What does it mean when you see a black butterfly, and what do black butterflies symbolize? Let’s find out.
In many and varied ways, the black butterfly is the most dramatic archetype of butterfly symbolism. This is particularly true with regard to transformative aspects. In many indigenous cultures and in the West, the color black is often perceived as a sign of misfortune. But misfortune and difficulties are often necessary spurs to positive change. If we never faced challenges, we would never grow.
If a black butterfly crosses your path or appears in your dreams, don’t panic. You may be about to embark on a much-needed journey of growth and enlightenment. Besides, the black representatives of the Lepidoptera order also have some lovely associations, presaging laughter, lightness and love.
Overall Butterfly Symbolism
Butterflies of all colors have long symbolized profound transformation. How could it be otherwise for an animal that goes through four distinct changes on its path through life? It begins as an egg. Then it metamorphoses into the less than attractive, slow-moving eating machine that is the caterpillar or pupa. The next stage barely resembles life, once the pupa has spun itself into a cocoon, shrouded from sunlight. The final stage is the adult butterfly: delicate, airborne and beautiful—with precious little resemblance to its earlier states.
Not surprisingly, ancient man saw butterflies as the ultimate symbols of transformation. In Buddhist and Hindu countries, the various stages of the butterfly’s growth are reminders of the human soul’s journey toward enlightenment. Just as the butterfly undergoes a period of darkness inside its cocoon before emerging in its most perfect form, the human soul, many cultures believe, must endure the sometimes painful lessons of various reincarnations before reaching Nirvana.
Among Christians, the butterfly’s path symbolizes Christ’s resurrection. Not surprisingly, some early Christian tombs were decorated with butterflies to reaffirm the deceased’s heavenly journey.
On a more earthly level, the Hopis of North America hold a ritual butterfly dance to help girls transition to womanhood. Capping the ceremony is the appearance of a butterfly.
A corollary of the transformation theme is the notion of extending life beyond death. Early observers of the butterfly’s adult stage couldn’t miss the intensity of its mission to propagate life. The adult butterfly spends much of its short, sweet life in courtship rituals. The male may mate with multiple partners. Once he has completed the task, he dies, typically within two months. The female dies after laying her eggs, hundreds of them.
In that short life span, the flying Lepidoptera do more than propagate their own species. They also help ensure the survival of various plants, by carrying pollen on their legs from flower to flower.
Thus, in many cultures, an encounter with a butterfly is an omen of long life. For some, the butterfly symbolizes immortality. It follows then, that several immortal deities are portrayed as butterflies. The name of one Aztec goddess gets her name from the obsidian butterfly: Itzpapalotl had the unlovely habit of turning into a butterfly during solar eclipses, so she could devour human souls. The Greek goddess Psyche is often portrayed with butterfly wings.
The immortality theme also translates into messages from Beyond. The Aztecs considered butterfly encounters as visitations by dead ancestors. This belief gets an updated spin in Mexico’s Day of the Dead, celebrated on November 1 and 2 and coinciding with the Roman Catholic All Souls’ Day. The timing also coincides with the homecoming of migrating monarch butterflies, celebrated as the souls of departed relatives returning home to visit their living loved ones.
The Aztecs also believed that butterflies served as guardian spirits, helping souls of the recently deceased cross over. This was particularly true of warriors slain on the battlefield and women who died in childbirth.
Given the preoccupation with mating during the adult stage of life, the butterfly flying past a human observer can also signal the arrival of new love into that human’s life. Nowhere is this association clearer than in ancient Greek culture. The goddess Psyche, whose beauty rivaled that of butterflies, was born mortal. Her beauty triggered intense jealousy on the part of the goddess Aphrodite, who dispatched her son Eros to cast a spell on the lovely woman, to ensure that she would mate only with someone hideous. Plans went awry and Psyche’s beauty cast its own spell on Eros, who became her eternal lover. Their love ultimately transformed Psyche into an immortal goddess.
Variations of this tale of butterflies and love pop up in other cultures, as well. Feng Shui practitioners in China recommend giving newlyweds towels embroidered with butterflies, to ensure a happy marriage for the couple.
