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The Butterfly is one of the most attractive of creatures, symbolic not only of beauty but of youth and rebirth in many cultures. Thailand is lucky to have a wide variety of these beautiful insects and upwards of 520 species have been recorded in the north around Chiang Mai. Both the North and South of the country are ideal places to see butterflies. It is a popular place for entomologists to visit and there are actually Butterfly Tours.
In Thailand though the butterfly has another meaning. The use and context of the word 'Butterfly' is believed to have been imported into Thailand by the Japanese during the second world war. It comes directly from 'Cho Cho' (which means butterfly) the young Japanese Geisha in the opera 'Madam Butterfly'*. In Japan the butterfly represents the arrival of womanhood. Today it has come to mean within parts of Asia, and Thailand in particular a woman, or man, who flits from flower to flower. From partner to partner. The butterfly here is truly representative of fleeting love.
*The musical "Miss Saigon" is "Madam Butterfly" reborn with slightly different characters and in a Vietnamese setting.
The meaning is not new. The butterfly in art has long represented fleeting love. One good representation of this is the 1817 painting of Cupid and Psyche by Jaques Louis David (see above) where a butterfly, representing the soul of Psyche* is shown leaving the newly sated couple.
* In ancient Greek the word Psyche actually meant Soul
In Thailand you will hear the word 'butterfly' quite often.
You will hear it stated "She is a butterfly" or "He is a butterfly". More often than not it will not be said unkindly as so many understand that there are other sweet nectar filled flowers in the garden of life.
At times it may be used in an accusation - "You butterfly me?" and at others as a simple statement of fact "I am a butterfly".
There are swarms of butterflies in places like Pattaya in Thailand but no room for one in a permanent loving relationship.
Above, with the butterfly a lot more obvious is Cupid and Psyche yet again. This in the 1793 painting ' Divine Virtuosity' by Hugh Douglas Hamilton.
In Thailand today the butterfly is all. The butterfly is not just beautiful but is a symbol of a lifestyle. Butterflies are not just in tattoos but in underwear, in jewelry, in shoes and clothing. There is an industry built around butterfly symbolism. The butterfly though does represent freedom too and the ability to go and the "do what I want when I want" or "Up to me!" way of looking at things as in many Thai Bar Girls.
The butterfly is one of the most popular tattoos for women today. Few now give much thought to the meaning and are more concerned with placement, design and colour. It is likely that most will just get the tattoo because they like it and because they have seen others with them. Without doubt butterflies are beautiful and being able to choose your own colours leaves tremendous scope to be different.