Symbolism of the Butterfly
Lepidopterology is a strange word. It sounds like the study of some sort of ferocious winged beast, part leopard, part raptor, the dreaded lepidopter. But then again the way the word flows is almost comical like a very clumsy vegetarian flying leopard, maybe with googly eyes. At the very least it invokes an image of something spotted and wild. As you may have guessed from the title of this hub, Lepidoptera are actually the butterflies. Charles Linneaus made up this word in the eighteenth century to describe a scientific order of insects. It comes from the Greek words for scaly (lepis) and wing (pteron). Thus butterflies are scaly-winged creatures. This is true. The colors on butterfly wings are made up of little flecks of color like scales. Certainly it is an accurate and entertaining name, but I think, linguistically at least, Linnaeus missed the point when he chose to focus on wing characteristics. The ancient Greek word for butterfly was Psyche, a word that also meant soul and breath. Butterflies are delicate, ephemeral things. It is impossible to pin them down without destroying them. And yet do what we can not: they fly.
To modern people, especially schoolchildren, butterflies mean change. Caterpillars are not inspiring bugs, and pupae seem almost dead. Yet both of these forms has within them the potential and indeed the drive to flower into a butterfly. Butterflies in general are renowned for their beauty, although surely some species are more plain than others. A social butterfly is someone who has flourished. Butterflies eat from flowers, taking sips of the sweetest part and then moving on. They are delicate and fickle. More recently, butterflies have become symbols of drastic and chaotic change. A butterfly who flaps its wings in China may ruin days and end lives on the other side of the world. It was not the butterfly's intention, but it happened anyway. They have come to symbolize the law of chaos, that every action no matter how small has far reaching and unforeseeable effects. Ironically, in China butterflies mean longevity. The Mandarin word for butterfly is similar to the word for seventy, a long lifetime indeed. Real butterflies have much shorter lifespans, but that doesn't keep us from thinking of them as eternal, perhaps because they always return in the spring.
Despite or because of the butterfly's paradoxical nature, we are fascinated by them. Butterflies are one of the most popular tatoos for women. That fascination is one more facet of their power as a symbol. Dangerous and fragile, fleeting or eternal, and always beautiful, we have always been enchanted by butterflies and will be for as long as butterflies exist.
Some further thoughts:
- 626. Ode to Psyche. John Keats. The Oxford Book of English Verse
- Butterfly Etymology Cultural Entomology Digest 4
Cultural Entomology exposes how insects play a major role in almost every aspect of human culture. Discover just how long insects have influenced the humanities.
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