Daily Archives: 11 . April . 2009

On moths and transformations…

“Yield and you need not break

Bent you can straighten

Emptied you can hold

Torn you can mend”

(Tao Te Ching)

There has been an influx of moths in my place; sometimes they follow me around. After smooshing several of them, I began to wonder whether they were harbingers of some sort, and smooshing them without acknowledging their message was doing each of us a disservice.

So I researched the mythological implications of moths. These are little white or beige moths, the kind that like to work their way through your wardrobe like a buffet, thoughtfully leaving little holes here and there in your wools and silks. However, I’ve discovered that moths do indeed have stories to tell, or rather, there are stories about moths that seem to fit with my current circumstances, so perhaps their appearance is, after all, not a coincidence.

from the insects.org site:

Beauty of Color, Shape, Pattern, Symmetry

Lo, the bright train their radiant wings unfold!
With silver fringed, and freckled o’er with gold:
On the gay bosom of some fragrant flower
They, idly fluttering, live their little hour;
Their life all pleasure, and their task all play,
All spring their age, and sunshine all their day.

Butterflies and moths are “Nature’s canvases with the gift of flight.” Even in death, their mounted beauty can remain intact for centuries. Nature’s genetic paintbrushes have “painted” hundreds of thousands bilaterally-symmetrical butterfly and moth works of art. When one considers that both the topsides and the undersides of these specimens are “painted” with equal skill, and that smaller, isolated sections of these masterpieces can be viewed apart from the total specimen, one becomes aware of the virtually unlimited number of artworks in this “traveling” art show of the air.

To some artists, the butterfly and moth only symbolize beauty: the beauty of symmetry, pattern, color, shape. These artists don’t require their representations of these creatures to be interpreted. They copy these insects, some as faithfully as the Photo-realists would copy a still life, a figure, a panorama, and only ask the viewer to observe their beauty.

The Abstractive-Naturalists don’t even require the viewers to know their subject is a butterfly or moth. They enlarge small, rectangular sections of wing and present them purely as designs. Examples of this usage are represented in Kjell Sandved’s Butterfly Alphabet Posters.

Ugly and Negative

Shall mortal man be more just than God?
Shall a man be more pure than his Maker?
Behold He put no trust in His servants;
And His angels He charged with folly:
How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay,
Whose foundation is in the dust,
Which are crushed before the moth?

Although fantastically beautiful moths exist, many of them live in the tropics. Uncommon, beautiful moths such as (the Polyphemus, Cecropia, Luna) do reside in the United States, although commonly encountered moths are small and drab brown. Compare this to the many beautiful butterflies easily observed in almost any part of the world.

For this reason the moth always comes out second-best in a “beauty contest-opinion poll” against butterflies. Coupled with the stigma brought on by the misdeeds of the clothes moth, these little denizens of the closet are responsible for the tarnished reputation of moths everywhere. It is little wonder that the moth has become the unwilling symbol for that which is ugly and negative. Some of the other symbols identified with moths (like insanity) have also contributed to the moth’s position of low esteem.


Ancient Mexicans considered the butterfly important enough to dedicate an entire palace to it at Teotihuacan, just outside Mexico City. This palace is called the Palace of the Mariposa.

Teotihuacan is the oldest metropolis in Meso-America, and is the only one to possess a continuous history, from the archaic through to the purely classical period.

Historians do not agree on who the founders of Teotihuacan were; some say the Olmecs, others the Toltecs, but most agree that it was at one time the capital of a highly civilized culture later conquered by the Aztecs, the foremost of the Nahuatal Tribes.

The butterfly represents flame in the symbolism of this culture. Often pictured with the signs for water, it becomes clear that the “vision of Earth as a paradise is based on the dynamic harmony between water and fire.” The same concept is exemplified by an image of Tlaloc, god of rain, pictured on a vase bearing a butterfly motif. It is interesting to note that the butterfly is used as symbolic representatives of both the fire and rain god.

Finding no information as to why butterflies symbolize flames, Indians might have observed the many butterflies whose wings are red, orange, yellow, or combinations of all three colors. A cloud or “cumulep” of fire-colored butterflies taking off from a mud puddle after drinking, could easily be interpreted as being flame-like.

