Caterpillars Don’t Become Butterflies!


Did you know that caterpillars are not “transformed” into butterflies? In metamorphosis (the name of the process), a caterpillar is liquefied. Only after its actual death can entirely new creature, a butterfly, emerge!

But most people’s image of the process is more like Eric Carle’s classic children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, in which the little caterpillar “makes a cocoon around himself the-very-hungry-caterpillar-480x270and goes to sleep, only to wake up a few weeks later wonderfully transformed into a butterfly!” (

The Very Dead Caterpillar would probably have sold fewer copies. But it would have been more accurate.

When I was a kid, I used to love going to La Mirada Creek and catching those pudgy little pre-frogs we called pollywogs (you may have known them as tadpoles). AWAM072505_40I would bring them home and dump them into a tub, and then watch with fascination as they shed their tails, sprouted legs, and crawled out like showroom models: “The new Frog!” That’s transformation (“change of form”) and it’s majorly cool. But it’s not what a caterpillar does.

A caterpillar dies.

After building its own coffin (cocoon), the caterpillar seals itself inside—and dissolves. And then, in a process only vaguely understood by scientists, that stew of free-floating genetic material undergoes a total metamorphosis (“change of nature”). egyptian-red-lentil-soup

In other words, butterflies are not souped-up caterpillars, they’re entirely new creations made from caterpillar soup!

Not surprisingly, caterpillars and butterflies are used as spiritual symbols in virtually every culture on earth. But because the real process is so radical and so little understood, they’re nearly always represented as symbols of transformation, rather than metamorphosis. To be fair, many religious teachings do help people become better caterpillars.

But that’s not enough.

According to Jesus, God doesn’t want souped-up caterpillars, he wants butterflies. He wants us to die to ourselves (Luke 9:23-24) and become completely “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Just like caterpillars do.

The Apostle Paul (in the Greek language of Romans 12:1 and 2) describes the process of metamorphosis like this:

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice (build your cocoon and get in!), holy (‘set apart’), acceptable to God (nothing short of metamorphosis can accomplish this)… Don’t be conformed by (don’t take on the ‘shape’ of) this world (or ‘age’ or ‘era’), but (instead) be metamorphosed (changed in your very nature) by the renewing (‘regenerating’ or ‘re-growing”) of your mind (incidentally, the Greek word for mind is psuche—the same as the Greek word for butterfly!) so that you may be discerning (only by being metamorphosed can you know) what is the will of God (as opposed to the will of a dark and broken world), what is good, well-pleasing, and perfect (‘complete’ or ‘whole’—in contrast to the incompleteness and brokenness of this world).”

Viceroy_ButterflyCaterpillars and butterflies are the world’s most popular symbol of transformation. But they’re also a far more powerful and challenging metaphor than most people realize.

It’s still the beginning of a new year. What better time to start over, not just as “the new You!” but as a completely new creation!

Are you ready to start work on that cocoon?

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
This entry was posted in For Pastors and Teachers, Humor, Religion/Faith and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

179 Responses to Caterpillars Don’t Become Butterflies!

  1. Pingback: Caterpillars Don’t Become Butterflies! | Mitch Teemley

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  3. I learned something by reading this. The concept is mind-blowing… XO

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jennwith2ns says:

    Butterfly and soul are the same Greek word? What.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Amazing. I just learned this recently myself. Such a good analogy.
    I think a lot of people want to make a few changes to themselves – become the “new and improved me” – when they need to DIE to self and become a “brand new me.”.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Pingback: Caterpillars Don’t Become Butterflies! | Katherine Wikoff

  7. I can see why this post resonated with so many readers. The metaphor is very powerful. (I remember learning about monarch butterflies in elementary school, but I don’t remember anything about caterpillar death. I don’t know if the teacher glossed over that part or if it just didn’t register.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Carrie Brodess says:

      Caterpillers do not die in making butterflies. The brain is still the same some structures stay while others are turned to liquid .

      Liked by 2 people

      • mitchteemley says:

        Some scientists argue about whether it qualifies as death per se, since some cells are retained in the liquification stage. But all agree that it is a complete metamorphosis, not a transformation (as with a tadpole becoming a frog), the creation of an entirely new creature.


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  9. alishaliker says:

    Simple and yet so true! To me it had always been birds or anything that can fly when i was a kid. The word ”set free” was my spiritual thrive without realizing the depth of its meaning. Butterflies are wonderful creatures. Reading your this post, reminds me of something i wrote about 5 years ago. Gotta dig through my dropbox. Lets all be caterpillars 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. As Johnny Carson used to say, “I did not know that!”

    Liked by 1 person

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  14. I love your paraphrase of Romans 12:1-2.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Wow! This is actually pretty cool! I never realized this about caterpillars, but it does indeed put more meaning into the butterfly being used as a symbol of what Christ does in our life. Thank-you for highlighting this post. ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

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