A secondary title for this post is Metamorphosis, which was inspired by an encounter with a lovely green caterpillar on the occasion of the recent Full Moon. This caterpillar, at some point in the future, will metamorphosize and take wing as a Butterfly, or so I thought. After doing some research, it turns out that this type of caterpillar becomes a Sphinx Moth! However, this writing is about Butterflies and I thank the caterpillar for inspiring me.
There is not much discussion about the role of Butterflies in Ancient Egypt. Although there are beautiful depictions of Butterflies in tombs and on papyrus, there is no god or goddess that is represented as a Butterfly. In different cultures throughout history, the Butterfly has been variously used as a symbol representing resurrection, freedom, and even temptation. It seems unlikely that the Ancient Egyptian religion and culture, which is filled with symbolism, should have used the Butterfly simply for its artistic beauty.
In a famous painting in Thebes, on the Tomb of Nebamun, circa 1350 BCE, Butterflies are depicted with astonishing detail throughout one of the scenes, “Fowling in the Marshes.” Nebamun is shown hunting birds in the marshes of the Nile with his wife and their young daughter. This type of scene had already been a traditional part of tomb decoration for hundreds of years and show the dead tomb-owner “enjoying life and seeing beauty.”
In Ancient Egyptian tradition, fertile marshes were seen as a place of rebirth. Hunting animals could represent Nebamun’s triumph over the forces of nature as he was reborn. The huge figure of Nebamun is shown forever happy and forever young, surrounded by the rich life of the marsh.
A ginger Cat (my favorite!) is shown catching birds among the papyrus plants. Cats were family pets, however the Cat seen here could also represent the Sun God (Re) hunting the enemies of light and order. It appears the Cat may have caught a goose, which could represent Geb, a further symbol of rebirth and renewal.
The tomb artists have filled every space with lively details; the marsh full of lotus flowers and Tiger Butterflies. The Butterflies are all over this artwork and could represent the Ka, the soul of Nebuman, as he is in the process of his Metamorphosis from death to rebirth. The Ka was the life force of a person and at death it was separated from the body. During Nebuman’s transition, his Ka would watch and wait for his rebirth, and then fly down and alight into his new body.
The Butterflies seem playfully engaged with the scene of the Cat and the birds. Another meaning of the Butterflies could be to represent the eternal life force of the marsh and all the animals, including the Cat, the Sun God Re.