Butterfly and Moth Symbolism, List 3

Lepidoptera Symbols Relating to Flight (continued)

by Ronald A. Gagliardi
edited by Dexter Sear

The 23 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.

Symbol of That Which Can Be Attracted

“Like a moth to a flame” is a cliche used to denote the extent which something is able to be attracted to something else. If a certain fishing lure is being touted as a fantastic fish-catcher, the advertiser will say, “Fish come to it like moths to a flame.” This symbol stems from the physical attraction moths have to a light source.

Omen of Good Luck

Butterflies apparently have a great deal to do with luck, both good and bad. “In Louisiana it is thought that good luck will follow shortly after a white butterfly flies into your house and flies around you.” However, the same action is an omen of death in Maryland.


The life cycle of butterflies and moths has been used in many cultures to represent many things. The hatching from the egg is the equivalent of human birth. The caterpillar represents the stage of life; the lowly “worm” waiting for a transformation, just as we await our reward in an afterlife.


An association with certain “looping” caterpillars (Geometrids,) is measuring. Ask any child what a caterpillar of that type is doing on a branch and “Measuring it” will be the response.


Another metamorphosal symbol is inherent to the chrysalis (pupa) or cocoon. This is the “magical closet” where the amazing transformation will take place. It is the protective covering which will provide refuge for the changeling. The pupa or cocoon is a natural symbol for protection.

Introversion, Shyness

The cocoon carries a meaning of introversion or shyness. People of that type are occasionally said to be in a cocoon. Naturally, these introverted or shy people are seeking protection in their “cocoons.”

The Existence of Creator

Metamorphosis of butterflies and moths is one of the mysteries of Nature. The ability of these insects to change from the crawling caterpillar to the flying adult is almost magical. Many people are so awe inspired by the metamorphosis that they believe that butterflies and moths could never have evolved over millions of years without a God behind it.


One of the tribes of Sumatra claims to be descended from eggs laid by a butterfly (their wives were sent down from above fully grown), and in Madagascar and among the Naga tribes of Manipur, some trace their ancestry to a butterfly. A North American Pima Indian myth says that the creator, Chiowotmahki, took the form of a butterfly and flew over the world until he found a suitable place for man.


Butterflies are souls of the dead
waiting to Pass through Purgatory

The butterfly symbolizing the occurs in numerous cultures over many centuries. Perhaps the most prominent association of the butterfly with the soul is with Psyche.

The myth of Psyche originated in the Orient. A Myth said the Rhetors (mere talkers) is “an untrue narrative representing truth.” This myth is a good example of approaching “profound realities of Nature by poetic intuition.” “Its secret sense shows through thanks to the symbolism of the butterfly.”

By her beauty, Psyche has aroused the jealousy of Venus. She had seduced Eros himself. Carried away by Zephyre into a flowery valley. She lived there in a dream Palace. Each night she greeted there a lover that she was not supposed to see. On the false-hearted advice of her sisters, giving in to curiosity, she came once with a lamp, to see the one who shared her bed. A drop of oil fell on the god who took flight. Thus began the terrible afflictions from which the unfortunate one could escape only thanks to the complicity of Love. When she had surmounted them her wedding was celebrated in Olympia and she was admired at the banquet of the gods.

Now in Greek, Psyche signifies at the same time soul and butterfly. The myth was interpreted by playing on this double sense. It became the story of the soul touched by divine love, but which, by reason of the mistakes made, must undergo some tribulations before having access to happy immortality. The night butterfly [the moth] attracted by the flame, like the soul attracted by heavenly truths, burns in the flame, reflection of the trials that must be endured to eliminate the fleshy sink-stones before knowing the joys of the beyond.

The work of George Hoefnagel (1542-1601) attempted to illustrate sacred texts using symbols. Many of his works contain caterpillars and butterflies, symbolizing man and his soul.

Soul of Witches

Butterflies symbolize witches and fairies, but they also symbolize the soul of witches. Both butterflies and witches have the ability to change their form; butterflies change in the course of their development, witches allegedly can change at will.

The Serbians look on the butterfly as the soul of a witch and believe if they can find her body and turn it around while she is asleep, the soul will not be able to find her mouth and reenter, and the witch will probably die. Probably, this concept of the soul explains why many medieval angels have butterfly wings rather than those of a bird.

Reincarnated Being

In the Solomon Islands, a “dying man has a choice as to what he will become at death and often chooses a butterfly.”

“Among the Nagas of Assam the dead are believed to go through a series of transformations in the underworld and are finally reborn as butterflies. When the butterfly dies, that is the end of the soul forever.” “The Maya looked upon butterflies also as the spirits of dead warriors in disguise descending to earth.”


The chrysalis or cocoon is a common symbol of potential, usually individual potential: rags to riches, Cinderella to princess, ugly to beautiful, shy to extroverted, follower to leader; all are metaphors to the miraculous change from chrysalis to adult.

Morning Star

In Mexecal art, Xolatl is the chrysal form of the god Quetzalcoatl in the Land of the Dead. Xolatl is closely related to the Star of the Morning and marks the butterfly as an emblem of the soul. Certain American Indian tribes, specifically the Arapaho Indians, interpret the symbol for butterfly as the Morning Star.

Morning Star relationship of the soul and butterflies could be attributed to the star’s continued appearance in the morning despite the passage of night (representing death). Since stars are normally associated with night, a morning star’s existence in the day could symbolize the soul’s life after death.

