It is likely that the most famous caterpillar in literature is the caterpillar in “Alice in Wonderland”. Much is made of the hookah he is smoking and the mushroom he is sitting on. However, the caterpillar itself, without either of those props, is a prime example of a symbolic liminal creature. A caterpillar is, after all, on a journey of transmutation into a butterfly. In “Alice” the mushroom is the means by which Alice grows and diminishes but it is the caterpillar who is the facilitator, and whose knowledge is the means by which Alice is helped along on her own “underworld” journey.
Caterpillars, when they undertake their transformation, do so in the shadowy spaces of their own making—their cocoons, their primal caves. These dark and secret spaces are the zones from which they emerge, completely changed.
Even the butterfly that a caterpillar eventually becomes is often seen as a liminal creature within the context of it’s association with the human soul. Some cultures (most famously, Oaxacan in Mexico) view butterflies as ancestral spirits and welcome the butterflies as such on their annual migrations. Others traditions view butterflies as souls that flutter about in a transitional stage while they seek their next incarnation.
We can find another parallel in Graeco-Roman art and text. Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul, was often depicted in B.C.E art as having butterfly wings. In keeping with the themes of death, journeying and transformation, the 2nd century C.E. book “Metamorphosis” by Apuelius, has Psyche, amongst other trials and tribulations, making a difficult trip into the underworld to be reunited with her lover, the god Eros (Cupid). Despite at one point opening a box given to her by Proserpina (Persephone) and falling into a “dead” sleep, she successfully completes the trial and ends her transitional stage by being reunited with Eros and becoming his wife.
Lately I’ve thought a lot about caterpillars as liminal creatures and their subsequent transformation into the winged creatures that are often seen as a symbol of death. I’ve thought this because as I mentioned in my first post, my initial small foray into the liminal woods (which is, incidentally, an actual, physical place) involved seeing copious amounts of caterpillars crawling about on the forest floor. At the time, I almost immediately left the area because there were so many and I didn’t want to step on them—now as I look back down the tunnel of the years I realize what kind of message those caterpillars were and how their own eventual transformations into butterflies would echo into my own future with themes of both death and transmutation…