Butterfly and Moth Symbolism, List 1

Lepidoptera Symbols Relating to Wings and The Body

by Ronald A. Gagliardi
edited by Dexter Sear.

The 31 references below describe butterfly and moth symbolism relating to lepidoptera wings and bodies found by Ron Gagliardi in his thesis on butterfly and moths in western art and design.

Beauty of Nature

The butterfly is a multicultural symbol of the beauty of Nature, appearing in numerous examples of nature scenes of many artistic styles. Butterflies are included as elements of these scenes because they most effectively represent all positive characteristics of Nature.

Logic and prejudice has deprived moths of a similar status. Logically, since most “beauty in Nature” scenes are set in daytime, butterflies are the obvious choice for inclusion. The prejudicial lepidopteral impression that moths are ugly, negative, drab, troublesome (as a clothes pest) and undesirable, overpowers the fact that moths outnumber butterfly species many times.

Beauty of Color, Shape, Pattern, Symmetry

Lo, the bright train their radiant wings unfold!
With silver fringed, and freckled o’er with gold:
On the gay bosom of some fragrant flower
They, idly fluttering, live their little hour;
Their life all pleasure, and their task all play,
All spring their age, and sunshine all their day.

Butterflies and moths are “Nature’s canvases with the gift of flight.” Even in death, their mounted beauty can remain intact for centuries. Nature’s genetic paintbrushes have “painted” hundreds of thousands bilaterally-symmetrical butterfly and moth works of art. When one considers that both the topsides and the undersides of these specimens are “painted” with equal skill, and that smaller, isolated sections of these masterpieces can be viewed apart from the total specimen, one becomes aware of the virtually unlimited number of artworks in this “traveling” art show of the air.

To some artists, the butterfly and moth only symbolize beauty: the beauty of symmetry, pattern, color, shape. These artists don’t require their representations of these creatures to be interpreted. They copy these insects, some as faithfully as the Photo-realists would copy a still life, a figure, a panorama, and only ask the viewer to observe their beauty.

The Abstractive-Naturalists don’t even require the viewers to know their subject is a butterfly or moth. They enlarge small, rectangular sections of wing and present them purely as designs. Examples of this usage are represented in Kjell Sandved’s Butterfly Alphabet Posters

Beautiful and Positive

The butterfly symbolizes that which is beautiful and positive because of the widespread and usually valid opinion that they are, indeed, quite colorful and beautiful. This position is strengthened by the opposing symbolism for moths being ugly and negative. Other symbolism assosiated with butterflies (like femininity, spring) also contribute to people’s high regard for butterflies.

Ugly and Negative

Shall mortal man be more just than God?
Shall a man be more pure than his Maker?
Behold He put no trust in His servants;
And His angels He charged with folly:
How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay,
Whose foundation is in the dust,
Which are crushed before the moth?

Although fantastically beautiful moths exist, many of them live in the tropics. Uncommon, beautiful moths such as (the Polyphemus, Cecropia, Luna) do reside in the United States, although commonly encountered moths are small and drab brown. Compare this to the many beautiful butterflies easily observed in almost any part of the world.

For this reason the moth always comes out second-best in a “beauty contest-opinion poll” against butterflies. Coupled with the stigma brought on by the misdeeds of the clothes moth, these little denizens of the closet are responsible for the tarnished reputation of moths everywhere. It is little wonder that the moth has become the unwilling symbol for that which is ugly and negative. Some of the other symbols identified with moths (like insanity) have also contributed to the moth’s position of low esteem.

Heavenly of Fairy-Tale

When an illustration or painting desires to convey a fairy-tale or heavenly/etherial quality, artists usually include a few butterflies to augment the overall feeling. Winslow Homer liberally sprinkled butterflies in his illustration “Saint Valentine’s Day.” Fairies are often pictured with insect wings which are usually those ofbutterflies. Greek and Roman mythology illustrates this in describing the horae; spirits who personified the seasons.

As such they carry flowers and fruit. They gave their names to the Hours, which in a later era they came to represent. They are the female attendants of Aurora, the dawn, and also of Luna (Selene) whose daughters they were. Their number varies, generally not less than three. They are sometimes depicted with butterfly wings.


