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The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Vital Psūkhē


The concept of the soul has long fascinated humanity, occupying a central place in the collective consciousness. In the framework of ancient Greek history of thought, the notions of it formed a vibrant and evolving tapestry. The ideas surrounding the soul that emerged from ancient Greek thought exerted a profound influence on subsequent intellectual developments, particularly within the realm of Christianity and Western European philosophy. From the Scholastic thinkers of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance humanists and the Enlightenment philosophers, the soul remained a focal point of inquiry and speculation. Even in modern times, the legacy of the Greek understanding of the soul persists, shaping the contemporary conceptions and debates. The exploration of consciousness, the mind-body problem, and ethical considerations all bear traces of the enduring influence of Greek philosophy on the existent beliefs on the matter.

This series of articles seeks to explore the multifaceted concept of the soul in ancient Greek literary, ritual, and philosophical traditions. Beginning with foundational literary works such as those of Homer and Hesiod and progressing through the profound theories put forth by philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and others, it aims to unravel the diverse and evolving understanding of the soul in ancient Greece. The series is divided into the following chapters:

1. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Vital Psūkhē.

2. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Shades of Hades.

3. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Dualism and Metempsychosis.

4. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Plato’s Tripartite Soul.

5. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Aristotle’s Psychology.

6. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Epicurus’ Soul Atoms.

7. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Air and Fire of Pneuma.

8. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Plotinus and Neoplatonism.

The Vital Psūkhē

The concept of psūkhē in ancient Greek has captivated the minds of scholars and philosophers for millennia. However, the prevailing modern understanding of psychology and psychiatry often leads to misconceptions about how the ancient Greeks perceived this fundamental concept. The Greek society embraced a multifaceted and intricate soul system. In this system, psūkhē was not synonymous with the modern notion of an individual's psyche but rather referred to the “free-soul”. The psūkhē represented the individual personality only when the body was inactive, such as during swoons or at the moment of death. Instead, various “body-souls”, such as thūmos and menos, were attributed to perform distinct psychological functions. (Bremmer, 2016). In a quest to comprehend the earliest known understandings of psūkhē, this entry turns to the Homeric texts, which serve as invaluable windows into the ancient Greek worldview. In the following text, the presented concepts will be exemplified using selected excerpts from Homer's Iliad, employing translations by Samuel Butler (1898) and Augustus Taber Murray (1924).

The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus' son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls [psukhas] of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird; thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment […]. (Homer, 1924, 1.1-4)

In the Iliad, the concept of psūkhē, meaning “spirit” or “life” carries profound significance and plays a pivotal role in understanding the beliefs and customs surrounding death and the afterlife. Within Homer's worldview, psūkhē is closely intertwined with the notion of autos, representing the self or body of a hero during their earthly existence. However, upon death, it assumes a different role, when a warrior meets their demise – their psūkhē departs for the realm of Hades, while their body, referred to as autos, remains behind. Meanwhile, the treatment of the warrior's body after death holds tremendous importance and must be conducted with proper ritual care. In Homer's epic, the prescribed method for handling a warrior's deceased body, known as sōma, is through cremation. This emphasis on cremation as the correct ritual practice underscores the significance of the body as the self and the need for its proper treatment, even in death. Significantly, the text of Iliad also expresses a strong aversion to the abhorrent act of exposing a deceased body to be devoured by dogs and birds. This sentiment is evident in various verses throughout the text, which condemn the practice of exposing the dead. The disapproval of exposing the body highlights the stark contrast with Zoroastrian traditions, as noted by prominent scholar Gregory Nagy in his commentary on the Iliad. Nagy draws a comparison between the Iliad and Zoroastrian beliefs, where the exposure of a body to animals is considered a proper ritual, while cremation is viewed as abominable (Nagy, 2013).

Figure 1: "The Death of Achilles" (Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-1635)

Both the act of exposing a body and the practice of cremation are deeply intertwined with ideas of eschatology, which pertain to beliefs about the afterlife. In Zoroastrian traditions, exposure is believed to facilitate a permanent kind of afterlife, while cremation poses a threat to this eternal existence. In contrast, within Homeric traditions, the danger to the afterlife is associated with the exposure of the body, while the underworld serves as a transitional phase for the disembodied psūkhē of a deceased hero. It is important to note that, according to Nagy's commentary, Hades in Homer's poetry is not regarded as an eschatological realm but rather as a temporary state of existence for the disembodied psūkhē. This exploration of the meaning of psūkhē in the Iliad provides valuable insights into the intricate beliefs and practices surrounding death, the afterlife, and the treatment of the deceased. The dynamic interplay between the soul and the self underscores the significance of the body as the foundation of identity for heroes during their mortal lives, while also recognising the distinct role of psūkhē as the conduit for one's essence after death (Nagy, 2013).

