Butterfly Meanings & Symbolism Explained

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Many consider butterflies to be among the most beautiful creatures in the world. The vibrancy of their wings and the delicate way they navigate their environments give them a distinctly striking quality that few other insects or animals share.

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This may be why butterfly meanings and symbolism are easy to find in numerous cultures across the entire world. For centuries (and perhaps longer), butterflies have represented everything from love to death.

This guide will offer just a sampling of the various butterfly meanings that have existed across different cultures, nations, and movements throughout history. They indicate that, wherever you are, there’s a decent chance that butterflies represent something very important to the people from there.

Overview: What Do Butterflies Mean or Symbolize?

As the following entries will make clear, butterfly meanings are abundant. What butterflies symbolize in one culture may not precisely match what butterflies represent in another culture.

That said, most symbolic interpretations of butterflies have their basis in the unique life cycle of a butterfly. Butterflies begin their lives as caterpillars. When they reach a certain stage of growth they begin to pupate in a chrysalis, before eventually emerging as beautiful winged creatures.

It’s easy to understand why this type of life cycle would cause various cultures to assign symbolic meanings to butterflies. The life of a butterfly embodies the idea of rebirth and transitioning to a new stage in existence.

Everyone’s life involves certain major transitions. Naturally, we must all die, making death a universal transition. Other transitions that many people experience include getting married, becoming an adult, abandoning toxic situations or behaviors, and much more. Butterflies can symbolize all of these changes.

What Do Butterflies Symbolize in Love?

Some specific cultures have clearly defined symbolic interpretations of butterflies regarding romantic love. For example, evidence suggests pre-colonial Tswana people associated butterflies with romantic love, while the Chinese may associate butterflies with love when they see two butterflies flying together. In Japanese culture, butterflies can suggest happiness in marriage.

Some Americans have a similar interpretation of butterflies. It’s not uncommon for American weddings to involve the release of butterflies into the air after the ceremony is complete. In general, transforming from a caterpillar into a butterfly can also represent the transition from being single to being in a committed marriage.

What Do Butterflies Symbolize in Death?

Butterflies are one of many symbols of mourning or death. The symbolic relationship between butterflies and death may vary somewhat from one culture to another.

Generally, though, the beautiful wings of the butterfly tend to represent the immortality of the human soul. Once the butterfly sheds its physical form by emerging from the chrysalis, its soul persists, as if flying away to a happier place.

This interpretation of a butterfly’s meaning may be why some consider the appearance of butterflies to be signs from deceased loved ones. Some feel that if they see a butterfly shortly after a loved one has died, it’s a message telling them their loved one’s soul still lives on. This is among the many reasons that merely seeing a butterfly can give someone hope during a difficult time.

What Do Butterflies Symbolize in Friendship?

There is no set traditional butterfly meaning that involves friendship. However, some people have come to associate butterflies with friendship in various ways. For example, a blue butterfly (which, as the next section will explain, can have more than one meaning) might symbolize that someone is a “true blue” friend.

Others point out that the life cycle of a butterfly reminds us that our existence here is impermanent. While our souls may live on after death, the reminder that life doesn’t go on forever could also serve as a reminder to maintain close bonds with our friends while we are still in each other’s lives.

The above section also touched on the reason some perceive butterflies as signs from loved ones who have passed on. Thus, a butterfly could be a sign from a lost friend.

What Do Butterfly Tattoos Symbolize?

Butterfly tattoos can symbolize a number of ideas. Someone choosing to get a butterfly tattoo may not have the same reason for doing so as someone else getting a similar tattoo.

For example, some people associate butterflies with addiction recovery. They may perceive the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly as a symbol for their journey from addiction to recovery.

Others may choose to get butterfly tattoos if they have recently lost someone close to them. Because many interpret butterflies as signs that the soul lives on, they may take comfort in getting a tattoo that serves as a permanent reminder that the soul of their lost loved one is still with them in some capacity. 

(Check our guide on grief tattoo ideas for more examples of tattoos to get after losing a loved one.)

The color of a butterfly tattoo can also influence its meaning to the one getting the tattoo. Some consider a blue butterfly tattoo to be a symbol of good luck. This may be because in most parts of the world, the appearance of a blue butterfly is a rare sight.

