Spring has sprung in the northern hemisphere, even way up here in northern England. Birds sing and bees are starting to drift around on warmer days. It won’t be long until we start seeing butterflies too.
Some species have even been sighted as long ago as late February in the UK.
But what superstitions or folklore surround this beautiful insect? Let’s have a look – and then you can keep these in mind next time you see one! Hit ‘play’ to listen to the podcast episode below, or keep reading!
Butterflies and the Soul
It feels like no matter where you turn in folklore or superstition, many cultures associate the butterfly with the soul. From ancient Egypt to Native American cultures, this single concept haunts the lore. Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul, is even depicted with wings.
Where does this association come from? For many, it appears to relate to the butterfly’s sense of transformation. It starts out as a caterpillar, wraps itself in a cocoon and then emerges as a butterfly. Bear in mind that the caterpillar basically turns itself into soup while in its cocoon. All to become a butterfly.
In some belief systems, the caterpillar represents a life span. The cocoon equates to death. And the butterfly becomes the soul, fluttering away to the next stage of spiritual development.
Despite these positive ideas, some claim seeing butterflies is more like seeing your loved ones passing time in purgatory.
Butterflies representing dead ancestors or relatives is a common motif across the world. Killing white butterflies was even illegal in Ireland during the 1600s, because people believed they represented a dead child’s soul.
Ali Isaac has an excellent retelling of a butterfly tale from Irish mythology over on her blog!
Symbolism and Superstition
Butterflies often appear in a range of Native American stories to represent the spirit. In some tales, you can whisper wishes to a butterfly to carry them to the Great Spirit. Setting the butterfly free means your wish will be granted.
But some people believed the ‘eyes’ on some butterflies meant they were God’s spies.
In China, they can represent a healthy life. In Japan, they mean marital bliss. A sweet Japanese superstition says you should watch out for butterflies perching behind the bamboo screen in your guest room. If one does so, you’ll get a visit from the person you love most.
Several cultures have superstitions that are variations on these theme.
Whereas Russian folklore features tales that cast butterflies as witches in disguise.
The life cycle of the butterfly also means they often represent transformation. Orange butterflies especially represent rebirth, and seeing one can lead to a perspective shift.
Speaking of orange butterflies, a superstition in the Appalachians claims you can work out how much money you’ll get by counting the spots on a fritillary’s wings.
Killing the first butterfly you see will bring bad luck for the remainder of the year. That’s unless you live in Devon, in which case doing so will bring you good luck.
But the link with the soul meant butterflies were also omens of death. Seeing one at night, having one land on your shoulder, or seeing three of them together all spelled doom in your near future.
In the below Roman mosaic of the Wheel of Fortune, a butterfly represents the soul.
What Do Specific Colours Mean?
Few species of butterflies are a solid colour. So when you’re consulting this list of superstitions, go off the main colour of the butterfly.
Red, Orange and Yellow
Seeing red butterflies means important news is on its way. They also symbolise intense passion so perhaps it’s a love letter about to land through your door? If you see one in your house, it means there’s a special message for whoever sees it. But be careful because they often bring warnings.
Not everyone views red butterflies so highly. The Scots used to think red butterflies were witches, which circles back to that Russian belief. Some Korean superstitions see red butterflies as being rather evil. Other cultures think they bring anger. The Red Admiral is often considered an evil symbol.
If an orange butterfly flutters near you, it means joy is on the way. A visitor might turn up, or an invitation might come your way.
Yellow butterflies are heralds of a sunny summer. They also represent happiness, fun, and new life. A Scottish and Irish belief meant if you saw a yellow butterfly near a dead person, it meant the deceased would enjoy eternal happiness.
But as with all things folklore, there’s a dark side. If a sailor saw a yellow butterfly, it meant he might die on his next trip.
Others thought yellow butterflies were the souls of children or mothers who died in childbirth. If the first butterfly you see in the spring is yellow, then your family will see plenty of sicknesses that year. Which is far from the sunny summer they also predict.
Green and Blue
Green butterflies can represent successful business ventures, money on the way, prosperity, or growth in business or hobbies. Nearly all of the superstitions I found about green butterflies were positive!
But blue butterflies are another ‘split’ colour association. In some cultures, they’re the spirits of vindictive people. In others, they represent calm, transformation, good luck, or a wish being granted.
Purple, Black and White
Purple butterflies are much rarer. Purple is also a colour commonly associated with spirituality. So purple butterflies represent spiritual growth, enlightenment, and the world of dreams. White butterflies also represent spiritual change and dreams.
Black butterflies can mean both renewal and death, depending on the culture. Seeing a black butterfly in the house can mean someone in the family will die soon. In other legends, black butterflies represent the souls of those who can’t move on to the next world.
If the first butterfly you see in a year is black, it means thunderstorms are on the way. Meanwhile, a white butterfly at the start of summer means it’ll be a rainy one!
Whichever butterflies you see, they’re a great indicator of the health of the natural world. They help pollinate plants, along with bees and other insects. Check out the great work that Butterfly Conservation do in the UK!
Which are your favourite butterflies? Let me know below!
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