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.
In the Irish folk tradition the butterfly or ‘an Féileacán’ is the spirit of a departed person who returns to visit their favorite place; in the 1814 Parochial survey of Ireland an old Granny was heard to say to a youngster chasing and attempting to catch a butterfly "How do you know it is not the soul of your grandfather” It is a common belief that the souls of the dead return as all manner of animals, and insects. Even up to the 1600’s it was against common law in Ireland to kill a white butterfly because they were believed to contain the souls of dead children. In the Irish myth ‘The Wooing of Etain’ (Tochmarc Étaín) the heroine is turned into a butterfly by a jealous rival:
“Conaire Mór was a descendant of Etain, the most beautiful woman in the world. Etain was a Danann and the second wife of Midir, son of Dagda. Midir's first wife Fuamnach, became jealous of Etain's beauty and grace, and using a hazel wand 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…”
In Scottish Gaelic the butterfly is known as Dealan De or ‘The Fire of God’ and meaning the flame, light or gold of the divine, or the ‘brightness’ of the Gods. The Gold-fly was indeed considered a sacred sign from the heavens, and if seen fluttering near the corpse of a recently deceased person it was regarded as a good omen, that the individual was on their way to celestial bliss. Another reference to this is the ‘tiene-dhe' which describes a stick of fire (referring to both the butterfly and the flame) which is used to light all manner of sacred community ritual fires, the hearth, and as a guide to the recently departed… using the lighted stick to usher them out of the house through the window to the sky.
Other aspects of Gaelic belief in combination with observations of the butterfly as a human soul are its symbolism as the power of transformation, inspiration and creativity, and eventual rebirth. It is thus used in an iconic manner in rituals surrounding conception, labor, birth and nurturing children.
For the most part the butterfly is seen in a positive light within Celtic culture. Like many societies throughout the world it is revered for its capacity in metamorphosis; echoing beliefs in reincarnation and the transmigration of the soul. Perhaps the one singular exception to this is an old Scottish belief that red butterflies are the souls of witches seeking general mischief.