The Story of the Psychology Symbol (Ψ)
The story of the psychology symbol involves some mythology and the strange evolution of the term “psi” (Ψ). It’s the twenty-third letter in the Greek alphabet, and at some point, the Romans transliterated it to form the word psyche. It meant butterfly in Latin, but it went on to mean things like breeze, breath, energy, and finally soul.
Anyone who’s studied psychology will remember how when they got to college, this strange symbol would show up just about everywhere. Books, professor’s offices, informational notes… Anyone curious about this branch of science will recognize it too, because it’s become part of a culture of symbols that’s common in a lot of other disciplines, like philosophy and “phi” (Φ).
“The word psychology originated from the fusion of Greek words ψυχή and λογία.”
Still, there are times when we take these symbols at face value and don’t think much of them. It’s also true that a lot of us believe in urban legends that distort some of the magic of our roots. Along these lines, it’s common to hear people say the psychology symbol (Ψ) is a trident. More specifically, they say it’s the devil’s trident.
This incorrect theory has its origins in the times when people saw mental illness as demonic possession. Mental disorders had supernatural sources like spells and witchcraft, things beyond human control. That meant everything was in the hands of the church, and, of course, the stake. But nothing could be farther from the truth. So let’s look at the real origins of the psychology symbol.
The history of the psychology symbol (Ψ), the science of the soul
In ancient Greek, the word psyche (as we mentioned earlier), meant butterfly. This insect was also a symbol for the breath of life, a breeze, a life-giving wind… Little by little, thanks to the Roman Empire’s influence, the word ended up symbolizing the human soul. What they saw it as was our life-force, also known as “ka” in Egyptian culture.
The Greeks and Romans had a very specific view of the soul when it came to people. One of their beliefs was that, when someone died, that “ka” the Egyptians talked about would leave their body in the form of a breath of air. That breath would take the shape of a butterfly. There was nothing terrifying about that image in their mind, either. For them, butterflies represented light, change, and hope.
The history of the psychology symbol took on that term, psyche. Later on, it would come “logia” (ψυχή and λογία). This is how, over time, its etymological meaning went from “the science of the soul” to the science of the mind”. Naturally, the symbol “Ψ” was used as its primary symbol, like an abbreviation.
The myth of Eros (Cupid) and Psyche
In Greek mythology, the word “psyche” means more than just butterfly, soul, and mind. Psyche was also a goddess, a beautiful being with butterfly wings. Her love story is one of the most beautiful love stories of all time and it was immortalized by Apuleius in Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass).
According to the story, out of the King of Anatolia’s three daughters, there was one who was truly special. She was so delicate, attractive, and full of joy that Aphrodite herself became jealous, seeing this young woman as a rival. She was so desperately jealous that she immediately sent her son, Eros (Cupid), to shoot her with his arrows. She wanted young Psyche to fall for the most terrible, ugly, and heartless man in all of Anatolia.
But nothing went according to plan. Instead, it was her son, Eros, who fell for Psyche. Unable to stop himself, the young god decided to go to her room every night to win her over and make her his. And so it was. Psyche fell head over heels for a stranger who visited her each night in the dark. She couldn’t even see his face. The stranger was a god who wanted to keep his identity a secret.
But something went wrong. When Psyche told her sisters about it, they told her she shouldn’t continue the relationship if she didn’t see her mysterious lover’s face. So that’s what she did. While Eros was sleeping in her bed, she brought a lamp close to his face. In that moment, Aphrodite’s son woke up and stormed out, absolutely enraged by Psyche’s audacity.
The trials of Psyche
Inconsolable, downhearted, and regretful, the King of Anatolia’s daughter went to Aphrodite to ask for help. Eros’ mother saw this as an opportunity to get the upper hand on her. She saw it as her chance to rid the world of this woman who rivaled the goddess of beauty herself. She gave her four trials, four tasks to complete if she wanted to have Eros’ love and forgiveness. But the trials involved going to the underworld, facing Cerberus, traveling with Charon, and later on with Hades in order to reach Persephone and ask her for some of her beauty, which she kept in a little box.
Against all expectations, quick-witted Psyche showed she wasn’t only beautiful. She was also clever, brave, and full of determination. But just when she made it through every challenge and got Persephone’s box, she had a moment of vanity and curiosity. She decided to open the box to see what was inside, and take some of the beauty for herself. That’s when she fell victim to its trap: the stygian dream. Thankfully, a familiar hand pulled the cursed box away from her eyes. The hand’s familiar skin comforted her, and the hopeful face of its owner immediately brought her joy back. It was Eros, who had now forgiven her and come to her rescue.
There couldn’t have been a happier ending for this magical couple. Aphrodite stopped being envious towards her son’s lover and danced with them at their wedding. Zeus decided to make Psyche immortal. Now, that brave, beautiful woman with butterfly’s wings also represents the psychology symbol “Ψ”.