At last I’ve spied the first butterfly in my garden. They are late in coming this year, maybe because of the rain and chill. Nevertheless, each year, despite my enticements – with asters, monarda, cosmos, rabbit brush, verbena, thistles, lilacs, sunflowers, sweet peas, zinnia, and more — there are fewer and fewer. Like bees, butterflies are in serious danger from pesticides, herbicides, agribusiness, concrete, and so much else that modern civilization has to offer.
This one was a swallowtail, likely feeding on the Jupiter’s beard. I caught a quick glance as it sped over the woodbine fence. Swallowtails (Papilionoidea) – particularly the Western Tiger (papilo rutulus), the Short-tail (papilo indra) and the Two-tailed (papilo multicaudat) – seem to be the most common, at least in my yard. Monarchs, which once visited in modest abundance, now seem to be gone…but I continue to keep my eye out and plant dill especially for them.
Worldwide, butterflies were believed to be a manifestation of the human soul. Early Greeks portrayed the soul as a tiny person with butterfly wings, but later as an actual butterfly. The goddess Psyche — wife of Eros, who had the wings of a bird — was the deification of the human soul and her name, the ancient Greek for “butterfly,” means “soul,” “spirit,” “breath,” or “life.” The animating force, similar to the Chinese ch’I or qi.
Some believe the butterfly is the soul returned to Earth after death. The Finno-Ugric people believe the soul leaves the body during sleep in the form of a butterfly and this accounts for dreams. Angels in medieval paintings often have butterfly rather than bird wings.
Butterflies were (and still are here and there) worshipped as gods and Creators or symbols of fertility. Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of love and fertility, protector of mothers, childbirth and crafts such as weaving and embroidery, was occasionally depicted as a butterfly.
In Samoa, anyone who caught a butterfly would be struck dead. To Magyars, capturing the first butterfly of the season meant good luck. In Germany, fortune came if a butterfly flew up your coat sleeve. In Devon the first butterfly was to be killed, while in Essex, its head was to be bitten off. However, in other parts of England, it was considered profoundly ill-fated to kill them (maybe because they were fairies in disguise, and even if they did steal the butter and milk, they were only to be driven away, not murdered).
There are those who say that if the first sighting is of a yellow butterfly – like the swallowtail in my garden – it is an omen of sunny weather and a birth.