Other Symbolism Over the Ages
Among the Blackfeet of North America, butterflies serve as a kind of dream-catcher. Because they supposedly bring restful sleep and happy dreams, butterflies are embroidered into baby blankets.
Celtic communities in the British Isles and France view butterflies as heralds of good fortune and worldly honors. This belief is a variation of the transformation theme, with butterflies signaling a change for the better.
Black Butterfly Meaning and Symbolism
Given the negative connotations many cultures have heaped on the color black, we should not be surprised by the ominous speculation triggered by the appearance of a black butterfly. It can presage death, especially the death of a family member if the winged insect flies into that family’s house. Regions where this belief is strong include Central America, China and the Philippines.
One of the more chilling portents of the black butterfly involves spiritual death, as evidenced in the ghoulish soul-eating penchant of the Aztec goddess Itzpapalotl. As mentioned earlier, the ghoulish goddess shares her name with the stunningly black obsidian butterfly.
A black butterfly can also herald less dire, but still troubling events, like a turn to stormy weather, a sleepless night, tensions among family members, the loss of income, or the inability of certain deceased ancestors to transition fully into the afterlife. The last mentioned belief figures in some Irish legends.
Interestingly, so many of the negative associations for the black butterfly involve change and transformation. We mortals often fear change. Yet life on this planet would cease without the change of seasons – the growth processes of every plant and animal. Even the deaths of living beings ultimately nurture new life, with decomposing bodies enriching the soil in which plants grow. The world would never be blessed with the sight of spectacularly beautiful, ephemeral butterflies if those creatures had not endured change themselves, if they had not spent dark days imprisoned in their cocoons before emerging into the light.
Thus the appearance of a black butterfly could be a message to move on. Perhaps it’s time to mend fences with friends and family members, to let go of old resentments and forgive. Perhaps the black butterfly is paying a visit to urge someone to get over their fear of failure and commit to a promising new project, new job, new relationship. Perhaps it’s time to take better care of one’s health. Perhaps the black butterfly’s warning of imminent economic stress will be the stimulus needed to find new financial solutions, new employment, a happier future.
It’s all a matter of perspective. The black butterfly who flits onto a shoulder weighed down by worry and grief could be telling that person to emulate the lightness of the Lepidoptera order—to “lighten up”, look for the silver lining and remember to count their blessings.
Or maybe that black butterfly parked on your shoulder is the spirit of a deceased ancestor, telling you he’s watching out for you, he’s got your back.
Types of Black Butterflies
Although butterflies with solid black coloring are uncommon, there’s no shortage of mostly black butterflies. And you don’t need to travel to some exotic tropical locale to find them. They’re well represented in the United States.
Here’s a short list of black butterflies found in North America:
- Eastern black swallowtail
- Palamedes swallowtail
- Spicebush swallowtail
- Weidermeyer’s admiral
- Common sooty wing
- Scalloped sooty wing
- Checkered skipper
- Mourning cloak
- Common wood nymph
- Blue leaf wing
Anyone interested in promoting more encounters with black and other butterflies, with all the attendant symbolism, can have fun creating a welcoming spot in the garden. Sunshine is key. Butterflies gravitate toward sun-loving plants. They also need some shelter from wind and sources of fresh water, including everything from ponds to rain puddles and bird baths.
When planning your butterfly garden plots, keep two factors in mind. Provide the little aviators with both nectar plants (food sources for adult butterflies) and host plants (food sources for the caterpillar stage).
Some butterfly species are amazingly picky about the host plants. The monarch, for example, relies exclusively on milkweed for caterpillar food. Other plants that nurture caterpillars include dill, violets and asters.
There’s a happy overlap between plants that attract adult butterflies and plants that make a stunning statement in the garden. Just like gardeners, butterflies are attracted to vibrant colors, like the striking red of Crocosmia Lucifer or the deep blues of catmints. If you plant a butterfly bush, you’ll swear you’re actually growing butterflies, because so many of them feed at one time on the flowers’ nectar. Colorful choices for a butterfly garden include butterfly weed, purple coneflowers, columbine, hollyhocks and lavender.
Learn More: Discover what all the other colorful butterflies mean – 11 Butterfly Colors Meanings and Symbolism.