The Butterfly

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As Uncaring as a Butterfly

The usual, Western, view is that the butterfly is a carefree creature.   HH the Dalai Lama explains that, rather than carefree, it is uncaring: 

"The butterfly never meets its mother. It must survive independently and remains a stranger to affection.  An animal nurtured by mother's milk, however, is dependent on another for its basic survival. A child who grows up in a cold and detached home environment is similar to the butterfly, in that kindness is sparing. Once an adult, it will be very difficult for that person to show compassion."

"Human affection is a very, very important element. At a young age, compassion is very crucial not only for survival but to establish these very important human values." ~ Jessica Hawley (The Bandera Bulletin, Nov. 23/05) reporting on the address at University of Texas at Austin's Frank Erwin Center on Sept. 20/05.)

When people are learning to experience the true nature of the mind by means of actual observation, which is the usual meaning of the term, meditation, they can have difficulty with concentration, getting frustrated or discouraged.  To help with this, they are sometimes told to imitate the example of a butterfly.  It sits for a time on the flower, but then flits away.  It returns again and again, but always with grace.

The Butterfly Lovers

North of Dali not far from the current Tibetan border, in Yunan province on the slopes of Changshan, are three graceful Buddhist pagodas (the tallest, built in 836 CE, measures over 69 meters) and Butterfly Spring (Chi. hudie quan)  In the 4th lunar month, when the trees blossom, thousands of butterflies of twenty or so species emerge from their chrysalises to flutter over the water and hang in colourful clusters from the branches. 

The event is associated with the legend of the Bai maiden named Wengu, whom a local ruler of the Nanzhao Kingdom [729-1253] wanted as his concubine.  To escape the grasp  of the powerful lord, she and her lover committed suicide here by drowning, but they are said to reappear every spring in the form of a pair of butterflies.  

Spiritual Evolution

The butterfly exists in four distinct forms.  Some consider that so do we:  The fertilized egg is planted in our mother's womb.  From our day of birth we are like the caterpillar which can only eat and creep along.  At death we are like the dormant pupa in its chrysalis.  After that, our consciousness emerges from the cast off body, and some see in this the emergence of the butterfly.  Therefore, the butterfly is symbolic of rebirth after death.  

In ancient China, this role is played by the cicada.  An amulet of jade in this form was placed in the mouth of the corpse of a noble person.  Some examples exist from the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE.)

In the 1600s, in Ireland, killing a white butterfly was prohibited since it was believed to be the soul of a dead child. 

In the town of Bath, England, is the Theatre Royal built in 1805 that is home to several ghosts. Besides a mysterious grey lady, who regularly appears in her own box, spectators in 1948 first reported a phantom that materializes as a butterfly at Christmas pantomime time.  

For Christians, the butterfly's three steps of metamorphosis -- as caterpillar, pupa and then winged insect -- are reminiscent of spiritual transformation.

The caterpillar's incessant crawling and chewing reminds us of normal earthly life where people are often wholly preoccupied with physical needs. The chrysalis (cocoon) resembles a tomb and empty, can suggest the empty shroud left behind by Jesus.  Therefore, a butterfly represents the resurrection into a new condition of life that is free of any material concerns. 

In images of the Garden of Eden, Adam's soul is symbolized by a butterfly, or drawn with butterfly wings.  In paintings of Mary and her Child, the presence of butterflies stands for their care for human souls.  The Gnostics depicted the Angel of Death by showing a winged foot stepping on a butterfly. 

Since the insect is so fragile it can be torn apart by a hard rain, the butterfly stands for human frailty, both moral and physical.  Also, as its life is not a long one, it is also a symbol of the ephemeral nature of physical existence.  A butterfly with a torn wing is the icon for a North American charity that benefits disabled children.

The butterfly is also a symbol of woman's delicacy.  It can serve as a reminder to treat her with gentleness.  In Japan, a beautiful woman wearing a kimono is often compared to a butterfly. 


In mythology, the butterfly is rarely distinguished from the moth, so since the moth is irrevocably drawn to a flame, both are related to Fire.  Also, since the source of the flame makes no difference to a moth -- in fact it can be the cause of its death -- then it is also a symbol of inconstancy and even promiscuity or indiscriminate sexuality.


In America among the Aztec and Maya, the god of cosmic fire, Xiutecutli, is symbolized by a butterfly.  Fire is considered the element of transformation, as in cookery and the smelting of metals.  This association is borne out in traditional psychoanalysis where a dream or  drawing of a butterfly is taken as a symbol of the client's imminent transformation. 

