Tell me what soul means

Article published on July 18, 2007
Article published on July 18, 2007

Soul is one of those words that describe a concept impossible to prove scientifically, one of those whose definition has taken up the lives of some of the greatest thinkers without them ever being able to come to an agreement between each other. Nevertheless, we are all part of the meaning of this word that – details aside – has never ceased to signify life.

The ancient Greeks used the word psyché ('breath') to mean soul and butterfly; as Homer taught us, they believed that when someone died, their soul – as the immortal part of the person – departed flying from their mouth in the form of a butterfly. That psyché evolved in Latin into psyche ('mind') and ánima ('soul'); it stopped being a winged insect but maintained its meaning as a puff of life’s breath. Consequently, languages with Latin roots have inherited and adapted the puff: alma in both Spanish and Portuguese, âme in French, ànima in Catalan and anima in Italian. Similarly, animal means ‘to be animated’ (to have a soul or ànima in Latin root languages). If the Latin root associates soul with air, the Germanic one associates it with water. One of its legends speaks of the selulla ('soul') as 'that which flows and belongs to the lake', in other words, water as the source of life. From the archaic selulla we now have soul in English and Seele (German). In English soul is the name of a style of music as well. Also related to music but of Slavic origin there is the word dusza, which in addition to soul means, in Polish, the part of a stringed instrument that facilitates the creation of sound.

We don’t know where to place soul; it gets confused with the mind and the spirit. Perhaps, because it is the soul that defines (from the Latin 'definire', meaning to give a limit or end to) us, we cannot comprehend it. Maybe having a soul just means that you can wonder about it. It could be that Geppetto (Pinocchio’s creator) is the only expert on its exact meaning.