Buddha’s Butterfly

Buddha's Butterfly Butterfly brooch, c. 1900 http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/22633/lot/262/

Buddha’s Butterfly Butterfly brooch, c. 1900 http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/22633/lot/262/

Butterflies, so abundant this time of year, have always been a symbol of the soul.  In this story of a luminous phantom butterfly, it seems as though that ancient idea has been unthinkingly grafted onto a Buddhist image. But is there any actual precedent in Buddhist art and theology?

The Butterfly Ghost

After several years spent in India, my husband brought home, among other presents, a small wooden statue of Budda. It was placed on a table in the drawing-room. One night during a thunderstorm I entered the room to close the windows. All was dark, but for a luminous object over the little table. On approaching it, I perceived a beautiful large butterfly, perched on the head of Budda. When I tried to examine it, it vanished, and all my search for the pretty insect the next day was in vain. Soon after, we left our country-house to live in a London flat. One night in winter, when I came home at twelve o’clock from the theatre and entered the dark drawing-room, again I found the luminous butterfly on the head of Buda, and, again, it vanished at my approach. I am the member of a very sceptical family and told my story to nobody, but carefully examined the statue. A hidden drawer was found and when opened, the dry husk of a caterpillar fell out. Every statue of Budda has enclosed a living being to give a soul to the image.

Uncanny Stories Weird Happenings to “Daily News” Readers, S. Louis Giraud, 1927 p. 17

I’m not a scholar of Eastern religions, but the notion that a “living being” was enclosed in each Buddha statue to give it a “soul,” is new to me. Can anyone provide more examples or primary sources that support this? Or was this simply a case of mistaking a wood-worm corpse for evidence of a religious custom or conflating it with the pretty image of soul as butterfly?

chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who wonders if the caterpillar dreamt that it was Buddha or if the Buddha dreamt it was a caterpillar?


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Mary writes: with a good point:

Don’t know that much about Buddhism myself, but it seems to embody a reverence for life that would preclude imprisoning any living thing to lend a soul to a statue. The statues themselves seem to have attributes attributed to them on the power of The Buddha alone. But the little drawer is suggestive – it must have had a purpose. But you would think there would be lots of stories of mysterious objects found in the drawers if there was supposed to be one in every statue. Food for thought !

Thanks, Mary! I wonder if the drawer was for a relic or a sutra.