The perturbing mystery

This tiger swallowtail fluttered by in time to pose for today's quote, August 2013

This tiger swallowtail fluttered by in time to pose for today’s quote, August 2013

“The butterfly’s attractiveness derives not only from colors and symmetry:  deeper motives contribute to it.  We would not think them so beautiful if they did not fly, or if they flew straight and briskly like bees, or if they stung, or above all if they did not enact the perturbing mystery of metamorphosis: the latter assumes in our eyes the value of a badly decoded message, a symbol, a sign.” Primo Levi

Today is the birthday of a special person, who is (according to those who know her best) too shy to want her name mentioned here.  She is, however, well known to love butterflies, so today’s post is a birthday tribute to her.

Primo Levi’s intriguing observation about the butterfly is likely influenced by his own survival at Auschwitz, where he may have sought many a “badly decoded message” to keep hope alive until he was able to escape a dark fate that must have seemed inevitable.  On reflection, I agree with him that the butterfly’s transformative life cycle is no small part of its allure and mystique.

If nature brings us messages that transcend the scientific facts related to the wonders of our world, it is no surprise that they are “badly decoded.”  Our methods of interpretation and understanding of such signs are far from perfect.  Perhaps it is equally important — or maybe more so — to take simple delight in those traits of the butterflies that even a child can understand: their random but graceful movements, their intricate patterns and colors, their appreciation of, and dependence on, the flowers that complement their beauty.

Today, I send you a message that will be easy to decode: have a wonder-filled day, especially if it is your birthday!

This post was first published seven years ago today. The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Susan

    Julia, just yesterday my husband and I were watching in fascination for several minutes as a single butterfly fluttered around one of our flowering bushes. So pretty and intriguing! And as always you had the perfect photo 🙂 .

    • Thank you Susan. Butterflies are among the most fascinating creatures to watch, aren’t they? I can’t tell whether there is method in their meandering flutters from flower to flower, or whether they are just tireless and driven. In either case, I admire their grace and their ability to move so soundlessly — both are traits I sadly lack! Thanks for being here. ❤

  2. mike c

    And when you read about the 2400 mile journey of the Monarchs from southern US to Mexico on tiny wings about the thickness of a kleenex, there is something quite supernatural about it. How is it even possible? Tiny flimsy wings- 2ooo miles plus. In this instance there is a kind of method and it is repeated every year.

    • I think God tells the animals what to do, and fortunately they tend to listen better than humans do. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. 🙂

  3. mike c.

    I have seen these Eastern Swallowtails outside our town house on a lone Butterfly bush next to a wall.

    • The Tiger Swallowtail is the official butterfly of Virginia.

  4. mike c.

    When i was a kid i was fascinated with Luna Moths. I got to see one here in GA last year. It was pretty amazing. Almost three inches across. I also have enjoyed the Sulphur beauties.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Luna Moth in the wild, but the photos of them are beautiful. I had never heard of a Sulphur moth until you mentioned it here. They are pretty too, with that yellow color, but not as lovely as the Luna months.

  5. mike c.

    This also reminds me of Augustine quote about miracles. ” It is not so much that miracles are beyond our understanding of the physical world, but they are beyond our understanding of nature.” I don’t think that is quit e it.

    • Mike, that didn’t make sense to me because the physical world and nature are so close to being the same thing. So I went hunting for a similar quote by Augustine and came across this: “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” I agree with that somewhat, because I’ve always believed that much of what prompts superstition and claims of magic or the supernatural, are merely a lack of knowledge, as early humans supposedly viewed fire, lightening, disease, etc. Having said that, the miracles that are central to the Judeo-Christian view of history are definitely not a matter of ignorance or misunderstanding. If I saw people parting the waves of a mighty sea, or raising people from the dead after three days, I might feel differently. But if one believes (as I do) that these things literally happened, one must accept that miracles, by definition, transcend natural laws. C. S. Lewis has written a lot about this.

  6. mike c.

    “miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know of nature.”
    St. Augustine

    • There it is! I didn’t see your second comment before I went hunting for it.

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