Chrysalis, the disc said.
It was a shiny, silvery, crystalline, seven-inch platter of clear vinyl. The word was on the bottom half of a paper circle in the middle of the disc, in white on a blue background that faded up to a white background on the top half. And the top half said “HEART OF GLASS.” There were other words as well, and above and to the left of “Chrysalis” was a butterfly.
I was on the stage of a dark gym/auditorium of the school in Exshaw, Alberta, Canada. It was a junior high dance, circa 1980. I wasn’t officially the deejay, but I was up there helping spin the records because it was something to do. There was zero chance I was going to be dancing. Not that I didn’t want to. But no. Rejects don’t get to dance. Instead, I was busying myself with the music and with developing a resilient shell to protect myself from the myriad insults and injuries of adolescence, a shell within which I could, at length and leisure, eat myself alive and cling to a world of imagination fed by paper and discs, all while still shining at my schoolwork in my pupil role. But hey, we’re all growing, and every cloud has a silver lining, right?
It was the first time I had seen the word chrysalis. Which, since it looked like crystal and was on a crystalline single of “Heart of Glass” (by Blondie), clearly impressed itself on me as having something to do with translucent, shiny things – and music.
Butterflies? What would they have to do with chrysalis? Butterflies start as caterpillars, then go into cocoons and come out all pretty and girly, right?
Butterflies do not emerge from cocoons. Moths do. Butterflies come from chrysalises – or, if you want to be shiny and perfect about that plural, chrysalides.
Butterflies and moths both start as caterpillars and have a pupal stage. And I’m oversimplifying things a bit here – there’s quite a lot of variety in these flashy little bugs – but whereas the pupa of a moth is protected by a papery cocoon it has spun, the butterfly’s pupa molts its last caterpillar skin to reveal a hard, shiny shell it has developed inside: the chrysalis. Within that chrysalis, it eats itself – quite literally: it digests nearly all of its body, leaving just a few imaginal discs, which are the framework on which its adult body is gradually formed from the ooze the rest of it has become (providing nothing disturbs or damages it). Ultimately, like a post-adolescent learning (usually painfully) to come out of the self-protective shell, the butterfly breaks through the chrysalis and comes out into the world.
Of course, a butterfly only has to do it once and for good. Humans do it gradually, over and over and over. (We seldom get eaten by frogs, though.)
But why chrysalis? Is it because the shell is crystalline? Because it is like glass with a heart?
No. It is not a crystal, nor is it a silver lining. In fact, it’s a gold lining. The Greek original of this word, χρῡσαλλίς, comes from χρῡσός, khrusos, ‘gold’ – passed through Latin, hence the spelling. You see this chrys– root in words such as chrysanthemum. Some chrysalides are golden in colour, hence the name. It’s not related to crystal.
So, now, I hope that is clear. And do butterflies have a heart of glass? Probably not; that seems more of a human thing. But as our hair gets more silver and our years progress towards golden, we may have to shell out a lot, but at least we get to dance from time to time.