Are ladybugs named after Our Lady?

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In some cultures, Marian experts say, ladybugs are named after a particular lady: Our Lady.

“Only a limited number explicitly refers to Our Lady,” Father Johann Roten, S.M., scholar in residence at the University of Dayton, told Our Sunday Visitor of the small, colorful beetles. “It is especially the German tradition which made the connection with the Virgin Mary.”

Father Roten’s comments come after U.S. dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster explored the etymology of “ladybug” over the summer. The reference source found that the “lady” portion of the “ladybug” refers to Our Lady and that the seven-spotted ladybug represented her Seven Sorrows.

“The Oxford English Dictionary reports that it was the seven-spotted Coccinella septempunctata (native to and common in Europe) that first acquired a name that linked it to the Virgin Mary; its seven spots were thought to symbolize the Seven Sorrows she suffered,” Merriam-Webster states while noting that there are approximately 5,000 varieties of these beetles.

It goes on to add: “The ladybug was an earthly reminder of a key figure in the Christian story, encountered in the green fields and gardens where one might toil daily.”

The bug of Mary

As a scholar and authority on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Father Roten acknowledged the beetle’s Marian connection while stressing the many meanings attached to the ladybug.

“The first and foremost fact to remember is the multivalence of what we call the ladybug,” he said. “There exists a great number of names, of species, of symbolisations, and dots of the ladybug.”

He referred to his previous article made available by the Marian Library at the University of Dayton, where he answered the question “Are ladybugs or lady beetles named for the Virgin Mary?” While the ladybug is not exclusive to Our Lady, he wrote that a variety of cultures “make this connection between ladybug and God and/or Holy Mary.”

“The bug was assimilated with Mary probably in an effort to baptize it and to make it Christian without depriving it of its office as divine messenger,” he concluded.

To Our Sunday Visitor, Father Roten said that the German tradition, in particular, made the Marian connection.

“This happened, generically speaking, in the 12th/13th centuries; a period not only of strong Marian devotion but of religious anthropomorphisms,” he explained. “The tendency at the time was to bring holy persons as close as possible to the human understanding and cultural world.”

“A rich Marian symbolism developed relating the name of Mary to flowers, fruit, animals, mountains, to stars, moon and sun,” he added. “That is the time when the ladybug developed, in German explicitly called Marienk√§fer, the bug of Mary.”

Our Lady of Sorrows
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The Seven Sorrows and the ladybug

He attributed the ladybug’s importance to its practical usefulness and its beauty.

“It has been written that the ladybug devours up to 8000 aphids in the early stage of its development. Thus its usefulness for the farmer,” he said. “Given its beauty, the black dots on its red wings, the popular understanding was that this could only be a gift of heaven and was attributed to the Mother of God, the giver of good things.”

He also addressed the connection between the seven-spotted ladybug and Mary’s sorrows.

“The relation with the Seven Sorrows of Mary goes back to the 14th/15th centuries, when this devotion reached popularity,” he said. “People recognized in Mary’s faithful and steadfast commitment to Christ, the Seven Sorrows, the same tenacity with which the Mary-given bug helped farmers get rid of the plant lice.”

Mary’s Seven Sorrows center on her son, Jesus Christ: the prophecy of Simeon, who foretells her suffering; the flight into Egypt to save her young son’s life; the loss of the child Jesus in the temple; the meeting with Christ on his way to Calvary; the Crucifixion; the removal of Christ’s body from the cross; and the burial of Christ.

“Again, this tradition is essentially German,” Father Roten concluded of the Marian link, before adding, “There are churches in Germany with the name of the Seven Sorrows which mention the connection with the Ladybug.”

Katie Yoder

Katie Yoder is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.