Dragonflies, Butterflies & Mythology
Introduction: This section of my research is focused on the spiritual and mythological significance of dragonflies and butterflies. I have included short myths and folklore as well as poems and quotes related to the spirituality of dragonflies and butterflies and photos. Mythologies referencing the dragonfly and butterfly, for example from Japanese, Chinese, Native American, Greek, Egyptian and European mythology and folklore as well as in religious beliefs, explore the symbolisms and human to nonhuman relationships within the context of death and spirituality. I chose to research mythology in particular because of the range of topics mythology encompasses. By presenting the human and nonhuman spiritual relationships that existed in stories from around the world, and have remained throughout the changes in discourse, demonstrates that these relationship and connections are important to recognize and revisit. As humans continue to study and learn more about nonhuman animals and the ways in which they are different from humans, I think it is important to share the ways in which we are the same. I hope by presenting the presence of human-nonhuman connection through historical stories, which still is present in modern stories, the animal experience and animal emotion, especially during mourning and grieving, will allow for more connectedness with all animals. In my research, I was intrigued to find the similarities and differences of symbolism and significance of dragonflies and butterflies in different cultures and different times. The similarities and connections of symbolism shows how the dragonfly and butterfly relationship with humans has been an everlasting one, as butterflies and dragonflies are one of the oldest known surviving creatures to exist in our world.
“The most beautiful thing we can
experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all
science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause
to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are
“To the Japanese, the dragonfly symbolizes summer and autumn and is admired and respected all over, so much so
that the Samurai use it as a symbol of power, agility and best of all, victory.
Amongst Native Americans, it is a sign of happiness, speed and purity.
Purity because the dragonfly eats from the wind itself.”
“In European folklore, calling the dragonfly the witches’ animal and that Satan
sent it on earth to cause chaos and confusion, to calling it, Ear Cutter, Devil’s
Needle, Adderbolt and worst of all Horse Stinger, which soon spread Down
Under when the British colonized Australia. The name Horse Stinger comes from
the misinformed observation that horses that were kicking and stamping around
usually had a few dragonflies hovering around them. Fact remains though, that
the dragonflies could well have been helping the horse by eating some of the
parasitic insects that were doing the actual ‘horse stinging’. People seeing it made the inference
that it was the dragonfly, being big and obvious, stinging, rather than an unseen
In Sweden, folklore suggests that we dragonflies come around to check for
bad souls, to weigh souls to be more ‘accurate’, believed to
sneak up to children who tell lies and also adults who curse and scold, to
stitch up their eyes, mouth, and ears respectively.
For a species of insects that have inhabited our planet for almost 300
million years, it is only natural perhaps that they have such a wide and varied
perception amongst various civilizations.
What can one say, for a harmless insect that does not bite, does not sew
snakes’ wounds, and definitely does not measure human souls for good and evil,
there have been a wide variety of myths and mythology associated with the life
and the existence of the dragonfly. One very striking aspect comes to mind. Change.
In many regions and as a norm of this day, the dragonfly is considered to be an agent of change and
presumably symbolic of a sense of self realization. Self realization from how
the dragonfly uses its power to control its movements and so elegantly. And
change and evolution is all about the dragonfly’s ability to fly and the way it
can be comfortable on water, land as well as the air.”
[Source:“The Meaning of a Dragonfly: What Does a Dragonfly Symbolize?”Dragonfly Site. (http://www.dragonfly-site.com/meaning-symbolize.html)]
“The harmless dragonfly is one of the many water insects that the Mimbres
seemed to enjoy illustrating in their black-on-white pottery. The Hopi and their
ancestors have always venerated the dragonfly. They often asked the dragonfly
to confer benefits on their people. Dragonflies are portrayed on alters,
pottery, and petroglyphs because the Hopi believe that dragonflies have great
supernatural powers and are shamanistic. They are positive symbols of water,
fertility and abundance. The Hopi people actually credit dragonflies with
saving their tribe from starvation by using their supernatural powers to grow
corn to maturity in four days, at the ancient time when their tribe was
migrating in search of their permanent home. Dragonfly song is believed to warn
men of danger and resembles the Hopi word for water: tsee, tsee, tsee.
