Butterfly Migration and Axiom of Maria

The topic of my dissertation at Pacifica was on the interweaving of psychological, spiritual, and biological migration.  The work began using a medieval Sufi text on birds, but expanded to include among others, a “bird-like” migrant. I am working on a paper about this topic, and would like to share some of the ideas here.

Numerous authors write about the environmental hazards contributing to the decline of the monarch butterfly.  One of the issues for this species is that it migrates across international boundaries and needs to be protected on its wintering grounds in Mexico, its breeding grounds in the United States and Canada, and the expanse of its migratory pathway across the three countries.

The monarch butterfly accomplishes this migratory journey via a complex life history pattern involving generations of monarch butterflies to complete the roundtrip.  It is the inter-generational pattern of the journey that I am interested in here.  In particular I explore the migration of monarch butterflies in relation to alchemy and specifically to the Axiom of Maria.  Jung uses this axiom as a metaphor to describe the individuation process. 

On January 23, 2009, I had a dream about numbers that ended with “this is the numerical equation of life.”  Soon after, while watching a TV show on monarch butterfly migration, a connection between monarchs and the Axiom of Maria appeared.  As I listened to the narrator and watched a map of the northward migration of butterflies unfold on the TV screen, an image of the Axiom of Maria unfolded within. 

According to Jung, the individuation process is symbolized by the Axiom of Maria.  Maria Prophetissa lived in Alexandra in the third century and coined the axiom “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth” (Jung, 1953/1968b).   Daryl Sharp (1991) describes the Axiom of Maria in psychological terms:

One is the original state of unconscious wholeness; two signifies the conflict between opposites; three points to a potential resolution; the third is a transcendent function; and the one as the fourth is a transformed state of consciousness, relatively whole and at peace.  (p. 33)

Wolfgang Pauli, a physicist who worked with Jung, dreamt of mathematics as symbols involving the Axiom of Maria.  Marie-Louise von Franz used the axiom to describe a Navaho painting.

 Monarch butterflies have an unusual and mysterious migration pattern as described on the NOVA television program, “The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies,” which aired on January 27, 2009 (de Pencier & Arledge, 2008).  The journey described is the unique roundtrip migration of the monarch butterfly population between Mexico and Canada.  The narrator describes the movement, beginning in the north at the end of the breeding season.  She begins with the fourth generation of butterflies, and describes them as special because they migrate from Canada and the northeastern United States all the way to Mexico.  It is a journey of 2000 miles and takes two months.  “Their trip is part of a carefully timed cycle that begins three generations back when a group of monarchs left Mexico at the end of winter . . . .  It’s an amazing natural cycle that so far eludes explanation [emphasis added]” (de Pencier & Arledge, 2008).

The monarchs who migrate south overwinter in Mexico for nearly five months.   They converge together in massive assemblages on trees for warmth and protection, only leaving the trees to consume water and nectar.  As the winter transitions to spring, butterflies initiate northward movement.  They depart Mexico and migrate to the southern United States where they mate and die, having lived for nine months after being born in Canada.  Their offspring, the second generation, migrate farther north where they mate and die, living only one month.  The third generation migrates to the northern United States and Canada where they mate and die, again living only one month. “And almost a full year since the migration began, that special fourth generation of monarchs will be born in Canada and the miraculous migration will begin again” (de Pencier & Arledge, 2008).

Three generations of monarch butterflies sequentially migrate north and breed, but only one generation reverses direction and migrates south.  Here we have three plus one, the Axiom of Maria expressed in nature.  The first generation becomes the second generation, the second generation becomes the third generation, and out of the third generation comes the first generation as the fourth generation.  The fourth generation makes the migratory journey south completely on its own and overwinters to become the first generation in the next year.  This is the Axiom of Maria in biological form: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth” (Jung, 1953/1968b).  The fourth generation becomes “the one” in several ways; it is the only generation to make the migration journey on its own from north to south, and it is the first generation of the next breeding season.

The above information was based on the NOVA television program on monarch butterflies.  The scientist in me took this further and found that in the scientific literature the migration pattern is not this clear.  There may be more or less generations of butterflies in this migratory system.  The actual number of generations remains part of the mystery.  But whatever the number of generations, the number retrogrades back to the “primal one.”  Whatever the absolute reality of this system, it still serves as an imaginal and metaphorical example of this alchemical axiom in nature in a species that has long been connected to psyche.

