Cupid and Psyche
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The legend of Cupid and Psyche (also known as The Tale of Amor and Psyche and The Tale of Eros and Psyche) first appeared as a digressionary story told by an old woman in Lucius Apuleius' novel, The Golden Ass, written in the second century A.D. Apuleius likely used an earlier tale as the basis for his story, modifying it to suit the thematic needs of his novel.
Envious and jealous of the beauty of a mortal girl named Psyche, Venus asks her son Cupid (known to the Greeks as Eros) to use his golden arrows to cause Psyche to fall in love with the vilest creature on earth. Cupid agrees, but then falls in love with Psyche on his own. When he leans over from a distance to kiss her, he causes one of his own arrows to fall forward, piercing him.
When all continue to admire and praise Psyche's beauty, but none desire her as a wife, Psyche's parents consult an oracle, which tells them to leave Psyche on the nearest mountain, for her beauty is so great that she is not meant for (mortal) man. Terrified, they have no choice but to follow the oracle's instructions. But then Zephyrus, the west wind, carries Psyche away to a fair valley and a magnificent palace where she is attended by invisible servants until night falls and in the darkness of night the promised bridegroom arrives and the marriage is consummated. Cupid visits her every night to sleep with her, but demands that she never lights any lamps, since he does not want her to know who he is.
Cupid allows Zephyrus to take Psyche back to her sisters and bring all three down to the palace during the day, but warns that Psyche should not listen to any argument that she should try to discover his true form. The two jealous sisters tell Psyche, then pregnant with Cupid's child, that rumor is that she had married a great and terrible serpent who would devour her and her unborn child when the time came for it to be fed. They urge Psyche to conceal a knife and oil lamp in the bedchamber, to wait till her husband was asleep, and then to light the lamp and slay him at once if it is as they said. Psyche sadly follows their advice. In the light of the lamp Psyche recognizes the fair form on the bed as the god Cupid himself. However, she accidentally pricks herself with an arrow, and is consumed with desire for her husband. She begins to kiss him, but as she does, a drop of oil falls from her lamp onto Cupid's shoulder and wakes him. He flies away, and she falls from the window to the ground, sick at heart.
Psyche then finds herself in the city where one of her jealous elder sisters live. She tells her what had happened, then tricks her sister into believing that Cupid has chosen her as a wife instead. She later meets her other sister and deceives her likewise. Each returns to the top of the peak and jumps down eagerly, but Zephyrus does not bear them and they fall to their deaths at the base of the mountain.
Psyche searches far and wide for her lover, finally stumbling into a temple where everything is in slovenly disarray. As Psyche is sorting and clearing, Ceres appears, but refuses any help beyond advising Psyche that she must call directly on Venus, the jealous shrew who caused all the problems in the first place. Psyche next calls on Juno in her temple, but Juno, superior as always, gives her the same advice. So Psyche finds a temple to Venus and enters it. Venus orders Psyche to separate all the grains in a large basket of mixed kinds before nightfall. An ant takes pity on Psyche and with its ant companions separates the grains for her.
Venus is outraged at her success and tells her to go to a field where golden sheep graze and get some golden wool. A river-god tells Psyche that the sheep are vicious and strong and will kill her, but if she waits until noontime, the sheep will go to the shade on the other side of the field and sleep; she can then pick the wool that sticks to the branches and bark of the trees. Venus next asks for water flowing from a cleft that is impossible for a mortal to attain and is also guarded by great serpents. This time an eagle performs the task for Psyche. Venus, outraged at Psyche's survival, claims that the stress of caring for her son, made depressed and ill as a result of Psyche's lack of faith, has caused her to lose some of her beauty. Psyche is to go to the Underworld and ask the queen of the Underworld to place a bit of her beauty in a box that Venus had given to Psyche. Psyche decides that the quickest way to the Underworld is to throw herself off some high place and die and so she climbs to the top of a tower. But the tower itself speaks to her and tells her the route that will allow her to enter the Underworld alive and return again, as well as telling her how to get past Cerberus by giving the three-headed dog a small cake; how to avoid other dangers on the way there and back; and most importantly, to eat nothing but coarse bread in the underworld, as eating anything else would trap her there forever. Psyche follows the orders precisely, rejecting all but bread while beneath the Earth.
However when Psyche has left the Underworld, she decides to open the box and take a little bit of the beauty for herself. Inside, she can see no beauty; instead an infernal sleep arises from the box and overcomes her. Cupid (Eros), who had forgiven Psyche, flies to her, wipes the sleep from her face, puts it back in the box, and sends her back on her way. Then Cupid flies to Mount Olympus and begs Jupiter (Zeus), to aid them. Jupiter calls a full and formal council of the gods and declares that it is his will that Cupid marry Psyche. Jupiter then has Psyche fetched to Mount Olympus, and gives her a drink made from Ambrosia, granting her immortality. Begrudgingly, Venus and Psyche forgive each other.
