Folklore of Butterflies

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.


The Goddess Psyche

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)

Resources

  1. GonGoff.com The Butterfly symbolism 
  2. Wikipedia: Psyche  
  3. Soul, butterfly, mythological nymph: psyche in philosophy and neuroscience.  
  4. Natural Habitat Adventures: Myth and Mystery in Mexico’s Monarch Kingdom
  5. Interconnectivity: Animals Mourning Together in Modern Stories and Mythology
  6. Baylor University: Butterfly Lore
  7. Butterfly Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)

26 thoughts on “Folklore of Butterflies

Add yours

    1. How interesting! I wonder why the color yellow. The research on the Aztecs also said that brown butterflies in your house during illness was often sign of a soul leaving. Thanks for the comment and information.

  1. I love this post so much! It has two of my favorite loves, nature and folklore. Butterflies like to land on head. I’m always flattered when I get mistaken for a flower. I like to believe I am a place of safe harbor for both the living and the dead. So many people and animals, domestic and wild, will come and rest near me as if it is enough to give them some kind of recharge or serenity. My neighbors call me Snow White.

    1. Hi Melanie, That is awesome! There must be something about your energy level that lets these beings know you are safe to connect with. What a wonderful gift.

  2. They are amazing creatures. I was out walking today and saw a million caterpillars. I really need to find out what they will turn into.

    I posted a butterfly the other day and think is was a Pieris but really not sure?

    1. Hi Ananka, I found out there is a little Pieris and a big Pieris. I bet it could be hard to tell the difference. Did you check out Irishbutterflies.com? It is a simple website with some good pictures. Be well!

      1. That looks like a good site, I have bookmarked it. I only ever see these “maybe Pieris” and orange tips here at the moment. Maybe will see other types soon? I remember seeing a Peacock and Tortoiseshell last year. Spent about 10 minutes chasing them for a good photo!

  3. Very interesting information. I have always loved watching butterfly and trying to capture them in photographs. After my husband died, its amazing how they always seem to show up when I am at a low point. Just a messenger of peace.

    1. Hi Rebecca, thank you for sharing this. I am sorry to hear about your loss and I am glad to hear you find comfort in the natural world. Be well and thanks for the comment.

    1. Hi Sherry, great to hear you followed the links! I hope you found something interesting out there. Thanks for the comment and be well!

  4. Such charming butterfly folklore. I knew none, and now I know so much 🙂 Heartwarming.
    And a soulful blessing at the end.
    May you know “luck, happiness and riches today, tomorrow and beyond” too!
    Kind thanks.
    Pat

    1. Hi Pat, thank you so much for your comment. I am glad that you enjoyed the post, and I agree that the blessing is wonderful. Be well!

  5. While hiking in the Cleveland National Forest, my wife and I experienced a really strong gust of wind that lasted about three minutes. The wind was powerful enough to knock people’s hats off. However, we saw a small butterfly land on a piece of tall grass and somehow it was able to hold on tightly, swaying all about, until the wind subsided– after which it let loose and flew away. Just something very potent in that grip.
    Art

    1. Hi Art, thanks for the comment! That sounds like it was a pretty amazing experience and what a cool thing to see. I am constantly amazed by what nature can do.

Leave a Reply to Caseby's Casebook Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Built with WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: