Celtic butterflies: spark of God or spark of coal?
If you had never seen or heard of a butterfly before, and one fluttered past you, and you determined to give it a name, would you name it to exalt the familiar – comparing it to butter or cream, say – or would you name it to familiarize the exalted – invoking beauty or someone or something divine?
“Why bring exaltation into it at all?” someone might ask, but (a) it’s a frickin’ butterfly, have you seen them? and (b) whoever asks that is not likely of a Celtic background. Celtic cultures – Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, Breton – have a well-earned reputation for existing at the intersection of heaven and earth, which is to say poetry and dirt.
Cornish is the once and future Celtic language of southwestern England, quite nearly rubbed out two centuries ago but more recently being revived. Its gifts to English include some place names and the personal name Jennifer, which George Bernard Shaw introduced to English audiences in his 1906 play The Doctor’s Dilemma: “My name is Jennifer.” “A strange name.” “Not in Cornwall. I am Cornish. It’s only what you call Guinevere.” And what is Cornish for ‘butterfly’? It’s tykki Duw, which is tykki ‘pretty thing’ and Duw ‘God’ – so God’s pretty thing, or divine pretty thing if you wish (even if you think that Jennifer is a prettier-sounding name than tykki Duw).
Up at in the north of Great Britain, in Scotland, they seem to see things similarly. Scots Gaelic has several words for ‘butterfly’ and I can’t say which is the most common in general use, but the readiest translation I get is dealan-dè, which means ‘spark of God’. Another one, only slightly less fanciful, is seillean-dè, ‘bee of God’.
And in between Cornwall and Scotland, aside from England, there is Wales. Welsh also has more than one word for ‘butterfly’. One is pilipala, which is pretty and fluttery and apparently (according to one source in Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, anyway) a “childish” version of pilai, which in turn traces back to papilio – meaning that it lost its reduplication and then regained it. When the pressure of time turns the greenery of a word into so much coal, light it on fire.
Or just literally light coal on fire. Because that is the other common Welsh word for ‘butterfly’: glöyn byw, which means ‘live coal’, which is to say ‘burning coal’ – apparently butterflies in Wales are often orange and black. And so we come to the exaltation of the familiar, since Wales has a long history of coal mining. But wait, there’s a bit more: another Welsh term for ‘butterfly’ – not so much used now, it would seem – is glöyn Duw, and yes, that’s the same Duw as in Cornish: it means ‘God’s coal’ (of course God’s coal is burning; one need not specify that).
But what about across the water to the west, in Ireland? The standard Irish word is féileacán, which also shows up in Scots Gaelic as fèileagan and in Manx as follican. Now, if you get your etymology from Wiktionary (which is generally not a bad place to start), you will see that féileacán traces back to Old Irish etelachán, ‘little flying creature’, from etelach ‘flying’. But how does that etel become féile? Is it some kind of phonological metamorphosis, where it went into a cocoon with bare e and came out dressed in fancy f? Those who know some amount of Irish may suspect a changeling, a substitution perhaps made by leprechauns, because the word féile (which is pronounced about like the Brooklyn version of “failure”) means ‘holiday’ or ‘festival’ or ‘feast’ in the religious sense. So the gap may be not a failure of etymology but a féile of imagination, with a fancy bit of the holy.
But I suppose all butterfly flights are flights of fancy. The same is not always true of other flights, however. When the Anglo-Saxon invaders came in and took over Britain and pushed the Celtic peoples to the edges, one group – the one the island is named after – faced a choice of assimilating or fleeing across the channel. Those that did the latter set up in the part of northwest France now named after them: Brittany (speaking of popular names for girls). And they kept their language, now known as Breton. And what does Breton call a butterfly? Balafenn. And what does that mean? ‘Butterfly’ – I just told you. OK, but where does it come from? Brittany – do try to keep up!
OK, the truth is I don’t know where balafenn comes from, and I surveyed a number of sources and followed an assortment of hunches (including the possibility that the fenn is from penn, ‘head’, and some resemblance to balanenn, ‘broom’ – the implement and the flowering plant) and found nothing to tell me for sure. If you have information I didn’t find, please do tell me! We can notice that the bala seems similar to Welsh pilai and it might well be related to papilio, but if you notice a butterfly flying in the middle of a room with several windows open, how are you to know which window it flew in through? Or perhaps the butterfly was always there and someone built the room around it. Perhaps it was a dream.
And then there is Basque – it calls itself Euskara – a language of northern Spain and southern France at the bend of the Bay of Biscay. It’s unrelated to any other language in Europe. Speculation about where it came from and how it got there has run rampant but no one knows for sure – but it has been there for a very long time: they built the countries around it. We know it’s unrelated to Indo-European languages not just because of differences of vocabulary – and, after all, it has a number of words it got from neighbouring languages, as will always happen – but especially because its grammar has features that no Indo-European language has. For some time, the Spanish government – especially under Franco – tried to eradicate Basque, but it survived like a butterfly you can’t swat.
And what is the Basque word for ‘butterfly’? There’s more than one. There’s tximileta and pilipilinpauxa (the x is said somewhat like “sh”; tx is like “ch”), and pilipilin (no pauxa), and txilipitaiña… The only source for Basque etymology I could find online (I am not in a good position to look in a print reference just now) declares all of these to be “Expressive word.” Which is like accounting for all the different patterns of butterfly wings as “Pretty.” Well, they are expressive. Might as well bask in their prettiness and the charm of unknowing.
Very nice of you to research and share the historical/etymological sources of the butterfly’s names, meanings, and their pronounciations.
How’s about adding in some sketches, photos? Would be cool to have a definitive source of butterfly info – and is it possible to also include the sounds that different types of butterflies make whilst flittering? – Or are all butterflies soundless and mute?
Surely, there is also a charming “music of the butterflies” – just like there is a “music of the spheres”
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