Whenever you see a pretty (usually blue or black) butterfly show up, things are about to get Symbolic.
For millennia, the world has latched on to the image of the butterfly: its metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly used as a metaphor for death and rebirth. In brighter series, it means "Don't worry, be at peace, the great circle of life continues on." In others, it means "You're going to die and turn into something else and it being pleasant isn't necessarily an option." Dead butterflies are an especially ill omen.
When the butterfly is used as a symbol of change in general, not just death and rebirth, see the Super TropeButterfly of Transformation.
Not related to Butterfly of Doom or Schrödinger's Butterfly. See also Pretty Butterflies.
Cherry Blossoms, a chiefly Japanese symbol for the beauty and evanescence of life.
The Ouroboros, a snake consuming its own tail, emphasizes the cyclical nature of life. Its occult overtones also make it appropriate for more mystical and/or weirder cases of endings tangled up with beginnings.
The Phoenix, a mythological being reborn from its own ashes.
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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Used for double significance in the Sasuke Retrieval Arc of Naruto; after Choji defeats Jirobo, allowing Naruto, Kiba and the rest of the retrieval team to continue on, he staggers to a tree and sags against it in a very moving death scene; he gets better. Right after he collapses, a blue butterfly passes Shikamaru, who looks dismayed. Doubly significant in that Choji's name means 'butterfly', and that is the form that his supposedly fatal final attack takes: glowing butterfly wings of chakra.
In Shippuuden, Choji achieves this form without pills, and it enables him to defeat his undead sensei. It also symbolises Choji's growth as a person; indeed, the Akimichi clan's oath, which clan members take as a coming-of-age ceremony, uses the symbol of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis and taking flight.
Sailor Heavy Metal Papillon (Butterfly) was a manga only servant of the final Big Bad in the Sailor Moon series, who turned the souls of all the Crystals that Galaxia captured literally into butterflies.
The original version of Super Sailor Moon came with a butterfly motif. It gets revealed later that she has the power of rebirth, to match Sailor Saturn's power of destruction.
Sailor Stars apparently uses butterflies as a symbol of the Light of Hope (ChibiChibi).
In Bleach, specially-bred, ghostly (i.e., only seen by spirits and supernaturally-sensitive people) black butterflies (Called Jigoku-chou, or "Hell Butterflies", for extra cheeriness) are necessary as guides for those wanting to cross from Soul Society to the Living World, and vice versa. Otherwise, they'll be forced to pass through the Dangai, or "Forbidding World", where death is (un)surprisingly easy.
They're also used to carry messages within Soul Society, as well, which makes this trope a bit more mundane in Bleach.
Although the people of Soul Society are dead (given that it's the afterlife)...
... And as the latest arc proves, they can be killed again.
A VERY squicky example is the Octava Espada Szayel Aporro Granz. His release form is similar to a giant butterfly with wings that look like blood drops leading down from the wings among other creepy additions. His ultimate ability that makes him perfect in his eyes is his Gabriel ability. This let's him impregnate another person (done to a female but he implies he could do it to the guys too), absorb their energy and nutrients, and then become reborn from their now empty husk of a body.
Take a good look at Aizen's third form in Chapter 415. No wonder it's nicknamed Butterflizen.
Heavily seen in the first opening and ending of Higurashi: When They Cry. That one of the butterflies is dead is a sign of how dark the series is.
Similarly, in Umineko, the Golden Witch Beatrice is said to appear in the form of glowing, gold butterflies. Seen above.
In the opening of Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro, Sai crushes a blue butterfly in his hand. He's a murderer who is constantly regenerating at the loss of his memories.
Yuuko of Xxx HO Li C has butterflies on her clothes and many of her possessions, and is often depicted wearing a kimono with butterfly wings attached to the obi. An old fortune teller friend of hers mentions that the butterfly is Yuuko's particular symbol.
