Sunday, July 10, 2011


So someone on Twitter sent out the following tweet:

Indeed, the Greek word for butterfly is 'psyche' from where we get our word 'psychology' --the study of the mind.

This got me thinking about art museums of all things. I grew up in Cleveland. As a young adult I spent a significant amount of time wandering around the Cleveland Museum of Art. One of my favorite paintings is Jacques-Louis David's 1817 painting Cupid and Psyche.

Venus (aka Aphrodite), you see, was very jealous of Psyche's beauty. So jealous that she dispatched her son Cupid (aka Eros) to Earth to make Psyche fall in love with the ugliest man. Cupid agreed to his mother's bidding. As always seems to be the case in Roman (and Greek) mythology, things went differently. Cupid fell in love with Psyche and would visit her in a remote hiding place each night. Fearing of her discovering his identity, Cupid would slip away before sunrise each morning.

Psyche eventually figured out who came calling every evening. Her jealous sisters tricked her into looking at Cupid. When she did, he abandoned her. Psyche proceeded to travel the world looking for her lost love. She found his mother Aphrodite (talk about in-law problems!). Still being cranky at Psyche, Aphrodite had Psyche perform a series of difficult tasks which ended in a trip to the Underworld.

After these trials and tribulations, Psyche was eventually reunited with Eros. They were married in a ceremony that was attended by the various Roman gods.

Not exactly the image of psychology, is it? Is the tweet true? Is the myth of Psyche the root of psychology?  Are the trials and tribulations she faced (some call it a journey of self-discovery) the mythological essence of modern psychology? The irreverent psychologist wants to know.

Our first stop this evening is the Online Etymology Dictionary.

1640s, "animating spirit," from L. psyche, from Gk. psykhe "the soul, mind, spirit, breath, life, the invisible animating principle or entity which occupies and directs the physical body" (personified as Psykhe, the lover or Eros), akin to psykhein "to blow, cool," from PIE base *bhes- "to blow" (cf. Skt. bhas-). The word had extensive sense development in Platonic philosophy and Jewish-influenced theological writing of St. Paul. in English, psychological sense is from 1910.

All right then. The original meaning of psyche was soul, mind, spirit, breath, life... Yes I know. I'm repeating myself. In this sense we might understand psychology as the study of what animates humans -- what puts us into motion and what makes us act?

One more trip into history. Aristotle wrote a lot about the soul. In fact, he wrote a book called On the Soul. While in modern times the word soul has a religious or spiritual meaning, in ancient Greek times the meaning was very different. To Aristotle, the soul was something more akin to a form or essence--something that any living thing possessed. Further, the soul wasn't something that was distinct and different from the body--one didn't have a soul. Rather, the soul was an integral part of the creature

So is Psyche (the woman, not the concept) what animates humans? Not exactly. I don't think the ancient Greeks were thinking we were animated by love (or lust). The problem is that the myth wasn't of Aphrodite, Eros, and Psyche. The myth was a Roman one -- of Venus, Cupid, and Psyche. From what I can best gather (and mind you, I'm not a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman mythology!) the Greeks gave us the notion that Psyche was a force that animated or moved beings--an integral force that isn't separate from the being itself. I can't find any reference to Psyche being a woman, a goddess, or a lover of Eros. 

The Romans created the myth of Venus, her son Cupid, and his lover Psyche. Psyche became a beautiful woman -- an entity on her own -- and something much different than the story the Greeks told.

We might understand psychology as the study of what animates humans -- the study of what puts us into motion and what makes us act. I can buy that meaning of psychology. It's interesting to ponder how the Greek understanding of psyche and a Roman understanding of Psyche lead us to a slightly different understanding of what psychology is.

Are we animated and put into motion by love as the Roman story of the love affair between Cupid and Psyche suggests? Is love our soul--the breath of life? Certainty a significant portion of the psychoanalytic tradition have built their understanding of psychology on the Roman story. 

But what about the Greeks? Is their understanding of soul more at the root of psychology? Is the soul not an independently existing substance or drive--is it as Aristotle suggested the form of the body? Is what makes us human (beings with soul) a capacity to be human -- not being a thing that has that capacity?

...and does any of this matter, anyway? What do you think?


  1. A favorite version, by Antonio Canova

  2. Thanks for your comment and link.