Throughout history, butterfly imagery has been used more frequently in “decorative objects” than most other living organisms. Butterflies are found in similar frequency with imagery of trees, flowers, mushrooms, and owls. Indian decorations have utilized butterfly imagery for centuries.

Items adorned with butterflies are often considered decorative or ornamental. Butterflies don’t always have to carry the specific symbolism of nature or beauty. In fact their frequency in non-symbolic decorative usage has caused them to symbolize decoration itself. “Today, an artist will put a butterfly or flower in an illustration just for a filler, a decorative dot of color.”


Ancient Mexicans considered the butterfly important enough to dedicate an entire palace to it at Teotihuacan, just outside Mexico City. This palace is called the Palace of the Mariposa.

Teotihuacan is the oldest metropolis in Meso-America, and is the only one to possess a continuous history, from the archaic through to the purely classical period.

Historians do not agree on who the founders of Teotihuacan were; some say the Olmecs, others the Toltecs, but most agree that it was at one time the capital of a highly civilized culture later conquered by the Aztecs, the foremost of the Nahuatal Tribes.

The butterfly represents flame in the symbolism of this culture. Often pictured with the signs for water, it becomes clear that the “vision of Earth as a paradise is based on the dynamic harmony between water and fire.” The same concept is exemplified by an image of Tlaloc, god of rain, pictured on a vase bearing a butterfly motif. It is interesting to note that the butterfly is used as symbolic representatives of both the fire and rain god.

Finding no information as to why butterflies symbolize flames indians might have observed the many butterflies whose wings are red, orange, yellow, or combinations of all three colors. A cloud or “cumulep” of fire-colored butterflies taking off from a mud puddle after drinking, could easily be interpreted as being flame-like.

Mexican Indians might also have witnessed a “magna-cumulep” of millions of orange, monarch butterflies migrating to their over-wintering grounds in the mountains near Mexico City. A “cloud of flame” would definitely have entered their minds. The flapping of the wings would even approximate the flickering of the tongues of flame. The moth has also come to be associated with flames, althought not as asymbol of fire.

A small yellowish moth which flies about the fire at night is called ‘tun tawu by the Cherokee Indians– a name implying that it goes in and out of the fire. When it flits too near and falls into the blaze the Cherokee say ‘tun tawu is going to bed. Because of its affinity for the fire it is invoked by the Indian doctor in what they call ‘Fire Diseases’, among which sore eyes and frostbite are included.

Female, Femininity

The butterfly symbolizes female and femininity for a number of reasons. The “painted” beauty of most butterflies is analogous to the “painted” beauty of a high-fashion model replete with her cosmetic finery.In addition, the graceful walk of a woman compares easily with the gliding flight of a butterfly. A comparison between the lithe, beautiful, graceful butterfly with the usually less-showy, stubby moth might be interpreted as a comparison between woman and man; however, the moth has not become synonymous with men and masculinity.

Butterflies and women share the qualities of beauty, grace. Artists often include butterflies to introduce a feminine touch to artwork, product or advertisement.


It may be somewhat difficult to understand why a moth or butterfly could symbolize sensuality, and the symbol does trace a rather circuitous route. Because a moth is physically attracted to light, and because sensuality involves physical attraction, the moth has come to symbolize sensuality; it physically succumbs to seductive light. Also, because butterflies represents femininity, and females are most often associated with the word sensual, the butterfly has also become associated with the word sensual.


The street term for homosexual in Mexico is “Mariposa”, meaning butterfly in Spanish. The stereotyped image of a homosexual is that of an effeminate male who tends to keep up his appearance and leads an active social life composed of many appearances at bars and parties. Homosexuals may be called “Mariposas” because of their associations with butterflies symbolizing femininity, the lepidopteral symbol of “social butterfly”, and butterfly’s habit of “flitting” from flower to flower. In America, the term “Flit” has been commonly used as a synonym for homosexual. I wonder if there is an association with “flamer,” another American synonym for homosexuality and the lepidopteral symbolism for flame.

Way To A New Dress

In Funk and Wagnalls’ Standard Dictionary of Folklore, and Legend, it states that “to get a new dress all a girl need do is to catch a butterfly of the desired color and crush it between her teeth while muttering a magic formula.” The article does not state where this belief is held, or why it is held.

Omen of Sunny Weather, Omen of Fair Weather

The Zuni Indians feel that the early appearance of butterflies indicates fair weather. Other peoples “say that if the first butterfly is … yellow [it will be] sunny weather.”

