Butterflies of Doom

Butterflies of Doom butterfly on skull

Butterflies of Doom

We are all familiar with birds as omens of death: mysterious doves appearing in sick-rooms, owls hooting outside a house of death, or robins hurling themselves at windows. But there is another winged creature that more rarely presages doom: the butterfly. Rather oddly, for all its reputation as a symbol of the soul, the butterfly is not often found as a death omen. Perhaps it is more a conductor of souls, if you believe these anecdotes.


(733.5) From Mrs S. March 29th, 1892.

“I once dreamed that a large black butterfly was hovering over my husband as he lay in bed. I awoke and saw, by the aid of the nightlight, the butterfly of my dream fluttering over him. I called the servant and together we tried to kill it. I struck at it with my handkerchief and apparently succeeded in my object, but all our endeavours to find the body of the insect failed. The doors and windows were all closed and it could not have escaped. It was very large and could not have remained invisible. The black woman saw the butterfly as I did, till I struck at it. We are of opinion, as we searched so carefully, that it was merely hallucinatory.”

(We need not here discuss the alleged sharing of the hallucination by the black woman, of which we only know at second-hand. Shared or “collective” hallucinations are treated of in Chapter XV.)

With regard to the form taken by the hallucination, the collector, Professor Alexander, writes : —

“According to a superstition widely spread in Brazil the black butterfly is supposed to be a sign of death. I have heard several tales similar to the account given [here] that tend to show that hallucinations are often shaped by popular beliefs.”

From the Society for Psychical Research’s Census of Hallucinations.

But did Mr S actually die? How could they leave out the most important point?

Brazilian Folk-lore

During the journing of the express train from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo, on the 18th of last month, a large black butterfly entered a first—class car, and hovered about in such a way as to excite the apprehensions of a lady who was on her way to see a sister who was gravely ill, for it is a common Brazilian superstition that the black butterfly forbodes death. A gentleman in the car sought to quiet the fears of the lady, and laughed at such presentiments. He then attempted to drive the unwelcome visitor out of the car, but the butterfly at once began hovering about him in a most persistent manner. Shortly after he began to feel ill, and in a brief time was a corpse. The man really died of heart disease, hastened probably by his exertions to catch the butterfly; but it will be difficult, says the Rio News, to make many people believe otherwise than that the poor insect possessed some malign influence which brought death upon him.

William E. A. Axon. Fern Bank, Higher Broughton, Manchester.

Notes and Queries: For Readers and Writers, Collectors and Librarians, 17 July 1880, p. 46


In connection with death many beautiful incidents have occurred, the most peculiar of which will be given. The Jersey City Journal speaks of a physician who resided in that city at one time, who had won considerable fame from the successful cures he had made in medicine and surgery. Whenever one of his patients died, no matter where he was, what time of day or night, a small white butterfly came to him, and flitted about until it attracted his notice, when it departed. The moment the Doctor saw the little winged messenger of death, he was at once made aware of the demise of the patient; and if at night the warning came to him, he invariably remained in his office in the morning in order to give a certificate of death. The first time the Doctor ever saw this butterfly, was while he was looking at the form of a deceased child; the butterfly alighted on its breast, and there remained, slowly raising its wings up and down until the body was closed in its little coffin. On one occasion, while the Doctor was attending a patient in Park Place, the butterfly entered the window and commenced flitting about his head. He looked up at it, and one of the ladies in the room, thinking it annoyed him, said: “Oh! let it alone; it will soon burn its wings by the blaze of the gas.” “No, it won’t,” replied the Doctor. “It has come on a mission, and will soon disappear. I have just lost a patient, and in the evening I will be called upon for a certificate of death.” Sure enough, the next morning the father of the child that had died the night before called, and notified him of the loss of his little one. This is only one of the many instances where the Doctor has received this strange visitation, and kept a record of the circumstances, besides that of calling the attention of those present to the fact of the butterfly’s warning of death among his patients. Premonitions of death are of common occurrence, being usually impressed upon the mind through the instrumentality of dreams or visions.

The Encyclopaedia of Death and Life in the Spirit-world, John Reynolds Francis, (Chicago: The Progressive Thinker Publishing House, 1906)

Just today I read about a neo-neolithic long barrow, the first one built in 5,500 years, where the ashes of the dead will be sealed in stone niches. One of the first to be placed there was a woman whose husband said that a butterfly chose the niche for her ashes. He had seen butterflies in the house the day his wife had passed away and when he saw the butterfly in the barrow, he viewed it as an omen.

Have you chased the bright elusive butterfly of death? Please share with Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who gets uneasy when big black moths batter against the window in her office.

More often the butterfly is seen as symbol of hope or as a visitation from a dead loved one, as in the stories on this page.

“The Wonderful Butterfly” appears in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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.


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