Experts also say that a purple butterfly tattoo symbolizes support for or acknowledgment of someone who’s struggling with an illness that may be primarily unseen, such as fibromyalgia.

Those who choose to get yellow butterfly tattoos often do so because they want their tattoo to reflect the symbolic meaning butterflies may have in Chinese culture. As a later section of this article will explain, butterflies have more than one meaning in China. A yellow butterfly tattoo may specifically relate to the Chinese idea that butterflies are signs of joy.

White butterfly tattoos may symbolize purity. Specifically, they may suggest the purity of Jesus Christ’s soul. As such, Christians tend to get white butterfly tattoos more than any other group. The following section will expand on what butterflies may represent to followers of the Christian faith.

Essentially, butterfly tattoos have several potential meanings, and those listed here are just a few examples. If you’re considering a butterfly tattoo, but you’re not sure which type to get based on the meaning, you may want to discuss your idea in greater detail with an experienced tattoo artist. They can probably answer many of your questions.

What Do Butterflies Symbolize in the Bible?

The Christian Bible never explicitly mentions butterflies. However, many Christians have found the butterfly to be an apt symbol for various aspects of their religious beliefs.

For example, the transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly can represent the rebirth of Christ. Some born-again Christians also believe this transformation reflects the personal and spiritual transformation they experience when they leave behind their past selves and restart their spiritual lives.

This example highlights an important point. Even though the Bible may not mention butterflies, both their beauty and their life cycle appear to have a universal resonance that crosses cultural and spiritual boundaries.

What Do Butterflies Symbolize in Chinese Culture?

Butterflies have several meanings in Chinese culture. The “rebirth” of a butterfly after its metamorphosis is complete has resulted in some considering the butterfly to represent immortality. Butterflies have also symbolized marriage in China.

Additionally, in Chinese culture, butterflies may also embody feelings of joy. Quite simply, Chinese culture does not have merely one interpretation of butterflies’ meaning. The Chinese have associated these winged creatures with a variety of ideas and emotions.

What Do Butterflies Symbolize in Spirituality?

The examples above show that butterfly symbolism is common across various religions. Thus, even if you’re a spiritual person but not someone who adheres to a single religious tradition, you may still find meaning in butterflies.

To reiterate an earlier point, many of the symbolic meanings we assign to butterflies reflect our spiritual interpretations of a butterfly’s life cycle. All of us must experience a physical life before we die. Spiritually, one could interpret the physical life to be the period when a butterfly is a caterpillar.

The period when a caterpillar has entered the pupal stage can represent the intermediate stage between the death of the body and departure of the soul. When the metamorphosis is over, from a spiritual perspective, a beautiful butterfly sheds its worldly existence and becomes a pure soul.

Versions of this story are critical elements of numerous religions. That means the concept of a cycle that involves some form of life, death, and rebirth or ascension to a heavenly realm is a universally spiritual idea. Butterflies simply communicate that idea in a symbolic manner.

Butterfly Meanings: A Symbol Across Many Cultures

Remember, this guide is just an introduction to the symbolic meanings butterflies have in different cultures and parts of the world. If you’d like to delve more deeply into the topic of butterflies and their resonance with both individuals and groups, consider reading our guide on poems about butterflies and death.


Sources:
  1. “Butterfly.” University of Michigan, Websites.umich.edu.
  2. “Butterfly Tattoo Meanings: Not just a beautiful tattoo.” TATT MAG, Tatt Mag, 7 February 2021, Tattmag.com.
  3. Ellis, Sam. “What Does A Butterfly Symbolize In The Bible?” CATHOLICS & BIBLE, Catholics & Bible, 14 October 2020, Catholicsbible.com.
  4. Peregrine Johnson, Sharon. “Butterfly Lore.” Baylor University, Baylor.edu.
  5. “The butterfly: a symbol of romantic love in Setswana culture.” Your Botswana, YB Partnership Ltd., Yourbotswana.com.
  6. Zak, Dan. “Butterflies were symbols of rebirth. Then they started disappearing.” The Washington Post, The Washington Post, 8 March 2019, Washingtonpost.com.
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