  • The ancient Greeks depicted the spirit of a person as a winged stick figure.  Interpretation of that symbol gave rise to the idea of the "soul" or psy.cheh as a butterfly.

Later, long-suffering Psyche, bride of Cupid (Eros,) was compared to a butterfly.  It was her use of firelight to get a glimpse of the true nature of her mysterious sleeping husband that led to her downfall, and a series of dire trials that eventually led to her transfiguration.

A Symbol of Symbolism

Sophistication can be defined as the ability to read and manipulate symbols.  Since range of meaning is linked to one's culture and level of education, symbolic references can also be the source of  misunderstandings. 

Once, I gave a present of a framed iridescent blue Morpho butterfly to a good friend, who had watched over my home while I was traveling.  She was not particularly pleased by the gift, interpreting it as an indication that in my opinion she was superficial -- a "social butterfly."   At the time, I was not wholly aware of the reason why, whenever I saw butterflies on my trip, I began to think of her.  Not long afterwards, she and her family were involved in a horrible traffic accident in which only she survived.   I  think I had unconsciously tried to prepare and console my friend through the gift of a butterfly. 

  • Beside Peggy Black's Navajo basket #B83 at Canyon Art web site:

Due to the natural beauty of its wings, Butterfly is often considered vain. Yet, in Navajo mythology, Butterfly brings the sacred flint to the hooves of the horse. In the legend of the deity, Butterfly Boy was cured of his vanity by being lightning struck with the axe of Rain Boy. After that, his head opened up and out of it came the butterflies of the world. The perishable dust of Butterfly's wings is sometimes thought to prove that such beauty is usually not durable.  A corollary:  In Navajo belief, the butterfly's origin is Caterpillar, sacred because of his ability to transform into Butterfly. However, while Butterfly may not always be trusted because of his vanity, Caterpillar is a simple, many-footed walker through life. He may give advice to his "betters."

The Caterpillar

In mythology and art, the caterpillar -- the larva (immature form) of a butterfly or moth -- is not usually distinguished from the worm, which is associated with rot and disease.  However, only a caterpillar spins itself into a cocoon, where the mysterious transformation takes place during the time of "retreat" known as the pupation period.

Sometimes, our daily period of sleep is viewed as a time of pupation, so that when we dream our minds seem to roam free like the butterfly.  The Pikuni and T'suuT'ina (Blackfoot and Sarcee, of Alberta and Montana,) like ancient Greeks and Romans, associate the butterfly with the wandering consciousness that seems to occur during the dream state.

Butterfly Trickster

In the Canadian Pacific northwest, the Haida depict Butterfly as the companion of Raven the Creator-Trickster, perhaps acknowledging the unpredictable and unreliable nature of "flights of fancy" and dreaming.

The Anishnabe (Ojibway, Western Cree) relate that the first children would not try to get up and walk until there were butterflies:

In the beginning, the animals took care of the first Anishnabe children. The animals provided everything for these babies food, warmth and companionship. While the larger animals guarded the children and kept them safe and warm, the smaller animals played with the children, kept them happy and made them laugh.

The children in return imitated the animals, their protectors and playmates, and crawled around on all fours. In fact, the children neither knew of nor tried other ways to get around.

One day, Nanabush watched these children laugh, roll and tumble with their friends. He knew it was time for the children to know who they were, to know that they were Anishnabe, to grow up. Nanabush scooped up a handful of pebbles and cast them into the air.

The pebbles turned into butterflies butterflies of all sizes, of all colours, fluttering here and there. The children looked up and saw the beautiful celestial winged creatures. And for the first time, they stood up on their legs and ran laughing, chasing the butterflies.

~  Keeshig-Tobias, Lenore.  The Trickster: Running for the People, Carrying Fire for the People. RCAP, 1994.


Butterflies can leave behind droppings that resemble blood. Before 1553, when Gosse discovered this source of "red rain," people who lived in the paths of migrating butterflies must have seen this as a bad omen, indeed.  

In some circumstances, the butterfly will drink the blood of mammals:   

The Udmurt (or, Votiak) whose homeland is in the Urals, consider butterflies spirits of fertility.   A large percentage of the population is ancestor-worshiping, and they still follow the old ways.  If the crops are failing, they go out to capture white butterflies in a white cloth.  They bring them back and introduce them to a sheep carcass in the expectation that they will enjoy the offering and bless the crops.

