Monarch butterflies wintering in the sacred fir forests of the Reserva de Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca, World Heritage Site


© Sylvain Cordier / Nature Picture Library


We have all heard myths in which the lightning, storms and seasons are personified by divinities, but here in Mexico, in the first few days of November, something happens that really does seem of magical and spiritual origin. To coincide with the Día de Los Muertos, millions of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) fly south from the United States and Canada, passing over the cities of Mexico on their way to their winter resting grounds. It is an amazing journey, just like the wanderings through seven worlds that the souls of the dead have to complete according to Aztec tradition. The roads are filled with people dressed as skeletons, skull-shaped sweets are placed on the altars that link the worlds of the dead and the living, and petals of the flowers of the dead (Tagetes indica, or Indian marigold) are scattered along the roads to show the spirits the way to rejoin their loved ones. According to tradition, the butterflies are the souls of the dead covering long distances on delicate black and orange wings. These two events share a powerful spirituality: the fact that these fragile creatures complete a journey of thousands of kilometres seems to support our belief in something superior to the simple, material world.
The minuscule breeze set in motion by the first butterfly that takes to the air is the signal for a host of tiny souls to return home. When the warm winds of spring allow, these same butterflies undertake the return journey, having lived for six months and give rise to a new generation who will live for only two months. The next two generations do the same before another migratory generation emerges and the monarchs once again visit the roads and cemeteries of Mexico.

Tamara Vitacchio