The mythological tale of Cupid and Psyche is one of the few Greek and Roman myths that has not fully become assimilated into modern consciousness. Though adapted somewhat into the better known “Beauty and the Beast”—first written by French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont as “La Belle et la Bête”—the correlation to the earlier ancient text is relatively unrecognized.
Cupid, known as Eros in Greek, is often still portrayed as a chubby baby cherub with a fondness for arrows, and Psyche is still predominately unknown outside the psychological community –”psyche” means ” soul” in ancient Greek and was subsequently utilized in the literature of psychologists.
However, in the ancient world, Cupid and Psyche’s love was well documented and appreciated among the literary scholars. Although its original Greek form is now lost, the length of the text remains within Lucius Apuleius’ ‘ The Golden Ass ,’ a side anecdote that—in many ways—overshadows the remainder of the novel.
Once upon a time…
Cupid and Psyche’s narrative begins as most modern fairy tales do: with a kingdom, a daughter with an insurmountable burden over her head, a trial, and a subsequent moral. It is as follows: a king and queen give birth to three daughters, but only the third possesses unearthly beauty. Apuleius’ text claimed that her beauty was so astounding the “poverty of language is unable to express its due praise.”
Rumors spread of this girl, Psyche’s, astounding loveliness, eventually reaching the ears of the Roman goddess Venus. Angry that so many mortals were comparing Psyche’s beauty to her own—and in many ways claiming that the mortal surpassed her—Venus called upon her son Cupid to demand that he use one of his arrows of desire to ensure Psyche fall in love with a human monster.
Obedient as always to his mother, Cupid descended to the earthly plane to do as she wished. Yet he was so astonished himself by the mortal princess’s beauty that he mistakenly shot himself. From that moment, Cupid was irrevocably in love with the princess.
An Unsettling Prediction for the Princess
Around this time, it became evident to her parents that Psyche’s attractiveness had angered the gods , as no mortal man would take her hand in marriage. Imploring the temple of Apollo, they learned that Psyche was destined for a much worse fate than celibacy: “The virgin is destined for the bride of no mortal lover. Her future husband awaits her on the top of the mountain. He is a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”
Psyche, conscious of the mistakes of her mortal kingdom for praising her so highly, was content to follow the oracle’s advice .
From the top of the highest cliff, dressed in funerary garbs, Psyche was swept away by the west wind, Zephyr. She was brought to a striking valley, in the center of which stood a palace so magnificent it could not have been built by any hands other than the gods’. Surrounded by luscious trees with a crystalline fountain at its heart, Psyche soon concluded that this golden hall would be her new home, further reiterated by the voice of her new husband echoing through the halls.
This faceless stranger began to visit her in the night, every night, to make love to her in the darkness. But despite his nighttime tenderness, Psyche was haunted by the oracle’s claim that he was a monster.
Psyche’s Betrayal Damns Her Relationship
When she allowed her two sisters to visit, they were jealous of her beautiful home and insisted that if Psyche’s husband really was a monster she owed it to herself to find out. So Psyche was convinced to break her husband’s only request of allowing his face to remain a secret. She gazed upon him in the night and in doing so, she damned their relationship.
A single drop of oil fell from the candle Psyche lit to gaze at his face, waking him, and Cupid, in all his majestic beauty, fled their home, distressed by her betrayal. Distraught, Psyche went in search of her husband, traveling for many days, until she came to the temple of Ceres, the motherly goddess of grain.
Ceres instructed Psyche to surrender herself to Venus and take whatever ill will the goddess would throw at her. Obeying Ceres’ advice, Psyche was thus given three seemingly impossible tasks to complete. First, the princess had to separate the grains of Venus’ temple’s storehouse into piles of barley, millet, beans, etc.
Second, Psyche had to steal golden wool from a herd of sheep; third and finally, Psyche was ordered to travel into the Underworld and request from Queen Proserpina a little of her beauty to pass along to the goddess of love. This task, however, demanded a further challenge: that Psyche keep the box in which the beauty is placed tightly closed, for fear of terrible repercussions.
Cupid and Psyche’s Reunion
Unknown to Psyche, throughout these trails, Cupid was constantly at her aid. He instructed ants to help her sort the grains; and then the river god offered her instructions on how to steal the prize fleece from the shepherd. Finally, Psyche was given divine advice on how to surpass the dangers of Hades.
Her failure—foretold by Venus herself—came when Psyche, greatly upset by the trials she had to overcome, opened the box and was overcome by the Stygian sleep , a sleep so strong she was considered the living dead.
By that point, Cupid had had enough of his separation from his wife, and he flew to her rescue, lifting her sleeping form to the heavens, and pleading with the god Jupiter to talk sense into his mother.
Venus lifted her terrible curse from the girl, and once Psyche was awake, she was transformed into an immortal, and was properly wed to the young god of desire.