(Other gardeners, on the other hand, might take small white "butterflies" for grain moths or white-cabbage moths, whose caterpillars tend to consume the crops.)


An Irish blessing goes: "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."

The Hopi (southwest USA) have a ceremonial butterfly dance called Bulitikibi which they perform to do homage to the butterfly so that it will confer prosperity. 

Flutterby, Butterfly

Some say that the word "butterfly" is a sort of joke that entered into English when Shakespeare transposed the letters in the original word, flutterby.  It is not so, for the designation has been botter-fleoge at least since Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It is amazing that, unlike most animal names, the word for this insect is very different in the various languages. 



In Mae Hong Sorn, the north western province of Thailand, live the Shan people, whose roots are in northern Myanmar (Burma.)  They celebrate the end of the rainy season retreat at full moon of the 11th lunar month, as instituted by the Buddha, with a ritual re-enacting the legend of Gingara.  It is thought that this tradition comes from Himalayan Buddhism, where Gingara (Skt. gangara) is a figure of power and good fortune, cf. Ghaghara, a tributary of the Ganges.




~ Thai Gingara dancer [palm-plaza web board, formerly at]

The festival, which in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is Lhabab Deuchen, is inspired by the scriptural verse: "And at the end of the retreat period the Buddha told Indra that he would descend to the world of humans himself to celebrate the end of this season."  Therefore, in order to demonstrate that Buddha benefits all living earthly beings, the costumes represent  3 different orders of animal:  The lion, the butterfly and the serpent. ~ <>

Gingara is sometimes shown as a garuda, a mythological creature that is half human and half bird.  In Thailand, generally it has the head of a woman and the body of a peacock.  

The lion, as we have seen, is a solar symbol and one of the four vehicles of Buddha.  The serpent represents the energy of the earth and its water. The butterfly represents the air. 

Butterfly Dogs

In the 1600's, a dwarf spaniel was developed that is named for its broad, erect, and feathery ears, ie. the Papillon, (aka Continental spaniel) which is the French word for "butterfly." 

In 1861, Queen Victoria was given a Pekingese dog by Captain Hart Dunne.  Known in east Asia as the Butterfly Lion, the Peke was considered a kind of spirit-dog and it is one of the breeds associated with Buddhism.   One of the many myths  surrounding its ancestry concerns a lioness who suffered under the brutish attentions of her natural mate.  The gods took pity on her and arranged that she consort with a butterfly.  Her offspring was the Pekingese, which has the heart of a lion, but the grace and delicacy of a butterfly. 

~ Rumer Godden. The Butterfly Lions: The Pekingese in History, Legend and Art. 1978.


What Has 2 Wings But Is Not a Bird?

Moths and butterflies belong to the family Lepidoptera.  In mythology and iconography, for the most part, no distinction is made between the moth with its fat furry body, and the butterfly, which is generally more delicate and colourful.  That is not surprising, since many people even mistake the bats (often 5 in number) that appear as a motif in Asian textiles and other crafts, for butterflies.  

The Butterfly Effect

This is an aspect of chaos theory.  It is often misunderstood, especially when the expression is intended to refer to a "sensitive dependence on initial conditions."  For example, the way a seeming insignificant event can cause dramatic consequences.   It is incorrectly described as the disturbance of the air caused by the movements of a butterfly's wings that can, over time and with changing circumstances, become a hurricane.   (That notion is, rather, tied to one of Poincarre's mathematical ideas concerning the importance of minute variation.)

The Butterfly Effect is, in fact, a pattern with the form of a butterfly (ie. bi-lobed) that appears in the mathematical plotting of meteorological or other random or chaotic distributions.  It was first noticed when barometric pressures were charted.

  • As Michael Cross shows, Edward Lorenz first used the seagull as his metaphor.  Click on the link to run an applet demonstrating the Effect.

In any case, the butterfly has now become a symbol of extreme sensitivity to the slightest change, and as such has been co-opted for use by a major software company. 


Lepidoptera: The term derives from the Greek for scale and wing, because their wings are covered with thousands of overlapping scales.  There are about 170,000 species, but only one-tenth are butterflies; the rest are moths. The former have knobbed antennae, while moths have pointed, often feathery, ones.  They go through 4 stages:  egg, larva, pupa or chrysalis, adult. They sip nectar through their proboscis which is coiled under in a spiral when not used for feeding.

generally An exception is the silk moth, whose chrysalis is unwound to produce a continuous silk fibre. Unfortunately, during the process the animal is killed. 

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