After a certain dramatic moment in Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, the concurrent Xxx HO Li C chapter featured Watanuki dreaming of her death - then, when he wakes up, a butterfly appears over his clenched hand, and vanishes into thin air. Naturally, when he goes to look for Yuuko, she's gone, having moved on as payment to fight Fei Wong Reed's Gambit Roulette.
Busou Renkin has Papillon, the butterfly-themed villain whose entire deal was that he replaced his dying, mortal body with an immortal (but still sick, oddly) homunculus body.
Butterflies appear in the second season 2 OP for Gundam 00, although they range in color, and a separate one appears for each of the four different female characters (Marina, Feldt, Louise and Anew) featured. It's possible that the symbolism isn't death here, but rather a drastic change set for them all.
Hotarubi from Basilisk summons butterflies among the insects and reptiles she uses to attack her enemies. When she dies and her lifeless and mutilated corpse falls off a cliff, a bunch of butterflies appear in the sky.
Princess Mononoke: Ashitaka spots a footprint that attracts butterflies. It belongs to the Great Forest Spirit, who has power over life and death.
Turn A Gundam's Moonlight Butterfly means a literal change in the world, destroying all the technology on the Earth two thousand years before the beginning of the series, thus forcing a reconstruction of the civilization, and after the series' finale, imprisoning the Big Bad and protagonist's Humongous Mechas in a cocoon, signing the end of the war.
Episode 8 of Mr. Stain on Junk Alley: A baby dies, and a glowing blue butterfly crawls out of its mouth. The child's soul-butterfly gets killed by a cop. Mr. Stain, later on in the episode, revives the baby by sticking his hand down his throat, retrieving his own butterfly inside, and using his own butterfly to revive the child.
Then there's G Gundam's Sai Saici, whose Hyper Mode Ultimate Attack and the Shaolin Temple's final and secret technique is a suicide attack in which his Gundam gains chi-created butterfly wings (much the same as the Naruto example with Chouji above, but with a Giant Robot). He also gets better. Multiple times.
In one of the episodes of the hentai show Cool Devices, these appeared. The Moemoe girls got brutally raped by a bunch of Scary Black Men, then sacrificed. But it's all okay, because at the end their spirits turn into butterflies. Or something.
In Hunter × Hunter, there is a type of butterfly that is attracted to fresh blood. In one of the Hunter Exams, Gon tracks these butterflies, which lead him to Hisoka, which is his target.
One chapter of Petshop Of Horrors elevates this into mindfuck: Leon (a cop) accidentally shoots a childhood friend (Harry) who turns out to have become a criminal over time. Count D allows him to experience Harry's life for himself, trapping him inside an illusion given by a magical butterfly. Just as Leon experiences being shot to death, D crushes the butterfly, giving Leon his normal life back.
In Pretear, the Big Bad Takako attacks with purple butterflies. They can be used as spies, too.
Purple butterflies similar to those seen in Pretear appear in Harukanaru Toki No Naka De as a manifestation of Ran's Dark Dragon powers. These can be used for attack purposes or for defilement, and on one occasion in the manga/anime Ran uses these to place a curse on Akane.
In Saint Seiya, Hades' spies are butterflies and appear during the Hades arc whenever Saga, Shura and Camus are about to reveal their true motives (not to kill Athena, merely to see her again) as a grim reminder of their fate. One scene uses both this and the death version of Cherry Blossoms. There's also the Spectre Papillon, who starts off as a revolting caterpillar-like thing and then evolves into a pretty (scary) butterfly-boy with glowing butterfly minions.
In Part 6 of Jo Jos Bizarre Adventure, Jolyne's death is accompanied by the appearance of butterflies. Appropriate to the trope, she and several other characters killed in the arc comes back to life later.
In Iris Zero Hijiri has an Iris that allows him to see black butterflies that gather around people who are supposed to die in the near future.
