Elephant Hawk Serpent


This creature was spotted (forgive the pun) in grass near Rottingdean beach. At first glance, I thought it was a small snake, and as I knelt to examine it I was already thinking of previous serpent manifestations here on the Shoreline (see here or here). But it is actually a caterpillar, endowed with markings that give it the appearance of a snake. For a caterpillar it was quite a chunky beast, and when prodded gently with a stick, it darted and jerked in a manner far more redolent of a snake than an insect.

After some Googling, I was able to identify it as the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk Moth, meaning that when it grows up it will look something like this (picture from UK Moths):

Because of its exotic colouring, the adult moth is often mistaken for a butterfly.

So: here is mimicry, and here is transformation.

Mimicry speaks to the distinction between form and content. The form belies, or conceals, the content, and in this instance does so in a way that resonates with the Shoreline’s snake current.

Transformation is another Shoreline theme- most explicitly here, but the symbology of alchemy and transmutation permeates the whole. It’s perhaps surprising that I haven’t found myself writing about butterflies or moths before: one sees them all the time here (rarely on the beach itself, admittedly) and they are, for obvious reasons, a potent symbol of transformation. The metamorphosis that causes a wriggling larva to manifest anew, as a dazzling winged insect, never fails to capture our imagination, regardless of its familiarity. It is as sacred as it is profane.

All that said, there is only so much analysis one can apply to a changeling creature that is named for an elephant and a bird (but is neither of those), and mimics a snake (but is not that either) before it becomes a pink-fringed moth that is often mistaken for a butterfly. This place is a box of tricks, and its trickery delights and baffles.

3 responses to “Elephant Hawk Serpent

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