Mexican Indians might also have witnessed a “magna-cumulep” of millions of orange, monarch butterflies migrating to their over-wintering grounds in the mountains near Mexico City. A “cloud of flame” would definitely have entered their minds. The flapping of the wings would even approximate the flickering of the tongues of flame. The moth has also come to be associated with flames, although not as a symbol of fire.

A small yellowish moth which flies about the fire at night is called ‘tun tawu by the Cherokee Indians– a name implying that it goes in and out of the fire. When it flits too near and falls into the blaze the Cherokee say ‘tun tawu is going to bed.’ Because of its affinity for the fire it is invoked by the Indian doctor in what they call ‘Fire Diseases,’ among which sore eyes and frostbite are included.


It may be somewhat difficult to understand why a moth or butterfly could symbolize sensuality, and the symbol does trace a rather circuitous route. Because a moth is physically attracted to light, and because sensuality involves physical attraction, the moth has come to symbolize sensuality; it physically succumbs to seductive light. Also, because butterflies represents femininity, and females are most often associated with the word sensual, the butterfly has also become associated with the word sensual.

Impermanence, Fragility

A page of the wind in the book of the sky,
the fragile butterfly

Another characteristic of both moths and butterflies is their fragile nature. Their thin wings and antennae, their powdered color that comes off on your fingertips adds to their stature as a symbol of impermanence.

Indian Watcher, Big Boss

In the book, Navaho Indian Ethnoentomology by Wyman and Bailey, contains a paragraph relating to the butterfly (or possibly the moth) as some kind of “Big Brother.”

“Mixed up [as to sex] on them real classy ones, supposed to be the head of all moths, they don’t fly but stay in one place and all moths pile up around him which makes me believe moths have their boss.” The Black Swallowtail “is the big boss, he watches Indian.” The work did not explain in what reference, whether as a god or as an everpresent insect, or just how this butterfly watched Indians. It is possible that the eyespots or “ocelli” present on the wings aided in the impression the Indians had that this butterfly could watch them.


The sorcerers of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico refer to the moth as a symbol of knowledge. In the book Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda, the moth is such a central figure it is included as the major character on the cover of the book. It is revealed by Don Juan, a Yaqui sorcerer, “knowledge is a moth.” He expresses metaphorically that “the moths are the heralds, or better yet, the guardians of eternity,” for some reason, or for no reason at all, they are the depositories of the gold dust of eternity. He continues, “the moths carry a dust on their wings, a dark gold dust. That dust is the dust of knowledge.” “Knowledge comes floating like specks of gold dust, the same dust that covers the wings of moths.” “The moths have been the intimate friends and helpers of sorcerers from time immemorial.” Don Juan adds, “Moths are the givers of knowledge and the friends and helpers of sorcerers.”

The association of the moth with knowledge coincides with the Blackfoot Indian belief that the butterfly “is a little fellow flying about that is going to bring news to someone tonight.” In addition, the Yaqui associates some danger with the moth and its knowledge. The Navaho Indian also feels that “moths and butterflies, especially moths, are very dangerous.” The Yaqui feels the powder on a moth’s wings is knowledge. The Navaho associates the powder on lepidopteron wings with insanity, the drive to commit incest and the power of an aphrodisiac and the power to run fast. The old adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is quite applicable here.

From www.theroselabyrinth.com:

THE SILK MOTH: is a multicultural symbol of rebirth and reincarnation. It is also connected with metamorphosis, as it changes from the caterpillar to the moth after a period of silky gestation. Admired more than many common moths for their symmetry of pattern and colour, and the preciousness of their fibres, they are also connected with the night and the flame, creatures of secrets and illumination. The silk worm feeds on the mulberry, so ingests wisdom. However, the continuous fibre that they weave is ultimately to their own doom, as unravelling the thread will kill the insect.

The expression “like a moth to a flame” also tells of a feeling of inner compulsion, the will being powerless to alter what is inherently felt. But the sensual moth, drawn to the heat of the flame, is also identified with the opportunity for transformation. Moths are female in symbolism, less giddy and pretty than butterflies; the silk moth is strongly associated with the Bassano family (see their family website, www.peterbassano.com/shakespeare).