Small Tortoiseshell

by Jo

Why is the butterfly called a butterfly? It could be that it was originally just the brimstone butterfly that was called this. It's bright yellow. However, QI mentioned another possibility - that certain types of butterfly like buttermilk (what is left after making better).

The brimstone butterfly is one of the earliest butterflies in the Spring. The Moomins are children's books by Tove Jansson. In Moomin Valley the first butterfly you see in Spring indicates what your summer will be like.

A yellow butterfly means a happy summer.
A white butterfly means a quiet summer.
Black and brown butterflies should never be talked about, they are much too sad.
But who knows what a gold butterfly shall bring?

Aristotle "History of Animals" has the following:

"The so-called butterfly is generated from caterpillars which grow on green leaves, chiefly leaves of the raphanus, which some call crambe or cabbage. At first it is less than a grain of millet; it then grows into a small grub; and in three days it is a tiny caterpillar. After this it grows on and on, and becomes quiescent and changes its shape, and is now called a chrysalis. The outer shell is hard, and the chrysalis moves if you touch it. It attaches itself by cobweb-like filaments, and is unfurnished with mouth or any other apparent organ. After a little while the outer covering bursts asunder, and out flies the winged creature that we call the psyche or butterfly. At first, when it is a caterpillar, it feeds and ejects excrement; but when it turns into the chrysalis it neither feeds nor ejects excrement."

This is a pretty good description of the egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and adult form of the butterfly.

Even more interesting is that Aristotle uses the word "psyche" to mean butterfly. The Greek "psukhe" means "soul" related to Greek "psukhein" to breathe (because when you are no longer breathing, your soul has left your body). The Greeks believed that souls travelled from one life to the next in insect form, which explains why their word for soul, "psyche" meant a butterfly. Psykhe was the wife of Eros, and is shown in ancient mosaics as a butterfly winged goddess.

The Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic henge and stone circle in Orkney, Scotland. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The 'butterfly' motif, of two touching triangles, is repeated on many stone slabs found at the Ness of Brodgar.

Back to Animal Magic index