The Phoenix and the Butterfly

As Spring emerges from Winter and we begin to see the buds on trees and feel the warm edge to the breezes, we are again nudged to consider the profound inclination of Nature—both human and earthly– to renew and transform.

There is a useful distinction between those two possibilities—renewal and transformation. The Phoenix is the symbol of renewal, as he rises from his ashes, restored and wholly himself. It seems that almost all cultures have some version of the Phoenix in their mythologies: the Egyptian Bennu Bird, the Bird of Paradise of the Persians, the Chinese bird called Feng-huang. In Jewish midrash, the Phoenix is the one animal that does not obey Eve’s admonition to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The reward is eternal life, (although it comes with no knowledge).

In the most common western versions of the phoenix story, the immortal bird burns itself up, becoming ashes out of which it is reborn. It can continually renew itself. It is immutable; even as ashes, it rises again just as it was before.

We all wish for renewal. We speak of restitution and restoration, of being made whole again. And yet, is this possible for us? Can we be like the phoenix? Is that psychologically possible?

Which brings me to the image of the Caterpillar/ Butterfly. Here is another common symbol of death and rebirth. And yet, it is the opposite of the Phoenix. For while the Phoenix is reborn to be exactly as it was before, the caterpillar is completely transformed.  It goes through a profound disintegration and reformation. It is ‘itself’ but utterly new. This is what actually happens to us through experience, we are changed.

So much of our suffering is activated by the idea that experience should not change us, that we just want to get back to what we were, or that we need ‘to get over’ things. The Jewish midrash leads us to see that we mortals will always be changing. In little and big ways, transformation is in our nature. We are  like the others creatures who ate from the apple and now have the knowledge of good and evil, and are therefore thrust into the knowledge of free will, cause and effect, and the flow of life. As Heraclitus says, “Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” and “You could not step twice into the same river.”

And yet—the Self is immutable. As the archetype of wholeness it remains immortal. It renews and restores itself.

To bring this full circle: we have the capacity to be held by both symbols: The phoenix, as a symbol of Christ, of immortality and perpetual, consistent truth, holds us to a sense of Self—the part of us that does not change, no matter what. And the Caterpillar/Butterfly is a symbol that brings us the hope of, and the challenge of, being continually changing, affected by life, relationships, history, suffering, joy, love.

This spring let us allow ourselves to embrace our every-transforming caterpillar-selves while holding fast to the steadfastness of the Self.

Margaret Klenck MDiv, LP, is a Jungian Analyst in private practice in New York City. She is a past President of the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association in New York, where she also teaches and supervises. She is also a member of PAJA.  She serves as the JPA representative to the Executive Council of the IAAP. Margaret has lectured and taught nationally and internationally. Her most recent publication is Jung and the Academy and Beyond: the Fordham Lectures 100 Years Later, for which she served as co-editor.

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