Butterflies—messengers of the gods and embodiment of our souls. Many ancient cultures regarded butterflies as symbols of the human soul. More than one culture believed that a butterfly in one’s dream is a messenger of joy and transformation from the gods. The butterfly’s transformation from caterpillar to a brilliant and fragile being that can touch a flower’s petal, mud, wild winds and death is like our own quest from a being controlled and frightened by all things of the earth to a spirit that can create and soar.
In Greek myth, Psyche, a mortal whose beauty rivaled Aphrodite, was often depicted on relief carvings and vases with butterfly wings sprouting from her back.
That was not always true. Let me tell you her story: She was so beautiful that many neglected the divine worship and offerings at Aphrodite’s shrines and turned their gaze to the mortal girl. This aroused Aphrodite’s jealousy. She asked her son Eros (also known in Roman times as Cupid) to force the maid to marry the most hideous creature he could find. Instead, Eros fell in love with her and spirited Psyche away to a luxurious and secret palace and became the girl’s lover. But he only came to her in the dark of night, so she would not know his identity, and his mother could not discover their liaison.
However, myths are seldom without trials and struggles! Jealousy once again reared its ugly head. When Psyche’s sisters came to visit, they convinced the girl to light a lamp and discover her lover’s identity. Surely only a monster would bribe her with riches and palatial surroundings! At last, Psyche’s curiosity overcame her. She lit a lamp. Here lay a handsome young man! Shaken, the girl dripped lamp oil on Eros’ side and awakened the god. Furious at her betrayal, he jumped up and fled.
Psyche searched the world over and at last decided she needed to grab the bull by the horns and go straight to Aphrodite. The vengeful goddess assigned the desperate girl four task. In each task, with the grace of the gods, (and a little help from her lover Eros!) Psyche succeeded. In the meantime, Eros appealed to the great father Zeus who—with a promise from Eros that he would assist Zeus when some sweet young thing tickled his fancy!—gave Psyche a drink of ambrosia so she became an immortal goddess. He also immediately married them. And so they lived forever in love as man and wife.
Myths usually impart wisdom. How does this myth help us in our day-to-day lives?
Here we begin to understand why the Greeks and Native Americans, Mayas, Aztecs and Chinese considered the tiny butterflies to be happy messengers, souls from beyond the veil of death who visited the living to assure them all is well. They consider butterflies to be souls. Psyche in ancient Greek, ψυχη, means “soul.” Like the lowly butterfly, Psyche struggled through challenging labors to live forever with the gods. Our own souls struggle against often-insurmountable odds to extract ourselves from our cocoons—the dark nights of our souls. Assaulted by disease, pain and betrayal … may we struggle with the grace of butterflies?
And if we emulate the tiny butterfly and keep our hearts light and free of fear, can our souls’ colorful wings inspire others? Like the butterfly effect described in Edward Lorenz’s chaos theory, where one small change in our non-linear, undivided cosmos can change everything, will our dreams and actions share grace with those around us?
Each of us is a beautiful butterfly. Don’t get lost in your cocoon!