Precious Transformation: Monarch Butterflies, Mystery, and Mythology

When I wake up each morning, I head for the back porch to check the Monarch nursery. First thing. Who will hatch today? Does anyone need a fresh milkweed leaf? Who became a chrysalis overnight? I feed the caterpillars before my dog and I eat breakfast.

Most of my thirty back porch Monarchs are in chrysalis stage as the days shorten. These will hatch by mid-September to join the fall migration. By summer’s end, I’ll have raised and released over 70 Monarchs.

Six caterpillars are tiny, carried home on milkweed leaves collected to feed the larger ones. The little ones munch milkweed in their own half-pint jars. Soon, I’ll transfer them to a mesh crate with milkweed cuttings so they can move and explore. Do they have time to become adult butterflies and join the migration? I don’t know, but couldn’t resist trying.

Caterpillars at Milkweed Camp on back porch, outside but with shade in mesh crates to protect from predators. All the milkweed you can eat.

When I become this fascinated, I want to know why. Yes, they’re beautiful and mystical. The Greek word Psyche means both Soul and Butterfly. Yes, they’re threatened and an egg’s survival rate goes from 1-2% in the wild to 95% in my nursery. While it’s a pleasure to increase the Monarch population on my land, this passion feels deeper than that.

Chrysalis and pre-chrysalis caterpillar in J hook

The Monarchs hold a Mystery, quiet proof of unending transformation.

Last week, frustrated with internet searches with inadequate references, I spent a few hours at the library. A helpful librarian and I didn’t come up with much. I know a university librarian willing to help. We’ll keep looking.

I asked a scholar for help. He connected me with Martha Ramirez Oropeza, a mural painter, author and researcher/lecturer of the Nahuatl pre-Hispanic codices of Mexico.

“Does the name I found on line, Quetzalpapalotl, mean Monarch Butterfly?” I asked.

“No,” Martha said. I was afraid that’s what she’d say. The word has many interpretations, but refers to a moment of transformation or “precious regeneration,” not specifically a Monarch, but the “creative spirit that transforms and regenerates.”

I decided to return to Monarch geography, so looked up the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site. It’s surprisingly small considering how many Monarchs winter there. The culture isn’t Aztec or Mayan, but Mazahuan with its own language and customs. The area is in the mountains northwest of Mexico City. Much of the habitat was destroyed, just as the conquerors destroyed the spiritual history of these people.

About to hatch (see Monarch wings through the chrysalis case)

Two in previous photo 10 minutes later, wings not fully extended

Fortunately, the invaders couldn’t destroy all indigenous spiritual connections. Like the Virgin of Guadalupe, some old sacred forms became part of the new.

Monarchs return to the Mazahua area of Mexico around November 1 when The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos or All Saint’s Day) is honored in Mexican Catholicism. Monarchs float in by the hundreds of thousands to roost in trees for the winter after traveling 2000-3000 miles.

“The Mazahua believe that the souls of the departed return on the Day of the Dead in the form of monarch butterflies to enjoy the offerings of fruit and bread that are left on altars. To welcome them, they have a procession from the church to the cemetery and to bid them goodbye, they have a procession in the opposite direction.”  Mazahua Offering to the Dead set at the National Museum of Anthropology MNA, INAH. November 1, 2010.

It’s unlikely the Mesoamericans knew where the Monarchs went when they disappeared each spring. They didn’t know about milkweed, eggs, and caterpillars. The Monarchs appeared from the north as adults in autumn, stayed a few months, and then flew back north. We know they flew to Mexico from the northeastern United States and Canada over a two month period, but the Mazahua people must not have known that. I’m fascinated by a world where arriving Monarchs are honored as dead relatives returning home for a visit

Raising Monarchs inspires me with hands-on contact with the Mystery of Transformation. When they’ve left for Mexico, I’ll dig for more ancient stories and see what I find.