The interpretation of the Homeric epics and their portrayal of the afterlife has been subject to debate among scholars, particularly concerning the dating of the materials and the views they express. There exists a circular argument suggesting that the earliest material represents the truly Homeric concept of the afterlife, while the later material is identified as such because it conflicts with the earlier version. However, this argument overlooks a crucial distinction between the world depicted within the Homeric poems and the world of their audience. The ideology of death and the afterlife expressed in the poems may not align with the commonly held beliefs of the audiences who experienced the poems throughout their composition and performance (Edmonds, 2014). The Homeric poems present their own distinct ideology of death and the afterlife, which resonates with the notions of heroic glory and the poetic celebration found within the poems themselves.

Figure 2: "Odysseus questions the seer Tiresias" (Alessandro Allori, 1580)

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Paul Shorey Professor of Greek and Chair Department of Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies in Bryn Mawr College, in their article A Lively Afterlife and Beyond : The Soul in Plato, Homer, and the Orphica (2014) notes that the most popular view suggests that the souls of the deceased lack consciousness or vitality, condemned to an existence devoid of joy or pleasure. It implies that once a hero departs from the realm of the living, only a grim and monotonous existence awaits them. While there are key passages in the epics that support this bleak perspective, such as Achilles encountering the shade of Patroklos in the Iliad or Odysseus meeting his mother in the Underworld in the Odyssey, it is crucial to recognize that this vision of the afterlife is not the sole portrayal found in the Homeric poems. They argue that commentators throughout history have observed that the Homeric epics present various visions of the afterlife, challenging the notion of a uniformly dreary existence for the soulless and feeble dead. For instance, Achilles expresses concern in the Iliad that the soul of Patroklos may become angry upon learning that he returned Hektor's corpse to his father. Additionally, the soul of Ajax retains its anger towards Odysseus, refusing to drink the blood believed to restore awareness to shades, while sulking at a distance. Odysseus, during his libations and sacrifices to the dead at the entrance to the Underworld, even promises elaborate rituals upon his return to Ithaca to appease the deceased. While the interactions between Achilles and Patroklos or Odysseus and his mother evoke strong emotions, it is noteworthy that these passages explicitly convey the idea of mindless and purposeless existence for the shades. In contrast, other references to the afterlife are less pronounced, suggesting that the audience required less explicit grounding to accept the notions of a vibrant afterlife depicted in those instances. It is the concepts of soulless shades and lifeless afterlife that warrant careful interpretation, as they are attributed to authoritative characters such as Achilles, Circe, and Odysseus, who offer them as explanations for peculiar visions. These ideas are marked as special and distinct from the anticipated and accepted beliefs regarding a lively afterlife (Edmonds, 2014).

The Homeric epics offer glimpses of the afterlife that challenge the common view of the shades as pitiful and passive entities. While there are some passages that emphasise the weakness and helplessness of the dead, especially when they encounter the living, there are many more that depict them as active and sentient beings, who retain some aspects of their personality and identity from their earthly life. The shades are not indifferent to the fate of their living relatives and friends, nor are they oblivious to the events that take place in the world above. They can feel emotions such as joy, sorrow, anger, and love, and they can communicate with the living through dreams, oracles, and necromantic rituals. They also appreciate the care and respect shown to them by the living, who honor them with proper burial and funeral rites, as well as with regular offerings at their tombs. These practices ensure that the bond between the living and the dead is maintained and strengthened, and that the memory of the deceased is preserved. Furthermore, the afterlife in the Homeric epics is not a monotonous and dismal place, where all the shades wander aimlessly in the dark. The underworld has its own geography, landmarks, and inhabitants, some of whom have special roles and privileges. The shades can engage in various activities and pursuits that reflect their interests and talents in life, such as singing, judging, ruling, or fighting. They can also form social groups and alliances based on their kinship, friendship, or enmity. The status and reputation of the shades are not entirely erased by death, but rather continue to influence their position and treatment in the underworld.

