The idea of a butterfly or moth as the soul is a remarkable example of the universality of animal symbolism, since it is found in traditional cultures of every continent. The custom of scattering flowers at funerals is very ancient, and the flowers attract butterflies, which appear to have emerged from a corpse.
The way certain butterflies perform a courting dance-each partner moving off in various directions yet always coming back to the other-has made these insects symbols of conjugal love, especially in Japan. Lafcadio Hearn has collected a Japanese story of an old man named Takahama who was nearing death. A nephew was sitting at his bedside when a white butterfly flew in. It hovered for a while and perched near Takahama’s head. When his nephew tried to brush it away, the butterfly danced around strangely and then flew down the corridor. Surmising that this was no ordinary insect, the nephew followed the butterfly until it reached a gravestone and disappeared. Approaching to examine the grave, he found the name Akiko. On returning to his uncle, he found Takahama dead. When the boy told his mother about the butterfly, she was not in the least surprised. Akiko, she explained, was a young girl that Takahama had planned to marry, but she died of consumption at the age of eighteen. For the rest of his life, Takahama had remained faithful to her memory and visited her grave every day. The nephew then realized that the soul of Akiko had come in the form of a butterfly to accompany the spirit of his uncle to the next world.
The soul of a beloved also takes the form of an insect, probably a butterfly, in the ancient Irish saga “The Wooing of Etian.” The god Mider had fallen in love with a mortal named Etian, but the goddess Fuamnach struck the young woman with a rowan wand and transformed her into a puddle. As the water dried, it became a worm, which was then changed into a “scarlet fly.” “Its eyes shone like precious stones in the dark, and its color and fragrance would sate hunger and quench thirst in any man; moreover, a sprinkling of the drops it shed from its wings could cure every sickness . . . ” (Gantz, p. 45).
The insect accompanied Mider as he traveled and watched over him as he slept, until Fuamnach sent a fierce gale to blow it away. Pursued constantly by the goddess, the insect was finally carried by wind into the goblet of a chieftain’s wife, who drank it and gave birth to Etain 1,012 years after the infant had been first conceived. Mider had searched for her for a thousand years, but when he finally found her, she was the wife of the king of Ireland. Finally, after Mider had won his wife from the king in a game, the lovers flew away in the form of swans. Biologists distinguish between butterflies and moths by anatomical features that strike laypeople as arcane, but folk culture usually distinguishes in a very simple manner-moths are nocturnal while butterflies are diurnal. Furthermore, butterflies have many dazzlingly bright patterns of color, while moths tend to be shades of white and brown.