As masters of metamorphosis, butterflies are significant symbols of transformation, freedom, and rebirth. These winged creatures have long been viewed as otherworldly messengers and heralds of good fortune and joy. The Greek word for butterfly, psyche, is the same word used for soul, and this association is found across many cultures.
Read on to learn about butterfly meaning, mythology, and more!
In this guide, I’ll cover:
- Butterfly symbolism across cultures
- Butterfly Color Symbolism
- Butterfly Symbolism in Art
- Butterfly Tattoo Meaning
- Butterfly Symbolism in Science
- What does it mean when a butterfly visits you?
- Butterfly Meaning in Dreams
- What emotions do butterflies symbolize?
- Butterfly Symbolism in Poetry
Butterfly symbolism across cultures
Let’s journey around the world to learn more about butterfly symbolism across these cultures:
- Butterfly Symbolism in China
- Butterfly Symbolism in Japan
- Native American Butterfly Symbolism
- Butterfly Symbolism in Mexico
- Butterfly Symbolism in Europe
- Butterfly Symbolism in Greece
- Butterfly Symbolism in Christianity
- Butterfly Symbolism in Egypt
Butterfly Symbolism in China
Butterflies are a common design motif used in classical Chinese textiles as a symbol of summer, joy, beauty, and elegance. Pairs of butterflies embroidered on textiles are a symbol of young love. “ Butterfly Lovers” (Liang Zhu) is a Chinese legend about the tragic romance of two lovers who turn into butterflies when Zhu throws herself into Liang’s grave.
The Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese philosophical text. The most famous passage is a question about the nature of reality: Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream
"Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things."
Butterfly Symbolism in Japan
In Japan, butterflies are associated with deceased spirits, and can be seen as both a positive and negative omen depending on the person. A departed soul either takes the form of a butterfly or is guided by butterflies to the afterlife. A swarm of butterflies warned of a revolt by the first samurai Masakado, a now demigod whose ghost is said to still haunt Tokyo to this day. A swallowtail butterfly was used on his clan’s crest (Taira).
Butterflies are also associated with love and womanhood, and are commonly featured in clothing designs for women. Butterflies were the first form of origami, inspired by a poem about paper butterflies. This started the tradition of placing two origami butterflies on a sake bottle at Japanese weddings.
Native American Butterfly Symbolism
Siksika (Blackfoot) Native Americans believe butterflies bring dreams and inspiration.1 The Hopi tribes of Arizona perform a ceremonial butterfly dance, which is a 2-day social dance performed by young women. Butterflies are also some of the main kachina, or wildlife spirits and appear in Hopi figurines and pottery. They symbolize transformation and balance.
Butterfly Symbolism in Mexico
Monarch butterflies arrive in Mexico on their yearly migration near Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — so monarchs became a natural symbol for the souls of deceased loved ones.
Aztecs believe the last breath of a dying person takes the form of a butterfly.1 Ītzpāpālōtl is an Aztec warrior goddess who takes the form of the obsidian butterfly. Associated with bats, moths, and eagles, she rules the place where infant souls dwell and where humans are created.
Butterfly Symbolism in Europe
Throughout Europe, butterflies are predominantly associated with the soul, death, and rebirth. Celts believe butterflies are human souls in search of mothers.1 In Ireland and Germany, butterflies were thought to be souls of children. In the 1600’s it was illegal to kill a white butterfly for this reason in Ireland. In Andalusian Spain, there is an old funerary ritual that says, “An heir must throw unmixed wine over the ashes of the deceased as a toast to the butterfly that will escape with the soul.”
Butterfly Symbolism in Greece
The word for butterfly in Greek is psyche. “ Ancient Greeks also named the butterfly scolex (“worm”), while the chrysalis – which is the next stage of metamorphosis from a caterpillar – was called nekydallon, meaning “the shell of the dead.”
The Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul, has been immortalized throughout western art. Psyche was born a mortal princess. Tales of her beauty became so widespread that the goddess of Beauty, Aphrodite, became jealous and sent her son, Eros to shoot her with an arrow to make her fall in love with a monster. Instead, he pricks his own finger with his arrow and falls in love with her and marries her on the condition that she can never see him. Aphrodite finds out about the marriage and sends her on impossible tasks that she accomplishes with help. In art, she was usually depicted as a beautiful young woman with butterfly wings.
Image Credit: Harold Gaze, "Eros and Psyche"
Butterfly Symbolism in Christianity
Butterflies are associated with resurrection and spiritual transformation. Like Jesus emerged from the tomb after 3 days, a butterfly emerges from the chrysalis after a type of metaphoric death. Butterflies are often engraved on headstones as a symbol of rebirth.
