Some years ago I got very interested in butterflies, or lepidoptera (meaning ‘scale wing’ in Greek). Because of the fabulous coloration of some species I wanted to paint them (e.g.), and the research I started led me to start thinking about collecting the real thing. Although for sure no Nabokov, I got the necessary tools of the trade – nets, kill bottles, cork beds, labeling strips, mounting pins, small glass cases – and began to explore my garden where I had seen these airy creatures hover and gather.
Yes, there were some very beautiful creatures in my location, but none of them came close to the spectacular photos I had seen of the many species of butterflies from, say, Malaysia, Guatemala, or parts of Africa. The more I observed these ephemeral beauties in my own backyard the less interest I had in sticking pins through their thoraces and mounting them in a collection. What I had in mind was the vast and wondrous butterfly collection I had seen many years ago in the great natural history museum in Vienna, Austria – rows and rows of vitrines stretching as far as the eye could see. Many of these had those fascinating ‘gradations’ of a given species of butterfly from, say, light red and blue to the dark varieties and everything in between. Since this collection had been in the making since the nineteenth century by entomologists traveling the world, I could in no way come even close to something like that. I decided just to watch the butterflies and to look at photos and paintings of them; the internet has vast collections of both.
As you may know, the developmental biology of the butterfly is quite interesting, indeed interesting to the point that a person (at least a symbol-shaper like myself) can hardly avoid imputing deep metaphors of life and death to this cycle. The fertilized egg turns into a larva (Latin for ‘mask), or caterpillar, a voracious thick-bodied vermiform stage of the butterfly that can itself be quite colorful and even beautiful. Depending on the species, during this larval stage the developing creature may undergo a number of moltings, each of which is called an instar (Latin for ‘counterpart’) and allows the growing insect to crack and shed its various exoskeletons. Once gorged and battened on leaves, the larva transforms itself (‘pupates’) into the dull immobile pupa (Latin for ‘doll’), which spins a cocoon and so attaches itself to some twig or leaf. And in due time this unlovely pupa reaches end stage as a chrysalis (related to a Greek word meaning ‘gold’), from which the adult emerges in full and liberated glory during that final magical metamorphosis.
What I find so intriguing about all of this is the complex changes and numerous transformations that take place. To be sure, we humans change too from the time of fertilization to the day of death, but that strikes me as a more seamless process than the discrete and punctuated stages of the butterfly. There are also the striking antitheses as it were between plain egg and beautiful larva, beautiful larva and ugly pupa, ugly pupa and beautiful butterfly. It is as though the ontogeny of this fragile flutterer were somehow recapitulating something of our own phylogenetic variability at different phases of our life.
The poignancy of this complex life-cycle is heightened by the fact of its ephemeral life span. Some of these exquisite creatures live anywhere from only a few days or weeks to as long as a year, only long enough, it seems, to reproduce the next generation. From a human perspective it seems a fraud perpetrated by Nature: all that work to become, and then the quick rush to extinction.
Other contradictions that the butterfly exhibits involve their diet. In my perilously anthropomorphizing mood I want to think that such lovely insects dine only in refined splendor on the sweetest of nectars in the floral kingdom. In fact, many of them eat rotting fruit and other decaying organic matter, as if giving a token nod as it were to the nearness of their own demise.
A further point of fascination for me with the butterfly is the word the ancient Greeks used to describe it: ψυχή psyche. And psyche is also the word used to describe the ‘spirit’ of the dead warrior in Homer, and in later Greek literature this word and its derivatives are used of our emotional, non-ratiocinative interior life – and you can easily figure out how it has invaded the modern English lexicon. And almost a thousand years after Homer the same word, psyche, is found in the New Testament, where it is translated as ‘soul’. I think the implicit connection between ‘butterfly’ and ‘soul’ is fascinating, and merges with a primitive notion that our life force, the thing without which we are no longer among the living, is a delicate winged ‘breath’ that escapes from our mouth at the moment of death and leaves behind an inanimate corpse (there are related intriguing etymological-conceptual connections among the ideas of wind and life [cf. Greek ἄνεμ–ος anem-os ‘wind’ and Latin anim-a ‘wind, breath; soul’], but that would be for another time – as would be the lovely tale of Cupid and Psyche).
Next time you see one of these brilliant lovelies fluttering about a garden, think of the human soul that this psyche incarnates. How could anyone want to stick a needle through a soul and try to pin it to a display board?