The Meaning and Symbolism of Black Witch Moth Butterflies

Discover more about the Ascalapha odorata, also known as the black butterfly, black witch moth, or old mouse, which symbolized the passage from life to death.

The Meaning and Symbolism of Black Witch Moth Butterflies
Butterfly of death, the soul of the deceased for the Zapotecs. Credit: Wikipedia

Although black butterflies have long been considered a symbol of bad omen, their meaning was more complex in ancient Mesoamerica. The pre-Hispanic Zapotecs of Oaxaca, for example, were struck by its ability to transform from one organism to another during its life cycle (metamorphosis) and used it in their plastic art, especially on funerary vessels, to represent the modification of the living into an eternal soul or spiritual essence at death.

Sometimes, elements of the butterfly were combined with those of other animals on the same vessels to show that the soul of the dead could change into its spiritual animal companion, or nahual, in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica. A nahual is a kind of sorcerer or supernatural being that can take the form of an animal, according to Robert Markens, a specialist at the Institute of Aesthetic Research (IIE) of the UNAM, Oaxaca branch.

In Mesoamerican beliefs, a person—many times a religious specialist or a ruler—could take the shape of his or her nahual, which could be, for example, a jaguar, an owl, a lizard, or a fantastic animal.

The term refers both to the person who has this capacity and to the animal itself. People in Huitzo, Zaachila, and Teotitlán del Valle, among other places, still believe that the black moth is connected to the souls of the dead and, by extension, to death and bad luck. These beliefs come from pre-Hispanic rituals and practices.

The butterfly abounds every year in October, precisely in the season of the Day of the Dead when the souls return home to live briefly with their loved ones, their relatives.

To understand the importance of the butterfly sign in the past, it is necessary to think of it as an element of the ancient Zapotec cosmovision. The cult or worship of ancestors was a big part of their religion. This means that the soul of the dead was seen as a link between the living and the supernatural. The family would call on the souls of their ancestors or other dead relatives to ask for things like rain, health, fertility, or protection.

Because of this close dependence between the living and the spirits of deceased relatives, the Zapotecs had the custom of burying their dead parents in their own houses, in a tomb under the floor made of masonry. From the palaces of the rulers to the humblest dwellings, they shared the same design.

As part of his study called "Meaning of the Butterfly in Zapotec Iconography", the expert Markens remembered that Alfonso Caso, a Mexican archaeologist who made important contributions to the knowledge of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, especially in the Oaxacan area, was the first archaeologist to find or identify the sign of the butterfly on the funerary effigy vessels.

It is necessary to ask why the Zapotecs chose this element of nature to refer to the dead and their souls. Probably it has to do with the capacity of this insect, which during its life cycle has the virtue of transforming from a caterpillar to a cocoon or pupa to give way to the butterfly.

The Spaniards changed the traditional burial practices at the time of their arrival in Oaxaca. They were no longer buried in their homes, but in cemeteries, and then in pantheons. This caused a big change in how the living and the dead depended on each other and felt about each other.

Black butterflies used to be honored, called upon, and asked for help almost every day. Now, this is done only once a year during the Day of the Dead, which is only two or three days long.

According to the beliefs of ancient Mexico, the spirit of the ancestors or the deceased can punish or reward, "like everything supernatural as well as God; if we are sinners and think that God is punishing us, that aspect of the supernatural is always present." "If we behave like immoral people, the supernatural forces will even punish us," the anthropologist added.

Who were Zapotecs?

The Zapotecs were a native group of people who lived in the state of Oaxaca and the area around it. In the area, they built a very advanced society with a complicated system of government, art, and religion. The Zapotecs were skilled craftspeople who made pottery, textiles, sculptures, and a lot of other things.

They also used a set of symbols called "Zapotec glyphs" to make a way to write. The Zapotecs had a complicated way of organizing their social and political lives. There were rulers, nobles, and common people in their society. The Zapotecs spoke their language as well as Nahuatl, which was the language of the Aztecs.

What is Oaxaca?

The Mexican state of Oaxaca is in the south of the country. It is known for its rich cultural history, which includes groups of native people who have lived there for hundreds of years. Monte Albán, which was the capital of the Zapotec people, is one of the most important archaeological sites in Oaxaca.

Crafts like pottery, textiles and woven baskets are also popular in the state. Oaxaca is in a mountainous area, and the state is known for its many different types of land, such as forests, beaches, and mountains. Oaxaca's capital city is also named Oaxaca. It is known for its colonial architecture, art museums, and cultural festivals. It has a long history and a lively cultural scene.