Mythology of the Butterfly

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The butterfly is a flying flower, the flower a tethered butterfly.
—Ecouchard le Brun

Every spring we look into the flowerbeds, hoping to see their fluttering wings. They’re the daydream of the child, and the memory of the gardener. They inspire awe and wonder, and we create environments hoping to attract them.

Butterflies have enchanted poets and artists since the beginning of time. They are documented in field guides. We watch from April to September, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Swallowtail or a Monarch.

Many people do not know the rich collection of mythology concerning butterflies. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that they carry messages to heaven; you might count the spots on their wings to predict how many children you’ll have.

There are many more tales where those came from. Butterfly mythology is fascinating. Knowing what our ancestors said enhances the thrill that we feel, watching them vanish into the sky.

Here are three pieces of folklore involving these lovely insects:

  • Native American lore is rich. One of their stories is that the serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, was born of a chrysalis. Native Americans are not the only ones to make symbolism of the cocoon; to many, it represents the struggle as we move from one phase to another. We break our cocoons to face fresh challenges with wings and wisdom. The butterfly cocoon is often more beautiful than the creature itself.
  • In many parts of the world, pagan tradition has a special place for this elegant insect. In Ireland, it’s considered bad luck to kill a white butterfly—they’re believed to symbolize the human soul after death. Most of us don’t think much of the white butterfly, our eyes seeking out color instead. In Ireland, this cannot be; we must pay attention, lest we pass a spirit and not pay it due homage.
  • In other places, we should look for the red butterfly. According to Icy Sedgwick, red butterflies often mean important news is on its way. However, the Scots believed red butterflies were witches, an example of how two cultures can see a thing differently. It doesn’t end there: if a sailor saw a yellow butterfly, he might perish on his next journey.

Special mention: if you want a fascinating read, visit Dealan-De’s account of The Wooing of Etain.

When spring comes back around this year, keep an eye out the window for a red butterfly; it might be a witch. And if you are a sailor, be kind to the yellow butterfly, lest you get into a boating accident! Remember that, out in the garden, anything is possible.

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