Symbolism of Butterfly in Literature
Butterflies are one of the fascinating insects known to humankind. In literature, a butterfly is symbolic and also mysterious. These creatures that might have been on this planet for over 200 million years are taken as inspiration for poetries and comparisons to good or bad events in a person’s life. The word ‘butterfly’ is derived from the old English word ‘butterfleoge’, which was spoken between 450 A.D – 1150 A.D. Throughout the centuries, each culture continues to admire butterflies and expresses their representations according to their colors and even the time and place of visibility. In addition, they do work as one of the most powerful sources for aesthetic designs such as jewelry. Below are a few general symbolism or representation of a butterfly in detail.
A butterfly as a symbol of love is universal and can be found in many prominent cultures. While every colored butterfly is seen as aesthetically pleasing, the red butterfly stands as a symbol of love and passion due to its appearance and blazing colors. Apart from red, blue butterflies also symbolize love. In Asian, especially Chinese Mandarin culture, if two butterflies are seen together, it represents a strong marriage that can even last up to 70 years, or you’ll find love soon. In Mandarin, the word ‘butterfly’ also means seventy years. In ancient Chinese culture, men would seal their letters with butterfly symbols to further express the sincerity of their love. Also, in Navajo and Ancient Mexican culture, a butterfly is a symbol of love as well as foolishness and has the nickname ‘prince of flowers’. Botswana used butterflies as symbols to express love in the pre-colonial era.
Transformation and Metamorphosis
Butterflies are also symbols of transformation or metamorphosis. Every butterfly goes through four stages of life: eggs, caterpillar, chrysalis, and then butterfly. Each stage also represents what a human goes through. The change could be physical, emotional, or spiritual. In children’s literature, butterflies compare their toddler state to a caterpillar and walking stage to a butterfly. Also, when a person crosses their path with a butterfly, it represents a major change in their life. Native Americans who are known to admire vibrant and vivid colors consider butterflies symbolic of transformation and metamorphosis as well. For Christians, there are two types of transformation one is spiritual and the other moral. A Butterfly as a symbol of transformation and metamorphosis also means personal transformation that gives one the ability to grow in their life.
Resilience and Victory
Along with victory, many see the butterfly as a symbol of resilience. Among all butterflies, monarch butterflies represent resilience as well as endurance. They are called the king of butterflies and are native to North America. Thus they are revered by cultures and often taken as spiritual symbolism for their resilience and victorious journey of 3000 miles each year. Leopard butterflies from Southasia are also symbols of resilience and victory whether you are visited by one physically or in your dreams. Butterflies’ transformation from 3rd stage to the fourth stage of their life also represents resilience and victory as it lasts from a few days to a year, and has to endure and survive the harsh conditions.
According to the Native Americans, butterflies are symbols of hope too. They loved butterflies for their bright colors and also believed they would carry their wishes to the greater spirit. During the fight against the British, the Jacobites had many secret symbols to avoid getting caught and passing their messages. So, the butterfly was one of the secret symbols representing hope for the Stuarts’ comeback to the English throne after their exile. According to Hindus in India, finding a butterfly at home is a symbol of hope and also arrival news for some auspicious occasion. They are believed to belong to the Hindu god Brahma the creator and observer of life cycles.
The butterflies are considered a symbol of beauty and grace too. As they have unique features and come in brilliant colors and patterns, including ultra-violet and attractive colors, the butterflies are used extensively in pieces of jewelry and tattoos. While the butterfly, as a symbol of beauty, is viewed as a feminine trait, it represents both sexes. They are also mostly used in tattoos and combined with other artwork. One of the Native American tribes, the Ponca tribe, would design clothing inspired by butterflies using the symbols on their cloth and dresses.
Death and Rebirth
In one of the mythical stories from Native America, women perform a dance to revere the butterfly as a symbol of hope and rebirth. The butterfly also symbolizes transformation or rebirth, according to many folklores in India. For Jewish, the butterfly stands as a symbol of hope and rebirth as well, along with overcoming the pain and grief of the Holocaust. Similar to Christianity and Buddhism, butterflies are a symbol of hope and rebirth. In Mexican culture, butterflies represent death during ‘the day of the dead’ as they believe that butterflies are the souls of their deceased loved ones. Just as the color black represents bad and good, black butterflies or yellow and black butterflies are often symbols of death.
