Psyche, whose name means "soul" in Greek, was a beautiful young woman who became the lover of Cupid, the divine son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Before Psyche could win Cupid, however, she was forced to undergo many trials and seemingly impossible challenges.
The main source for the story of Psyche is Roman writer Lucius Apuleius (c. 124–c. 170 CE), who lived in northern Africa, then part of the Roman Empire. His most famous work is Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass), which concerns the adventures of a young man who is changed into an ass by a witch and then wanders about looking for a cure for his metamorphosis. In the course of his adventures, the young man overhears a story told to a young woman who has been abducted on the day of her wedding by robbers and is being held hostage by them. The story is intended to encourage the woman not to give up hope. It concerns two young lovers—Cupid and Psyche—who, against all odds, succeed in coming together and living happily ever after.
The story of Cupid and Psyche may have been well known in the Greek-speaking world before the time of Apuleius, but no one knows for sure. The tale is very unusual in the field of Greek myth in that the version told by the later Roman writer is the only one to have survived from antiquity. There are no other independent accounts or even casual references to the story before this time, and the only other version that survives was written by Christian allegorist Fulgentius, who lived over 300 years after Apuleius. Historians believe that an earlier Greek writer did produce a long account of the story, but this version is completely lost and no one knows when it was written. However, elsewhere in Metamorphoses, Apuleius drew on earlier Greek sources for his material, and it is likely that he also did so in the case of the story of Cupid and Psyche.
Because of the comparative lack of ancient sources, some modern scholars have suggested that the story of Cupid and Psyche somehow belongs in a different category from other Greek myths and have labeled it as a fairy tale or popular legend. Others, however, dismiss this claim. They argue that, while the story certainly has many traditional fairy-tale components, the same is true of many of the myths from ancient Greece.
According to Apuleius, Psyche was the youngest of three princesses. All three were very beautiful, but Psyche's beauty far exceeded that of the other two, and she came to be regarded, first by her own people and then throughout the world, as being more lovely even than Venus herself. People traveled on pilgrimages from other lands in order to catch sight of her, and the traditional centers of Venus's worship began to be ignored.
The theme of mortal beauty becoming excessively regarded is widespread in Greek myth, and it almost always resulted in severe punishment, with some sort of dramatic or horrific reversal imposed by Venus. So it was with Psyche. Even though neither Psyche nor her parents claimed that she rivaled Venus (as was the case in most such instances of this theme), the goddess of love acted to put Psyche in her place. She instructed her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with the lowest and most wretched of all mortals.
Psyche's beauty was so extraordinary that suitors were too shy to woo her, and unlike her sisters, she remained unmarried. Psyche thus found herself living in loneliness. In distress, her father consulted the oracle of Apollo at Miletus in search of a remedy. Apollo's reply was that Psyche should be exposed on a mountaintop to await her future husband, a hideous monster. The king duly followed the oracle's instructions. This part of the story also echoes elements of other Greek myths: kings often sacrificed their daughters to monsters or dragons. The best known example is that of Greek princess Andromeda, who was chained to a rock as an offering to a sea monster but then rescued from her fate by the hero Perseus.
Psyche's rescuer was Zephyrus, the west wind, who carried the princess off to a magical kingdom. There she dwelled in a luxurious palace located in a forest paradise. Psyche was waited on by invisible servants who continually replenished her food. She found herself visited every night by a mysterious and passionate lover. However, he used the darkness to conceal his identity, always leaving before daybreak. He also insisted that Psyche should never try to find out who he was and warned her that if she ever set eyes on him or learned his identity, she would lose him forever.
After a while, Psyche arranged for her sisters to visit her in her magical palace. However, the sisters were jealous of Psyche's new life and tried to play on her doubts and worries. They suggested that Psyche's mysterious lover might be the terrible monster to whom she should have been exposed on the mountain. Psyche's lover had warned her about the envious nature of her sisters, but she was still swayed by their arguments. Psyche eventually allowed her doubts to win her over.
One night Psyche took a lamp to her bedroom so that she could see her lover's face. She also took a knife with her so that she could cut off his head if he really was the fearsome creature that her sisters had warned her about. However, when she lit the lamp, what she saw was not a monster, but an extraordinarily beautiful young man. Psyche's lover was Cupid himself, who had fallen in love with the girl while carrying out the mission his mother had given him to destroy her.