Figure 3: "Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld" (Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1630s)

Gregory Nagy presents an intriguing argument regarding the nature of psūkhē in Homeric poetry. He highlights the implicit theme of heroic immortalization associated with this term, noting that the formulaic system of Homeric diction intentionally avoids using psūkhē in certain situations and instead substitutes alternative words like thūmos and menos. One such situation occurs when a hero swoons, losing consciousness without dying. In these instances, it is said that the hero loses his psūkhē during the swoon but not that he regains it upon reviving. Nagy argues that this deliberate avoidance of references to the return of the psūkhē to the body reflects a pervasive recognition of the theme of immortalisation throughout Homeric poetry (Nagy, 2013).

Thūmos is an another significant term in Greek psychology that connects psychological activity with the concepts of air and breath. Within the Homeric poems, thūmos is part of a broader group of terms that encompass the internal psychological processes of thought, emotion, volition, and motivation. Its wide range of applications in Homer provides a glimpse into the interconnectedness of cognitive, affective, and desiderative processes within Homeric psychology (Cairns, 2014).

[…] but as for you, Achilles, the gods have put a wicked unforgiving spirit [thūmon] in your breast, and this, all about one single girl […].(Homer, 1898, 9.639)
Figure 4: "The Rage of Achilles" (Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1757)

The association of thūmos with air and breath signifies its vital role in human existence and mental processes. It encompasses not only the realm of emotions but also the realm of desires, thoughts, and volition. This holistic understanding of thūmos in Homeric psychology underscores the interconnected nature of cognitive, affective, and desiderative aspects of human experience. And while post-Homeric authors may not match the breadth of its applications found in Homer, echoes of the Homeric conception of thūmos can be seen in Plato's philosophy, particularly in his depiction of the tripartite soul in works such as the Republic and the Phaedrus. Plato's portrayal captures the intricate interplay between reason (logos), passion (thūmos), and desire (epithumia) as fundamental components of human psychology. However, even for Plato thūmos loses some of the depth and complexity present in its original Homeric context. For him, it is not a separate and independent entity as depicted in Homer; instead, it becomes an integral aspect of the psūkhē, or soul, in his philosophical framework (Cairns, 2014).

Another important concept relevant to the Homeric psychology —menos— encompasses the notions of power, life-force, and activation. It is a term that is closely associated with the infusion of divine power into cosmic forces, such as fire and wind, as well as into heroes. While menos shares some similarities with thūmos, it also has its distinct connotations and applications. Its usage in Homer provides insights into the various motivations that drive characters and the power they possess (Scott, 2017).

Then he fell from out the car, [295] and his armour all bright and flashing clanged upon him, and the swift-footed horses swerved aside; and there his spirit [psūkhē] and his strength [menos] were undone. (Homer, 1924, 5.294-296).
Figure 5: "Automedon with the Horses of Achilles" (Henri Regnault, 1868)

The connotations of menos can vary depending on the specific context. It may connote power, strength, or even a divine cosmic force. While it shares similarities with thūmos, menos maintains its distinct character, adding depth and complexity to the psychological and motivational aspects of the characters and narratives within ancient Greek literature. The infusion of menos into individuals is often attributed to divine sources. Gods like Athena and Zeus are known to empower heroes with this cosmic force, igniting their prowess and granting them extraordinary abilities. The activation of menos is portrayed as a transformative experience, endowing heroes with heightened strength and courage. In certain instances, however, epic heroes themselves possess the ability to inspire others with their commanding presence and persuasive speeches. Their words and actions kindle a spirit of determination, rivalry, and eagerness among their comrades, infusing them with a sense of power and motivation (Scott, 2017).

Readdressing the challenge of understanding the subtle difference between the described notions, it seems appropriate to single out psūkhē as a more comprehensive concept. The range of meanings attributed to it in ancient Greek thought places it firmly within the realm of something more profound and substantial than mere qualities. It is an essential element that distinguishes a living, functioning body from an inanimate one. While psūkhē cannot be simply reduced to a notion of living energy, it encompasses a complex composition that defines the essence of the human self. Embracing a multifaceted nature, psūkhē transcends the boundaries of conventional understanding, embodying a profound significance that permeates the ancient Greek worldview.

Figure 6: "Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus" (Gavin Hamilton, 1760-1763)

A thorough comprehension of the notion of psūkhē proves challenging without acknowledging the myth of Cupid and Psyche, whose name is identical to the word, differing only in the traditions of transcriptions. According to the myth, presented in the Golden Ass, a Latin novel written by Apuleius in the 2nd century CE, Psyche's extraordinary beauty attracts admirers, including Eros (Cupid), who falls deeply in love with her. Fate intervenes when she is carried away to a magnificent palace and becomes the mysterious husband's wife, who forbids her from seeing his face. Temptation leads her to betray his trust, and he flees, leaving Psyche heartbroken. She embarks on a journey to reunite with him, enduring trials and divine assistance. In the end, their love prevails, and Psyche becomes the goddess of the soul (Apuleius, 2020).

