14 July 2016

Butterflies in their summer dance are
a reminder of a prayer by Kazantzakis

‘Breathe upon them, O Christ, and turn them into butterflies’ … a butterfly in Platanes, Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

In the orange-coloured flowers and bushes beside the kiosk or periptero (περίπτερο) beside Julia Apartments, where I am staying in Rethymnon, there is an exciting flurry of butterflies each afternoon as I walk by. As I was leaving the beach at Elafonisi late on Tuesday afternoon, I saw a similar group of butterflies dancing in a growth of purple flowers. Both reminded me this week of a prayer by Crete’s most famous writer, Nikos Kazantzakis:

The human heart is a tangle of caterpillars.
Breathe upon them,
O Christ, and turn them into

The prayer is found in his 1960s novel, The Fratricides, set in Castello, a village in Epirus, during Holy Week in the midst the Greek civil war in the late 1940s. At an early stage in the novel, Kazantzakis tells his readers of the horrors brought about by this conflict, and says of the villagers:

Their life is an unceasing battle with God, with the winds, with the snow, with death.

In The Last Temptation of Christ, Kazantzakis depicts Christ readjusting a butterfly on a tree and referring to her as “my sister.” In his fictional semi-autobiographical Report to Greco, Kazantzakis recalls:

It is impossible to express the joy I experienced when I first saw a grub engraved on one tray of the delicate golden balances discovered in the tombs of Mycenae and a butterfly on the other – symbols doubtlessly taken from Crete. For me, the grub’s yearning to be a butterfly always stood as its – and man’s – most imperative and at the same time most legitimate duty. God makes us grubs, and we, by our efforts, must become butterflies.

Butterflies on the beach in Elafonisi … reminders of a prayer by Nikos Kazantzakis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

But perhaps the most popular story by Kazantzakis about a butterfly is told in Zorba the Greek:

I remember one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the back of a tree just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited awhile, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened; the butterfly started slowly crawling out, and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath, in vain.

It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.

That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realise today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the external rhythm.

The literary critic Tom Doulis extends Kazantzakis’s metaphor of the butterfly to render Kazantzakis’s Jesus as “God in the cocoon of man.”

‘The grub’s yearning to be a butterfly always stood as its … most imperative and at the same time most legitimate duty’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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