A look at butterfly meaning, myth & folklore with a particular focus on Celtic butterfly meaning and tales - all illustrated by my Celtic butterfly art, and unveiling my newest butterflies artwork...
I've been really busy recently creating lots of butterfly artworks (you can see the first 4 here, plus two others here and here - but I'll also be sharing them again in this post, too)....
But I realised I hadn't stopped to take a look at the myth and meaning of butterflies, especially in the Celtic world, as butterflies do have a particular meaning and importance in Celtic tradition...
So let's take dip into our history and understanding of Celtic butterfly meaning, plus butterfly myths and meanings from across the world - and I'll share my new Celtic butterflies artwork, which I created from the individual butterflies I drew for each of the other artworks, which I thought would all look lovely in one piece, together (see above or just below, showing detail from the artwork)...
Butterflies are one of our most beautiful and treasured icons – a symbol of beauty, hope, and freedom – and frequently seen as a representation of the human soul.
Let’s take a closer look at the myth, meaning, and folklore of these enchanting insects…
Butterflies feel precious to us – it’s because of their delicate beauty and ephemeral nature, but also because worldwide, and for thousands of years, we’ve seen butterflies as a symbol of the human soul.
In Ancient Greek myths, the goddess Psyche is represented with butterfly wings. ‘Psyche’ means ‘soul’ – and the goddess Psyche is also associated with the Greek god of love, Eros. In fact, the pair are in love and passionately devoted to each other, so linking the butterfly with love.
In the Ancient Roman world, Psyche loved Cupid, the Roman god of love. And there are wall paintings in Roman Pompeii that show Psyche as a girl with butterfly wings.
Ancient Roman ‘denarii’ coins show butterflies paired up with Juno, the Roman goddess of weddings and marriage.
A Roman statue has also been found which shows a butterfly flying out of a dead man’s mouth – thought to depict his soul leaving his body.
In the Christian tradition, the butterfly is a symbol of rebirth or resurrection – inspired by the life cycle of a butterfly. The caterpillar stage represents our earthly life. The chrysalis is the cocoon of death and purgatory, while the emergence of the butterfly represents the new life of the soul, reborn into the heavenly realms.
Medieval and Renaissance Christian art would often show Adam in the Garden of Eden with butterfly wings or with his soul depicted by a butterfly.
A butterfly would also often be included in paintings of the Madonna and Child, representing their loving guardianship over human souls.
For the Aztecs, too, the butterfly was a symbol of the soul and seeing butterflies represented the return of loved ones who’d passed on, coming to visit their earthly relatives.
For the Mexican culture, the butterfly was a representation of the ‘Black Sun’, symbolising resurrection.
In Russia, butterflies are sometimes called ‘duschichka’ (in Russian dialect) derived from the word ‘dusha’ meaning soul. Although the main Russian word for butterfly is ‘babochka’ (meaning ‘little old woman’). Did this mean that the butterfly was considered the soul of a recently departed grandma? Or was it, as suggested by Russian folklore, that butterflies were believed to be shapeshifting witches?
In the Scottish borders, too, red butterflies were seen as witches, and elsewhere, Red Admiral butterflies were believed to be the devil!
In Japan, butterflies were seen as wandering spirits. A butterfly was also seen as a symbol of womanhood, while two butterflies together signified a happy marriage.
In Sino-Vietnamese culture, a butterfly represents the desire for a long life.
And in Andalusian Spain, a tradition was that the heir of the deceased would toast the butterfly of the soul by splashing wine over the ashes.
In the Celtic world, butterflies were seen as the souls of the recently departed.
It was a good omen to see a butterfly hovering over a corpse or grave (perhaps why we now leave flowers at our loved ones graves). A golden butterfly at a funeral was very welcome, and presaged longevity for those present.
A verse collected from the Scottish Highlands in the late 19th Century called ‘The Golden Butterfly’ opines:
Whose soul thou didst bear,
Yesterday to heaven?”
(Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael)
In Ireland, it was believed unlucky to harm a butterfly, as butterflies were seen as the souls of the dead come visiting their loved ones. Particularly precious were white butterflies, which were believed to be the souls of departed children. Until the 17th century, in Ireland, it was against Common Law to kill a white butterfly.
In Germany, too, butterflies were thought to be the souls of children.
The butterfly also represented rebirth and renewal in the Celtic tradition.
The Celtic Gaelic word ‘dealan-dhe’ means ‘butterfly’ but also refers to the light of the gods, as well as being the name of a ceremonial brand used to light community fires from a central fire at the Celtic festival of Beltane, in a symbol of rebirth and renewal.
The associated word ‘tiene-dhe’ also means ‘fire of the gods’ and ‘butterfly’.
In the Celtic Irish legend of The Wooing of Etain (‘Tochmarc Etaine’), the story is told of the god Midhir who fell in love with the beautiful Etain. Midhir’s first wife was angry, and turns Etain into a puddle of water from which a ‘worm’ or caterpillar emerges which becomes a butterfly…
“…the most beautiful fly in all the world. The sound of its voice and the hum of its wings were sweeter than bagpipe, harp or horn. Its eyes glittered like precious jewels in the darkness. Its scent and perfume took away hunger and thirst from whoever fluttered around. The dewdrops which feel from its wings cured all pain, sickness and pain from whoever it visited.”
Etain is eventually reborn as a human, with no recollection of her previous existence, and is married to Eochaidh, the High King of Ireland. Midhir finds her, and kisses her to awaken her memories and re-awaken their love – they escape together in the form of swans.
Even in our modern world, we will look to see the first butterfly of spring. In earlier times, the colour of the first butterfly of the year could fortell the fortune of the coming year.
In Devon, it was believed to be lucky to kill the first butterfly of the year. And in Westmorland, in the late 19th century, on Oak Apple Day (29th May) groups of boys would search for white butterflies and kill them, calling them ‘papishes’. But ‘coloured butterflies’ were saved as they were ‘King George’s butterflies’ (Red Admirals, Peacocks, and likely also Tortoiseshell butterflies as these were known as ‘King George’s Butterflies’ in parts of Yorkshire.)
For the most part, though, butterflies are unanimously loved and respected as a symbol of:
An Irish butterfly blessing:
“May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun and find your shoulder to light upon.
To bring you luck, happiness and riches, today and beyond.”
My newest butterfly artwork, which accompanies this study of butterfly meaning, myth, and folklore, is a piece where I've brought all the individual butterflies that you've seen on this post together...
How to Buy
My Celtic Fantasy Butterflies are available as cushions, T-shirts, mugs, phonecases, shower curtains, journals, notebooks, bags, clocks and much more in my Redbubble store here...
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