Butterfly and Moth Symbolism, List 2

Cultural Entomology – The Butterfly and Moth as Symbols in Western Art

Lepidoptera Symbols Relating to Flight

by Ronald A. Gagliardi
edited by Insects.org.

The 18 references below describe butterfly and moth symbolism relating to lepidoptera flight found by Ron Gagliardi in his thesis on butterfly and moths in western art and design.

Flight, Movement, Spasmodic Flight

Fly, white butterflies, out to sea,
Frail pale wings for the winds to try;
Small white wings that we scarce can see,

Here and there may a chance-caught eye
Note, in a score of you, twain or three
Brighter or darker of tinge or dye;
Some fly light as a laugh of glee,
Some fly soft as a long, low sigh:
All to the haven where each would be,–

Although there are flightless members of the lepidopteral family, butterflies and moths are synonymous with flying. For this reason they are logical choices for inclusion in mobiles. It is also natural for them to be utilized in kite designs.

Butterflies and moths are characteristically active insects, barely stopping to rest in their search for food or mate. Certain Indian baskets display crenulated designs representing the spasmodic flight of the butterfly as it flits among the flowers. The basket design is symbolic not only with the flight, but also represents the butterfly itself


Lazily flying
Over the flower-decked prairies, West;
Basking in sunshine till daylight is dying,
And resting all night on Asclepias’ breast;
Joyously dancing,
Merrily prancing,
Chasing his lady-love high in the air,
Fluttering gaily,
Frolicking daily,
Free from anxiety, sorrow, and care!

A poster advertising the movie “A Free Woman” by Volker Schlondorff, depicts a woman, replete with butterfly wings, emerging from her shell, symbolizing her recent ability to “fly free.” In art or literature, a woman with butterfly wings is known as a rhopalocerienne.

Freedom is a concomitant characteristic of flight; Lepidoptera represent aspects of both flight and freedom. The French author and former prisoner of Devil’s Island, Henri Charriere, had a butterfly tatooed on his chest. It symbolized freedom to him and gave him his nickname, “Papillon” which means butterfly in French.

Creativity, Thought, Release of Thought

Butterfly imagery is used in art to represent the launching of creative thought. The cliche phrase “flights of fancy” is applicable to a fancy butterfly taking flight of growth, creativity, or thought.

The cover of Learning Magazine, February, 1975, depicts a child’s double profile representing the two sides of the brain. The analytical side features geometric figures while the creative side is represented by butterflies and a rainbow.

Dream Carrier, Bringer of Sleep, Bringer of News

According to a Blackfoot Indian:

You know that it is the butterfly who brings us our dreams — who brings the news to us when we are asleep. Have you never heard a man say, when he sees a butterfly fluttering over the prairie, ‘There is a little fellow flying about that is going to bring news to someone tonight.’? Or have you not heard a person say after the fire burns low and the people begin to make up their beds about the lodge, ‘Well, let us go to bed and see what news the butterfly will bring?’

The Indians use a cross, similar to a Maltese cross, as a sign for the butterfly. Woman embroider it on buckskin which she ties to her baby’s hair in the hope it will induce sleep. George Grinnel, who did some research into this topic before the l900?s said “More recent inquiry leads me to suspect that the influence of the butterfly is not confined to dreams, but to sleep as well. ” Grinnel also stated, “I have not been able to learn why or how the butterfly brings dreams or sleep. It is stated merely that it is soft and pretty and moves gently. And that if you look at it for a long time you will go to sleep.”

Divine Inspiration

Whenever the Blackfoot Indians incorporate a butterfly symbol on one of their lodges “it signifies that the designs and colors adorning that lodge are not those of the mortal Indian who painted them but were shown to him in a dream by the Great Spirit.” The same butterfly symbol is interpreted differently depending on where it is placed. If it appears embroidered on a piece of buckskin and tied in a baby’s hair it means dream-or sleep-bringer. If seen on a lodge it signifies divine inspiration.

Magic or Mythical Beings

Butterflies also symbolize fairies. According to Funk and Wagnalls’Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, butterflies “are thought to be fairies in disguise, who steal butter and milk.” This same source also states, “Not all butterflies are looked on as good. In much of Europe they are tabu. In parts of Scotland, Friesland and Bosnia, moths are regarded as witches: in Serbia and Westphalia, butterflies are so regarded. In the latter place St. Peter’s Day, February 22, is set aside for their expulsion. Children go about knocking on the houses with hammers, reciting rimes and incantations to drive them out of the houses.

One reason butterflies and moths may be linked symbolically with fairies and witches is all have the ability to fly. The ability each has to change form may also enter into the symbolism.


“Butterflies in my stomach” is a common expression conveying anxiety, fear, nervousness about an impending activity. The actual origin of the term is unclear although the feeling approximates what it must feel like to actually have real butterflies ricocheting from stomach wall to stomach wall.