In western Pennsylvania, when chrysalides are found suspended from the underside of rails and heavy branches, as if to seek a covering from rain, then extremely wet weather is predicted; if they are found on slender branches, then a spell of fair weather is predicted.

Beneficence of Summer, Omen of Summer

From every chink
And secret corner, where they slept away
The wintry storms–or rising from their tombs
To higher life–by myriads, Fourth at once,
Swarming they pour, of all the varied hues
Their beauty-beaming parent can disclose.
Ten thousand forms! ten thousand different tribes!
People the blaze.

Many of the Indian tribes of North America including the Hopi, Navaho, Zuni, Pomo, Piute, Apache and unnamed pre-historic tribes used butterflies to represent the beneficence of summer. These tribes mainly use the butterfly in their basketry and beadwork.

Associating butterflies with summer is directly related to their abundance during that season. Although adult butterflies are present in each season, they proliferate and are most visible during the summer months.

The Zuni Indians also feel “when the white butterfly comes, comes also the summer.”

Rain, Rainy Summer

Butterflies have much to do with the prediction of weather in many cultures. The Zuni Indians of the American southwest believe “when the white butterfly flies from the southwest, expect rain.” “Some say that if the first butterfly is white it will be a rainy summer.” The reasons for these beliefs are undocumented.

Omen of Thunderstorms

“Some say that if the first butterfly is … dark [it will be] a season of thunderstorms. This belief appears in Funk and Wagnalls’ Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. No mention is made of the origin of this belief. The probable reason for this superstition associates the dark color of the butterfly wings with the dark color of thunderstorm clouds.

Omen of Birth

“In south Germany, some say the dead are reborn as children who fly about as butterflies [hence the belief that they bring children].” “In Brunswick if the first one of the season is … yellow [it is an omen of] birth.” It was not stated why this belief holds true.

Death, Omen of Death

Death is symbolized by many aspects of lepidoptera. In Maryland, if a white butterfly enters your house and flies around you, it foretells death. In some parts of the country, if a moth lands on the mother of a newborn child, that child will soon die. Italian-Americans view the appearance of a moth in their home as a sign of the impending death of someone they know.

There is a moth in Europe called the Death’s Head Sphinx Moth. It represents death to many Europeans because of the clear outline of a skull on its back. Salvador Dali made use of this symbol in an interpretation of a Currier and Ives print, “The Life of a Fireman.“

There are numerous other examples of lepidoptera symbolizing death. It is said if a caterpillar measures your entire length or girth you will die. Samoans felt if they captured a butterfly it meant they would be struck dead. In Brunswick, if the first butterfly spotted in spring is a white one, it was an omen of death. The Celts believed that seeing a butterfly flying at night meant death. The chrysalis or pupal stage symbolizes death in Christian art.

Omen of Marriage

In the book, Insect Fact and Folklore, by Lucy Clausen, it is stated that “a butterfly in the house is a wedding sign.” The book does not reveal where or why this symbol is prevalent, simply stating it exists. Also, in the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, published by Funk and Wagnalls, it mentions that in Brunswick, England, if the first butterfly of the season is variegated, it is an omen of marriage.

Omen of Good Health

The first butterfly seen in a season carries some significance in many countries. In Ruthenia, if the first one is red it announced good health. This symbol may be derived from the belief that rich, red blood is a sign of good health.

Omen of Sickness

“There are many superstitions regarding specific butterflies. Among the Bulgarians a dark butterfly presages sickness.” “In Ruthenia, the first one, if white, announces sickness.” It is possible that the association of the white color of the butterfly’s wings with the pale, white color of someone becoming sick accounts for this belief

Old Age

…all you restless things,
That dance and tourney in the fields of air:

Your secret’s out! I know you for the souls
Of all light loves that ever caused heartache,
Still dancing suit as some new beauty toles!
Nor can you e’er your flitting ways forsake,
Till the just winds strip off your painted stoles,
And sere leaves follow in your downward wake.

As a metaphor to human aging, butterflies and moths experience a time of “old age” before succumbing to gravity for the last time. Their constant fluttering can leave their wings partially devoid of the powdery scales which provided their former beauty. Brilliant hues give way to faded colors. Collisions with branches leave jagged scars and frayed wing tips. Charles Burchfield painted “Queen Anne’s Lace“, depicting an “elderly” swallowtail probably Papilio polyxenes.

