Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Why do Butterflies follow me?

I have noticed that, for a long time now since I started taking my two mile walks at lunch, I seem to have a very specific type of butterfly "walk" with me as I go. The butterfly (or -ies, since I cannot be sure if it is can be the same one every time - they do have a relatively short life span) that accompanies me often looks like this:

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It seems that every time I am out walking or just taking in fresh air, whether it be at the track at work, walking around campus, playing with Chris in the back yard or playing at the shore by the ocean, this same type of butterfly is there - and it is nothing I have ever experienced before.

So, it prompted me to take a look on Google to see if I can find a symbolism to why this butterfly (or -ies) follow me.

I came across the following web page: Khandro Net. According to the web sites intro, it is
a premier site unique in situating Tibetan Buddhism within a wider context, it has topics ranging from Acts of the Buddha to Symbolism including that of Animals, and of Deities such as The Dakini. Practitioners will also find Prayers, Practices, Announcements and Teachings.
Below is a list of the symbolism that can be found on this site about what it means to be accompanied by butterflies. Not sure which meaning I like...although, some that I prefer are: Spiritial Evolution (since I seem to be coming to acceptance of what life has given me so far), Blood (since butterflies can be considered spirits of fertility), and Prosperity (re. the Irish Blessing).

Intersting that, when I decided to spend the $$$ to create a custom skin for my blog (thanks, again, Ro at Caio! My Bella!), the image I picked was to be a peaceful angel...who just happens to have butterfly wings... Was a drawn to this for a reason beyond my understanding? Maybe...

Full reading of this can be found here: The Butterfly. It was very enlightening.

As Uncaring as a Butterfly

The usual, Western, view is that the butterfly is a carefree creature. HH the Dalai Lama explains that, rather than carefree, it is uncaring: "The butterfly never meets its mother. It must survive independently and remains a stranger to affection. An animal nurtured by mother's milk, however, is dependent on another for its basic survival. A child who grows up in a cold and detached home environment is similar to the butterfly, in that kindness is sparing. Once an adult, it will be very difficult for that person to show compassion."

"Human affection is a very, very important element. At a young age, compassion is very crucial not only for survival but to establish these very important human values." ~ Jessica Hawley (The Bandera Bulletin, Nov. 23/05) reporting on the address at University of Texas at Austin's Frank Erwin Center on Sept. 20/05.)

The Butterfly Lovers

North of Dali not far from the current Tibetan border, in Yunan province on the slopes of Changshan, are three graceful Buddhist pagodas (the tallest, built in 836 CE, measures over 69 meters) and Butterfly Spring (Chi. hudie quan). In the 4th lunar month, when the trees blossom, thousands of butterflies of twenty or so species emerge from their chrysalises to flutter over the water and hang in colourful clusters from the branches. The event is associated with the legend of the Bai maiden named Wengu, whom a local ruler of the Nanzhao Kingdom [729-1253] wanted as his concubine. To escape the grasp of the powerful lord, she and her lover committed suicide here by drowning, but they are said to reappear every spring in the form of a pair of butterflies.

Spiritual Evolution

The butterfly exists in four distinct forms. Some consider that so do we: The fertilized egg is planted in our mother's womb. From our day of birth we are like the caterpillar which can only eat and creep along. At death we are like the dormant pupa in its chrysalis. After that, our consciousness emerges from the cast off body, and some see in this the emergence of the butterfly. Therefore, the butterfly is symbolic of rebirth after death.

In ancient China, this role is played by the cicada. An amulet of jade in this form was placed in the mouth of the corpse of a noble person. Some examples exist from the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE.)

In the Americas: In the 1600s, in Ireland, killing a white butterfly was prohibited since it was believed to be the soul of a dead child.

In the town of Bath, England, is the Theatre Royal built in 1805 that is home to several ghosts. Besides a mysterious grey lady, who regularly appears in her own box, spectators in 1948 first reported a phantom that materializes as a butterfly at Christmas pantomime time.

Releasing butterflies to celebrate an event: For Christians, the butterfly's three steps of metamorphosis -- as caterpillar, pupa and then winged insect -- are reminiscent of spiritual transformation. The caterpillar's incessant crawling and chewing reminds us of normal earthly life where people are often wholly preoccupied with physical needs. The chrysalis (cocoon) resembles a tomb and empty, can suggest the empty shroud left behind by Jesus. Therefore, a butterfly represents the resurrection into a new condition of life that is free of any material concerns.

In images of the Garden of Eden, Adam's soul is symbolized by a butterfly, or drawn with butterfly wings. In paintings of Mary and her Child, the presence of butterflies stands for their care for human souls. The Gnostics depicted the Angel of Death by showing a winged foot stepping on a butterfly.

