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Why does the nun beetle cover its face?

The Story of St. Peter and the Girl Messenger.

IN THE time of the Holy Apostles, there was great trouble among the heathen giants, as they did not know whom to elect as ruler. The heathen then came in large numbers to the Christians, asking for their vote, and came even to St. Peter, who was then the headman of the Apostles. St. Peter, realising the importance of this election, took counsel with his brothers the Apostles. They decided to call together all the Christians in an Assembly to decide which part they were to take. A good number came together. But as at that time the Christians were scattered far and wide, and lived a good way distant one from another, and also were afraid of the heathen, the greater number stayed at home.

               For in such troublous times who would have liked to leave his wife and children alone at home? Moreover, at that time Christians were not permitted to meet, for when the heathen caught them speaking to one another, they poured oil upon them and burned them like torches. Still, when St. Peter had got a few counsellors together, they discussed what was best to be done. The one said one thing, the other another, as people do even to-day when talking in council, but if you think you are getting on any further, you are waiting in vain, for nothing comes out of it.

               St. Peter, who was more learned than the rest, saw that no good was coming out of their deliberations, and as he was the headman, he got up from his seat and said, "If we are to give our people good and sound advice, we all know that as for battle, good and strong men are wanted, so we must also have clever men. Unfortunately, however, there are no such men in our midst. We also know that if the heathen see us going from house to house, and find out our intentions, it might go very ill with us. We must therefore find out other means, so that our enemies should not even suspect our action. I, as the oldest among you, have come to the conclusion that we must get some very clever women. We might then possibly win our case. Let us make a list of all such women and instruct them carefully. We can then send them to the houses of the Christians to advise them what to do."

               "Excellent," replied the other learned men, and they called out all the clever women from the list which they had made, and by teaching them day and night, they fitted them for their work and sent them to the houses of the Christians. Before they left, however, they were told that they were neither to turn back and look at anything, nor were they to look straight into the eyes of strangers, for their eyes were bewitched by the devil, nor should they speak to strangers, who would pour poison into their souls. After receiving these instructions, they all covered their faces and left only holes for their eyes. Then they took food for the journey, taking care to fast regularly for two days and eating only on the third. One of them, called "Nun," going into a town where the people were dressed up more richly than in any other town, met a young man, tall as a reed, white as foam, with a crisp upturned moustache, a small well-proportioned mouth, and eyes glittering like those of a snake. He stood quite alone! The young man, cunning as the young men of our days are, no sooner set eyes on the young woman, when he began to tell her of all that is in the heavens and upon earth, and made her forget her errand and the instructions which she had received. So she unveiled her face, and began to talk in such a manner that no man would have stopped her from going on. In the end she told him even of the intentions of the Christians and of the teaching of St. Peter. As soon as he had heard all she had to tell him, the young man disappeared, for he was none else than the son of Satan. St. Peter, who knew all that had happened, for the angel of God had told him, started after the young woman in order that he might stop her from revealing to others the intentions of the Christians. He found her in a meadow playing with some children.

               "Thy name is nun, thy name shall remain nun (Mantissa religiosa), but thou shalt not have any longer a human shape, as thou hast thrown away the veil, and has denied thy beautiful face."

               When the nun beheld St. Peter she got frightened, and tried to pull the veil over her face, which was uncovered, but she could not do it, for God had changed her into a little green beetle which to this very day joins its front legs, and it looks as if it intended to cover its face with them.


This legend has been turned into a charm against a bad wife. Put the nun under her head at night, and say three nights consecutively the following charm:


“Faithless Nun, St. Peter had taught thee;
St. Peter has sent thee to do good to the Christians, to give them good teaching; to the ignorant thou hast given
But thy conduct was bad,
For thou hast spoken to the enemies,
And hast shown thy uncovered face;
And God has punished thee.
I now have also a wife, like unto a spark, with bad tongue and evil speech—
Evil in every way—
Bad, envious, cheating,
Always in motion, with a heart full of sin.
Thou, O faithless Nun, smitten by God,
Condemned by men,
Make my wife to become good.
From bad and faithless, make her good and faithful.
From cheating and envious, make her good and loving.
Otherwise, woe unto her.
Woe unto thy kind,
For I will set upon it and utterly destroy it.
I will fall upon it and annihilate it.

                She will then repent of her evil ways. This charm is only to be used in the case when the wife is younger than the husband.

               In the charm we have the "historical" or narrative element, in the legend we have the symbolical in the application which is assumed to run on parallel lines--the woman must also be faithful, obedient, chaste, must not look into other people's eyes nor talk to strangers--a grave danger for her soul. And finally the "threat" that unless the "nun" will do the bidding, she will be severely chastised, just like the demons in older conjurations, who are first cajoled and then threatened. It is thoroughly typical, and shows the depths of belief in the power of even the little insect which is, however, still seen as a "nun" in a human form well instructed and powerful, in spite of its actual "disguise." No real line of demarcation is drawn between the human being and the meanest creature. In popular belief and imagination they all live and move on the same plane.

               There is another tale told about this insect, which seems to be another attempt to explain its name Nun.


Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Why does the nun beetle cover its face?
Tale Author/Editor: Gaster, Moses
Book Title: Rumanian Bird and Beast Stories
Book Author/Editor: Gaster, Moses
Publisher: Sidgwick & Jackson
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1915
Country of Origin: Romania
Classification: unclassified

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