The Myth of Cupid and Psyche
The Divine Love Story or Myth of Cupid and Psyche
By N.S. Gill, About.com
The great Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, was born from the foam near the island of Cyprus, for which reason she is referred to as “the Cyprian.” Aphrodite was a jealous goddess, but she was also passionate. Not only did she love the men and gods in her life, but her sons and grandchildren, as well. Sometimes her possessive instincts led her too far. When her son Cupid found a human to love — one whose beauty rivaled hers — Aphrodite did all in her power to thwart the marriage.
How Cupid and Psyche Met
Psyche was worshiped for her beauty in her homeland. This drove Aphrodite mad, so she sent a plague and let it be known the only way the land could get back to normal was to sacrifice Psyche. The king, who was Psyche’s father, tied Psyche up and left her to her death at the hands of some presumed fearsome monster. You may note that this isn’t the first time in Greek mythology that this happened. The great Greek hero Perseus found his bride, Andromeda, tied up as prey for a sea monster. Andromeda was sacrificed to appease Poseidon who had ravaged the country of Ethiopia, which was ruled by her father, after Queen Cassiopeia had boasted about her own beauty. In the case of Psyche, it was Aphrodite’s son Cupid who released and married the princess.
The Mystery About Cupid
Unfortunately for the young couple, Cupid and Psyche, Aphrodite was not the only one trying to foul things up. Psyche had two sisters who were as jealous as Aphrodite.
Cupid was a wonderful lover and husband to Psyche, but there was one odd thing about their relationship: He made sure Psyche never saw what he looked like. Psyche didn’t mind. She had a fulfilling night life in the dark with her husband, and during the day, she had all the luxuries she could ever want.
When the sisters learned about the luscious, extravagant lifestyle of their lucky, beautiful sister, they urged Psyche to pry into the area of his life that Psyche’s husband kept hidden from her.
Cupid was a god, and gorgeous as he had to have been with Aphrodite for a mother, but for reasons known best to him, he didn’t want his mortal wife to see his form. Psyche’s sister didn’t know he was a god, although they may have suspected it. However, they did know that Psyche’s life was much happier than theirs. Knowing their sister well, they preyed on her insecurities and persuaded Psyche that her husband was a hideous monster.
Psyche assured her sisters they were wrong, but since she’d never seen him, even she started having doubts. Psyche decided to satisfy the girls’ curiosity, so that night she took a candle to her sleeping husband in order to look at him.
Cupid Deserts Psyche
Cupid’s angelic form was exquisite, so Psyche stood there gawking at her husband with her candle melting. While Psyche dawdled, ogling, a bit of wax dripped on her husband. Her rudely awakened, irate, disobeyed, injured husband-angel-god flew away.
“See, I told you she was a no good human,” said mother Aphrodite to her convalescing son Cupid. “Now you’ll have to be content among the gods.”
Cupid might have gone along with the de facto divorce, but Psyche couldn’t. Impelled by love of her gorgeous husband, she implored her mother-in-law to give her another chance. Aphrodite agreed, but ungraciously, saying, “I cannot conceive that any serving-wench as hideous as yourself could find any means to attract lovers save by making herself their drudge; wherefore now I myself will make trial of your worth.”
The Epic Trials of Psyche
But Aphrodite had no intention of playing fair. She devised 4 tasks (not 3 as is conventional in mythic hero quests; this is a feminine story), each task more exacting than the last. Psyche passed the first 3 challenges with flying colors:
- sort a huge mount of barley, millet, poppy seeds, lentils, and beans. Ants (pismires) help her sort the grains within the time allotted.
- gather a hank of the wool of the shining golden sheep. A reed tells her how to accomplish this task without being killed by the vicious animals.
- fill a crystal vessel with the water of the spring that feeds the Styx and Cocytus. An eagle helps her out.
But the last task was too much for Psyche:
4. Aphrodite asked Psyche to bring her back a box of Persephone’s beauty cream.
Going to the Underworld was a challenge for the bravest of the Greek mythical heroes. Demigod Hercules could go to the Underworld without much bother, but even Theseus had trouble and had to be rescued by Hercules. Psyche barely batted an eye when Aphrodite told her she would have to go to the most dangerous region known to mortals. That part was easy, especially after the tower told her how to find the entryway to the Underworld, how get around Charon and Cerberus, and how to behave before the Underworld queen.
The part of the fourth task that was too much for Psyche was the temptation to make herself more beautiful. If the perfect beauty of the perfect goddess Aphrodite needed this Underworld beauty cream, Psyche reasoned, how much more would it help an imperfect mortal woman? Thus, Psyche retrieved the box successfully, but then she opened it and fell into a deathlike sleep, as Aphrodite had secretly predicted.
“And by and by shee opened the boxe where she could perceive no beauty nor any thing else, save onely an infernall and deadly sleepe, which immediatly invaded all her members as soone as the boxe was uncovered, in such sort that she fell downe upon the ground, and lay there as a sleeping corps.” William Adlington Translation (1566)
Reunion and Happy Ending to the Myth of Cupid and Psyche
At this point, divine intervention was called for if the story were to have an ending that made anyone really happy. With Zeus’ connivance, Cupid brought his wife to Olympus where, at Zeus’s command, she was given nectar and ambrosia so she would become immortal.
“Incontinently after Jupiter commanded Mercury to bring up Psyches, the spouse of Cupid, into the Pallace of heaven. And then he tooke a pot of immortality, and said, Hold Psyches, and drinke, to the end thou maist be immortall, and that Cupid may be thine everlasting husband.“
On Olympus, in the presence of the other gods, Aphrodite reluctantly reconciled with her pregnant daughter-in-law, who was about to give birth to a grandchild Aphrodite would (obviously) dote on, Pleasure.
Another Story of Cupid and Psyche
C.S. Lewis took Apuleius’ version of this myth and turned it on its ear in Till We Have Faces. The tender love story is gone. Instead of having the story seen through the eyes of Psyche, it’s seen through her sister Orval’s perspective. Instead of the refined Aphrodite of the Roman story, the mother goddess in C.S. Lewis’ version is a far more weighty, chthonic Earth-Mother-Goddess power.
More on C.S. Lewis and the re-telling of the Cupid and Psyche myth: A Great Gulf Fixed: The Problem of Obsessive Love in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces