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In English, a "mantis" is a type of predatory insect. They're also called "praying mantises" because of the shape of their forelegs.

The name seems, quite transparently, to come from Ancient Greek μάντις "prophet". But while it's clear to me how they're "praying", it's much less clear how they're meant to be "prophets".

So, how did these insects come to be "prophets"? Was there a myth connecting them to oracles and prophecy, for example? Or did the word μάντις have another meaning (either in Greek or in Latin) that's more applicable?

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    The L&S entry gives an example from Theocritus (3rd c. BC) that uses this word for the insect. My guess is that the "praying" posture can easily extended to cover a "prophet," but I have no evidence.
    – brianpck
    Sep 30 '20 at 21:41
  • @brianpck I agree. Praying is talking to God. Prophets need to hear God in order to talk for him
    – Rafael
    Sep 30 '20 at 21:57
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    @brianpck Perhaps, but μάντις is related to μῆνις (from μαίνομαι), isn't it? The word usually makes me think of a frenzied oracle crying out in the throes of prophetic ecstasy, whereas the insect's posture makes me think more of a solemn priest or monk. (It may not have had those implications to the ancients, though.)
    – Draconis
    Sep 30 '20 at 22:14
  • @Rafael (as above; I can't @ two people in a single comment unfortunately)
    – Draconis
    Sep 30 '20 at 22:14
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    I don't really know whether prophets in Antiquity used to fold their hands.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 1 '20 at 15:51
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In the third century BC, Theocritus used the word μάντις in his work, Idylls:

μάντις τοι τὰν νύκτα χροϊξεῖται καλαμαία.

Although we'll probably never have anything more than a good theory concerning this word, some scholars of Theocritus seem to think that the association with prophets has to do with the grasshopper or praying mantis being seen as a foreboding sign of a bad harvest to come. For example in Theocriti Reliquiae:

Non necesse est, intelligatur illa locusta, quae 'mantis' vocari, si quidem, conspecta in aristis, sterilem messem annuntiant.

In Arethusa oder die bukolischen Dichter des Alterthums, Friedrich Ludwig Carl Graf von Finckenstein comments:

Die Heuschrecke, welche die Feldfrüchte verwünstet; sie ist mit Recht eine Prophetin, des Hungers nämlich, zu nennen;

Translation:

The grasshopper that devours the crops; she is rightly called a prophetess, namely of hunger.

Furthermore, Ernst Christoph Bindemann has the following to say in Theokrits Idyllen Und Epigramme:

Die schrumpfige Halmenprophetinn. Man kann sich hier entweder ein besonderes Heuschreckenartiges Insect (Mantis) denken, mit denen träge, veraltete Menschen verglichen wurden und das den Menschen Unglück bedutete: oder lieber auch die gewöhnlich Heuschreke, die eben nich schön ist, und, in sofer ihre Erscheinung auf den Kornhalmen schlechte Aernten verkündigt, auch eine Prophetin heissen kann.

Translation:

The shriveled-stalk prophet. One can either imagine the specific grasshopper-like insect (mantis), with which lazy, antiquated people were compared and which signified misfortune; or perhaps the normal grasshopper, which is simply not beautiful, and, whose appearance on the corn stalks announces bad harvests, can also be called a prophetess.

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