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Butterflies are among the most symbolic creatures in the world. From tiny wormy caterpillars to magnificent winged creatures, butterflies have one of the most awe-inspiring transformations in nature. This makes them highly significant, full of profound meanings. But the meanings of butterflies can vary depending on the culture they’re viewed in. In this article, let’s take a look at some general meanings of butterflies, followed specific symbolism of butterflies in 12 different cultures.
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., and their life cycle involves four main stages – eggs, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly.
These graceful creatures are admired across religions, cultures, and traditions as a symbol of positivity, transformation, metamorphosis, and spiritual growth. Because of their unique characteristics, they’re a popular spirit animal as well. Butterflies have also become one of the most popular choices for tattoos and jewelry.
General Symbolism of Butterflies
By now it’s clear that butterflies are symbolic, but what exactly do they symbolize? Here’s a detailed list.
- Transformation: The reason for this meaning is obvious – this insect goes through a striking transformation as it journeys from caterpillar to butterfly.
- Resurrection: The butterfly emerging from its chrysalis is symbolic of Jesus emerging from the tomb, in Christian beliefs.
- Rebirth: This ties to the theme of resurrection, as the butterfly is ‘born again’ as it steps forth from the chrysalis (tomb/grave).
- Fertility: Butterflies reproduce quickly and abundantly, much like rabbits. What’s more, their role in pollination also ties them to fertility.
- Triumph: As the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it represents triumphing over adversity and struggles.
- Endurance: Butterflies migration patterns require endurance and resilience. It highlights how hardy this fragile-looking insect actually is.
- Joy and playfulness: The beautiful colors, delicate movements, and lightness associate it with joy, playfulness, and positivity.
- Immortality: In some cultures, butterflies are seen as symbols of eternal life. This may be because of their links to resurrection and rebirth, like the phoenix.
- The soul: In Greek, the word for butterfly is ‘psyche’, which means soul. In many traditions, the butterfly is seen as a symbol of the soul.
- Signs from deceased loved ones: Some people believe that butterflies, especially if they appear in unusual ways or places, can be messages or signs from departed loved ones, signaling their presence and assuring the living of their well-being in the afterlife.
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 Christian symbolism, the butterfly represents Christ’s resurrection, often highlighted during Easter to commemorate His rise and ascension to heaven. During the Medieval period, Christian gravestones bore the butterfly symbol, reflecting hope in the resurrection of the departed.
Within certain Christian teachings, the butterfly epitomizes transformation. Its three stages symbolize spiritual and moral evolution. Moreover, it’s viewed as a poignant emblem for those seeking redemption and a new beginning in their spiritual journey.
12. Butterflies in Jewish Culture
Symbol of hope.
In Jewish culture, the butterfly has come to symbolize hope. This symbolism became stronger after the Holocaust when the butterfly emblem was used as a symbol of hope and resilience. Today, the yellow butterfly symbol is used to remember the Holocaust.
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:
- Rebirth and renewal
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.
Butterflies have various symbolic meanings and associations across the world. In this way, they have an everlasting significance, and have always been a meaningful symbol regardless of the time period or culture they’re viewed in.