Japanese Folktales: The Butterfly Soul

François Gérard – Public domain

Presented here is a retelling of an old Japanese legend about butterflies and the human soul from Myths & Legends of Japan, by F. Hadland (Frederick Hadland) Davis and illustrated by Evelyn Paul. In this work it was titled the The White Butterfly.

The Butterfly Soul

In old Japan there was a belief that the souls of people alive or dead could take the form of a butterfly. Therefore any butterfly that entered a house was treated respectfully.  It may be that people whose loved ones had departed this world looked for and welcomed the presence of a butterfly and silently prayed, “Oh, come butterfly and I shall sleep tonight, where the flowers sleep.”

A very old legend tells of a poor old man by the name of Takahama.  His home was just behind the cemetery of the temple of Sōzanji and never seemed to go far from it. Sadly,  it is a trait of human nature that sees people who do not behave in what is considered a normal way to have some degree of madness.  He was by all accounts the most affable and amiable person you could wish to meet and all his neighbors greatly liked and respected him though they considered him a little mad.  This madness appears to have come from the fact that he never took a wife or was known to have considered taking one.  Furthermore, he was wrongly believed to have had no intimate relationship with a woman.  

It so happened that one bright summer day the most affable Takahama fell sick.  So sick that he sent for his sister-in-law to come and take care of him.  She duly arrived bringing her son with her to bring what help and comfort they could in his final hours.  While they kept vigil over him there fluttered into the room a beautiful white butterfly that rested gently on the sick man’s pillow.  Fearful that it might disturb his final hours the young man attempted to carefully drive it out without harming it. Each time he drove it through the door it returned.  This happened three times as if the butterfly was reluctant to leave the dying man.

At last the young man grew more forceful chasing it out the door and into the nearby cemetery where it fluttered over the tomb of a woman before mysteriously vanishing to where he did not know.

The young man was puzzled and intrigued.  On examining the tomb he found an inscription with the name “Akiko”  and a brief account of how she had died when she was 18 years old.  This indicated her death had happened some 50 years earlier.   The tomb was very well maintained with fresh flowers and water provided.   Intrigued but unsure what he had found the young man returned to the house to find Takahama had passed away.   

The young man told his mother about the butterfly and what he had seen in the cemetery. His mother sat down with tears in her eyes and told him, 

“Not many people know but your uncle was once betrothed to Akiko. He was very much in love with her but just before the wedding day she died of consumption.  Understandably, he was heartbroken and vowed that he would never marry or have any kind of a relationship with any other woman.  

He stayed close to her grave and prayed over it daily, no matter if the sun was shining and the day was fair and pleasant, or burning hot.  No matter how cold the rain or how thick the snow, or wild the wind, he would grit his teeth and pray,  ‘Oh, come, butterfly, come!’

 Maintaining her grave, keeping weeds at bay and ensuring there were alway fresh flowers all through the long lonely years he kept his vow.  In his heart of hearts he kept clean and shining all the loving memories of his only love.  As he lay dying he no longer had the strength to perform his labor of love and Akiko from beyond saw this and came to him.  The white butterfly was her tender, loving soul that came to guide him to the Land of the Yellow Springs where they will be reunited once again.”

***

For Takahama his passing prayer may been words such as the following poem written by Yone Noguchim many, many years later. Just maybe the writer was thinking of the old man when he wrote,

“Where the flowers sleep,

Thank God! I shall sleep tonight.

Oh, come, butterfly!”

© 09/09/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 9th, 2020 zteve t evans

29 thoughts on “Japanese Folktales: The Butterfly Soul

  1. Thanks for this, Zsteve. It has a lot more feeling compared with the butterfly story I posted a while back. It’s sad and sometimes that’s just the kind of story that needs to be told. M

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