Being Stingy or Poor

Often found in cartoon-style art, is the image of someone reaching deep into his pockets, turning them inside-out in his search for a few coins. Alternately, he opens his wallet looking for a dollar bill, but instead of finding money, moths fly out. Apparently, this has come to be a cartoonist’s way of saying “It’s been so long since there’s been any money in here, moths have had time to invade.” Depending on the relative worth of the possessor of the moth eaten money-container, the symbol either means the person hasn’t used the container for so long that moths live in it; thus is stingy or that there hasn’t been money in it to use; thus is poor.

Antidote Giver

In Navaho mythology, the hornworm caterpillar of a Sphinx moth has an important role. Hornworm’s most important function in the myths was to provide the Hero Twins of Monsterway with an antidote for the Poisonous tobacco of their father the Sun. This has been called ‘caterpillar spit’ or ‘vomit’ and is obviously the green food material which hornworms regurgitate when disturbed.

One of the Navahos who contributed to Wyman and Bailey’s research said, “The stuff from the mouth is good medicine when you get sick from smoking too much; put a little in water and drink it.”

Coming Of Winter, Omen of Cold Weather

Many people feel that the caterpillar of the Tiger moth, Isia isabella, can aid in the prediction of the severity of the coming winter. Supposedly, if the reddish-brown band is narrower than normal, the winter will be longer and colder. If the band is wider than usual, a mild winter can be expected.

“Any butterfly flying in one’s face is a sign of immediate cold weather to some; others specify that a yellow butterfly flying in one’s face indicates sufficient frost within ten days to turn the leaves the color of the butterfly.”

Also, the sighting of swarms of southward migrating butterflies, especially Monarch butterfliesof their father the Sun. This has been called ‘caterpillar spit’ or ‘vomit’ and is obviously the green food material which hornworms regurgitate when disturbed.

One of the Navahos who contributed to Wyman and Bailey’s research said, “The stuff from the mouth is good medicine when you get sick from smoking too much; put a little in water and drink it.”

Rejection Of Industrial Society

The butterfly featured prominently in many works of the Art Nouveau movement. Representing a “return to nature,” it was a time when artists chose Natural themes as a way of expressing their desire for man to get back to the simpler things. It came at the same time the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and urged rejection of it.


The butterfly has already been mentioned as a symbol of the beauty of Nature. It has also been used as a symbol of Nature itself. Bob Pyle, president of the Xerces Society (an international conservation group) explains one case where the butterfly stood for Nature.

In this instance, a rather widespread habitat, the Albany Pine Bush, had become reduced to only several hundred acres. The Karner Blue–which was first discovered by Vladimir Nabokov, the novelist–really is endemic to that one spot. By the greatest misfortune, a big development had been planned smack on top of the habitat. It couldn’t have been planned to more effectively eradicate the butterfly.

Fortunately, we had some people on hand who were able to politicize the issue. Many different kinds of people in the Albany area came together behind this issue, using the butterfly as a symbol for an entire ecosystem. School kids were wearing butterfly suits, the works.

Good Harvest Fertility Of The Earth

There is a ceremonial dance called “Bulitikibi” in Hopi Indian folklore. It is the Butterfly Dance and was allegedly “introduced by the prominent and powerful Butterfly Clan of one of the Hopi pueblos.” It was an exhortation to the gods for a good harvest.

“Among some tribes of Mexico it [the butterfly] is a symbol of the fertility of the earth.”


It is difficult to find humor in the depiction of butterflies and moths alone. Usually the humor enters when the insects appear in conjunction with humans either observing them, chasing or being chased by them. One of the most humorous situations concerning lepidoptera seems to involve the collector. The idea of a grown person armed with a net, chasing a darting specimen thither and yon, has provoked laughter and derision for years.

God of Rain

In Pre-Hispanic, Mexican Indian culture, the butterfly is one of the symbolic representatives of Tlaloc, god of rain.

The fantastic stone heads that jut out from the bas-relief background of the pyramid of Quetzacoatl are carved in the same spirit (human form to geometric forms) although on a smaller scale. They represent symbolic combinations, alternately of jaguars and snakes, and of the stylized features of the rain god and the butterfly, which was considered one of his symbolic representatives.

Good Aim With A Gun

Funk and Wagnalls’ Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend reveals that “Some say that if a butterfly is put in a gun, It is impossible to miss the target.” The source and range of this superstition is not revealed. Perhaps its originators felt the butterfly’s spirit would impart the ability to fly to a target to the bullet.

Some illustrations in medieval illuminated manuscripts may be related to the origin of this superstition.

In an article by Dr. G. Evelyn Hutchinson, in ISIS, the official journal of the History of Science Society, there appeared a picture of a hunter, shooting an arrow at a woodcock. This painting appears in The Bird Psalter (MS 2-1954 in the Fitzwilliam Museum). The woodcock “is being shot at by a man with a broad-bladed hunting arrow who appears to have just hit a pierid butterfly above the woodcock, transfixing its wing with a minute arrow.” A similar scene is also contained in the Ormeshy Psalter (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Helping to Cheat in Gambling

The measuring worm represents something else in Navaho mythology: “he helped to cheat in gambling.” Coincidentally, the caterpillar is quite crooked, a term in our jargon meaning “inclined to cheat.”

Continue reading more lepidopteral symbolism.