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.
When homes were lighted by candles or tapers at night, people were particularly fascinated by those moths that would fly toward the fire even when that meant they would expire in a sudden blaze. In one of his most famous poems, “Blissful Longing” (“Selige Sehnsucht”), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used this motif as a symbol of the soul’s desire for transcendence. The poem tells of a moth drawn to a flame and ends with these words:
Dost thou shun the great behest,
This, Become by Dying!
Thou art but a sorry guest
On this dull earth staying. (p. 95)
While many people find the poem beautiful, some critics have been troubled by the romantic celebration of death. Aless mystical but perhaps more compassionate view of such an event is given by the early-twentieth-century British author Virginia Woolf in her essay “The Moth.” She tells of watching a moth dance about by day as its motions became gradually fainter. Many times she gave the moth up for dead, only to see it flutter once again. Finally, when the tiny body relaxed and then grew stiff, she felt awed by both the power of death and the courageous resistance of the spirit against so formidable an antagonist.
As the pace of modern life has become increasingly frantic, people have come to admire the leisurely flight of the butterfly. As W. B.
Yeats puts it in his poem “Tom O’Roughley”:
‘Though logic-choppers rule the town,
And every man and maid and boy
Has marked a distant object down,
An aimless joy is a pure joy,’
Or so did Tom O’Roughley say
That saw the surges running by,
‘And wisdom is a butterfly,
And not a gloomy bird of prey. (p. 141)
Sometimes the way a butterfly moves from flower to flower has also been decried as lack of commitment, and Yeats, in the same poem, calls it “zig-zag wantonness” (p. 141). Today many ecologists regard butterflies as a keystone species, and they will count butterflies per acre in an attempt to determine the health of an ecosystem, perhaps in a manner not altogether different from that of diviners in the ancient world.