Since the insect is so fragile it can be torn apart by a hard rain, the butterfly stands for human frailty, both moral and physical. Also, as its life is not a long one, it is also a symbol of the ephemeral nature of physical existence. A butterfly with a torn wing is the icon for a North American charity that benefits disabled children.

The butterfly is also a symbol of woman's delicacy. It can serve as a reminder to treat her with gentleness. In Japan, a beautiful woman wearing a kimono is often compared to a butterfly. Favoured as a family emblem (ka-mon) or crest in Japan.


In mythology, the butterfly is rarely distinguished from the moth, so since the moth is irrevocably drawn to a flame, both are related to Fire. Also, since the source of the flame makes no difference to a moth -- in fact it can be the cause of its death -- then it is also a symbol of inconstancy and even promiscuity or indiscriminate sexuality.


In America among the Aztec and Maya, the god of cosmic fire, Xiutecutli, is symbolized by a butterfly. Fire is considered the element of transformation, as in cookery and the smelting of metals. This association is borne out in traditional psychoanalysis where a dream or drawing of a butterfly is taken as a symbol of the client's imminent transformation.

The ancient Greeks depicted the spirit of a person as a winged stick figure. Interpretation of that symbol gave rise to the idea of the "soul" or psy.cheh as a butterfly.

Later, long-suffering Psyche, bride of Cupid (Eros,) was compared to a butterfly. It was her use of firelight to get a glimpse of the true nature of her mysterious sleeping husband that led to her downfall, and a series of dire trials that eventually led to her transfiguration.

English translation of Lucius Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche (2nd century CE.)

A Symbol of Symbolism

Sophistication can be defined as the ability to read and manipulate symbols. Since range of meaning is linked to one's culture and level of education, symbolic references can also be the source of misunderstandings.

Once, I gave a present of a framed iridescent blue Morpho butterfly to a good friend, who had watched over my home while I was traveling. She was not particularly pleased by the gift, interpreting it as an indication that in my opinion she was superficial -- a "social butterfly." At the time, I was not wholly aware of the reason why, whenever I saw butterflies on my trip, I began to think of her. Not long afterwards, she and her family were involved in a horrible traffic accident in which only she survived. I think I had unconsciously tried to prepare and console my friend through the gift of a butterfly.

The Caterpillar

In mythology and art, the caterpillar -- the larva (immature form) of a butterfly or moth -- is not usually distinguished from the worm, which is associated with rot and disease. However, only a caterpillar spins itself into a cocoon, where the mysterious transformation takes place during the time of "retreat" known as the pupation period.

Sometimes, our daily period of sleep is viewed as a time of pupation, so that when we dream our minds seem to roam free like the butterfly. The Pikuni and T'suuT'ina (Blackfoot and Sarcee, of Alberta and Montana,) like ancient Greeks and Romans, associate the butterfly with the wandering consciousness that seems to occur during the dream state.

In the Canadian Pacific northwest, the Haida depict Butterfly as the companion of Raven the Creator-Trickster, perhaps acknowledging the unpredictable and unreliable nature of "flights of fancy" and dreaming.

The Anishnabe (Ojibway, Western Cree) relate that the first children would not try to get up and walk until there were butterflies:

In the beginning, the animals took care of the first Anishnabe children. The animals provided everything for these babies — food, warmth and companionship. While the larger animals guarded the children and kept them safe and warm, the smaller animals played with the children, kept them happy and made them laugh.

The children in return imitated the animals, their protectors and playmates, and crawled around on all fours. In fact, the children neither knew of nor tried other ways to get around.

One day, Nanabush watched these children laugh, roll and tumble with their friends. He knew it was time for the children to know who they were, to know that they were Anishnabe, to grow up. Nanabush scooped up a handful of pebbles and cast them into the air.

The pebbles turned into butterflies — butterflies of all sizes, of all colours, fluttering here and there. The children looked up and saw the beautiful celestial winged creatures. And for the first time, they stood up on their legs and ran laughing, chasing the butterflies.

Keeshig-Tobias, Lenore. The Trickster: Running for the People, Carrying Fire for the People. RCAP, 1994.


Butterflies can leave behind droppings that resemble blood. Before 1553, when Gosse discovered this source of "red rain," people who lived in the paths of migrating butterflies must have seen this as a bad omen, indeed.

In some circumstances, the butterfly will drink blood. The Udmurt (or, Votiak) whose homeland is in the Urals, consider butterflies spirits of fertility. A large percentage of the population is ancestor-worshiping, and they still follow the old ways. If the crops are failing, they go out to capture white butterflies in a white cloth. They bring them back and introduce them to a sheep carcass in the expectation that they will enjoy the offering and bless the crops.

(Other gardeners, on the other hand, might take small white "butterflies" for grain moths or white-cabbage moths, whose caterpillars tend to consume the crops.)