Do you search for meaning in surprising fascinations? Thanks to Martha Ramirez Oropeza, co-author of the The Toltec I-Ching, for sharing her knowledge with me. I’m also grateful to Tom Burns of Tompkins County Public Library for patiently searching with me. After I left the library, I realized I should search the geography of the Monarch Biopreserve and the people who lived there. For another post about Monarch butterflies, see Mothering Monarchs, Mothering My Soul. For a post about the Greek Goddess Psyche, see Clutched: An Essential Lesson from Psyche’s Fourth Labor.

  1. Dear Elaine, I have been avidly following your mothering of monarchs this year! I love all your photos, from all the different stages of development and transformation. Their colours are so gorgeous, it’s easy to see why butterfly and soul are interchangeable names. What a transformation you’ve recorded this summer! I just love the mystery and mythology that surrounds butterflies and very much enjoyed the short film you posted with your article. Your Monarch butterflies are the perfect spark of inspiration for so many of us creative folk.

    How fascinating! Reminds me of the weeks I spent watching my kale plants being eaten up by thousands of caterpillars that hatched on my (unnetted) plants! Still, a poem rose up, how could it not and I also enjoyed researching the life cycle much like yourself. The information you’ve gathered here has been both informative and enchanting. Thank you for sharing your joy with us and the ways in which you’ve been recording this is awesome! Given the low survival rate, you’re providing a great service for Mama Gaia! Love and light, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. I’m glad Monarchs don’t like to eat my garden. They only eat milkweed which isn’t palatable to other creatures–except one kind of moth caterpillar. I’m dreaming about Meso-American Goddess conferences. I believe I have much research ahead of me. A librarian at Cornell University will search for butterfly mythology once I send her more information. I’ve found a little on my own, but there isn’t much out there. It’s my nature to look for the research, but this fascination may have nothing to do with that kind of thinking activity.

      A California friend pulled a card in my honor from her deck called “Animal Dreaming Oracle Cards Guidebook” by Scott Alexander King. I’d never heard of them. She pulled a card called “Transformation: Butterfly”–wouldn’t you know it? The description is apt and I need to read it a few more times. Feels like the soul is delivering a message, but you know how these things are. I may be a little slow at understanding. Still–the dream, the animal card, and the Monarch nursery on my back porch. I’m paying attention.

      Two more beauties hatched this morning to be released tomorrow. Every one feels magic–and while I put them in a separate home to get their wings, out crawled two caterpillars from a mesh crate I thought was only chrysalises. They likely came in on milkweed plants I brought home for the nursery and kept merrily munching until they got big enough for me to discover them in the milkweed jungle. They’re now in a safe place, chomping away.

  2. I too have been mesmerized by your Monarch journey through your FB postings, for which I’m very grateful. My single caterpillar turned chrysalis on August 26, shortly after we returned home. Ten days ago tomorrow. But it’s still solidly green. I’m so eager to do this again next summer, thanks to your guiding my path. Thank you.

    The miracle of these various transformations has also captivated me. Mystery intrigues me. I look forward to your future posts on this.

    • It can take a full two weeks for a chrysalis to become a butterfly–or even longer if weather is cool. If it’s solid green with those beautiful gold flecks, all is well. It will slowly darken and you’ll see wing patterns, but that process takes a few days, too. A new miracle awaits you. It works best to keep them overnight in a place large enough for them to fully open wings with sticks to crawl around before releasing. A wide-mouth gallon container with sticks inside would work if you don’t have a butterfly crate. They have their wings and fly well by then. (Just to warn you, there is a bloody brown elimination soon after hatching while they hang upside down on the chrysalis–the remains of all that metabolism that went on in the chrysalis. All is well.) The baby you’re hatching will migrate. It’s that time of year.

      I have a crate with 7 chrysalises in it, I thought, but out crawled two medium sized caterpillars yesterday. They must have come in as tiny caterpillars on milkweed plants I brought in to feed the larger caterpillars. Again, I decided to save them to see what happens next. I’ll still be releasing Monarchs until the end of September. I don’t mind.

