Butterflies and moths both belong to the order of insects known as lepidoptera, a Greek word meaning ‘scaled wing’. Lepidoptera have a five-stage life cycle: first an egg, then a caterpillar, followed by a pupae that matures into a chrysalis which, after a dormant period, breaks to reveal the butterfly. The ancients marvelled at the amazing transformation from a crawling worm-like creature that seems to ‘die’, become entombed, and then emerges as a glorious butterfly that spreads its wings and flies. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the life cycle of the butterfly, with its many transformations, became an allegory for the existence of a human, who at first crawls on the earth, dies, and emerges from the mortal shell as a transfigured soul. Depicting a creature with butterfly wings marked it out as a creature of spirit, and this is why angels and fairies are often depicted with butterfly wings.
The Celts suspected that butterflies might be human souls in actuality, and wore butterfly badges as a mark of respect for their ancestral spirits. It was said that the soul of a newly dead person could sometimes be seen hovering over the corpse in the form of a butterfly, and this was a good omen for the fate of the soul. However, in some cases the butterfly might be the soul not of a dead person, but of a dreamer, flying free while the body slept, and some say the soul-butterfly’s ability to leave the body in sleep accounts for dreams. In any case, it was taboo to kill a butterfly, since it might mean destroying a human soul.
The Celts saw the butterfly as symbol of renewal and rebirth. At the festivals where all torches and lights were extinguished and re-lit from a central bonfire [such as Samhain], the brand was called a ‘butterfly’.
Butterfly never appears as a personal power animal, but can be a wonderful spirit helper that shows the way to personal growth. She indicates a total transformation in your life. This might be very frightening, as we tend to cling to what is known, what feels secure. However, movement and development are necessary if you are to grow beyond what you are at this moment in time. If the caterpillar did not surrender itself to a painful change, it could never achieve its ultimate glory as a butterfly and take flight. You should not try to remain in any life phase forever, but recognise when the time has come to move on.
It is important to accept that life has cycles and stages, some active and expanding, some passive and contracting. Sometimes you might experience rapid change, at other times nothing may seem to be happening but it is important to realise that, as deep within the chrysalis, radical alterations are taking place, even though you can’t see them. Remember that it isn’t possible to have everything at once, but each thing comes in its own time and season. Every stage of your life has its purpose and its own rewards. You need to understand what this phase is teaching you, and how you can use that knowledge to progress. You are not only sum of your life experiences, but also of how you have used the knowledge with which they presented you.
There is a theory that says if a single butterfly flaps its wings in Indonesia, the effects of that action will continually travel outwards, like the ripples in a pond, and may eventually cause a storm in, say, Mexico. This story warns you to be aware of the effects of your words and actions, as they are not isolated in time, but continue to affect you and other people. If the gentle flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause a devastating storm, imagine the end result of an aggressive or selfish act magnified. Imagine too how the effects of a good deed might snowball.
Text © Anna Franklin, The Celtic Animal Oracle, Vega, 2003
Illustration © Paul Mason, The Celtic Animal Oracle, Vega, 2003