In the Garden of the Muses, the air is teeming with butterflies in vivid colors. It’s a beautiful image, but those little splashes of color also have a more subtle meaning.
The dazzling butterflies, in fact, literally are thoughts. The Ancient Greek word for "butterfly" is ψυχή (psȳchē), which translates as “soul” or “mind.”
In one sense, the butterflies would be symbolic of the Muses’ shifting thoughts. In another sense, they’d be the messengers of inspired thoughts to their favorite writers, artists, poets, or other seekers.
In a third sense, the butterflies represent the Muses' general benevolence, kindness and good nature toward mortal beings, since seeing a butterfly can symbolize that love is on its way to you soon, or that you’ll see someone whose face you miss.
In the last sense, because a butterfly starts life as a lowly caterpillar, then a pupa, before finally emerging as something delicate and glorious, with a flutter of resplendent wings, the butterfly represents the creative process, itself.
You start with something ugly or low, or not quite developed, then through stages of development, survival and patience, in the end something really quite extraordinary emerges.
Of course, the vibrant color and delicate glory of butterflies are also, unfortunately, very short-lived. But of course that’s what makes temporal things so beautiful, even life itself.
This awareness is recognized in the Japanese concept of “mono no aware,” or a sensitivity of ephemera. In brief, one of the reasons cherry blossoms are celebrated is because of their beauty. But also because their beauty will only exist for a brief span of time.
What’s interesting, of course, is that, while human beings are mortal, the things they create are immortal.
They don’t have the lifespan of immortals like the Nine Muses, but, ironically, the things they create are immortal. The physical object might be destroyed, but the memory, or the representation of it lives on.
If you’re not sure if this is true or not, you might consider that today we can still hear the works of Mozart or Grieg, or watch a story told by Shakespeare or, to go even further back, by Homer. The dead can’t speak, but, yes, their legacy can.
Unlike butterflies, which bring welcome beauty into the world, and just as quickly abandon the world, human hands can create immortal works of art.
As the Latin saying goes, “Ars longa, vita brevis.” (Art is long, life is short.)
These are just some things to consider when you’re reading that section of the book -- and also, perhaps, the next time you happen to see a butterfly.