While gazing on the features of her lover, Psyche idly fingered Cupid's bow and arrows, which were lying at the foot of the bed, accidentally pricking her finger. This caused her to fall hopelessly in love with Cupid. However, at that very moment, a drop of hot oil fell from Psyche's lamp onto Cupid's shoulder. Cupid awoke immediately and fled from the building, returning to his mother. Furious at his betrayal, Venus locked him up in her palace.
Disconsolate, Psyche began to wander the world in search of her lost love. She became so dejected that at one point she even tried to drown herself. However, the god Pan found her and urged her to be resolute instead. Psyche sought help from the goddesses Ceres and Juno, the patronesses, respectively, of motherhood and marriage. However, both were unwilling to risk offending Venus and refused to help her. Psyche finally decided to appeal to the goddess of love herself.
Venus reacted angrily to Psyche's pleas. However, in a move that has parallels with the actions of a number of other figures in Greek myth, Venus did not reject Psyche outright. Instead, she set her a number of seemingly impossible tasks to perform. First, Venus presented Psyche with a great heap of thousands of mixed seeds to be sorted out by nightfall. Then she demanded that Psyche collect wool from a flock of wild sheep. Unexpectedly, Psyche succeeded in performing both labors. In the first test, she was helped by a colony of ants. In the second, a river god warned her that the sheep ate human flesh and advised her that, rather than approach the sheep directly, she should collect the loose pieces of wool attached to nearby bushes. Venus then demanded that Psyche bring her water from the waterfall that flowed into the Styx itself. The Styx, the river that flowed through the underworld, was guarded by terrible dragons. Again Psyche received miraculous assistance, this time from the eagle of Jupiter.
Finally, Venus demanded that Psyche enter the land of the dead and bring back in a box a little of the beauty of Persephone, queen of the underworld. At this last request, Psyche went to a high tower in despair, once again intending to commit suicide. However, the tower itself told her how she could enter the underworld, instructing her how to pass by Cerberus, the monstrous dog that guarded the entrance to the land of the dead, and persuade the ferryman Charon to take her across the Styx. The tower also warned her not to look into the box that Persephone would give her. By following the tower's instructions, Psyche managed to complete the task. However, like many Greek heroines before her, she could not resist peeking into the box, just as before she had not been able to resist taking a glimpse at the sleeping Cupid. She was immediately overcome by the sleep of death that the box contained.
By this time Cupid had found out that he was unable to live without his beloved Psyche. He awoke his lover by pricking her with the tip of one of his divine arrows. Cupid then pleaded with Jupiter to make Psyche immortal so that she could become his bride. Jupiter was so enchanted by the young Cupid that he granted his request, then he reconciled Venus to her son's love. Cupid and Psyche were married in a grand wedding attended by all the gods, and in due course the pregnant Psyche gave birth to a child, Voluptas (Pleasure). Reunited after overcoming seemingly impossible challenges and long separations, the young couple were rewarded with a long and happy marriage. The Soul, to read the story symbolically, as many subsequently did, was ultimately reunited with Love, after suffering many tribulations.
Although there are no references to Psyche in Greek literature, and only two by subsequent Roman writers, she was depicted relatively frequently in classical art. Psyche was especially popular in the art of ancient Rome and appeared in paintings, bronze and terra-cotta statuettes, and relief sculptures on sarcophagi. Sometimes she appeared by herself, but more often she was paired with Cupid. Some representations are clearly illustrations of scenes from Apuleius's story, while others simply depict the two lovers together. The lovers continued to be a popular subject in later years. Painters who depicted Psyche and Cupid—often at the moment when Psyche sees her sleeping lover by lamplight for the first time—include Raphael (1483–1520), Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), and Lo Schiavone (1522–1563) in the 16th century; Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), and Luca Giordano (1632–1705) in the 17th century; and numerous French and English artists in the 18th and 19th centuries. Two famous statues of Psyche are located in the Louvre in Paris, one by French sculptor Augustin Pajou (1730–1809), the other by Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757–1822). Psyche's story also inspired works by English poets John Keats (1795–1821) and William Morris (1834–1896), and various musical compositions, including the symphonic poem Psyche by French composer César Franck (1822–1890) and several operas.
See also: ANDROMEDA; CUPID; ERICHTHONIUS; EROS; ORPHEUS; VENUS.
- The Tale of Cupid and Psyche. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2009. , and Joel C. Relihan, ed.
- Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006. .
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