Whose soul were you carrying
Yesterday to heaven?
This children's song was collected in the western isles in the 19th century. It was believed that butterflies were sent from heaven to guide the souls of the departed, so it was a good sign to see butterflies outside the home of one who had recently died, as it ensured that their soul would be swiftly led to heaven.
Butterflies are associated with spirits of the dead, or the unborn, in cultures all over the world
In ancient Greece the word 'psyche' means both soul and butterfly as does the Latin word 'anima'.
In Teotihuacan, the Aztec capital, is the Palace of the Butterfly, the Palace of the Mariposa - in modern Mexico the word 'mariposa' still means butterfly, but also means a beautiful homosexual man.
To the Azrtecs the butterfly represented the elements of both fire and water and was sacred both to the rain god Tlaloc and to Quetzalcoatl the Feathered Serpent. Quetzalcoatl was associated with the planet Venus, which appears as both the evening star and then as the morning star, he was the dying god who sacrificed himself in fire, then was reborn as the morningstar. When the morning star reappeared, its symbol was the butterfly which therefore symbolised rebirth and resurrection.
The Aztecs thought that the earth was maintained through a dynamic harmony of Fire and Water, and that if this balance was not maintained the earth would be destroyed. The butterfly held that balance between Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl.
The association with the Fire element is seen in that the butterfly is invoked in healing ceremonies for 'Fire' diseases such as frostbite, chilblains, prickly heat or soreness of the eyes.
The Celts also believed that the souls of the dead manifested as butterflies and up to the 17th century in Ireland it was against the common law to kill a white butterfly as these were believed to be the souls of children.
There is an old Irish blessing:
May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun
and find your shoulder to light upon,
to bring you good luck, happiness and riches
today and beyond
It was also said that if butterflies are seen outside the home of one who has recently died, they have come from heaven to guide the soul into the after-life. And any butterflies found in the home are spirits of dead loved ones come from heaven for a visit.
In Russia the butterfly is sometimes called Babochka, which is a name of honour meaning 'old woman' (as in Baba Yaga, the archetypal Russian Witch in her spinning house, on chicken legs) as Witches are believed to be able to transform into butterflies.
The butterfly symbolises grace, beauty, sensuality, the summer, kisses and secrets. In ancient Rome it was sacred to Juno, the goddess of marriage.
In China a Jade butterfly is the emblem of love, suggesting the bonding of souls, so a husband would give his wife a jade butterfly to symbolise their eternal love.
The butterfly is also the symbol of the Vodun lwa Loko who is the spirit of the wildwoods and invoked before any healing ritual.
The butterfly also symbolises the power of magical transformation. The caterpillar, earth-bound, concerned only with eating and growing, turns into the pupa (dies) and is re-born, transformed into a creature of light, air and beauty.
According to American folklore, if a girl wants a new dress she should catch a butterfly of the appropriate colour and crush it between her teeth while muttering a magic formula. I suspect the type of girl who is ruthless and selfish enough to try this spell, doesn't actually need it in order to obtain a new dress or any other trinket she desires.
A nicer spell says that you should carefully catch a butterfly without harming it, and while it is between your hands whisper your wish to it. Release the butterfly unharmed and your wish will be granted.
If you see a Fritillary butterfly it means you have money coming to you.
'Once upon a time, I dreamt Zhuangzi was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly, and was unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably Zhuangzi again.
But now I do not know whether I was then Zhuangzi dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am Zhuangzi.'
Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) 389-286 bce