Before his apparent death in Black Butler, Lau tells the story of a Chinese boy (reflecting himself) who dreamt he was a butterfly
Which doubles as a Genius Bonus; the story is word for word based on the philosophical musing of Zhuangzi.
In one of the ending songs, there's a constant blue butterfly flying around screen.
The first witch that appears in Puella Magi Madoka Magica seems to have a motif partially based around butterflies, as seen on her minions, in her barrier, on her Grief Seed, and on the witch herself. In addition once she's defeated there is a quick shot of a butterfly in a web afterwards. Fridge Brilliance / Horror kicks in when you realize it may or may not be Foreshadowing that witches start out as a normal girl who gets contracted by Kyubey, followed by reaching the Despair Event Horizon.
Loveless plays this for all the symbolism it can get, especially with Soubi, complete with Ritsu-sensei musing on how "humans are able to be reborn".
Magi - Labyrinth of Magic: The rukh, which are the souls of those who have died. They're described by characters who can see them as looking like birds, but they're drawn to look more like butterflies.
In Towa Kamo Shirenai, some of the demonic entities that attack Kosumo and Hitsuji take the shapes of butterflies. In fact, Kosumo first saw Hitsuji when he killed one of these devil 'flies and scolded him for doing so, not knowing their real role.
Used to great effect in the Inio Asano manga Nijigahara Holograph with its sinister swarms of cabbage butterflies.
In a Doom Patrol story written by Grant Morrison, Red Jack has found a way to keep himself immortal by imprisoning hundreds of butterflies and absorbing their life essence. When the butterflies are freed, he dies.
In Pretty Deadly, the entire story is being narrated to a butterfly. As well, when Big Alice dies, her body turns into a flock of butterflies.
At the end of Corpse Bride, the undead Emily dissolves into a cloud of blue butterflies, signifying her peaceful transition to the afterlife.
In The Fall the butterfly Darwin has sought for years heralds only tragedy.
In the Peter Jackson-directed The Lord of the Rings movies, a white butterfly or moth appears to Gandalf twice, apparently as a messenger from the giant eagles. In both instances, the heroes are hopelessly surrounded (evidently about to die) and eagles are going to swoop down and rescue them (returning them to life). The moth used in the scene at Orthanc was real; to make that scene work, they had to get a bunch of chrysalises from a giant moth species and incubate them for weeks.
Absolem the blue caterpillar disappears into his cocoon in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Later, when a blue butterfly lands briefly on Alice's shoulder, she greets him with a friendly "Hello, Absolem."
When the four girls who form the central coven in The Craft perform a ritual together for the first time, they find themselves surrounded by dark blue butterflies as an indication that the deity they worship approves of their actions.
The girlfriend of Patch Adams has a fondness for butterflies and says that she hopes to be reincarnated as one. Later, after her death, Patch is elevated from his depression by the appearance of a butterfly on his shirt, as though her wish has come true.
The German language romantic tragedy Love In Thoughts features a scene in which, while Gunther is dicking around with his pretty, pretty gun, as per usual, a butterfly lands on the barrel and distracts him with its pretty, pretty wings.
The American features a butterfly several times through the movie.
Mothra, grand kaiju of the Pacific and eternal frenemy of Godzilla, is literally one of these. Almost every appearance of Mothra will have it die, only to have its Generation Xerox offspring take over for it.
The Violet UK song "Blue Butterfly" IS this trope.
The first EP by morbidly depressing Finnish death/doom band Swallow The Sun, titled "Plague of Butterflies", contains a 34 minute long song using butterflies as a key motif in the narrative. It ends with both characters dying.
In Deadhouse Gates, the second book in Malazan Book of the Fallen, a particularly bloody battle is fought on a river crossing that just happens to be the mating ground for a large group of migrating butterflies. Their symbolism is used to represent several things: the ephemerality of life, the instinctual drive to mate and then die, and as an omen of the slaughter to come, as they coat the river in a yellow coat first, before being replaced by the red of human blood. Finally, a thousand of them are used as Psycho Pomps for the soul of a particularly powerful warlock.
Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory's The Obsidian Trilogy has, as one of the signs that the heroes are getting close to an evil place, swaths of dead foreign butterflies. Other signs include flocks of starlings flying endless, unnaturally precise flower-loops and familiar flowers with strange black petals.
An alien butterfly is used as an analogy for what Vergere is doing to Jacen in the New Jedi Order book Traitor.
The cover art for the novel Luna, having (presumably) Liam/Luna on the cover with butterfly wings. Representing Liam's transformation into Luna throughout the book.
In Tim O'Brien's short story, "The Man I Killed" (in the book The Things They Carried), a butterfly crawls up the dead boy's face and flies away.
In The Death Gate Cycle the kenkari titled the Keeper of the Door, Keeper of the Book, and Keeper of the Soul all have butterfly-esque clothes, they are a line of elves on Arianus who care for the souls of those elves of noble birth
In Michael Flynn's Spiral Arm novel On The Razor's Edge, used as a metaphor: Mearana's fight with a Shadow has the observation that Shadows do not die easily, but harpers can die as easily as butterflies.
Live Action TV
A butterfly makes an enigmatic cameo near the beginning of a Lexx season finale. Shortly afterwards, an alien character's cocoon-like sleep pod is destroyed, severely limiting her life expectancy, but her spirit lives after death in the Dream Zone.
Also: Prince, the Satan/Death figure who formerly oversaw the judgment and reincarnation of all human souls, claims to keep a "butterfly room." "You'll love it. I'm very good... with butterflies."
A blood-red butterfly appears every time someone is murdered in Mujeres Asesinas 2, a Mexican Drama and Psychological Thriller series.
Monarch butterflies play a huge role in Kings, symbolizing the recognition of a king. Specifically, they herald the rise of David and the fall of his predecessor.
An episode of Millennium focused on a conspiracy among mothers murdering their daughters. The incident that began the episode was a plane crash, fatal to everyone onboard, caused by one of the mothers. At the crash site there was an overly abundant amount of butterflies, said to be attracted by the chemicals in tears.
In episode 5 of Nikita, the civilian girlfriend of Owen, a secret Division operative, is an artist and makes stained-glass butterflies. Obviously, by the end of the episode, she's killed in the crossfire between Division operatives, Owen, and Nikita.
A group of children dressed like butterflies show up at the beginning of the Pushing Daisies episode "Circus Circus", an episode heavily focused on new beginnings.
From Power Rangers RPM: One character, Dr. K, has been raised in a secret government think tank named Alphabet Soup under the pretense that she suffered from a sunlight allergy. A butterfly one day appears on her keyboard while she works on the Ranger suits. She follows it as it flies away towards an opening in the wall in which the sunlight shines through. She looks at her hands and realizes that her handlers have lied to her the whole time about the sunlight allergy. She attempts escape along with her only friends Gem and Gemma by wirelessly uploading a sentient computer virus named Venjix in hopes that it would blind the security servers long enough for them to escape. However, before she can install the firewall which would contain the virus to the compound, guards take her and her friends away. In a span of three years, Venjix has destroyed every human city (except Corinth), killed almost every living thing, and destroyed almost every biome on Earth. Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, indeed.
On The Fades, butterflies are heavily associated with the Angelics' powers of healing — people who have been successfully healed are shown puking out a butterfly, and Paul's resurrection in the fourth episode produces an entire swarm of butterflies. In addition, Fades are shown becoming Reborns by breaking out of sticky cocoons, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.
In the first episode of the second season of Babylon 5, one of the security guards is trying to get the traitor who shot Security Chief Garibaldi to come out of the barracks by saying Ambassador Delenn, who had just come out of the chrysalis as a half human/Minbari, now sported wings, just like a butterfly.
