Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Symbol Spotlight: The Butterfly

           The butterfly is one of my favorite symbols. Not only are these colorful creatures inherently beautiful, their symbolic significance is rich and multi-layered. Their symbolism stems from observations of their behavior - in particular, their extraordinary life cycle. 
A butterfly does not begin life as a colorful, winged creature.  What hatches from a butterfly’s egg is quite the opposite – a lowly, fat, squirmy, wormy caterpillar.  Its only goal in life is to survive – and eat.  For months, this ravenous little beast consumes as much food as it can, growing and molting several times as it grows too big for its own skin.
Monarch Chrysalis Photo: Albert P. Bekker
© California Academy of Sciences
Eventually it is ready for the next stage of life.  It anchors itself to a leaf or twig and begins to squirm and writhe, splitting its skin, wriggling out of it and discarding it. What emerges is no longer a caterpillar, but a chrysalis.
This chrysalis contracts and pulsates as the liquid coating it dries to a hard shell.  A time lapse video of this process can be seen here. 

Inside this jewel-like casing a remarkable transformation takes place. 
The plump body grows slimmer. Long legs, antennae, and wings develop. Once this metamorphosis is complete, the skin of the chrysalis becomes transparent once more, and the adult swells to split open its shell and emerge.  It hangs from the empty skin, unfurling its wings and letting them dry before taking flight as a beautiful, graceful butterfly.  It will now feed on nectar (pollinating the flowers it feeds from), find a mate and lay eggs for the next generation before dying.
"Metamorphosis Mandala" by Cristina McAllister

Ancient people who observed this amazing cycle drew a parallel to the spiritual journey of a seeker of enlightenment.
The caterpillar represents the unenlightened person – lowly and blindly groping, filled only with the desire to consume and satisfy its worldly cravings.
The chrysalis phase was likened to a period of study and spiritual growth.  There is a long tradition of isolating oneself to focus on inner processes – the notion of a spiritual retreat, a monastic existence and turning the mind inward to seek truth, as in meditation. The shell of the chrysalis symbolizes this process of spiritual questing, gathering of knowledge and resulting transformation.
The winged adult represents the enlightened soul – full of beauty and able to soar through the heavens.
This spiritual journey can also be seen as the transition from physical form to pure energetic spirit, or from the mortal life to the afterlife.
The butterfly’s incredible metamorphosis can represent change in general, and acceptance of change.   It signifies potential – the promise that even the ugliest caterpillar has the innate capacity to become a beautiful butterfly.
It is also regarded as a representation of the human soul.  The ancient Greek goddess Psyche was the personification of the soul, and was portrayed as a butterfly or a woman with butterfly wings* .
The people of the Solomon Islands believe butterflies to be reincarnated beings – the butterfly form being the last lifetime before the soul ceases to exist.
The Aztecs associated their native Monarch butterflies (whose fluttering wings flash bright orange, yellow and red) with flames and fire (also a powerful symbol of transformation).
Butterfly designs from ancient Mexico.
Butterflies are also considered by many diverse cultures as omens – of just about everything– fair weather, a rainy summer, thunderstorms, a marriage, good health, sickness, good luck, bad luck, birth, death.
            Butterfly designs are popular tattoo motifs, especially for women.  Their delicate beauty and brilliant colors suggest femininity and grace. They are also symbols of freedom, as are most winged creatures that fly free through the sky.

            The next time you spot one of these fascinating beings, take a moment to consider what it represents, what you may have in common with it, and what it may have to teach you. Or just watch it fluttering among the flowers and smile.

* Interesting Trivia: In art and literature, a woman with butterfly wings is known as a rhopalocerienne.  Check out this beautiful photo series by Carsten Witte.

Sources and further reading:


1 comment:

  1. Hi, for the past 3 weeks to a month I have had the same Monarch butterfly come and hover around me when I go outside. I keep commenting to my friend that I feel it is something significant but cant work out why. Then today the same butterfly flew with great gusto and life toward me and sat down beside me...only centimeters away...but slowly over the course of a few minutes the life went out of him and he died. I felt so sad. Would anyone have any ideas what this could mean? I spent most of last year fighting for my own life and am now left with significant health problems but I also found my absolute true love in the past month in my best friend of 15 years. The love however is forbidden. I waited 45 years for exactly what I've found but can only share it from a distance. Is there any connection to my butterfly?


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