  3. The butterfly mythology and anthropological digging here fascinates me. While I love the photos, too, it’s the rich and deep meaning that I find most compelling in your writing. Another good one. Will share!

    • Thank you. I’m also fascinated with the mythology but haven’t had a chance to pursue further because of family obligations. That’s next on my curiosity list.

  4. I too have watched with joy your “mothering of monarchs.” And I behold your Facebook reports with wonder and delight. My working memoir manuscript used the chrysalis/butterfly motif as a symbol of transformation. I sense your work with monarchs is transforming you as well.

    You model for us how to honor the delicate balance in nature. Thank you, Elaine.

    • Thank you, Marian. I look forward to reading your memoir. I also look forward to finding out more about the pre-Hispanic beliefs associated with the Monarch migration if there is any information out there, but all is on hold for the moment. My mother-in-law seems to be actively dying. Although she is Houdini, everyone thinks she’s declining now. Breathing is labored and no food with infrequent sips of water. I called her priest and he came to do Last Rites this morning. I was there yesterday evening and will return again in a few hours. All is relaxed. No suffering or sense of hurry. Sleeping her way out of this mortal shell.

      And while death is happening in the family and I was informing my sons, I also had the pleasure of releasing two Monarchs. Life and death are always with us.

  5. I have loved your Monarch posts. They bring back memories of when I was in 4th grade and brought home several caterpillars. My mom put them in a large jar and we fed them milkweed leaves. We watched them closely every day munching leaves, becoming chrysalis’, and then the magical day of becoming the most beautiful butter flies I had ever seen. It was magical and this is one of favorite childhood memories. Thanks, Elaine, for giving my memory a happy nudge!

    • Joan, if someone had raised butterflies with me in 4th grade, I might have become an entomologist. Instead, the 10-year-old within this aging body is given the thrill of participating in the transformations. One new butterfly today–and many more to come in next few weeks. Then what will I do to create this much joy when the snow flakes fly?

  6. Oh I loved this story Elaine. Makes sense the butterflies would be part of the celebration of the return of souls. I hope to see many of them when I spend the coming winter in Mexico. 🙂

    • Debby, if you look at where the butterfly biopreserve is located, you’ll see it’s in a mountainous place northwest of Mexico City–not so easy to reach or near a big city. I know there are tours and various ways to visit them. If you’re in Mexico the whole winter, you might find a way and I can’t wait to hear about it. I know it’s a big tourist attraction at certain times of year.

  7. Elaine, As another reader wrote to you, “Your Monarch butterflies are the perfect spark of inspiration.” Thank you.

    It is striking that your mother-in-law is/was “sleeping her way out of this mortal shell” at the same time that you are releasing Monarchs. Precious transformation all around.

    • It seemed relevant to me, too, Anne. Last night’s dream: I see 5 or 6 large Monarch caterpillars on the last green leaves on a milkweed plant in my vegetable garden and know I had to bring them in and save them because it’s late in the season. When I woke up, I was delighted about all that soul potential and grateful it was in the imaginal world and not the waking world where I would have more lives to save. The season is winding down and it was cool on my back porch this morning, so I moved the caterpillar nursery inside where we’ll make a mess together for a few weeks until the end of their season. I have so much I want to write, but still have duties related to Virginia’s cremation early this week, arranging a Catholic ritual/mass with her church (only thing she requested other than where she wanted her ashes), and sorting out finances with the nursing home. Who knew being someone’s Power of Attorney was such a huge job? I’m grateful to be accompanied through this by Monarch butterflies.

  8. I can imagine your delight over all that soul potential in the imaginal world, Elaine, as well as your relief at not having to save any more lives in the outer world! And it is lovely to think of the Monarch butterflies accompanying you as you carry out all the duties as Virgina’s POA. I look forward to reading about the parts you are moved to write about when you have the time.

    • Thank you, Anne. I’m writing in my head and taking notes to remember details. Shrouding and cremation are tomorrow and all the end-of-life papers to be signed.

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