Youth, Childhood-lost

If the frayed and battered butterfly or moth symbolizes old age, then it follows logically that the recently-emerged adult, resplendant in its newly-acquired, powdery, “suit of lights” represents youth. Its flashy speed in contrast to the feeble flapping of a near-death specimen heightens the image. Butterfly imagery in tandem with a youthful pursuer, also symbolizes youth. Collecting butterflies seems to be an experience of childhood-lost, common to many.

Impermanence, Fragility

A page of the wind in the book of the sky,
the fragile butterfly

Another characteristic of both moths and butterflies is their fragile nature. Their thin wings and antennae, their powdered color that comes off on your fingertips adds to their stature as a symbol of impermanence.

Omen of Bad Luck

Lucy Clausen, in her book Insect Fact and Folklore, states it is “bad luck to pull off butterfly wings.” She does not reveal where this belief prevails or why it came into existence. Other references can be found. “In Scotland it is unlucky to kill or keep them.” In the west of England, it is unlucky to kill the first butterfly seen. In north Hampshire, it is a bad omen to see three butterflies in a group.

Appellation Symbols

Numerous items are named after butterflies: the butterfly stitch, the butterfly valve, the butterfly stroke, the butterfly table, and the butterfly position (in yoga). These names relate to butterflies in form or execution rather than possessing a direct relationship with them.

Indicative Symbol Markings

A golden butterfly upon whos wings
There must be surely character’d strange things

There are various butterflies and moths with markings that remind people of different animals and objects. The Map butterfly looks like an aerial road map. The Owl butterfly, because of its hind-wing eye spots, looks like its namesake. Because of markings on the underside of the hind-wings, the Eighty-eight butterfly is named after the number-like markings on its hind wings. One butterfly, because of iridescent eye-spots, is named after the peacock. Kjell Sandved has found all characters and numbers of the alphabet on lepidopteran wings.

Indian Watcher, Big Boss

In the book, Navaho Indian Ethnoentomology by Wyman and Bailey, contains a paragraph relating to the butterfly (or possibly the moth) as some kind of “Big Brother.”

“Mixed up [as to sex] on them real classy ones, supposed to be the head of all moths, they don’t fly but stay in one place and all moths pile up around him which makes me believe moths have their boss.” The Black Swallowtail “is the big boss, he watches Indian.” The work did not explain in what reference, whether as a god or as an everpresent insect, or just how this butterfly watched Indians. It is possible that the eyespots or “ocelli” present on the wings aided in the impression the Indians had that this butterfly could watch them.

Spokesman For The Raven

The Haida Indians of the Pacific Northwest incorporated the butterfly in their mythology. The butterfly is the raven’s spokesman at feasts. The raven “was an integral part of Northwest coast life and to separate this bird from the life of the people was inconceivable. It is a never-to-beforgotten bird.” “The raven created the world according to the Haida Indians.”37 In one Haida totem pole, the butterfly appears beneath the raven and touches the raven’s tongue, possibly signifying his spokesman role. The totem butterfly is highly stylized. Indian art gives primary attention to the predominating power which he attached to that animal. The art endeavored to give an impression of action or pictorially indicate what the animal could do. Since birds were a dominant theme in Haida art, their artists perhaps overlooked the most obvious flying abilities of butterflies and (presuming they referred to a butterfly’s sucking mouthpiece as a tongue) decided to make an insect with a big tongue a spokesman.


The sorcerers of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico refer to the moth as a symbol of knowledge. In the book Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda, the moth is such a central figure it is included as the major character on the cover of the book. It is revealed by Don Juan, a Yaqui sorcerer, “knowledge is a moth.” He expresses metaphorically that “the moths are the heralds, or better yet, the guardians of eternity,” for some reason, or for no reason at all, they are the depositories of the gold dust of eternity. He continues, “the moths carry a dust on their wings, a dark gold dust. That dust is the dust of knowledge.” “Knowledge comes floating like specks of gold dust, the same dust that covers the wings of moths.” “The moths have been the intimate friends and helpers of sorcerers from time immemorial.” Don Juan adds, “Moths are the givers of knowledge and the friends and helpers”

Continue reading more lepidopteral symbolism.