Butterfly in Navajo Traditional Stories


Butterfly: Due to the natural beauty of its wings, Butterfly is often considered vain. Yet, in Navajo mythology, Butterfly brings the sacred flint to the hooves of the horse. In the legend of the diety, Butterfly Boy was cured of his vanity by being lightning struck with the axe of Rain Boy. After that, his head opened up and out of it came the butterflies of the world. The perishable dust of Butterfly's wings is sometimes thought to prove that such beauty is usually not durable. Pg. 191

Caterpillar: In Navajo belief, Caterpillar is sacred because of his ability to transform into Butterfly, the gatherer of the sacred flint. However, while Butterfly may not always be trusted because of his vanity, Caterpillar is a simple, many-footed walker through life. Like Worm, he may give advice to his "betters." Pg. 191

 

 

The Gift of the Gila Monster, Navajo Ceremonial Tales; 1993, Gerald Hausman.

Rain Boy and Butterfly Boy: There is a great arch of colored stone in Navajo Country, and it is called Rainbow Bridge. In order to reach it you must ride horseback for days through desert and bare rock land and through great red rock canyons. Not many people go there. In ancient times it was the home of Rain Boy, a powerful god, whose weapon was lightning and who traveled as fast as the wind on his rainbow.
One day long ago he had to go on a journey. He left his wife and daughter at home at Rainbow Bridge and told them that no matter what happened they were not to go out into the sunlight.
"We will obey you, Rain Boy," said the two women, and when he had gone they sat by the open door and took up their weaving. They were both fine weavers. When they needed a new design they would look out of the door until they saw something beautiful. One day, it was the design of a leaf; another day, a bird feather suited their needs. But today they could not see anything that pleased them.
As it happened, White Butterfly Boy had flown into their part of the country from his home in Chaco Canyon, where the ruins of the dead people lie. Butterfly Boy looked just like a Navajo except that he had wings. He possessed one other great power. He could change himself at will into a white butterfly. Today when he came to Rainbow Bridge he saw the beautiful wife and daughter of Rain Boy looking out of the door of their hogan.
"They are beautiful. I should like to talk to them," he said to himself, but he had heard that Rain Boy wouldn't let them talk to strangers and forbade them to leave the hogan when he was away. So Butterfly Boy planned a trick; he changed himself into a white butterfly and flew down onto the door sill.
"Oh, what a beautiful creature," cried the mother. "What a splendid design he will make for our weaving."
"Let us catch him," said the daughter.
But when they reached out with their hands, White Butterfly Boy spread his wings and flew to a milkweed blossom some distance from the hogan. The women forgot their promise to Rain Boy and ran out of the house into the sunlight where they chased the sparkling white butterfly; each time they got near enough to catch him, away he flew, farther from the hogan. Four times he flew, and the fourth time he lit on a tassel of corn silk in Rain Boy's garden. Great yellow pumpkins coiled their arms between the corn stalks, and when the women ran into the garden the pumpkins caught them, so they could not take another step. Then Butterfly Boy turned himself into a man with wings.
"There," he said. "I have you. Now you will come live with me in Chaco Canyon."
He took them far off over the desert and canyon until they came to the land of deserted hogans. Here, long ago, people had lived, but now nothing but the dead remained, and they were buried deep under the blown sands.
Now, Rain Boy returned from his journey, and finding the hogan empty, he searched outside for tracks. In the sands by the hogan he saw footprints of his wife and daughter, which led into the garden and among the pumpkin vines where they disappeared. It was here that White Butterfly Boy had turned into a man with wings, and with Rain Boy's wife on one arm and the daughter on the other, he had flown back to his home in Chaco Canyon. After looking carefully among the corn stalks, Rain Boy sent out a streak of lightning to point the direction they had taken. The lightning struck near Chaco Canyon. Rain Boy mounted his rainbow and rode over the sky to the home of White Butterfly Boy. There he found his wife and daughter, who were prisoners in the hogans of the ancient people. Rain Boy was very angry with them for disobeying him, but he was even more
angry with White Butterfly Boy for his treachery.
When White Butterfly Boy came flying home at night, Rain Boy said, "I challenge you to a race. If you win, you may keep my wife and daughter. If you lose, you die."
"I agree," said White Butterfly Boy.
"We shall race to Mount Taylor," said Rain Boy. "Get ready. When I send out my lightning we shall start."
Now Butterfly Boy had nothing in the world to race upon but his own wings, so he spread them out proudly and waited with his only weapon which was a magic axe
that could kill whoever held it, at a puff of breath.
Rain Boy took off on his bolt of lightning and was gone instantly. Butterfly Boy beat his wings as fast as he could, but it was going to take him a long time to reach Mount Taylor. On the way, he saw Humming Bird poised in the air before a flower.
There is nothing in the world that Butterfly Boy liked more than to have fun. About his throat hung a tiny silver bell. He wanted to hear how the bell would sound on the throat of Humming Bird as he darted from blossom to blossom, so he took the bell from his own throat and threw it into the air. It dropped with a tinkle onto Humming Bird's neck; this is the noise you hear today when Humming Bird rushes in upon a flower.
Soon after his delay with Humming Bird, Butterfly Boy reached Mount Taylor. There sat Rain Boy on the end of a streak of lightning.
"I win," cried Rain Boy. "Now we will race back again."
"All right," said Butterfly Boy tiredly. By now he was already exhausted, but he was cheerful and did not give up. Again he spread his beautiful wings.
"Ready?" shouted Rain Boy, and this time he rode up over the sky on a great rainbow. Butterfly Boy strained himself to fly, but it was a long time before he reached his home in Chaco Canyon. There sat Rain Boy on the end of the rainbow, and his wife and daughter were waiting beside him.
"I win again," Rain Boy said, and raising his head he proclaimed: "now you will die!"
"Wait," said Butterfly Boy. "Won't you please kill me with my own axe? It would make me happy to die by the blade I have carried on my journeys."
But Rain Boy knew that Butterfly Boy's axe was a magic axe. At a puff of breath from its master it would fly back and kill the man who held it.
"No," he said, "I will kill you with my own axe." And again he raised it above his head. But Butterfly Boy begged four times, and the fourth time Rain Boy stuck his own axe in his belt and took the magic axe in his hand. But he was not to be tricked. He had a scheme in mind.
"Now," said clever Rain Boy, "close your eyes."
As soon as Butterfly Boy had shut his lids Rain Boy changed axes, and grasping his own trusty weapon he hit Butterfly Boy a deadly blow on the head. The skull cracked, Butterfly Boy was killed at one stroke, and out of the crack in the skull came a net of butterflies, all bright-winged and lovely. Away they flew to scatter over the sky; and that is how the beautiful butterflies of this world came to be born. Pgs. 65-69

Sitting on the Blue-Eyed Bear, Navajo Myths and Legends; 1975, Gerald Hausman.

Butterfly (ka'logi') (U) and various moths are symbols of temptation and foolishness, so despicable that their behavior, acting like a 'moth,' has come to stand for insanity, the punishment for breaking taboos.
The hero of the Mountain Chant acquired the power of the meal sprinklers from the Butterfly People.
Butterfly was a decoy for two girls of the Excess Chant (cp. Ch. 1; Restriction, Con. B; Matthews 1887, p. 406; Kluckhohn 1944, p.104).

Navajo Religion, Vol II; Gladys A. Reichard, 1950