An Irish blessing goes: "May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun, and find your shoulder to light on. To bring you luck, happiness and riches today, tomorrow and beyond."

The Hopi (southwest USA) have a ceremonial butterfly dance called Bulitikibi which they perform to do homage to the butterfly so that it will confer prosperity.

Flutterby, Butterfly

Some say that the word "butterfly" is a sort of joke that entered into English when Shakespeare transposed the letters in the original word, flutterby. It is not so, for the designation has been botter-fleoge at least since Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, it is amazing that, unlike most animal names, the word for this insect is so different in the various languages. (See William Beeman's "Elusive Butterfly" linked above.)


In Mae Hong Sorn, the northwestern province of Thailand, live the Shan people, whose roots are in northern Myanmar (Burma.) They celebrate the end of the rainy season retreat at full moon of the 11th lunar month, as instituted by the Buddha, with a ritual re-enacting the myth of Gingara. It is thought that this tradition comes from Himalayan Buddhism, where Gingara (Skt. gangara) is a figure of power and good fortune. (Also, the Ghaghara is a tributary of the Ganges.)

The inspiration for the festival derives from the verse: "And at the end of the retreat period the Buddha told Indra that he would descend to the world of humans himself to celebrate the end of this season." Tradition holds that the Buddha descended to earth by means of a ladder made of jewels in order to be with all living beings.

Gingara is sometimes shown as a garuda, a mythological creature that is half human and half bird. In Thailand, it has the head of a woman and the body of a peacock. In the festival, three creatures represent this and form part of the costume of the Gingara: the Lion, the butterfly and the serpent.

The lion, as we have seen, is a solar symbol and one of the four vehicles of Buddha. The serpent represents the energy of the earth and its water. The butterfly represents the air.

Butterfly Dogs

In the 1600's, a dwarf spaniel was developed that is named for its broad, erect, and feathery ears, ie. the Papillon, (aka Continental spaniel) which is the French word for "butterfly."

In 1861, Queen Victoria was given a Pekingese dog by Captain Hart Dunne. Known in east Asia as the Butterfly Lion, the Peke was considered a kind of spirit-dog and it is one of the breeds associated with Buddhism. One of the many myths surrounding its ancestry concerns a lioness who suffered under the brutish attentions of her natural mate. The gods took pity on her and arranged that she consort with a butterfly. Her offspring was the Pekingese, which has the heart of a lion, but the grace and delicacy of a butterfly.

Rumer Godden. The Butterfly Lions: The Pekingese in History, Legend and Art. 1978.


What Has 2 Wings But Is Not a Bird?

Moths and butterflies belong to the family Lepidoptera. In mythology and iconography, for the most part, no distinction is made between the moth with its fat furry body, and the butterfly, which is generally more delicate and colourful. That is not surprising, since many people even mistake the bats (often 5 in number) that appear as a motif in Asian textiles and other crafts, for butterflies.

The Butterfly Effect

This is an aspect of chaos theory. It is often misunderstood, especially when the expression is intended to refer to a "sensitive dependence on initial conditions." For example, the way a seeming insignificant event can cause dramatic consequences. It is incorrectly described as the disturbance of the air caused by the movements of a butterfly's wings that can, over time and with changing circumstances, become a hurricane. (That notion is, rather, tied to one of Poincarre's mathematical ideas concerning the importance of minute variation.)

The Butterfly Effect is, in fact, a pattern with the form of a butterfly (ie. bi-lobed) that appears in the mathematical plotting of meteorological or other random or chaotic distributions. It was first noticed when barometric pressures were charted. As Michael Cross shows, Edward Lorenz first used the seagull as his metaphor. In any case, the butterfly has now become a symbol of extreme sensitivity to the slightest change, and as such has been co-opted for use by a major software company.


Lynn said...

Thank you so much for this blog! I have been followed by butterflies for a couple years now and never understood why. Even when I am in my car a butterfly will hover and fly around MY car and nobody elses. At first I might have just been thinking too deep about it but the more and more it was happening I was convinced there was something going on. The symbolism I read of about butterflies on your page and other places its almost uncanny to my own personality and things that I went through growing up. I do find myself not being as affectionate as others and maybe a bit distant. I am also EXTREMELY independent. Thanks again so much for the post! It was very enlightening.:) said...

I was 12 when my father died in an accident. After he died every occasion we say this same color butterfly hovering in our rooms. Sometimes it stays in our brothers room, my mom's room or even in my rooms for a day. My mom said it was our father spirit cause he was a soldier and only during occasion he came home. Until now we saw the same color butterfly. But still wondering in 7 years why that same color butterfly stays with us because as far as I know butterflies have a short life span. But still we are all thankful because our Father is still there to guard and guide us. By the way thank you for posting this blog I really love to read this.

Tina Dellary said...
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