The Mimbreños exhibited remarkable understanding of insects in their
environment, some harmless, some irritating, and others dangerous, being capable of
illustrating them with sophisticated style, animation and humor. With the
variety of foods that they stored and prepared daily, and the lack of modern
sanitation in their way of living, there must have been a great variety of
insects, bugs and lizards, and small animals attracted to their pueblos.
Apparently, the Mimbreños were able to deal with them with a surprising
tolerance and humor as delineated in their beautifully stylized dragonfly
(Source: Tom Steinbach, and Peter Steinbach. "Insects." Mimbres Classic Mysteries: Reconstructing a Lost Culture through Its Pottery. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico, 2002. 93. Print.)
“Now let us turn to some representative kinds of folk beliefs and customs that provide a fuller yield for the lexicographer. Snake doctor is one of several names for ‘dragonfly or darning Needle.’ There is a kindred term, namely, snake pilot, and the two terms seen to spring from a common body folklore. The notion is that the snake doctor accompanies the snake, standing ready to offer assistance, if needed. The concern of the amphibious insect for its reptile friend is thought to be so strong and abiding that if one sees the insect, one can be sure that a snake is nearby. (It is like the white horse and the red-headed woman- if you see one, you will soon see the other.) In the case of the snake doctor, the darning needle actually gives aid to the injured reptile, according to folk belief, by sewing it back together. In this ‘Reptile of the South and Southwest in Folk-lore,’ John K. Strecker relates this belief in a somewhat more poetic way than I have done, and shall I cite but the last sentence of his engaging account: ‘Unless you cut off a snake’s head, a ‘snake doctor’ can bring it back to life, even though its body may have been badly mutilated.’
The story does not end here, for there is a species of snake in the Ozarks call the snake doctor, which, like the darning
needle, ready to warn the rattlesnake of the approach of danger. This confusion between a dragonfly and a snake as a pilot or mentor constitutes a neat example of ‘stable function and variable agent.’ The underlying folklore is also absolutely essential to an understanding of the terms connected with hoop snakes and coachwhip snakes and feats ascribed to both breeds. (I have tried to indicate the reasons for these associations in noted contained in the Brown Collection, but I am sure that herpetologists interested in the folklore of snakes may have considerable material to add.)”
(Source: Wayland D. Hand. From Idea to Word: Folk Beliefs and Customs Underlying Folk Speech. American Speech, Vol. 48, No. 1/2 (Spring -Summer, 1973), pp. 67-76 Published by: Duke University Press Article DOI: 10.2307/3087894 Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3087894)
“Damselflies are generally smaller, more delicate, and fly weakly in comparison with dragonflies.
Damselflies can usually be distinguished from dragonflies by their thinner,
needle-like abdomens and by the way they hold their wings when at rest. The
large eyes of damselflies differ from those of dragonflies in that they are
always widely separated, rather than close together or touching each other.”1
An old name for damselflies was 'Devil's Darning Needles'. This stems from
an old myth that if you went to sleep by a stream on a summer's day,
damselflies would use their long, thin bodies to sew your eyelids shut.
Naturally there is no truth in the myth; similar myths are found throughout
[Source: 1. “Damselfy” Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc
2.“Frequently Asked Questions” British Dragonfly Society.(http://www.british-dragonflies.org.uk/content/frequently-asked-questions#faq14)
“Dragonfly and damselfly fossils dating back three hundred
million years have been found, so these are among the oldest extant insects.
They posses simple metamorphosis, with the aquatic larva or naiad crawling out
the water, releasing the winged adult from its skin. But in the case of the
dragonfly, its importance symbolically was probably due less to this dramatic
transformation than the fact that this fierce predator was so swift and capable
of rapid directional changes, having four independently moving wings. Thus
Native Americans equate it to the whirlwind, swiftness and activity; it was
regarded as a spirit helper in warfare for Plains Indians, who used its image
on shirts and is also used in the jewelry of the Navajo and Zuni."
