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The Magic of Life - Symbols of the Butterfly

Departed souls

Round the world, butterflies are seen as the departed souls of our ancestors. Indigenous people recognise the chrysalis as the soul trapped inside in the body. The emergence of the adult butterfly symbolises the freedom of the soul upon death. According to Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, by Lafcadio Hearn, a butterfly was seen in Japan as the personification of a person's soul; whether they be living, dying, or already dead. One Japanese superstition says that if a butterfly enters your guestroom and perches behind the bamboo screen, the person whom you most love is coming to see you.

According to Mircea Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion, some of the Nagas of Manipur trace their ancestry from a butterfly.

Butterflies are seen as the departed souls of our ancestors In Chinese culture two butterflies flying together are a symbol of love. Also a famous Chinese folk story called Butterfly Lovers. The Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi once had a dream of being a butterfly flying without care about humanity, however when he woke up and realized it was just a dream, he thought to himself "Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?"

Jose Rizal delivered a speech in 1884 in a banquet and mentioned "the Oriental chrysalis ... is about to leave its cocoon" comparing the emergence of a "new Philippines" with that of butterfly metamorphosis. He has also often used the butterfly imagery in his poems and other writings to express the Spanish Colonial Filipinos' longing for liberty. Much later, in a letter to Ferdinand Blumentritt, Rizal compared his life in exile to a weary butterfly with sun-burnt wings.

In some old cultures, butterflies also symbolize rebirth into a new life after being inside a cocoon for a period of time. Some people say that when a butterfly lands on you it means good luck. The idiom "butterflies in the stomach" is used to describe a state of nervousness.

Butterflies and metamorphosis

The change from caterpillar though to the chrysalis and emergence as a butterfly is the greatest change in the animal world. It symbolises significant change in the course of one's life, personality or way of thinking.

The caterpillar stage with its voracious appetite has been linked to insatiable materialism. The chrysalis stage represents fundamental changes occurring on the inside, for example in one's mentality or point of view. The final adult butterfly stage is seen as the free expression of these changes in the outside world.


The Greeks likened the butterfly's constant flitting from flower to flower to the restlessness of the mind: constantly changing from subject to subject. Indeed, the Greek word for butterfly is �psyche' from where we get our word �psychology' - the study of the mind.

Modern day symbols

In the western world, the symbol of the butterfly stands for freedom, fun and joyous times. It is also symbolises a state of naturalness and purity.

Donna Zander has learnt much about human potential and resilience. She has achieved international recognition for her pioneering work developing education sessions in the field of trauma and extreme stress. Over the last 20 plus years, she has designed various education and training programs and provided counselling and coaching.