Okay, I admit it. I’m superstitious. I don’t walk under ladders, or step on a crack, and I never fly on Friday the thirteenth. If I’m working on a book, and the writing is going well, I’ll continue to wear the same clothes until I hit a bump in my writing process. Only then is it time for a change of outfit—which is probably way more than you really want to know about me.
However, it wasn’t until I began to do research for Winged Obsession that I realized there are so many superstitions about butterflies. Yeah, yeah—they symbolize the soul, along with metamorphosis and rebirth. But the amazing thing is that every country not only has a specific word for “butterfly” but also their own distinct legend. It turns out that butterflies have been with us since the beginning of recorded time. They’re found on Egyptian tomb frescoes, while a mosaic discovered in the ruins of Pompeii displays a butterfly emerging from a human skull as a symbol of the soul leaving the body.
In China, they represented conjugal bliss and joy. To see a butterfly brings good luck. That is, unless one is spotted fluttering around at night. Then it’s time to head for the hills. You’ve just been warned of an impending death.
An Irish law in 1680 decreed that a white butterfly couldn’t be killed because it was the soul of a child. Likewise, Mexicans believe that returning Monarch butterflies are the souls of dead children rejoining their families to celebrate the annual Day of the Dead.
Indian legend portends that if you whisper your secret wish to a butterfly it will be flown up to the heavens and your wish granted, while Blackfoot Indians assert that dreams are brought to us in sleep by butterflies. Navajos catch a butterfly before a race and, without hurting it, rub some of the colored “dust” from its wings onto their legs. They believe that this will make them swift and light so that they will run with the spirit of the butterfly.
Hopi tradition commanded that unmarried girls wear their hair in the shape of butterfly wings, while the Nez Perce tribe still believes that butterflies come when called by children.
Traditional healers in Nigeria use butterflies for a number of different medical purposes, one of which calls for seven butterflies to be burned in a clay pot and mixed with soap. It’s prescribed for lonely bachelors in search of a wife. Of course, regular bathing—minus the dead butterflies—might accomplish the very same thing.
Perhaps strangest of all were the images of butterflies found at Nazi concentration camps. Imprisoned children used their fingernails and pebbles to carve drawings of butterflies on their bunker walls. It was almost as if they knew they were about to die and hoped their souls would become butterflies. Thousands of butterflies were reportedly seen alighting on Auschwitz, and other death camps, for many years after the Holocaust.
A butterfly landed on my arm the other day and remained there for a while. I’ve read two different superstitions about that—one good and one bad. I’m opting to believe it’s good luck.