The Spirit of Butterflies: Myth, Magic and Art
a book by
Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
All over the world, in all cultures throughout history, from ancient times until the present, the metamorphosis of this special life form has been a source of wonder. Many cultures have given a special significance to this process, perceiving it as a symbol for their varied belief systems. Many similar myths about butterflies have arisen in very different cultures that are representative of renewal, transformation, death, and rebirth or resurrection, awakening, consciousness, courage, love, joy, and hope. Their infinitely varied patterns have inspired artists for many centuries, and butterflies continue to appear in art, poetry, and myth; butterfly images have even become a major inspiration for designers and an important presence in popular culture. Everywhere I look butterflies appear in diverse guises, and I know that many share in my passion for them.
What is this special fascination all about? There are a number of reasons, I’m sure, but my strong feeling is that we need butterflies to remind us that positive change is possible, that there is magic in life, and that we have to be mindful of our surroundings. If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. Butterflies awaken our spirits and open our hearts. They give us a sense of hope and the possibility of our own transformation and evolution.
It is with this hope that I present the myths, legends, stories, poems, anecdotes, and art from many different cultures through the ages, each reflecting the spirit of the butterfly to touch, awaken, and hasten no less than a planetary evolution.
One of my favorite myths is from West Africa:
Two caterpillars in West Africa were wandering through the tall grass looking for their favorite leaves when a beautiful butterfly fluttered overhead. One caterpillar was intrigued and in awe of the beautiful flying creature, while the other said that not for all the money in the world would he ever fly into the air like that. It was far too frightening. He felt that he belonged on the ground, safe and secure, with plenty of food, and that was where he was going to stay. The first caterpillar felt something stir in his heart when he saw the butterfly. He had an inner conviction that crawling on the ground was not his true nature. One day he would be up there, too, soaring with the birds and the butterflies.
After some time of crawling and eating and yearning, the caterpillar changed into a beautiful butterfly with strong wings and many bright colors, as he had dreamed all his life. But the other one stayed as he was, a caterpillar, crawling and eating leaves for the rest of his life because he never dared to dream or to know the meaning of his inner nature; he clung to what was familiar, what felt safe. He had no inkling of his true self. Only those who know their own true selves can soar like butterflies.
Another favorite is this traditional tale of butterfly lovers, known and revered throughout China.
A long, long time ago, a young man named Liang Shan-po attended a special school and met on the first day a new classmate whose name was Zhu Ying Tai. The two quickly became best friends, although Liang did not know that Zhu was a girl. Zhu had begged her parents to let her go to this school disguised as a boy, because girls weren’t allowed to attend school at that time. As the school year progressed, Zhu fell deeply in love with Liang.
One day after school they went home together. On the way, Zhu hinted that she was a girl, but Liang didn’t grasp her meaning. After she arrived home, she asked someone to tell Liang the truth, and he was so happy that he went directly to her home to make an offer of marriage, for he realized that he loved her more than his own life.
Zhu’s father would not even consider accepting his offer and told Liang that he was too poor to marry his daughter. Besides, she was already betrothed. In exchange for allowing her to attend school, Zhu’s father had compelled her to agree to marry a rich, older man. She begged her father to let her marry the man she loved, but he would not listen. Her heart belonged to Liang and to no one else, certainly not the man her father had chosen. She knew she would have to obey her father or else shame her whole family, and she did not want to do so. She was so desperate that she became ill. Day by day, she became weaker, until at last she died.
When the sad news reached him, Liang was deeply grieved. He wept in front of Zhu’s grave, and the skies wept with him until their tears mingled with those on Liang’s face. He was barely aware of the deep thunder and crackling lightning, but suddenly, in the midst of the storm, the grave split open. Without hesitating, Liang jumped into the grave, which closed at once.
The tears from the sky ceased, and a large, perfect rainbow appeared in the sky. Moments later, two beautiful butterflies flew out of the grave. They fluttered in the air among the flowers in perfect unison, like a pair of sweethearts, gazing into each other’s eyes and hearts.
There is an actual place called Butterfly Hill in Fujian Province where many people visit to honor these lovers to this day. There are symphonies written to celebrate their eternal love.