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Celtic Symbolism : Did ancient Celts actually believe butterflies to be the souls of the departed ?


"May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun,
and find your shoulder to light on
.
To bring you luck, happiness and riches today,
tomorrow and beyond
."
(old Irish blessing)

As it is known, the butterfly has three steps of metamorphosis (caterpillar, pupa and winged insect). Being so, they are amost a symbol of regeneration and transformation, thus many spiritual doctrines consider it as the resemblance of the soul: of rebirth and renewal. This conception has been celebrated as such all over the world and by the way there are many legends connected to the butterfly.

There is no doubt that the butterfly has always been related to the Goddess and Mother Nature itself for many ancient cultures. For example the Aztecs Itzpapalotl (Obsidian Butterfly) was a fierce goddess of the night. Conceived as the goddess of agriculture and may also appear in her form as mother goddess or female warrior goddess.

Many wiccan and neo-celtic religions conceive the butterfly as the "soul of the departed" and the divine firey brightness, commonly asociated to Beltaine, and her capability to cross into the Otherworld. Many relate to a "yellow butterfly" and name it with the gaelic term "Dealan Dhé".
It is said that in the 1600s, in Ireland , killing a white butterfly was prohibited since it was believed to be the soul of a dead child.

I guess this certain "celtic" connection as it is found over, curiously derives from Fiona MacLeod´s essay St. Briget of the Shores, where she calles the Dandelion flower– am dealan Dhé (flame of god) , and moreover Norman MacLeod’s dictionary gives us this meaning of Dealan Dé: The appearance produced by shaking a burning stick to and fro, or by whirling it around, to create thus the need-fire, the fire of the house holder.

There is a cute site upon Irish Butterflies ...but how about celtic culture?. Is there any basis on celtic art? Certainly not. I would like to share with you a very concise essay on the "butterfly" celtic belief written by Hy-Brasil and with whom I mostly agree with, all right reserved by the author:

"In Irish folklore, the butterfly represents a person's soul. Its light and airy wings allow the soul to cross into the Otherworld. The Gaelic word for butterfly, dealan-dhe', has other symbolic meanings. The word also refers to the lightning of the gods. [1]"
Although the above quote was cited from an embroidery site, this particular belief can be found on any number of other sites regarding Celtic mythology. However, all sites I found concerning butterfly mythology failed to provide sources, which in turn indicates that they cannot be relied upon to provide accurate information. And while the butterfly has made the occasional appearance in mythology, the creature makes no appearances in classical Celtic art. There is no indication that the ancient Celts believed butterflies to be the souls of the departed.
Moreover, the Gaelic word for butterfly is actually seillean-dé, (seillean means 'bee') not dealan-dhe'. Irish is even further removed from this odd word, as the Irish word for 'butterfly' is simply féileacán, which certainly does not mean 'lightning of the gods'. In fact, the Gaelic word for 'lightning' is dealanaich. Dealan, on the other hand, means 'electricity'.
The Celts believed in fly-souls and butterfly-souls which, like bird-souls, flew about seeking a new mother. It was thought that women become pregnant by swallowing such creatures. In Irish myth, Etain took the form of a butterfly for seven years, then entered the drinking cup of Etar (Etarre), who swallowed her, and so brought her to rebirth. In her second incarnation, Etain married Eochy, the High King of Ireland. In Cornwall spirits still forms as white butterflies.[2]
The Encyclopaedia of the Celts credits Barbara Walker's dubious Woman's Dictionary of Symbol and Sacred Objects with this, which explains why the site's entry on butterflies can be dismissed as an unreliable source. However, the passage itself is not without at the very least a grain of fact. One account of the tale contains the following passage:
Midir's first wife Fuamnach, became jealous of Etain's beauty and grace, turned Etain into a butterfly, and drove her away from the magic palace with gusty wind. The wind blew the butterfly to many parts of Ireland, until she arrived in Ulster. Here, the butterfly fell in the cup of Etar's wife. Etar's wife drank her cup and unknowingly swallowed the butterfly, where she later became pregnant with Etain. When Etain was born, she became mortal, without any memory of her former life as a Danann.[3]
The difference between this passage and the previous one is that the butterfly form has no significant meaning to it, that Etar's wife was unaware of the butterfly's presence and so did not drink it to deliberately become pregnant, and that the butterfly-form Etain did not fall into the cup in order to be swallowed and reborn. (Rather, she seems to fall into it accidentally much as real insects often do) Furthermore, according to Peter Berresford Ellis, it was not a butterfly which Etain was transformed into, but a fly.[4] Therefore, translations of this may vary. If this is indeed the case, then it is not likely that the butterfly form holds any significant meaning.



Some cool links for further resource:

The Butterfly Slip Jig


The Butterfly sheetmusic

This tune has alwyas been one of my favourites slip jigs, and find it quite suitable for to be played on the harp. Some attribute this tune to Sean Potts, the whistle player who was with the Chieftains, but others to Tommy Potts , an older Fiddler (perhaps Sean's father?) who died in 1970.

Anyway... on "Ceol Rince na hEireann - Vol I" compiled by Brendan Brethanach, there can be found two slip jigs; one (Bothar an gCloch) which has a first part almost identical to the Butterfly slip jig, and another (Oro, a Thaidhg, a Ghra) which has exactly the same two parts as the second and third parts as the Butterfly.

Bothar an gCloch has appeared in several forms in many collections since the 18th C. and is also a song. He got Oro, a Thaidhg, a Ghra from a stray page from an American music book and it was also collected by Goodman. It's also a song popular in Kerry and Connemara.



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