In Celtic culture butterfly as a symbol of the soul is in its winged form. They are especially considered as human soul and also represent a dead child’s soul. Butterflies also symbolize divine fire and ascent to heaven. The Scottish also believe that the presence of a golden butterfly on the gravestone means that the person is going to heaven. The Irish believed that butterflies carried their souls to the gods. So, the clans forbid the hunting of white butterflies in the 1600s. For the Japanese, the butterfly is a symbol of the soul if it is white, kinship or familial bond, and youth. They also etch butterflies into the family crest to display this symbolism.
Ascent to heaven
One of the lesser symbols of a butterfly as the ascent to heaven was strongly believed during the middle ages, from around 500 A.D to 1500 A.D. Christians would etch butterflies on the gravestones of the deceased as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection as butterflies also represent spiritual or moral transformation. In Buddhism or Zen, butterflies stand as a symbol of transformation to good. It is similar to Indian beliefs, but here, they believe no matter what the person has been in a past life, he or she transforms into a noble person. Thus, in both cultures, they believe that once a person becomes noble, they will ascend to heaven.
Good luck and Bad luck
Seeing a butterfly is a symbol of good luck on many occasions, depending on the color and place. Brown butterflies mean a symbol of good luck and a new start. Native Americans, as well as Asian culture, believe that black butterflies bring bad luck while white butterflies bring good news and luck. In a few Native American tribes like Blackfoot, butterflies represent peace and good dreams. The red ones mean there is going to be an important event, whether good or bad.
Examples of Butterfly as Symbolism in Literature
The Butterfly upon the Sky,
That doesn’t know its Name
And hasn’t any tax to pay
And hasn’t any Home
Is just as high as you and I,
And higher, I believe,
So soar away and never sigh
And that’s the way to grieve –
Here, the butterfly is used as a symbol of freedom and overcoming pain and grief after a person dies
Blue-Butterfly Day by Robert Frost
It is blue-butterfly day here in spring,
And with these sky-flakes down in flurry on flurry
There is more unmixed color on the wing
Than flowers will show for days unless they hurry.
But these are flowers that fly and all but sing:
And now from having ridden out desire
They lie closed over in the wind and cling
Where wheels have freshly sliced the April mire.
In this example, the butterfly is compared to flowers with their unique colors and is also a symbol of hope and newness.
To A Butterfly Poem by William Wordsworth
STAY near me—do not take thy flight!
A little longer stay in sight!
Much converse do I find I thee,
Historian of my infancy !
Float near me; do not yet depart!
Dead times revive in thee:
Thou bring’st, gay creature as thou art!
A solemn image to my heart,
My father’s family!
Oh! pleasant, pleasant were the days,
The time, when, in our childish plays,
My sister Emmeline and I
Together chased the butterfly!
A very hunter did I rush
Upon the prey:—with leaps and spring
I followed on from brake to bush;
But she, God love her, feared to brush
The dust from off its wings.
In this poem, the poet remembers their childhood as his sister is perhaps dead. Here butterfly represents death and rebirth.
Scenes from a Writer’s Life by Ruskin Bond
“and when all the wars are over, a butterfly will still be beautiful.”
Here, the author uses the butterfly is used as a symbol of hope and beauty.
“Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
In this quote, the writer uses butterflies as symbols of transformation and metamorphosis as well as resilience.
“But on paper, things can live forever.
On paper, a butterfly
never dies.” – Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
Here the author uses the butterfly as a symbol of soul and ascent to heaven.
“How does one become a butterfly?’ she asked pensively.
‘You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.’
‘You mean to die?’ asked Yellow, remembering the three who fell out of the sky.
‘Yes and No,’ he answered.
‘What looks like you will die, but what’s really you will still live.” – Trina Paulus, Hope for the Flowers
In this example, the butterfly once again represents resilience as well as rebirth.
“You can only chase a butterfly for so long.” – Jane Yolen, Prince Across the Water
In the above example, the author uses a butterfly as a symbol of resilience, Life, and Liveliness or Spirit.