The task for the monarchs is to get to Mexico to overwinter and to begin the breeding season the next year; the requirement is to get the fourth back as the one.  Psychologically, this observed migration pattern is similar to the journey in fairytales or the individuation process, where the most difficult work is getting the treasure home.  Von Franz (1990) argues that the “treasure hard to obtain” is a metaphor for the archetype of the Self.  Thus, the treasure is the Self, “an ultimately unknowable inner center of the total personality and also the totality itself.”  Metaphorically, the population of monarchs here represents the Self and the difficult journey we take to find it.  Each individual butterfly, each part of psyche, contributes to something greater than itself.  Through an ongoing death and rebirth process, the presence of generations of butterflies permits the use of milkweed (Ascelpius species) to the north and then a return home to the south. 

Marie-Louise von Franz (1974) writes that her book Number and Time is, “an attempt to explain the paradoxical multiplicity and unity of the Self archetype which denotes psychic wholeness.”  The numinous migration pattern observed in monarch butterflies is a metaphor for the paradoxical multiplicity and unity of the Self.  A multiplicity of generations is required to manifest the unity of this population acting as the Self and as a symbolic expression of the individuation process.  Each individual butterfly does its part and contributes to the Self and continuation of the population of butterflies, to a treasure greater than what is knowable or imaginable to the individual butterfly. 

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Comment by Linda AK Thompson, PhD on April 16, 2016 at 10:51pm

Hi Lynn - great article and the synchronicity between 4th generation monarch butterflies and 4th generation human beings - transgenerational healing potential of deeply embedded, traumatogenic matter/states...as Bonnie refers to below is evolutionary and mystical phenomena at its best.  To be the 4th ones positioned to not only survive to receive and pay forward -  an unknown, unbelievable link to/from our ancestors towards healing is mind-altering and life-changing.  For us in here to be able to discuss 4th generation monarchs and human mystery planes in and of itself feels profoundly anamolous...collectively reflecting upon the holy sacred air and ground...even scribing about this in here is enough to transport me back to some unforgettable moments - transformational.  Grateful for this post.  Peace + Love Linda

Comment by Lynn Gordon on May 14, 2015 at 11:00pm

Randy, It is interesting you speak of the spirit of the depths.  With all of the time I have dedicated to "reverie"  - the ah-ha moment around the topic of migration and the axiom of maria appeared while working as a caregiver, sitting in the dining room with the woman I worked for and watching tv.

Comment by Lynn Gordon on May 14, 2015 at 7:32pm


The Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes of multiplicity and oneness -

“Oneness and multiplicity are in a continual dance, a constant and endless process of creation. . . . The relationship between oneness and multiplicity is one of the secrets of creation. All of the changing forms of life arise within this dance. And the relationship between oneness and multiplicity is not fixed. It has the potential to evolve, to change its patterns of revelation. This is one of the patterns behind what we call evolution. "

Comment by Bonnie Bright on May 14, 2015 at 4:07pm

Lynn: The image of the butterfly is core for depth psychology, as you point out, and it's migration as a metaphor for the individuation process resonates with me.

This idea that the migration continues over generations is a critical piece of the puzzle as new research is telling us that we each carry memories from our ancestors in our genes—they are literally embedded in our bodies, so that each new generation has a new opportunity to heal the wounds of the past in the present moment, both for our individual benefit, but also for the collective trauma and wounding that is going on. 

I would love to have a discussion here and/or by phone with a small group of people who are interested in the butterfly on all these levels: literally, metaphorically, archetypally. If others who read this are interested in participating in a small group discussion to explore the topic, please message me on my profile page!

Comment by Randy Westfall on May 14, 2015 at 6:09am

"A multiplicity of generations is required to manifest the unity of this population acting as the Self and as a symbolic expression of the individuation process."

One can sense the spirit of the depths at work in this excellent metaphor.

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Comment by Alan A. MacKenzie on May 9, 2015 at 1:29am

I just returned from a week-long retreat in Auckland, NZ concerning the sage sayings of the early Desert Fathers & Mothers.  Our sensei spoke of this very notion, as she explained our spiritual development from dualistic to Unitive consciousness, through deliberate meditation.  Your expression "The numinous migration pattern observed in monarch butterflies is a metaphor for the paradoxical multiplicity and unity of the Self" reminded me of Cynthia's teachings.  Thank you for this 'confirmation' of the wisdom tradition!

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