Butterflies: Symbols of Life and Hope
Butterflies and Their Symbolism
Many cultures, both native and ancient, have used the energy and symbolism of the natural world as totems to guide and teach. A totem is a natural object, animal or insect, that has special meaning to that person. The Chinese zodiac, for instance, is based on animal signs. Native Americans also use the characteristics of animals to learn virtues of strength, patience, cleverness, and much more.
Butterflies are common throughout the world. In fact, there are over 28,000 species of butterflies; 80 percent exist in tropical regions. Although they symbolize different things to different cultures, universally butterflies represent change and transformation. Why? Because the butterfly is an insect that begins its life in one form and ends it in another. A butterfly starts as a crawling creature, then it hibernates in a cocoon, only to rejoin the world as a flying insect.
Butterfly Symbolism Across Cultures
A legend tells of a young man who met his bride by chasing a butterfly into a garden, so butterflies represent love in Mandarin China.
Native Americans believe that a wish whispered to a butterfly will be granted when the butterfly flies up to the heavens.
Butterflies represent resurrection, since they are born as caterpillars and then become butterflies.
Butterflies symbolize long life, as the word for butterfly in Mandarin also means "70 years."
Native Americans celebrate renewal and hope with the Fancy Shawl Dance, which is derived from a butterfly dance.
Butterflies are especially potent symbols during the Easter season.
Christian Butterfly Symbolism: Resurrection
Christian tradition views the butterfly as a symbol of resurrection. According to the Old Testament story, Christ died on the cross, was buried in a tomb for three days, and came to life again to offer hope of life after death. For Christians, butterflies are especially significant symbols during the Easter season. The butterfly can be seen as the insect who "dies" as a caterpillar, is buried in the cocoon for a length of time, and emerges in a new life. Symbolically, butterflies are creatures with the ability to transcend the ordinary and take flight into the heavens. In many spiritual circles the butterfly represents the spirit or soul.
Native American Meaning of Butterfly Colors
Hope and guidance
Bad news or illness
Butterfly Symbolism in Asia: Longevity and Love
There is a legend in Mandarin China of a young man who found himself in the garden of a wealthy Mandarin. His presence there was forbidden, for it was an act of trespass—an intrusion by a commoner on a rich man's property. Why did he venture into this prohibited area? He was chasing a beautiful butterfly. What happened in the end is a tale of love. The Mandarin’s daughter fell in love with the young man and they married.
In the Mandarin language, the word butterfly is hu-tieh, which means 70 years. Butterflies symbolize long life. To the Chinese, two butterflies flying together represent love. In Japan, the butterfly represents both hopeful maidens and marital bliss. In the U.S., releasing butterflies at the end of a wedding ceremony is symbolic of love and of a promising marriage.
Native American Butterfly Legends: Renewal
Some Native American cultures believe that butterflies can take one’s wishes up to the Great Spirit. Capture a butterfly, whisper your wish, and release it to the heavens.
Another Native American story about butterflies tells of the "children who refused to walk." In order to get babies to move from four legs to two, a handful of pebbles were thrown into the air. As they scattered, they changed into beautiful, colorful butterflies. The children were so delighted they jumped up and began to chase the butterflies.
The Fancy Shawl Dance
Some believe that the Fancy Shawl Dance, as exhibited in ceremonial powwows, was derived from an earlier butterfly dance. It tells the story of a young butterfly whose mate was killed in battle. The grieving butterfly removed her beautiful wings, wrapped herself in a drab cocoon, and isolated herself in her lodge. Family and friends stopped by to console her, but she was wrought with grief. Not wanting to be a burden to her tribe, she took her wings and medicine bundle and journeyed far and wide.
As she traveled across fields and streams, she stepped lightly on each stone, her eyes downcast. It was in this way that she spotted a beautiful stone and her grieving heart was healed. Filled with gratitude and joy for a new life, she shrugged off the cocoon, unwrapped her wings and began to dance.
When she arrived home, she told her tribe all about her journey and the healing stone. In celebration, the tribe danced to celebrate the new beginning. To this day, the butterfly dance is performed with brightly adorned shawls and is called the Fancy Shawl Dance.
My Animal Totem: Butterfly
At a very early age, I felt that the butterfly was one of my totems. I remember being enchanted by their graceful movements and vibrant colors. Sitting quietly on a summer’s day I would observe the markings and delicacy of their wings, antennae, and legs. I was not one to capture them in a jar, but was content to run through the fields scattering them off of their food source to see them flutter in the air. They were like bright birds of joy.
One can appreciate butterflies in artwork, jewelry, and photography, but this does not compare to the experience of observing them directly. As a butterfly lover, I am always on the lookout in the spring and summer. If I do not see them in my own yard, I travel to an exhibit. In the summer of 2009 I drove to Norfolk, Virginia to view the exhibit at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens. I was able to capture several of these colorfully winged creatures with my camera as they flitted around the enclosure.
One of the best websites to find where an exhibit may be located in your vicinity is www.butterflywebsite.com. This site includes a link to places where one can help distressed butterflies. Due to our changing environment, including pollution and the obliteration of fields and natural butterfly habitats, butterflies are experiencing many survival challenges.