The Symbology of Butterflies in the Tattoo world

Tattoos arrive like butterflies

The butterfly is one of the most ancient myths of rebirth and change. So it’s easy to understand what impact it had in popular culture and in symbolic traditions.

Just like the phoenix, the butterfly is without doubt a symbol of transformation but it is not a mythological being; it is constantly visible every day and in several numbers, which makes it even more surprising. The transformation process of the butterfly has always been considered by man as a metaphor for change. The fact that some species of butterfly pass their brief life without even eating but only by mating, created a mystical aura of sensuality around this animal and a powerful link to regeneration, representing a cyclical sense of life in constant renewal.

W.T. Norbert, Hunter & Fox Tattoo, Sydney, Australia
W.T. Norbert, Hunter & Fox Tattoo, Sydney, Australia

The Psyche connection

The identification butterfly = soul has always been present in the old Indo-European and ancient Greek world, even the word psyche indicated both soul and butterfly. It was believed that dreaming of a butterfly was a precise message sent from the spirits or gods. Another very important symbolic value attributed by ancient European culture was that of icon of beauty. This myth can be found in the Celtic-Irish tradition, where the goddess marries the god of the dead Mider and is transformed in a water puddle from the first wife, who was jealous of her. A caterpillar comes out of the puddle and it changes into a wonderful butterfly, and is immediately protected by the gods for its miracle powers. Still today in Scotland and Ireland a butterfly by the body of a deceased is considered as a particularly positive event, because people believe that this assures a place in paradise to the deceased.

Let’s call it “Papalotl”

The Aztecs believed that butterflies were the spirit of warriors who died in battle and returned to earth. They were sacred animals associated to the god of fire that in every representation wore an obsidian butterfly on the chest. Furthermore, the word used by the Aztecs to define the butterfly, that is papalotl, was extraordinarily similar to the Latin papilio (butterfly), a linguistic mystery. Still today, in Mexico it is very popular to paint a red butterfly on the backs of the deceased as a symbol to guide them to the afterlife, whereas in many areas of the South-West of the USA, among the native populations, the butterfly is considered like a real guardian angel and meeting one in the desert is a sure symbol of a safe return home.

The African cycle of life

Many African populations believed that the life of a butterfly was directly linked to that of man, where the initial stage of the larva represents childhood, the adult larva represents maturity, and the chrysalis is associated to old age and finally, the death of the person is the cocoon from which the soul departs with the shape of a butterfly. The Yoruba of Western Africa represent in the upper part of the club used during ceremonies a head with a butterfly, to pay tribute to the goddess of the afterlife Oya.

Chinese and Japanese versions

In the Chinese culture, the figure of the butterfly is used as a desire for longevity: this association seems to derive from the fact that two characters with the same pronunciation (“t’ie”) mean both butterfly and old age. The most sensual aspect of the iconography of the butterfly is particularly felt in Japan where it represents the virgin woman (if represented alone) or the symbol of conjugal happiness if paired with another butterfly, often dancing. From the mists of time, in Japan, butterflies are placed on the female kimonos of single women as a wish to soon find a soul mate.

The Joan Of Arc’s flag

In the Christian culture, the butterfly had several representations, often linked to the immortality of the soul as in Pagan traditions. Since the insect is so fragile that it can be injured by a drop of rain, the butterfly is a synonym of human fragileness, both moral and physical. In the Middle Ages, a group of Catholic extremists considered butterflies as animals of the devil, announcing the presence or arrival of a witch. It is very important that Joan of Arc (1412-1431) was accused of being a witch because it was said that when her flag, decorated with iris flowers blew in the wind, it was possible to see thousands of butterflies around it. Because what a butterfly represents can only be considered pure magic.

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