Throughout history, Christianity has borrowed symbols from other cultures to express some of the most important concepts of the faith. The butterfly counts as one of these. But whether the symbology comes from a Christian perspective or from a more ancient culture, the beauty of these winged creatures always means new life and hope.
The Soul and the Psyche
The foundation of the word for "soul" as well as the butterfly or moth symbolism that represents the soul in Christianity hearkens back to ancient Latin and Greek. In Latin, it takes on the meaning of "animating spirit," and in Greek, it has to do with the breath of life, the soul or the mind. It additionally meant "departed soul." In its purest forms from Greek it is written as "psuche," but more commonly written as "psyche" in English.
The Stages of Life
Butterflies represent the metamorphosis of the soul in Christian lore, according to Baylor University. This line of thought posits that the human journey from caterpillar to pupa and then finally, to the colorful winged insect, represents the three stages of man. The human man is the caterpillar whereas the cocoon or chrysalis represents the time that man spends in the tomb. Finally, the butterfly symbolizes man's rebirth in Christ as well as Jesus's rebirth.
In the world of Christian art, a sacred painting of Jesus with a butterfly alight on his hand represented life, death and the resurrection. Other symbols in religious art could also include a caterpillar or chrysalis. This type of symbology also appears in funeral art on modern head stones in cemeteries. It carries the same three-part meaning, but also denotes a short life such as on the tombstones of children.
The ancient Egyptians also had a great deal of influence on the use of the butterfly as a symbol for the departed soul, according to the Spring Branch Presbyterian Church. When observing the funeral clothes of mummies, the ancient Egyptians realized that these looked like the cocoon of a butterfly.
- The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art; Hope B. Werness
- Baylor University: Butterfly Lore
- Ever Life Memorials: Cemetery Symbolism
- Online Etymology Dictionary: Psyche
- Dictionary of Spiritual Terms: Psuche
- Bible Study Tools: Psuche
- Theoi Greek Mythology: Psykhe
- Symbols of the Christian Faith; Alva William Steffler
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images