“Butterflies undergo complete metamorphosis, passing from a larva or caterpillar
stage to an immobile pupa or chrysalis, from which the winged adult emerges. Anyone
observing these life stages would make the association with rebirth,
resurrection, immortality and longevity, as had Chinese and Mycenaean Greeks.
Butterfly motifs can be found in Mycenaean and Hellenistic adornment. Egyptians
incorporated the butterfly in their jewelry but the symbolism is not known. In
addition, the butterfly stands for the soul among Greek and some pre-Hispanic
cultures. Mexican colonial period jewelry contains butterfly forms and Tasco
silver, like those of Spratling and his protégés, also as a Rain Being, and use
its image in their jewelry, along with the Navajo and Hopi. Butterfly imagery
is rampant in Chinese adornment, both jewelry and clothing, as well as
utilitarian objects, but it does not possess the magical properties of the
(1890-), Vol. 127, No. 2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 167-171 Published by: American Entomological Society. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25078738)
Butterflies of Good and Evil Omen
"In Japan the butterfly was at one time considered to be the soul of a living man or woman.
If it entered a guest-room and pitched behind the bamboo screen it
was a sure sign that the person whom it represented
would shortly appear in the house. The presence of a
butterfly in the house was regarded as a good omen,
though of course everything depended on the individual typified by the butterfly.
The butterfly was not always the harbinger of good.
When Taira-no-Masakado was secretly preparing for a revolt Kyoto
was the scene of a swarm of butterflies,
and the people who saw them were much frightened.
Lafcadio Hearn suggests that these butterflies may have
been the spirits of those fated to fall in battle, the
spirits of the living who were stirred by a premonition
of the near approach of death. Butterflies may also be
the souls of the dead, and they often appear in this
form in order to announce their final leave-taking from the body."
The element of fear and suspicion of butterflies is eminent in two Japanese stories "Filial piety" and "The White Butterfly":
“A young man whose work and hobby was gardening married
a girl with an identical interest in plant life. They
lived only for each other and their shrubs and plants, but in middle age they
had a son, who happily inherited his parents’ love of flowers.
The parents died within days of one another in old age, when their son was still a youth.
The boy looked after his parents’ garden and the plants in it more carefully
than ever, if that were possible, for he felt they contained the spirits of his
dead mother and father. During the first spring following their death he saw
two butterflies in the garden. Gentle person that he was, he
cultivated plants on which he saw the butterflies liked to settle, and as
spring turned into summer he dreamed one night that his parents had come back
to the garden and were walking round it together, looking at each plant
carefully, as gardeners will. Suddenly the couple in the dream turned into
butterflies and in this form continued to examine each flower. The next
morning, the same pair of butterflies were, as usual, in the garden and the boy
knew then that the soul of his parents rested in the butterflies and that in
that way they still enjoyed their garden.”
[Source: Juliet Piggott. "Men and Animals." Japanese
Mythology. Feltham: Hamlyn, 1969. 113. Print.]
“Butterflies are souls of the dead waiting to pass through purgatory.”
"The White Butterfly"
“There was a man who died in his seventies. He had lived alone for years and was a recluse,
but as the illness which proved to be his last one worsened he invited the widow of his only
brother and her son, his nephew, to come to him. He was fond of both, though he
saw them seldom.
One day,while sitting with his uncle, the young man saw an enormous white butterfly
come into the room. It fluttered, then perched upon the old man’s pillow. The
nephew tried to brush it away but it persisted. Fearing it would make the sick
man restless, he went on trying to make it fly out of the house. Then the youth
wondered whether it might not be an evil spirit, so unnatural was its behavior,
circling his uncle’s bedding. At this point the butterfly suddenly, of its own
accord, flew straight out the window. The boy’s suspicions were thoroughly
aroused and he followed it. His patient was asleep and could be left with
The white butterfly flew swiftly straight to the local cemetery, which was just across
the road from the house. It went directly to a tomb and then vanished. As it
had disappeared, the nephew returned to the house, having noticed that the old
but fairly recently tended grave where the butterfly had vanished was inscribed
with the name Akiko.
