Soulful and spiritual: matters of the heart and mind

According to religious views, besides the carnal body, the human being also has an immaterial substance, which is immortal and eternal. In the Russian language there are two similar words that signify this substance: ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’, and each of them has its own shades of meaning and association.

Drawing by Natalia Mikhaylenko. Click to enlarge

That which is returned to God

The soul is emotional; it is related to feeling, to the human. When a couple lives harmoniously, without conflicts, it is usually said that, "they live soul to soul." If a person is open and positive, it is said that he "has a big soul", and if it is bigger than normal, they say that he "wears his soul on his sleeve". Anton Chekhov has a short story, The Darling ("Dushechka" in Russian, from dusha - soul). The story's heroine completely ‘dissolves’ into each of her three husbands and the word dushechka has come to indicate a woman who is dependent on men and lacks individuality.

If a person likes something, it "pleases his soul". and to do something well, one needs to "put his soul into it." And if there is no desire to do something, you can say that you "don't have your soul in it." At this point it should be clear that many of these expressions are identical to their English equivalents – with the key distinction that Russian uses the word ‘soul’ instead of ‘heart’, though the meaning is in fact no different.

Works of art that leave deep impressions "grab your soul". For example, a beautiful melodic song can be called "soul-snatching". Coming upon something that distracts you from quotidian life means "letting your soul go". There is a popular TV program in which long-lost relatives meet; it is called "From the bottom of my soul". In the metaphorical sense, this meaning is also used in commercials: A slogan from one of Russia's chocolate brands says, "Russia is a generous soul".

How the soul is connected to the body is not exactly clear. However, in a normal state it is supposedly located in the upper part of the body, since when a person is really afraid of something, his "soul drops to his stomach". We can suppose the soul is linked to the heart, since the heart is considered the focal point of emotions and feelings. Yet we know that it is also connected to the mind: An insane person is referred to as "sick in the soul". And at the moment of death, the soul parts from the body, which is why to die means to "have the soul return to God".

When someone is in a bad mood, we say, "Cats are grating his soul". When someone is poor, "a kopeck can’t be found in his soul".

Above carnal delights

The sensation that you have when you are going very fast (for example, downhill on skis) can be described as, "your spirit is caught," which literally means that you are having difficulties breathing. When you are running fast, you can say, "you’re speeding at full spirit".

If a person is unable to do something responsible, they say, "He hasn't got the spirit". To be successful in some kind of fight one must have "combat spirit". And in order to metaphorically define death we can use the expressions "let the spirit go" or just "spirit begone," which today sounds archaic.

In juxtaposition with the word ‘soul’, the word ‘spirit’ has a more religious accent. It is primarily due to the fact that in Christianity one of the three hypostases of the Holy Trinity (along with God the Father and God the Son) is God the Holy Spirit. Therefore, whatever is related to the spirit bears an austere, ascetic quality. Spirit is a dimension that is contrary to the worldly and the common. In the hierarchy of the ‘spiritually rich’ person, immaterial values are higher than material interests and carnal delights (an ironic definition of a starving person is he who “feeds himself on the Holy Spirit”). Priests in the Russian language are called "spiritual individuals", and the term used for their category is "priesthood/spirituality" (dukhovenstvo).

The word ‘spirituality’ (dukhovnost, from dukh, spirit) has gained a special nuance and its antonym ‘inspirituality’ (bezdukhovnost) has become particularly popular, especially when it is used to judge the products of mass culture, which has replaced interest in real values. Often they speak of a certain type of Russian spirituality as of a national characteristic that is capable of withstanding serious material deficiency for the sake of higher - religious and national - interests. On a more down-to-earth note, the excessive pathos of this word inspired the intelligentsia in the Soviet times to create its more ironic version: dukhovka, which means oven.

When the first automatic translation programs were being created, linguists chose the biblical phrase "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak". The program first translated it to English and then back to Russian. The result was: "The vodka is strong, the meat is soft."

‘Spirits’ are the invisible incorporeal substances that participate in nature and in the lives of people. They can be good or evil. In the 1980s Soviet soldiers used the word spirits (dukhi) as a slang version of ‘Dushman’, to describe the warriors they were fighting in Afghanistan.

Read more: Vova, Vladimir, Vladimir Vladimirovich: What do Russian names mean

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