Butterfly Symbolism and Meanings

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Butterflies are among the most symbolic creatures because of how they transform through life. From small and humble caterpillars, these insects transform themselves into glorious, beautiful winged creatures. This is why butterflies are one of the most popular symbols of resilience and triumph. Here’s a closer look at the symbolism of butterflies around the world.

What Exactly are Butterflies?

Butterflies are large, flying insects, with colorful and scaley wings. There are about 17,500 butterfly species all over the world, of varying colors, sizes and other characteristics. Their life cycle involves four main stages – eggs, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly.

These graceful creatures are admired across religions, cultures, and traditions as an emblem of positivity, transformation, metamorphosis, and spiritual growth.

Due to their unique characteristics, many people have adopted butterflies as their spiritual animal. Butterflies have also become one of the most popular choices for tattoos and jewelry.

General Symbolism of Butterflies

We’re going to take a look at the specific symbolism of butterflies in different cultures, but before we do that, it’s worthwhile looking into the overall symbolism of butterflies.

In general, butterflies symbolize:

  • Transformation
  • Resurrection
  • Rebirth
  • Fertility
  • Triumph
  • Endurance
  • Metamorphosis
  • Joy and playfulness
  • Immortality
  • The soul
  • Signs from deceased loved ones

Butterfly Symbolism in Different Cultures

1- Butterflies in Chinese Culture

Symbol of eternal love, companionship.

For the Chinese, the butterfly is a symbol of eternal love and marital bliss. Men use the butterfly symbol to sign their love letters, and to express their love and passion. If two butterflies are seen together, they symbolize a long-lasting commitment and eternal love. Butterflies were used as an emblem of love even in ancient Chinese myths.  According to one myth, a young man who follows a butterfly, ends up falling head over heels for a Mandarin’s daughter. This ancient myth marks the butterfly as a symbol of love. 

2- Butterflies in Japanese Culture

Symbol of youth, the soul, good fortune, kinship.

For the Japanese, the butterfly symbol represents many different things. For instance, it symbolizes a bold young woman and marital bliss. A white butterfly reflects the soul of the deceased. A butterfly could also be an emblem of good news, and if spotted behind a bamboo tree, it signals the return of a loved one. In some Japanese families, butterflies are etched onto the family crest as a symbol of status and kinship.

3- Butterflies in Native American Culture

Symbol of resurrection, metamorphosis, joy, peaceful sleep and hope.

For the Native Americans, butterflies are an emblem of metamorphosis, transformation, and resurrection, admired for their bright and lively colors. Some Native American tribes believe that butterflies pass on their wishes to the greater spirit. Additionally, they play a significant role in children’s tales. According to one children’s story, butterflies help the little children develop from the crawling stage to walking.  

The Blackfeet tribe of North America believe that butterfly symbols bring peaceful and serene dreams. Butterflies are embroidered on cloth, and tied onto a baby’s hair, to help him/her have a tranquil rest. The butterfly symbol is also embroidered onto the dresses of Blackfeet women.

In modern Native American society, the butterfly remains a significant symbol. The Fancy Shawl Dance wasdeveloped in the 1920’s in an attempt to preserve Native American culture. This dance is based on a myth, wherein, a butterfly loses her lover and forsakes her wings. After journeying far and wide, the butterfly regains her lost happiness and puts on her wings. This myth is performed by the Native American women in the form of a dance, to symbolize hope and rebirth. They wear different colored shawls and flutter around like butterflies.

4- Butterflies in Celtic Culture

Symbol of the soul, God’s fire, and ascension to heaven.

In Celtic cultures, butterflies are associated with resurrection, joy, honor, and wealth. In the 1600’s, Irish rulers banned the hunting of white butterflies, as they were believed to be carriers of souls. In some Irish beliefs, butterflies are associated with the fire of Gods. In both Scotland and Ireland, a golden butterfly near a grave symbolizes the souls ascent into heaven.

5- Butterflies in German Culture

Symbol of the soul and supernatural beings.

German beliefs have varying perspectives on the butterfly. According to some beliefs, butterflies are thought to be the souls of deceased children. In other perspectives, butterflies are seen as mischievous witches who flutter over milk and butter to steal cream.

6- Butterflies in Roman Culture

Symbol of marriage.

In ancient Rome, butterflies represented marriage and weddings. They were etched into some Roman coins and were shown fluttering above the head of Juno, Roman equivalent of Hera.

7- Butterflies in Aztec Culture

Symbol of departed souls and Gods.

In Aztec culture, butterflies represent departed souls. It’s believed that ancestors come back to earth in the form of butterflies, and thrive on flowers. Due to this reason, it’s discourteous in Aztec society to smell the top of a flower bouquet, and disturb the souls of the departed.  In Aztec beliefs, butterflies are also a symbol of Goddess Ītzpāpālōtl and the fire god, Xiuhtecuhtli.  

8- Butterflies in Greek Culture

Symbol of immortality and the soul.

In Ancient Greece, butterflies were an emblem of the immortal soul. The word Psyche, which meant soul or butterfly, personified the soul’s breath and essence. When a person died, the ancient Greeks believed that their soul departed in the form of a butterfly.

9- Butterflies in Hopi Culture

Symbol of growth.

In Hopi culture, butterfly dances are performed by young girls entering into womanhood. The butterfly dance is done to learn about Hopi traditions and culture. The dance is a marker of the growth and progress of a maiden.

10- Butterflies in Mexican Culture

Symbol of departed souls.

In Mexican beliefs, butterflies are believed to be the souls of the deceased. Monarch butterflies represent deceased ancestors, who purportedly return to earth during a holiday known as the Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead celebrates and remembers loved ones who have passed on.

11- Butterflies in Christian Beliefs

Symbol of transformation and resurrection.

In Christianity, the butterfly is an emblem of Christ’s resurrection, and is used during Easter as a memory of his return and ascent to heaven. In Medieval Ages, Christian headstones were engraved with the butterfly as a hope that the deceased would rise again.

In some Christian beliefs, the butterfly is also a symbol of transformation. For instance, the three stages of a butterfly are representative of spiritual and moral transformation. The butterfly is also thought to be an ideal symbol for sinners who want to start their lives afresh.

12- Butterflies in Jewish Culture

Symbol of hope.

In some Jewish cultures, the butterfly has come to symbolize hope and rebirth. It was especially used after the Holocaust as an emblem of resurrection, to rise above the pain and grief.

Butterfly Tattoo Meaning

Butterflies are a popular motif used in tattoos, because of their symbolism, beauty and versatility. The butterfly can be stylized in endless ways and combined with other motifs for added symbolism. It’s also a symbol that, while often viewed as feminine, can be ideal for any sex.

In general, butterfly tattoos symbolize:

  • Freedom
  • Beauty
  • Change
  • Transformation
  • Metamorphosis
  • Rebirth and renewal
  • Resilience
  • Achievement
  • Hope

The exact meaning of a butterfly tattoo depends on its design and other elements incorporated into it. Whether on its own or combined with other motifs, the butterfly tattoo remains one of the most meaningful animal tattoos to choose from.

butterfly tattoo on woman's back
Butterfly tattoo on hand
Butterfly tattoo man's back

In Brief

Butterflies have various symbolic meanings and associations across the world. They have an everlasting significance, and have always been a meaningful symbol regardless of the time period or culture they’re viewed in.  

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