He had been away only a few minutes, but during that interval his uncle had died. Later
when he described to his mother the visit of the butterfly just before his
uncle’s death and his chase of the insect, she told him that as a young man her
brother-in-law and a girl named Akiko had been deeply in love, but Akiko had
died just before the day arranged for their wedding. He had bought a house near
her grave, looked after the tomb carefully for over fifty years, and never
spoken of his half century of mourning to anyone. His sister-in-law knew well
the cause of his self-imposed seclusion and respected it: she herself had been
a young and happy bride at the time of Akiko’s betrothal and subsequent death.
The woman had no doubt at all that it was Akiko’s spirit in the form of a white
butterfly which had come to fetch the spirit of the man she loved at the close
of his moral life.”
The Butterfly and Mythology
“[The Butterfly] is the archetype of metamorphosis- the
profoundest sort of physical change- and the inescapable symbol of resurrection,
as the worm-like caterpillar, a creature of the earth, transforms in its
quiescent pupa stage and emerges from this still and death-like state as a
gaudy, gossamer creature of the air…the developmental cycle of the butterfly
occur in four stages: egg, larva or caterpillar, pupa and adult (also called
The metamorphosis of lepidopterans [butterflies and moths] is profoundly
striking, with the obvious intimations of immortality. So it is not surprising that the
human spirit or soul assumes the form of a butterfly in many myths across the
world. Especially in Eastern religions, with their emphasis on meditation, the
utterly still, but profoundly changing pupa seems the very model of spiritual
evolution through serene contemplation. In Japan,
the butterfly is symbolically identified with the blossoming of young
womanhood, while in China, it is associated with immortality, leisure and the joyfulness of a
young man in love. The butterfly was an attribute of Xochipilli, the ancient Mexican god of
vegetation. Its fluttering motion suggested the flicker of firelight. And the
goddess of Itzpapàlotl was portrayed as a butterfly surrounded by stone knives.
She was a night spirit associated with the stars, which also flicker or
twinkle, and a symbol of the souls of women who had died in childbirth. In
Christian symbolism, this insect’s metamorphosis represents the earthbound body
of Jesus transformed into the luminous transcendent entity who rose from the
The shortness of life, and the inevitability of death, does indeed give poignancy
to the brief beauty of the butterfly. Like the great goddess who was worshiped
in many cultures and known by many names, the butterfly has a deeply ambivalent
symbolic significance. It is also a vehicle of transformation that can not only
raise us up magically but also stab us in the heart. Thus, in European
folklore, the butterfly frequently shows a surprising demonic aspect. In Serbia, where
belief in witches can be understood as a debased remnant of an earlier worship
of the goddess in her destructive aspect, it is said, ‘Kill the butterfly and
you kill a witch.’
On the one hand, the butterfly has appositive connotations, often appearing in
dreams as the return of ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ –a revitalized sense of inner life and
purpose- that might have been missing amidst difficult life experiences, such
as depression or anxiety. The butterfly can betoken the emergence of new parts
of the personality especially feminine aspects, and it may signify the
constellation of a deep, self-healing process.”1
As similarly mentioned above in Elizabeth Caspari research
about the butterfly, she mentions one of the butterfly’s symbolisms as, “Its
fluttering motion suggested the flicker of firelight.” The idea of butterflies
representing fire or light is supported in a few Irish mythologies:
[Sources: 1) Caspari, Elizabeth, and Ken Robbins. "Butterfly." Animal Life in Nature, Myth and Dreams. Wilmette,IL: Chiron Publications, 2003.45-47. Print. 2)Bonach, A. (1994). Butterflies in Irish folklore. Temple Terrace , Florida : House Shadow Drake.]
"The 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."
Aristotle gave the butterfly the name psyche , the Greek word for soul.
Many cultures relate butterflies to the human soul. In ancient Greek the word for butterfly is "psyche" which means "soul", and was also the name of Eros' human lover.”