Butterfly Symbolism in Egypt
Butterflies were frequently used as a decorative element in tomb artwork in ancient Egypt. “Butterflies were presumably one of the pleasures that awaited the deceased in the afterlife, reflecting the Egyptian belief in the immortality of the human soul.”3
Butterfly Color Symbolism
Each color and species of butterfly takes on additional specific meanings, opening up a world of symbolism as varied as they are.
|Red butterfly meaning
|Red butterflies are associated with courage, passion, the life-death-life cycle, fire, and survival.
|Orange butterfly meaning
|Orange butterflies are associated with youth, curiosity, pleasure, happiness, creativity, and sexuality.
|Yellow butterfly meaning
|Yellow butterflies are associated with clarity, confidence, power, enlightenment, energy, and humility.
|Green butterfly meaning
|Green butterflies are associated with balance, fertility, love, healing, and life.
|Blue butterfly meaning
|Blue butterflies are associated with truth, creativity, communication, trust, air, and faith.
|Indigo butterfly meaning
|Indigo butterflies are associated with wisdom, intuition, inspiration, authority, and honesty.
|Violet butterfly meaning
|Violet butterflies are associated with spirituality, quietness, dreams, awakening, royalty, and creativity.
|Black butterfly meaning
|Black butterflies are associated with mystery, night, potential, death, elegance, shadow, and protection.
|White butterfly meaning
|White butterflies are associated with purity, unity, innocence, peace, day, and simplicity.
Butterfly Symbolism in Art
Butterflies have captured the imagination of artists and writers throughout time and are often associated with love and transformation. Their delicate wings and otherworldly colors have also associated them with faeries and other air elementals.
Butterflies were a popular subject among ukiyo-e artists in the Edo period in Japan. One of the most famous butterfly paintings from this time period was done by Katsushika Hokusai “Peonies and Butterflies.”
Vincent Van Gogh painted a series of butterflies and moth paintings in 1889 and 1890 as a way to explore the hope of transformation. He wrote about the possibility of transformation in a letter to a friend:"However, since nothing confutes the assumption that lines and forms and colours exist on innumerable other planets and suns as well, we are at liberty to feel fairly serene about the possibilities of painting in a better and different existence, an existence altered by a phenomenon that is perhaps no more ingenious and no more surprising than the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or of a grub into a maybug. The existence of a painter-butterfly would be played out on the countless celestial bodies which, after death, should be no more inaccessible to us than the black dots on maps that symbolize towns and villages are in our earthly lives."
There is a Persian watercolor from 1600s by Bahram-e Sofrekesh depicting a butterfly over a young couple kissing, signifying the transformative spirit of love.
Butterfly Tattoo Meaning
Butterflies are a popular subject for tattoos for their symbolism and beautiful patterns. Many get a butterfly to symbolize transformation, beauty, rebirth, hope, freedom, endurance, and love. Butterfly tattoos can be powerful personal reminders of change or loved ones.
Butterfly Symbolism in Science
Butterfly Life Cycle
The physiological life cycle of a butterfly is one of the most beautiful natural examples of transformation on earth. From egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis (pupa), to butterfly, the dramatic metamorphosis these creatures undergo is awe-inspiring and the reason for its association with change and rebirth.
Butterflies have been a favorite subject among many amateur and professional scholars due to their dramatic life stages, short lifespans and bright colors. Maria Sibylla Merian was a naturalist and illustrator who contributed to our understanding of butterfly metamorphosis in the 1700s with her bookMetamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, paving the way for many lepidopterologists today.
The Butterfly Effect
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect refers to the possibility that small changes can cause large differences.Meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz gave the example that a flap of butterfly wings could cause a tornado on the other side of the world. This concept is dramatized in the 2004 movieThe Butterfly Effect. Various personal catastrophes are caused by seemingly insignificant changes to past situations when the main character travels back in time to try to fix things. Thus, butterflies are a powerful symbol of the interdependence of everything in this universe.
Butterfly Symbols in Dreams
As a product of the unconscious mind, dreams can show us our most instinctual and intuitive feelings, fears, and desires. Pay attention to your existing associations with a particular butterfly and the emotions that accompanied it in your dream to interpret what the dream butterfly means to you.
Dreaming of a butterfly can signify beauty, capriciousness, or transformation.2 Maybe you are undergoing a major change in your conscious life and the butterfly is there to show you that change is beautiful, no matter how difficult. Or, maybe you are overly concerned with physical appearance, and the butterfly is there to remind you that the rewards of vanity are flimsy and short-lived.
Dreams about nature can reveal unconscious beliefs that we formed as children, so examine the conditions surrounding the butterfly in your dream. Perhaps dreaming of a dead butterfly or butterfly in captivity is showing you that you hold an unconscious belief about your worthiness to feel joy or experience love.
In some cultures, butterflies and other animals appearing in dreams are considered spiritual messengers. Notice any impressions and messages that surround the situation with the butterfly for clues about what your butterfly dream could mean. Butterflies can also represent people in your life, whether living or deceased.
What does it mean when a butterfly visits you?