Change, Inconstancy

Symbolism of inconstancy, defined as changeable, fickle, or variable, is derived from the metamorphosis of the butterfly from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult. In a romantic sense, butterflies have fickle “love affairs” with the flowers they feed upon. Inconstancy is also represented by constant wing movement and hurried flight.

Goals Beyond Reach, Aloofness

The virtuoso thus, at noon,
Broiling beneath a July sun,
The gilded butterfly pursues
O’er hedge and ditch, through gaps and mews;
And, after many a vain essay
To capitvate the tempting prey,
Gives him at length the lucky pat,
And has him safe beneath his hat;
Then lifts it gently from the ground;
But, ah! t’is lost as soon as found.
Culprit his liberty regains,
lits out of sight, and mocks his pains.

The butterfly as an aloof creature. They’re difficult to catch and they usually don’t stay long in one place. Some butterflies, especially the females of certain species, spend most of their lives at tree-top level. A boy chasing a fritillary butterfly illustrates the symbol of a goal beyond reach. The butterfly’s ability to fly gives it a definite advantage over its pursuer. This symbolic use of the insect is only possible in conjunction with the portrayal of its hunter.

Social Butterfly

The term, social butterfly, represents one who seeks success and popularity by attempting to be seen with all the right people in all the right place. When applied to a woman, it usually means one who has dated many men, mostly to serve her own quest. The symbolism draws the analoge to a butterfly, busily fliting from flower to flower.

The Butterfly Kiss

The butterfly kiss represents a very sensual kiss performed with the eyelashes. The kiss draws its name from the similarity of the fluttering of the eyelashes during this kiss and the wings of a butterfly in flight or upon alighting “on the cheek of a flower.” Cosmetic companies have utilizes this symblism.


Wyman and Bailey quote Reichard as the source for the butterfly symbolizing temptation. The “butterfly is prominent as the seducer in the legend of Excessway.”


Reichard, is also listed by Wyman and Bailey, as the source for the butterfly symbolizing foolishness. The origin is unclear although conjecture as to the often meandering style of flight, may seem to demonstrate a laziness in going about the gathering of its food. To Indians, the wasting of precious time was quite foolish. Food qatherinq was an all-consumin task with them during much of the year. The moths attraction to the light of a flame might also be considered foolish.


Some butterflies and moths are quite speedy, and even the most meandering species are capable of bursts of speed when pursued. “When boys or men run a race, they catch a butterfly without hurting it and rub setae from its wings on their legs to make them run with the speed of a butterfly.” That statement was made by two Navaho Indians.

Day and Night

A characteristic preference for the lighted hours, cause butterflies to be identified with the day. Moths usually prefer the dark and have come to be identified with the night (There are day-flying moths, however, like the Urania leilus, but the majority fly at night.) Science futher fosters the acceptance of these two symbols but making the day/night differentiation one of the main distinguishing characteristics between butterflies and moths.


The first stirrings of Nature at winter’s end inform us of spring’s approach: among other plants and animals, the first butterfly, often the Mourning Cloak, emerging from its winterlong hiberation. Seeing a butterfly has long been regarded as a symbol of spring. An elderly Indian basket-weaver of a California tribe stated that a group of butterfly symbols (types of crosses) on her basket represented a flock of butterflies coming to tell her spring had arrived.return


Round her flaming heart they hover,
Lured by loveliness they go
Moth-like, every man a lover,
Captive to its gleam and glow.

Old and young, the blind and blinking,–
Fascinated, frenzied things,–
How they flutter, never thinking
What a doom awaits their wings!

It is all the same old story,–
Pleasure hung upon a breath:
Just a chance to taste of glory
Draws a legion down to death.

Fire is dangerous to handle;
Love is an uncertain flame;
But the game is worth the candle
When the candle’s worth the game!

The image of a moth flying toward the singeing tongues of flames is the foundation for its use to symbolize self-destruction. Few people realize, however, that this seemingly unwarranted suicide (which also gives rise to the moth as a symbol of insanity) is not an act of foolish recklessness by the moth. The “magnetic” attraction of the fire or of a light source is related to a built-in malfunction in the moth’s navigational system.


The Navaho Indians associate both moths and butterflies with insanity with much written about the equation of insanity and acting like a moth by jumping into the fire (‘moth-crazy’) which is said to result from sexual excess, breaking restrictions, and the like.

“All of our informants agreed that moths and butterflies, especially moths, are very dangerous; that if the setae get into food or water and are swallowed they are extremely poisonous, and will cause insanity and a desire to jump into the fire like a moth.” “If you get the powder on you or in your eye, go loco like loco weed.” “Contact with the powder from moth’s wings will cause persons to commit clan incest; ‘sisters and brothers marry, they crazy, jumps in fire.” “This material may also be used as love magic; ‘put it on girls to make them crazy over you.”