Good Grief Journal

Why the moth logo?

05.10.2020


The Good Grief logo was created by Sophie Chatziapostolou. Dr Lesel Dawson from the University of Bristol and the Good Grief team, talks about its significance.

The winged creature that is the festival’s symbol is a moth, but some people think it’s a butterfly. This is understandable. The butterfly has a long association with death: it has been used in art across time to symbolise immortality, the soul, and rebirth. It is used in this manner, for example, in an allegorical mosaic from Pompeii, which depicts how death (the skull) will crush the soul (the butterfly) regardless of one’s fortune (the wheel).

Memento mori, opus vermiculatum (30 BCE — 14 CE). Naples, National Archaeological Museum. (сс) 2006. Photo: Sergey Sosnovskiy (CC BY-SA 4.0). © 2001.

Alternatively, this image of a butterfly sitting on top of a skull suggests the soul’s escape from (and triumph over) the material body.

A butterfly sitting on a human skull; rose in the foreground. 1722 Etching. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The moth shares the butterfly’s fragility, capacity for flight, and ethereal quality, but it has a darker aspect. Moths are nocturnal creatures, suggesting the pain and shock of loss. If you look closely, you will also see a skull on our moth’s back. This is not an invention: our image is based on the death’s-head hawkmoth.  

Death’s-head hawkmoths were once believed to be omens of death (credit: Les Hill, BBC).

The tiny death’s head on our moth evokes the memento mori tradition, in which one is urged to remember one’s mortality (‘remember that you must die!’) as a spur to live fully and / or virtuously. Plato in the Phaedrus famously claims that ‘the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death’ (64a3-4). And the Christian tradition urges one to remember one’s death and the transience of this world in order to focus on God and prepare the soul for the afterlife. Skulls feature in funeral art, paintings, and mourning rings to prompt such contemplation. A skull is featured in Frans Hals, Young Man holding a Skull (Vanitas) 1626-8 and are a standard feature of mourning rings, used to memorialise the deceased and remind one of death. This sixteenth-century example includes the inscription ‘Nosse te psum’, a version of is ‘nosce te ipsum’ or ‘know yourself’:

Mourning ring, England (1550-1600), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The tiny skull on our moth is meant to invoke this tradition, so that it operates as a harbinger of death whilst still offering more hopeful connotations of flight and metamorphosis.

Grief works in a similar fashion: it jolts us out of our delusions of mortality, reminding us of life’s precariousness and preciousness, even as it blights our capacity to savour it. Moths, in their attraction to light, also evoke the deep pull of affection and the ties that bind: they remind us of the love that is at the core of our experience of loss and the way that grief transforms who we are and what we see. 

Dr Lesel Dawson, Senior Lecturer, University of Bristol @LeselDawson