Just like in the dream state, butterfly visitors in the waking world are said to be messengers. They could signify anything from love and joy to impermanence and change. The spiritual meaning of a butterfly is about transformation, joy and rebirth. Animal communicator Kristin Houser of Fauna Speak spoke about butterflies as heralds of joy that teach us to shine brilliantly and ecstatically. Time is short and spending time evolving and spreading beauty is time well spent in this finite world. The butterfly phase of the life cycle is one of joyful celebration after such a long transformation process.
Butterflies remind us to trust our transformational process, especially when it feels dark and cramped. It can be painful and difficult when we outgrow a belief, relationship, job, or habit because we are moving from something we understand to the shadowy underworld of the unknown. Growth can feel like intense upheaval and things falling apart. It can feel like endlessly waiting in a tiny chrysalis. During the change of a caterpillar into a butterfly, it is extremely violent and dramatic for the caterpillar to digest itself to undergo its metamorphosis. This process may feel horrifying and confusing, but on the other side are things it doesn't even understand are possible in its current form. On the other side is flight. On the other side is unimaginable insight, expansion, and connection. This is discomfort that is worthwhile and meaningful. Growing pains, like labor pains, usher in beautiful new life.
If you pay attention to the emotions you feel and associations you think about when encountering a butterfly, you can best understand the message it has for you. Many people in many cultures associate butterflies with loved ones, so perhaps a butterfly is a reminder of the love you shared with a deceased family member or friend.
What emotions do butterflies symbolize?
We’ve all known the nervous/excited feeling of butterflies in your stomach before a date. Butterflies can feel like beautiful possibility inside us. Other emotions associated with butterflies are vanity, love, and impulsivity. Like most symbols, butterflies can embody positive aspects of lightness, joy, and change or negative aspects of erratic instability. They can contribute to a growth-oriented mindset of continual evolution or a fatalistic mindset about the randomness of life.
Butterfly Symbolism in Poetry & Literature
Here are a few of my favorite poems and passages I’ve read and written inspired by butterflies.
One Or Two Things - Mary Oliver
Don't bother me
The butterfly's loping flight
carries it through the country of the leaves
delicately, and well enough to get it
where it wants to go, wherever that is, stopping
here and there to fuzzle the damp throats
of flowers and the black mud; up
and down it swings, frenzied and aimless; and sometimes
for long delicious moments it is perfectly
lazy, riding motionless in the breeze of the soft stalk
of some ordinary flower
The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things; I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
frog voice; now
he said, and now,
and never once mentioned forever,
which has nevertheless always been,
like a sharp iron hoof,
at the center of my mind.
One or two things are all you need
to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and through the stiff
flowers of lightning --- some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting
knowledge of pain.
But to lift the hoof!
For that you need
For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then
rose, weightless, in the wind.
"Don't love your life
too much," it said,
into the world.
“Life is continual creation, i.e. the formation of new, higher forms. When this formation comes to a stop in our view or even goes backwards, i.e. when existing forms are destroyed, this only means a new form is taking shape, invisible to us. We see what is outside us, but we don’t see what is within us, we only feel it (if we haven’t lost our consciousness, and don’t take what is visible and external to be the whole of our life). A caterpillar sees itself shrivel up, but doesn’t see the butterfly which flies out of it.” - Leo Tolstoy
Two Butterflies went out at Noon— Emily Dickenson
Two Butterflies went out at Noon—
And waltzed above a Farm—
Then stepped straight through the Firmament
And rested on a Beam—
And then—together bore away
Upon a shining Sea—
Though never yet, in any Port—
Their coming mentioned—be—
If spoken by the distant Bird—
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman—
No notice—was—to me—
Change - Aimee Schreiber
Change feels strange
but reveals a range
of unknown heights,
colors and sights
that glimmer and glow
if only we grow.
Rust - Aimee Schreiber
The damp air transforms, disintegrates,
sustains and suffocates.
The patina of weather, age, and experience
looks different every day.
It is bright,
this color of time,
of life and change.
It no longer gleams,
but shimmers with moments
Hands, feet, salt, rain.
A home, made beautiful
by merely existing.
The butterfly knows this,
smells it as it rests,
tasting the ironsweet corrosion.
Only days before, its entire body corroded,
digested into essential parts, rearranged.
A chemical reaction that made colors emerge like tomorrows,
colors bright like rust.
Thank you for joining me on this fascinating journey through butterfly symbolism across cultures, colors, art, science, and spirituality. As a lover and painter of butterflies, I would love to hear your experiences with these evocative creatures, so email me to share your butterfly encounters or photos!
If you’d care to contribute your knowledge and expertise to this guide, please reach out! I would love to add more insights about additional cultures in particular.
- The Illustrated Signs and Symbols Sourcebook, Adele Nozedar
- Dreams and their meanings, Richard Craze
- Manos-Jones, M. (2000).The Spirit of Butterflies: Myth, Magic, and Art.