Have you ever sat down and watched a butterfly in flight? It is a truly magical experience.
A butterfly will flap its wings and glide through the air until it finds an outstretched branch or flower to land on. Gently, the butterfly sits on the branch. Slowly, it moves its wings back and forth until it is ready to take flight again. Then, up into the air, the butterfly will circle and rise higher until it finds its next flower to land on. With grace and beauty the butterfly continues its rhythmic flight. The butterfly, with its elegant movements, has captured our thoughts and imagination since the beginning.
Butterflies have had a prominent role in the mythology and folklore of many cultures. In ancient Greece, Aristotle gave the butterfly the name Psyche. Psyche is the Greek word for soul and the name of a Greek Goddess.(1) The Goddess Psyche was a mortal woman of great beauty who attracted the attention and wrath of Aphrodite. Aphrodite sent her son Eros to punish Psyche. But Eros ended up falling in love with this mortal woman. Eros’ love for Psyche ended up triggering a series of events that resulted in Psyche dying during a set of trials imposed by Aphrodite.(2) Eros then retrieved Psyche’s body and brought her to Olympus where Zeus took pity on her and granted her immortality.(3)
Psyche is often portrayed in mythological art as having butterfly wings. As Psyche was freed from the cycle of life and death, she was given these wings so that she could fly freely, unencumbered by the trappings of mortality. In a paper written by Elena I. Antonakou and Lazaros C. Triarhou at the University of Macedonia, they conclude that the myth of Psyche forever links the soul to the butterfly. The authors state that through this story the soul is coupled with the divine. But the human soul must “nevertheless endure tribulations” of human suffering before achieving immortality.(3)
Similarly, the Aztecs believed that butterflies were responsible for transporting the souls to and from the realm of the dead. Every year the Monarchs migrate to the Mexican mountains in early November. Their arrival coincides with the Day of the Dead celebrations. The timing of the mass Monarch migration, and the Day of the Dead celebrations, led to the locals to say that the Monarchs are the returning spirits of their dead relatives. (4)
The Irish also connect butterflies to the human soul. This is probably most evident in the old Irish saying, “Butterflies are souls of the dead waiting to pass through Purgatory” (5). This belief was so strong in Irish culture that in the 1600s it was prohibited to kill a white butterfly because it was said to be the soul of a dead child.(6) Butterflies were also said to have the ability to cross into the Otherworld. Furthermore, their physical transformation from caterpillar, to chrysalis, to butterfly represents the potential of human transformation beyond life and death in this world.
These three examples of butterflies in folklore is just the beginning of the ways butterflies show up in our history. A few other examples that I did not investigate include the indigenous people of North America stories that link butterflies to resurrection and transformation (7), and the Christians’ use of the butterfly as a symbol for the works of Jesus Christ(7). I have no doubt that there are probably many other examples that I have yet to discover. But for now, I will leave you with a blessing from the Irish.
May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun, and find your shoulder to light on
To bring you luck, happiness and riches today, tomorrow and beyond.-An Irish Blessing.(6)
- GonGoff.com The Butterfly symbolism
- Wikipedia: Psyche
- Soul, butterfly, mythological nymph: psyche in philosophy and neuroscience.
- Natural Habitat Adventures: Myth and Mystery in Mexico’s Monarch Kingdom
- Interconnectivity: Animals Mourning Together in Modern Stories and Mythology
- Baylor University: Butterfly Lore
- Butterfly Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)