The story of Cupid and Psyche, which has been interpreted in various ways by different authors and scholars, reflects a more modern view of the ancient concept of psūkhē than the earlier sources discussed before. This story, although it originated later than the archaic texts, provides valuable clues and guidance for understanding how the idea of psūkhē changed and developed over time. The story invites diverse interpretations, from Christian allegories (Whitbread, 1971, pp. 88-90) to deep metaphors that portray the human soul's quest for love and transformation (Bulfinch, 2019, pp. 79-88). The tale emphasises the relationship between love, trials, and the soul, and allows for different perspectives to emerge from its rich symbolism and imagery.

Figure 7: "Cupid and Psyche" ( Giuseppe Maria Crespi, 1707-1709)

Professor Geoffrey C. Benson's interpretation of the myth of Cupid and Psyche within Apuleius' Metamorphoses offers a captivating perspective that delves into the complexities of human perception and understanding. As Benson delves into the novel's sensory overload and the mesmerising tales of transformation, he illuminates the recurring theme of invisibility, which is evident right from the prologue with the disembodied voice. By connecting the novel's emphasis on bodies and dismemberment to Platonic metaphysics, he invites a philosophical contemplation of the human condition and our innate curiosity to comprehend that which eludes our senses. In doing so, Benson's analysis raises thought-provoking questions about the nature of perception, knowledge, and the deep-seated desire to explore the mysteries that lie beyond the visible realm (Benson, 2019). In the face of the trials encountered by Psyche as she grapples with the unseen, an intriguing argument arises, suggesting that her struggle to perceive the invisible could be seen as a profound quest for the essence of the soul. The conventional notion of the soul, often regarded as an intangible and abstract concept, is reimagined as actively pursuing the exploration of more subtle notions.

This article has explored the fascinating domain of ancient Greek psychology, examining key concepts such as psūkhē, thūmos, and menos, that shed light on the understanding of the human psyche and its connection to divine forces. The concept of psūkhē, in particular, has been shown to be more than a mere notion of vital energy. It is a fundamental element that defines the essence of the human self, surpassing conventional wisdom and permeating the ancient Greek worldview. Psūkhē is not only the source of life, but also the seat of intelligence, emotion, morality, and spirituality. It is the link between the human and the divine, the mortal and the immortal, the natural and the supernatural. By tracing the development and evolution of psūkhē from Homer to Plato and later thinkers, the entry attempted to demonstrate how this concept reflects and responds to the cultural, philosophical, and religious changes that occurred in ancient Greece. Psūkhē is not a static or monolithic concept, but a dynamic and complex one, that adapts to different contexts and perspectives. Psūkhē is also not a singular or uniform concept, but a plural and diverse one, that encompasses different aspects and dimensions of the human experience. It is, therefore, a rich and multifarious notion, that invites further exploration and analysis. The entry attempted to explore the domain of psychology in ancient Greece, emphasising the significance and pertinence of psūkhē as a key notion that shapes and informs the ancient Greek understanding of the human self and its relation to the divine. Psūkhē is not only a vital energy, but a vital essence.

Bibliographical References

Apuleius. (2020). The golden ass. Portland, OR: West Margin Press.

Benson, G. C. (2019). Cupid and Psyche and the illumination of the unseen. In Re-wiring the ancient novel, 2 volume set. (Digital edition).

Bremmer, J. N. (2016). psychē. Oxford Classical Dictionary.

Bulfinch, T. (2019). Bulfinch's mythology: Complete. Freiburg im Breisgau: Outlook Verlag.

Cairns, D. (2014). Ψυχή, Θυμός, and Metaphor in Homer and Plato. Études platoniciennes, 11.

Edmonds III, R. G. (2014). A lively afterlife and beyond: The soul in Plato, Homer, and the Orphica. Études platoniciennes, 11.

Homer. (1898). The Iliad of Homer. Rendered into English prose for the use of those who cannot read the original. Samuel Butler (Trans.). London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Homer. (1924). The Iliad. With an english translation by A.T. Murray. London: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Nagy, G. (2013). The ancient Greek hero in 24 hours. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Scott, S. (2017). Core vocab: menos. In Kosmos Society CHS Harvard. Retrieved from

Whitbread, L. G. (1971). Fulgentius: The mythqgraphe. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

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