A butterfly is resting on Mario's cap at the end of Super Mario Galaxy. Given how the entire universe collapses in on itself and then resets this is intentional symbolism.
On that note, Super Paper Mario's Tippi counts despite not having been a real butterfly. When Merlon found her in her human form (Timpani), doomed by Blumiere's father to wander all the dimensions forever, she was almost dead. To save her life, Merlon transformed her into the butterfly-shaped Pixl we all know, love and miss after she disappears at the end.
Fatal Frame 2. The twin killed in the ritual "becomes a butterfly" through the butterfly-shaped reddened mark left on her throat from where the other twin has choked him or her to death. The butterflies themselves linger on as spirits and are seen throughout the game.
Butterflies play a big part symbolically in Silent Hill 2, as rebirth is one of the game's main themes.
Heavily featured in the Persona games, with the High Persona Philemon having a butterfly face in 1 and 2, and blue butterflies abound in 3 and 4 (according to Word Of God, the current form of Philemon). Observe also Aigis and Metis's Butterfly masks.
The blue butterflies serve as save points in Persona 4, which fits the death and rebirth symbolism considering how often you'll die and have to reload.
There's a blue butterfly fluttering around when Persona 3's main character dies.
There is also the black butterfly representing Philemon's foil and nemesis, Nyarlathotep.
Playing on the Celtic side in Arthur's Knights - Tales of Chivalry, while in Avalon, Branwen's squire has to find which of the many reincarnated souls-turned-butterflies was Branwen's wife in order to restore the man from his Karmic Transformation, an in-game guide said that Butterflies were thought to contain the souls of the dead. Making this a rare Western example of his trope.
Yuyuko Saigyouji, the ghost princess of Hakugyokurou from Touhou's Perfect Cherry Blossom uses a lot of butterfly-themed attacks. She also tends an evil youkai cherry tree to provide the cherry blossom death imagery as well.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance has some butterflies at one of the artworks. It might mean that the dream world of Ivalice was born, but then dies at the end of the game.
One of the quests in Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song is appropriately called 'Creepy Butterfly', and involves a young wife being tormented by a strange butterfly visiting every night. Turns out it's the spirit of her father, who she thought abandoned her family after her mother grew deathly ill. He actually died searching for a cure; learning this helps her let go of her grudge, and allows him to move on.
Used excellently in BioShock 2. The Big Bad of the game loves to use butterflies as a metaphor for the effects of Adam upon the population of rapture. Additionally, living and dead blue butterflies are seen in a few places throughout the game. But it really comes together during the Little Sister sequence when it's revealed that the Little Sisters perceive the flies swarming around the bodies of dead "angels" as butterflies.
Also from CAVE, every single final boss from the ESPseries, as well as the player characters from the Galuda games.
Trauma Team has Monarch Butterflies showing up occasionally, in particular after a massive virus outbreak starts. Later on is discovered that these butterflies are directly related to the outbreak, working as carriers of the virus.
In Alice: Madness Returns, though more specifically for their connection to dreams (Wonderland being one big dream... thing) than life and death. The Caterpillar turns into a butterfly during one of the levels, and Alice's 'dodge' manoeuvre transforms her into a flock of butterflies. She also turns into butterflies whenever she dies.
Otani Yoshitsugu in Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes is associated with butterflies. His helmet looks like one, Oichi's nickname for him is "Swamp Butterfly", and if you use him enemy mooks will occasionally go insane and start raving about the butterflies coming for their souls.
In Homestuck, when Vriska and Aradia are resurrected and ascend to the god tiers, they are each granted a large pair of butterfly wings. Fitting, since her species begins their life cycles as larvae and sleeps in cocoons.
The Dancestors arc reveals that all God Tier trolls (save for Blood players) have butterfly wings.
In Concession, a deep purple butterfly seems to be one of Miranda's spiritual forms.
Badirfilay is all about death and rebirth. The title transliterated in Spanish is the English word butterfly.