It’s not surprising that, cross-culturally, the butterfly is a favorite symbol of the soul. The connection is even built into the Greek language, where psyche means both “butterfly” and “soul”. Soul wants to spread its wings, but there are conditions for doing that, and we can read the cycles of transformation, and the conditions for transforming, in the metamorphoses of the butterfly.
The butterfly moves through four distinct forms, which to an outside eye may hardly seem to be related to each other. It starts as an egg, sticking to a leaf. Leaving the egg, it becomes a very hungry worm, or caterpillar, eating every green thing in sight. Then it settles on the underside of a leaf and grows a hard casing, or chrysalis, in which it turns into a kind of mush, a stew of contending elements. What happens in that bubbling mush, and the name for the key factor, is a grand metaphor for soul growing.
Inside the chrysalis, as in an alchemical retort, the worm produces new cells, called imaginal cells. They are quite different from anything that has been active in the caterpillar before, so different that the killer cells in the worm’s immune system target them as enemies that must be destroyed. The killer cells do their job, munching and killing, but the imaginal cells go on multiplying, so fast and so many that the caterpillar’s immune system is overwhelmed.
Many imaginal cells survive, and now they start banding together into friendly communities. They resonate, communicating with each other on the same frequency band. They cluster, growing a larger communal entity that at a certain point becomes something that could not be imagined, without the magic of the imaginal movement. They make a butterfly, ready to burst from the cocoon on shining wings and sparkle in the light.
I love the fact that the biologists’ name for the agent of transformation is imaginal. I use that term in a larger but related sense, to refer to productions and realities of the true province of imagination, the Imaginal Realm. The struggle inside the chrysalis between the defenders of the worm state and the agents of winged possibility is surely one that we humans experience in times of spiritual emergency and opportunity, when we may feel ourselves pounded into mush, hanging upside down from whatever we can cling to – and yet have the possibility and destiny of becoming much, much more.
The photos here are stills of Kai Altair performing in a magical independent production, Dreams of the Lost Butterflies.