In Western literature, the image of the butterfly recurs frequently, generally assumed as a symbol of beauty, grace, rebirth, metamorphosis. The Greek culture, as is known, used the same term (psyché) to refer both to human soul and to the butterfly, but already in the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations there is evidence of butterfly-themed funerary decorations: a sign of the link between the spiritual, otherworldly dimension of the human being and the form of this animal.
The myth of Psyche and Cupid, with its transformations, metamorphosis, beauty and immortality, is a classic ground for reflections upon the "butterfly" form.
Within the Latin-language context, Apuleius, in the second century A.D., dedicates the core part of his Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass to the events of Psyche and Cupid (books IV, 28-VI, 24)
Psyche is a gorgeous girl, whose beauty equals that of the goddess Venus; for this reason, Venus - envious - decides to send her own son, Cupid, to hit her with one of his arrows and make her fall in love with the ugliest of mortals. Cupid, however, once arrived in the presence of Psyche, is enchanted by the grace of the girl, his mind is confused and, in the act of shooting the arrow, misses the target hitting himself. Thus, he ends up madly in love with her. To escape the wrath of his mother Venus, Cupid decides to keep his feelings for Psyche a secret: the two meet only at night and Cupid always keeps his head covered, so as not to be recognized. One night, however, Psyche takes advantage of Cupid's sleep to discover his face, contemplates his traits by the light of a lamp, but - so enraptured by his beauty - carelessly spills a drop of oil on Cupid, who wakes up and, realizing what happened, runs away. Venus, warned of the facts, immediately intervenes to punish Psyche. The young girl is forced to undergo a series of very difficult trials, including a descent into the Underworld, before being able to regain the chance to see her beloved and be with him. At the end of these trials - in a process of transformation, metamorphosis and rebirth which finally leads to the stage of an adult and truly beautiful "butterfly" - Psyche obtains immortality from the gods and thus the right to remain next to her Cupid forever.
Through Greek and Latin mediation, this connection between the butterfly and the human soul is absorbed by Christianity and, more generally, by the medieval culture, which regards the butterfly as a symbol of rebirth, of the spirit's immortality, of the passage from the soul's condition of sin (the caterpillar or worm) to that of beatitude (the angelic butterfly).
It is in these terms, for example, that we should understand the only occurrence of the term "butterfly" in Dante's Comedy, precisely in Purgatorio X 125: “Do ye not comprehend that we are worms / Born to bring forth the angelic butterfly / That flieth unto judgment without screen?” (“non v'accorgete voi che noi siam vermi / nati a formar l'angelica farfalla, che vola a la giustizia sanza schermi?”)
Here, Dante uses the term butterfly in a figurative sense; the images of the caterpillar/worm and of the butterfly, in fact, allow him to contrast the imperfection of the living man (the worm, which is immersed in the becoming world of the senses) with the perfection of the immortal soul, which without filters or shields has gained its own authentic blissful nature.
This section, which will be enriched with new additions and new bibliographic references, without any claim to exhaustiveness, seeks to account for the presence of the butterfly-image in modern and contemporary European literature both in prose and poetry, with particular reference to the literary production in Italian.