“Butterfly- Among the ancients, an emblem of the soul and of unconscious attraction towards light. The purification of the soul by fire represented in Romanesque art by the burning ember placed by the angel in the prophet’s mouth, is visually portrayed on a small Mattei urn by means of an image of love holding a butterfly close to a flame. The Angel of Death was represented by Gnostics as a winged foot crushing a butterfly, from which we may deduce that the butterfly was equated with life rather than with the soul in the sense of the spirit or transcendent being. This also explains why psychoanalysis regards the butterfly as a symbol of rebirth. In China, it has the secondary meanings of joy and conjugal bliss.”
[Source: J.E Cirlot. "Butterfly." A Dictionary of Symbols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. 35. Print.]
“The caterpillar dies so the butterfly could be born. And, yet, the caterpillar
lives in the butterfly and they are but one. So, when I die, it will be that I
have been transformed from the caterpillar of earth to the butterfly of the universe.”
The Caterpillar and Symbolism
“Although the caterpillar is sometimes a symbol of lowliness because of its wormlike
appearance, its metamorphosis can represent the reincarnation or transmigration of souls.
The ancient Egyptian religion, with its emphasis on reincarnation, was fascinated
by the caterpillar, and it is not hard to imagine that mummification rituals were
developed with an eye towards the creation of the cocoon. Similarly, the
ancient Greeks were inspired by their transformation, placing representations
of butterflies in their tombs.
Because of its remarkable capacity for changing form, the caterpillar symbolically can
represent transformation, development, and growth in the human being, or, in
Jung’s terms, the process of individuation. In this psychic journey old ways,
attitudes, patterns of thought, and behavior lose energy and value (in effect,
dying) and a new sense of inner life and psychic reality comes forth,
symbolized by the butterfly/moth about the emerge. The conscious personality, or ego, must
usually attend to this process through creative introversion. Thus, the
caterpillar’s retreat into the dark and silence of the cocoon has been seen as
a model for quiet withdrawal, spiritual focus and meditation. Consequently, the
caterpillar in dreams can be an image for an intermediate stage of personal
development, characterized by the death of the old and the birth of new patterns
of conduct and attitudes.”
[Source: Caspari, Elizabeth, and Ken Robbins. "Caterpillar." Animal Life in Nature, Myth and Dreams. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 2003. 53-54. Print.]
An Indian Butterfly Legend
If anyone desires a wish to come true
capture a butterfly and whisper that wish to it.
Since they make no sound, they can’t
tell the wish
to anyone but the Great Spirit.
So by making the wish and releasing
it will be taken to the heavens and be granted.
The Moth and Mythology
“The moth, like the butterfly, can be a symbol of the psyche. But, unlike the
butterfly, it does not usually carry the sense of the psyche’s rebirth. The moth’s real
(and proverbial) attraction to the consuming flame is its more commonly
considered symbolic characteristic. Psychologically, this quality can be
construed as a desire for consciousness or spiritual life, as implied by the
symbolism of light itself. In reality, however, that light ultimately destroys
the moth, and thus the moth evokes relentlessness or reckless compulsion that
can accompany any quest for illumination. Such consciousness, untempered by an
accompanying concern for life and relationship, can become destructive. The
link between the moth and the flame alludes to the creative and dangerous
quality of passion.
The potentially destructive aspects of consciousness and passion exist in any
life and at any time. In symbolism, the moth is often associated with the Great
Mother Goddess, whose lover is eventually destroyed by his passion for her- as
the flame destroys the moth. Sometimes symbols can have a simple, mundane
meaning. For instance, moths will generally evoke the image of destruction of
that stored sweater in the attic, ruined by the lepidopteran. One can also
speak of viewpoints being ‘moth-eaten’. Hence, the moth can represent the
process of slow, unseen destruction of the things we cherish most- our values,
religious or mythical feeling, thoughts and emotions we hold dear.”
[Source: Caspari, Elizabeth, and Ken Robbins. "Moth." Animal Life in Nature, Myth and Dreams. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 2003. 171-173. Print.]