinger on those things! They look dangerous and poisonous. Do they bite or just sting?”
“They are harmless,” is our reply. “They are known all over the world by many names and many legends. In English, they are dragonflies, but we learned another name from a Beach Girl from Cuba. In Spanish, they are Caballito Del Diablo, or “Little Horse of the Devil.”
The dragonflies that arrive in summer on Marco are huge. They look ominous, menacing, and ready to signal ill omens, but they are actually a wonderful and a modern-day ally in the everyday war of Beach Boys and Girls verses mosquito.
We have also learned dragonflies are an ancient creature from the land of the dinosaurs, and because they appear as prehistoric, they have always been a marvel of folklore and mystery.
In the Jurassic period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, dragonflies were huge with a wingspan of over two feet. With many varieties of dragonflies worldwide, can it be any wonder these strange looking creatures from ancient times have become a source of superstition and mythology.
There are over a hundred different and localized names in German for an insect that has haunted and inspired humans throughout the ages. The devil’s needle, water witch, devil’s horse, and eyelid stitcher - a scary flying creature that stitches the eyelids shut of lazy children or farmhands - are just a few of the German names, but the Swedish name for dragonfly comes from the legend of hobgoblins. The Old Norse legends believe that the dragonfly came directly from the spirit world and was a spy sent by the devil.
In the late summer months on Marco Island, hundreds if not thousands of the “Little Horses of the Devil,” can be found hovering in the parks and recreational areas as they pursue mating rituals and search for food. Dragonflies are mosquito hawks and when the “water witches” are on patrol, the annoying mosquitoes that are the plague of summer are non-existent.
Our local dragonflies are about four to five inches across their wingspan; they have a long needle-like abdomen, a thorax with six sinister-looking crooked legs, and a large head with all seeing eyes that enable the little flying dragons to observe any movement in almost any direction. Throughout the years, many cultures and civilizations have developed sorties and myths regarding one of the earth’s most strange looking creatures.
The following is a teaching story of the Zunis, a Pueblo people based in New Mexico. Frank Hamilton Cushing first recorded this story in 1883 - the very same Frank Cushing who was later the principal archeologist of the Old Marco excavations that unearthed the Calusa Indian’s Key Marco Cat.
According to the Zuni legend two small children, after falling asleep, are accidentally left behind when their parents and neighboring villagers abandon their village to search for food. As time passes, the young boy constructs a toy insect out of corn and grasses to comfort his younger sister. Eventually the toy comes to life and acts as a messenger between the children and their missing parents. The insect later takes the name dragonfly.
Another dragonfly story comes from another tropical destination in the Solomon Islands It seems that once upon a time, a dragonfly wanted a drink but was unwilling to go about in the daytime. If he went at night, his friend the firefly would light the way with his lantern. The firefly drank first and then held the lantern for the dragonfly. The firefly then ran away with the lantern leaving the dragonfly in the dark. Because of the theft of light, the dragonfly now sleeps at night and lives in or near the water. The firefly now roams only at night, with his way lighted by the stolen lantern.
Eden Emanuel Sarot wrote Folklore of the Dragonfly in 1958 and surmised the modern term dragonfly came from an old Romanian fable regarding Saint George, of Saint George and the Dragon fame.
According to the old Romanian tale, the devil appeared in the dark Transylvanian forest and became jealous of the beautiful horse that Saint George was riding through the countryside. After secretly observing Saint George, the devil conjured a spell and changed the magnificent horse into a gigantic flying insect with large bulbous eyes.
The Romanian word for devil is “drac”—as in the beginning of Dracula—but “drac” is also the Romanian word for dragon. Saint George defeated the devil’s spell when he slew the newly formed dragon and asked God to preserve miniature versions of the devil’s creature to remind man of the devil’s ever persistent jealously and mischief.
No matter “witch” story comes to mind, can we not all remember our first reaction to the late summer hordes of very large Marco dragonflies? Perhaps dragonflies are, after all, little horses of the devil and reminders that the devil is always jealous and watching and eating mosquitoes!
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books: Lost and Found and Surrounded by Thunder—the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men. Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.