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There’s something magical about the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly, making these beautiful winged insects a favorite of many. As you can imagine, their metamorphosis is a metaphor for rebirth, but depending on who you ask, their spiritual symbolism runs deeper than that.
Here, experts weigh in on what butterflies symbolize, plus how to know if you have a connection to these special creatures.
What a butterfly symbolizes.
Butterflies represent transformation on all levels, ecotherapist and co-author of Sacred Medicine of Bee, Butterfly, Earthworm, and Spider Anna Cariad-Barrett, DMin, MS, MFT, tells mbg.
“Butterflies show us how we can go within ourselves to dissolve old forms and morph, rebuilding and evolving ourselves,” she explains, noting that they show us the importance of surrender and trust “as part of the essential process of growth and renewal.”
As author Erika Buenaflor, M.A., puts it in her book Animal Medicine, butterflies also symbolize rebirth, hope, and bravery. Seeing one is a sign that positive change is transpiring, and brave forces are watching over you and ensuring graceful transitions. The butterfly encourages you to flow through your transformation with confidence, she writes.
Much like us, caterpillars have no way of knowing what’s coming their way next. But they listen to their inner call to go within anyway, allowing death and rebirth to take place, Cariad-Barrett says. “Butterflies also symbolize freedom […] Our truest self can always fly free,” she adds.
From the ancient Celts to Indigenous Native Americans, cultures throughout history have fixated on the butterfly and its more spiritual meaning. Here are a few different interpretations of what this insect symbolizes.
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According to Buenaflor, the Central Mexican people going back to Teotihuacan associated butterflies with their ancestors. In the Mexicas’ (Aztecs’) Nahui Ollin rite, their feast to honor the sun, “they offered incense to an image of the sun dedicated as a butterfly in a golden circle emitting radiant beams and glowing lines,” she says.
They believed brave warriors eventually became birds, hummingbirds, or butterflies after they died, sipping nectar for eternity.
In Native American cultures
Different Native American tribes interpret butterflies in their own way, but generally, they’re thought to represent change and transformation, comfort, hope, and positivity. While some believed ancestors communicated through butterflies, others took the presence of these creatures as a joyous or hopeful sign.
Interestingly, however, black butterflies are associated with sickness in many Native American cultures.
While butterflies aren’t mentioned in the Bible, there’s a clear link between the transformation of a butterfly and the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ. Just as the butterfly enters its chrysalis to be reborn, Jesus was placed in a tomb after his crucifixion and reborn three days later. Additionally, Christianity says that those who follow Jesus can become reborn, transformed, and free from sin.
Celtic mythology regards butterflies as a symbol of the soul. There’s an old Irish saying that goes “Butterflies are souls of the dead waiting to pass through Purgatory.” They’re thought to be able to cross into other realms and also represent transformation, creation, and rebirth.
In sub-Saharan African culture, a butterfly’s metamorphosis is often thought of as a symbol for transformation, whether it be female puberty or societal change. Their symbolism is woven into many aspects of African culture, from songs and stories to dance and other art forms.
What it means if you keep seeing butterflies.
According to Cariad-Barrett, it’s important to remember that there is no one “truth” about what butterflies really mean. It’s about what they mean to you. So the next time you see one in your dreams or your waking life, consider how they make you feel.
“As a collective human consciousness,” Cariad-Barrett adds, “we often have similar responses, and we can learn from the teaching stories about nature—but at the end of the day, the question is: What are you noticing about butterflies’ life cycle, and how does it touch your soul?”
To get clearer on the answer to this question, she suggests journaling and reflecting on what the butterfly touches in you and how it connects to your personal journey.
Of course, given the common interpretation of butterflies representing transformation and rebirth, if you feel those same associations, it could indicate you’re going through a transformation of your own. If you’re constantly dreaming of butterflies, “It is time to spread your wings and explore new ventures,” Buenaflor says, adding, “How will you know whether you like something or not unless you try it?”
How to know if you’re spiritually connected to butterflies.
As Cariad-Barrett puts it, “Butterflies aren’t here to show us anything, but when we live our lives in relationship with nature, that relationship can highlight the ways we personally resonate with those we are interacting with.” In short, if butterflies touch your life in some special way, you’re connected to them.
“When animals are showing up as teachers in your life, you are relating to one another as family,” she explains.
If you feel you’re connected to butterflies, Cariad-Barrett advises sending them love from your heart. “Set an intention to be open to listening, learning, and receiving from these wise members of your family,” she adds. You could even create a habitat in your garden for them. “As you give your love in service to them and open yourself, their lessons will speak more and more to you,” she says.
And due to butterflies’ association with change and transformation, Buenaflor suggests taking time to meditate in the sun the next time you see one, allowing it to energize you for whatever change you’re going through.
The spiritual symbolism of any animal is always up for interpretation. But butterflies certainly have something to teach us about rebirth and transformation. If you’re feeling particularly connected to this critter, embrace the change, see it through, and trust that your journey, like the butterfly’s, will unfold just as it should.