Throughout the centuries butterflies have captivated artists and have been use to express various themes of the human spirit. Butterflies appear on Minoan artifacts from Crete around 4,000 years ago, according to the author Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies, Peter Marren. As far back as 1350 BC, in Egypt a tomb painting shows Nebamun hunting birds in the marshes shows Nebamum hunting a flock of birds and among the birds are a large number of butterflies. The theme of hunting is meant to show Nebamum’s victory over nature as he was reborn. The ancient Greeks connected butterflies to the human soul so much so that their word for a butterfly and a soul is the same: psyche.
During the Renaissance, a painting by the Italian artist Dosso Dossi, titled Jupiter Painting Butterflies, Mercury and Virtue, depicts the god Jupiter painting butterflies on a canvas. But because he is a god the butterflies came to life and fly away as he paints them. Jupiter’s supernatural artistry is a metaphor for the theme of creation in nature as well as in art. Throughout many eras and cultures butterflies continued to be associated with human souls. In 17th-century Ireland, it was against the law to kill a white butterfly because they were regarded as the souls of children.
Symbolic themes and meanings
- The beauty of nature – butterflies are included as elements of nature in many artistic styles because they most effectively represent all positive characteristics of nature.
- Beauty of Color, Shape, Pattern, and Symmetry – both the topside and the underside of butterflies are “painted” with equal artistry. The butterfly not only symbolizes beauty, but the beauty of symmetry, pattern, color, shape.
- Decoration – Items decorated with butterflies are often considered ornamental. Butterflies used for decoration don’t always have the specific symbolism of nature or beauty. Usually they are non-symbolic and used to denote decoration itself.
- Positive and Beauty- The butterfly symbolizes that which is beautiful and positive simply because they are colorful and beautiful.
- Femininity – Butterflies and women share the qualities of beauty, elegance and grace. Artists often include butterflies to introduce a feminine touch to artwork, product, or advertisement.
- Sensuality – Since butterflies represent femininity and females and they are most often associated with the word sensual, the butterfly has also become associated with the word sensual.
Butterflies in other cultures
In China butterflies symbolize marital bliss and joy. A butterfly dance is performed by both Navaho and Hopis Indians in the American southwest where butterflies are particularly revered. In traditional Hopi culture, unmarried girls of the butterfly clan wore their hair in the shape for butterfly wings to advertise their availability. In the Old World the connotation of the butterfly was negative. The butterfly was considered to be a spirit of the dead and not a welcomed harbinger.
Ancient Mexicans considered the butterfly so important that they dedicated an entire palace called the Palace of the Mariposa to it at Teotihuacan, just outside Mexico City. In this ancient culture where the butterfly also represents flame and are 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 most universal butterfly theme is that of transformation; the never-ending circle of life. Butterflies in art and culture represent creativity, endless potential, vibrant joy, spiritual rebirth, and transformation. Each of us experience transformations throughout the multiple stages of our lives. The image of the butterfly is used to represent creativity, thought, taking flight, and growth. Together, these can help life changes to occur gently and joyfully. The lesson of the butterfly is to let go of old behavior and embrace the next phase of experience. At Ann’s Butterfly Effect we encourage everyone to “Embrace your inner Butterfly”