Win-laik-pya is a Burmese term meaning "soul-butterfly." (Win=the inner thing; laik-pya=butterfly). It is believed that during a person's slumber, their soul-butterfly escapes, soaring through the universe, encountering other soul-butterflies. As the owner awakens, the butterfly must immediately return.
Fear, worry, chaos, or plain bad luck can all result in a person losing this vital aspect of consciousness, resulting in living forevermore without a soul. The win-laik-pya simply flees.
Burmese children are taught not to wake a person up suddenly, in case the soul-butterfly fails to return in time to its owner.
This mythical creature features in a folktale of Burma as well. (In the story, a child's win-laik-pya exchanges places with a pig's.)
In Monique Skidmore's book Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear, the win-laik-pya is mentioned briefly:
"When two persons are wrapped up in each other, as in the case of a child and its mother or of a husband and his wife, their butterfly fairies are closely knit together. On the death of one, it is feared that the butterfly fairy of the other will follow that of the departed. To prevent this calamity a witch-doctor is asked to perform the leikpya-we ceremony."
It is believed that the win-laik-pya of a loved one may haunt the family due to unrest. (This is akin to the concept of ghosts in Western tradition.) It must be put at peace. Otherwise, an irresistible gravity can draw the living person's soul out, to follow the beloved's in death.
The win-laik-pya was the inspiration for an enchanting art piece titled "While you were sleeping," by Su Blackwell. While the artist is known especially for her paper and book-cut sculptures, this particular work features a pink nightgown disintegrating into a flock of butterflies.
(Pictures of the exhibit can be found at http://www.sublackwell.co.uk/)
What is especially interesting about this notion is that it is echoed throughout cultures, the butterfly symbolizing love/spirit. Here are some examples:
China: A pair of butterflies flitting together symbolize love, a wedding of souls. (A related legend highlights two lovers who committed suicide, re-appearing annually, at springtime, as butterflies)
Ancient Greece: Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul (as well as Cupid's lover), was depicted as butterfly-winged. Psyche means both "soul' and "butterfly."
Ancient Egypt: Death was seen as the stage in which, like a butterfly, the soul leaves the body. (The earthly body was compared to a coccoon).
Canada: Mythology of the Blackfoot and Sarcee tribes relates dreams to the wandering consciousness, almost exactly as the Burmese do.
Mexico: Esp. among Aztecs, and to some extent, modern Mexicans, monarch butterflies represent the souls of dead relatives returning to confirm to the families they left behind that all is well; we are happy.
Finland: Again, practically the same concept as the Burmese.
Russia: "Dushichka" is the word for butterfly, derived from the word for soul: "dusha"
Ireland: White butterflies were supposed to be the souls of dead children. A certain Irish blessing goes: "May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun, and find your shoulder to light on To bring you luck, happiness and riches today, tomorrow and beyond."
America: A Native American practice is to capture a butterfly, whisper one's secret desire to it, and release it. It will then carry the wish to the Great Spirit. "By setting the butterfly free, you are helping to restore nature's balance, and your wish will be granted."
What is it about the butterfly that makes this idea so universal? I've even read about a tribe in Madagascar which claims to be descended from beings hatched from butterfly eggs.
What characteristic could we clumsy, earthbound humans possibly link to the bits of brilliance flitting from rose to rose?
Perhaps it is their light, skippity flight, like blissful fairies--or pieces of our most beautiful, ephemeral thoughts--dreams taking wing.
Another explanation I found here links the butterfly to spiritual evolution:
"The butterfly exists in four distinct forms. Some consider that so do we: The fertilized egg is planted in our mother's womb. From our day of birth we are like the caterpillar which can only eat and creep along. At death we are like the dormant pupa in its chrysalis. After that, our consciousness emerges from the cast off body, and some see in this the emergence of the butterfly."
Tiny notes in the margins: For further info on butterfly mythology among Native Americans, check out this interesting link: http://www.insects.org/ced4/mythology.html
In my research, I came across this book an Amazon--The Spirit of Butterflies: Myth, Magic, and Art by Maraleen Manos-Jon. If you find all this symbolism fascinating, I am sure you'd love it. (Please share the copy with me!)