192 pages, Col photos
People have always marvelled at the colours, patterns, and designs on the wings of butterflies and moths, but there has been little attempt to decode them or understand their significance.
In Butterflies: Messages from Psyche, Philip Howse explains how these living tapestries have been designed by evolution to protect insects from their principal predators, including birds, lizards, and monkeys. These insectivores, it is argued, detect their prey by perceiving small details of shape and colour rather than the "whole picture" of the insect. With the possible exception of some people with autism, humans generally overlook such emblematic features.
If we look at the detail of a living butterfly in the way that a bird sees it from different angles and perspectives, surprising images are revealed. There are features of owl eyes, snake heads, caterpillars, lizards, wasps, scorpions, and bird beaks and feathers to be found. Many butterflies and moths have bizarre combinations of images on their wings and bodies, prompting comparison with Surrealist art, such as the work of Magritte and Dalí. They have a similar effect – to unsettle the way in which things are normally perceived, to confuse and shock.
The signs and symbols that appear to be so important in the animal world – details of eyes, snakes, birds, and so on – are archetypal symbols in ours, carrying very complex meanings. Our ability to recognise these potent symbols of danger and threat goes back to the beginnings of the human race. Over millennia they have been incorporated into mythologies and transformed into the Mother Goddesses of many cultures, from those of Palaeolithic man to the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Aztecs.
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