Relations and origin
In Greek and Roman mythology, Psyche was the personification of the passion of love. She was the youngest daughter of the king and queen of Sicily. She was the most beautiful person on the island and suitors flocked to ask for her hand. In the end she boasted that she was more beautiful than Aphrodite (Venus) herself, and Aphrodite sent Eros to transfix her with an arrow of desire and make her fall in love with the nearest person or thing available. But even Eros (Cupid) fell in love with her and took her to a secret place and eventually married her and had her made a goddess by Zeus (Jupiter).
Though concerning gods and goddesses, Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche was generally relegated to the status of a "mere" folktale, or in English a fairy tale or in German Märchen. Through a common Perrault's Mother Goose Tales and following popularity of other such collections in 17th century did folk tales become recognized in Europe as a legitimate literary genre.
William Adlington's English translation of 1566 is excellent reading and for some is still the definitive English translation.
- "Celestial Cupid, her famed son, advanced,
- Holds his dear Psyche sweet entranced,
- After her wandering labours long,
- Till free consent the gods among
- Make her his eternal bride;
- And from her fair unspotted side
- Two blissful twins are to be born,
- Youth and Joy; so Jove hath sworn."
The poet T. K. Harvey wrote:
- "They wove bright fables in the days of old,
- When reason borrowed fancy's painted wings;
- When truth's clear river flowed o'er sands of gold,
- And told in song its high and mystic things!
- And such the sweet and solemn tale of her
- The pilgrim heart, to whom a dream was given,
- That led her through the world,– Love's worshipper,–
- To seek on earth for him whose home was heaven!
- "In the full city,– by the haunted fount,–
- Through the dim grotto's tracery of spars,–
- 'Mid the pine temples, on the moonlit mount,
- Where silence sits to listen to the stars;
- In the deep glade where dwells the brooding dove,
- The painted valley, and the scented air,
- She heard far echoes of the voice of Love,
- And found his footsteps' traces everywhere.
- "But nevermore they met! since doubts and fears,
- Those phantom shapes that haunt and blight the earth,
- Had come 'twixt her, a child of sin and tears,
- And that bright spirit of immortal birth;
- Until her pining soul and weeping eyes
- Had learned to seek him only in the skies;
- Till wings unto the weary heart were given,
- And she became Love's angel bride in heaven!"
Shackerley Marmion wrote a verse version of the Apuleius story called Cupid and Psyche which was published in 1637.
Mary Tighe in her poem Cupid and Psyche first published in 1805 explains the origin of Cupid's love for Psyche. She adds two springs in Venus' garden, one with sweet water and one with bitter. When Cupid starts to obey his mother's command, he brings some of both to a sleeping Psyche but places only some of the bitter water on Psyche's lips and prepares also to pierce her with an arrow:
- Nor yet content, he from his quiver drew,
- Sharpened with skill divine, a shining dart:
- No need had he for bow, since thus too true
- His hand might wound her all-exposed heart;
- Yet her fair side he touched with gentlest art,
- And half relenting on her beauties gazed;
- Just then awaking with a sudden start
- Her opening eye in humid lustre blazed,
- Unseen he still remained, enchanted and amazed.
- The dart which in his hand now trembling stood,
- As o'er the couch he bent with ravished eye,
- Drew with its daring point celestial blood
- From his smooth neck's unblemished ivory:
- Heedless of this, but with a pitying sigh
- The evil done now anxious to repair,
- He shed in haste the balmy drops of joy
- O'er all the silky ringlets of her hair;
- Then stretched his plumes divine, and breathed celestial air.
In the later part of her tale, Tighe's Venus only asks one task of Psyche, to bring her the forbidden water, but in performing this task Tighe's Psyche wanders into a country bordering on Spenser's Fairie Queene as Psyche is aided by a mysterious visored knight and his squire Constance and must escape various traps set by Vanity, Flattery, Ambition, Credulity, Disfida (who lives in a "Gothic castle"), Varia and Geloso. Spenser's Blatant Beast also makes an appearance.
William Morris retold the story in verse in The Earthly Paradise (1868–70). Robert Bridges wrote Eros and Psyche: A Narrative Poem in Twelve Measures (1885; 1894). A full prose adaptation was included as part of Walter Pater's novel Marius the Epicurean in 1885. Josephine Preston Peabody wrote a version for children in her Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew (1897). Thomas Bulfinch wrote a short adaptation for his Age of Fable which borrowed Tighe's account of Cupid's self-wounding. C.S. Lewis retold the story in his 1956 book "Till We Have Faces".
It's probable that the 2009 ABC Show Cupid is also a modern day re-telling of this legend. The show's main character is Cupid, and his psychologist is his primary foil on the series.
Fairy tale variants