The Romance of Cupid & Psyche

François Gérard (1770-1837)
Cupid Kissing Psyche (1798)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Once upon a time there was a king with three daughters, all were lovely, but the youngest named Psyche, excelled her sisters in beauty so much that she seemed like a goddess. The fame of her beauty spread far and wide and soon many people came to worship her. Meanwhile the real goddess of love, Venus (Aphrodite) became neglected as fewer people came to her temples to make offerings and pay her homage.

Venus grew jealous of Psyche and turned to her son Cupid (Eros) for help. She told Cupid to go and shoot Psyche with an arrow as to make her fall in love with the most vile and horrible creature on the earth. Cupid took up his bow and arrow, flew earthward, had one look at Psyche and was lost. No victim of his gold arrows was more deeply in love than he.

While everyone worshipped and admired Psyche, her beauty was so awesome that men were fearful to express their longing and desire for her or make plain their sentiments. Both her sisters though less lovely than Psyche had gotten married. So Psyche sat sad and solitary, only to be admired but not loved.

Psyche's father began to suspect some curse had fallen on his youngest daughter, and went to the nearby town of Miletus to consult the oracle of Apollo. The oracle said that Psyche was to be dressed in clothes of mourning and placed on the summit of a mountain. There she would be taken away by a fierce winged serpent as his wife. So the sad parents prepared this funereal marriage for their unfortunate daughter. All the people of the town mourned and wept, and Psyche was escorted to the appointed mountain top and left to her fate.

As she sat atop the mountain Psyche wept and trembled not knowing what was to come. Suddenly a warm breath of wind caressed her neck and the invisible wind god Zephyrus lifted her up and away until she came down upon a soft fragrant valley far below. Psyche had forgotten all her fears here and fell asleep. When she woke, she saw a magnificient palace in the distance and hastened towards it. At the threshold of this unguarded and uninhabited mansion, she heard a voice telling her: “All this is yours. Come bathe and refresh your tired limbs and prepare for dinner. We are here near you, but invisible and will satisfy your every wish and desire.”

The food was delicious and the bath so refreshing. While Psyche dined, she heard sweet melodious music, but could not see who was playing. As the day passed she began to feel reassured that she would soon meet her husband. As night came she heard the sweet whispers of her husband's voice in her ears and realized that he was no monster of terror, but someone she had so desperately longed for. However with each dawn, her husband was gone, leaving Psyche alone in the giant palace.

As time passed, Psyche had become accustomed to a life of luxury. Because the time with her husband was only at night and so brief, she became bored and restless. One night she begged her husband to permit her sisters to visit her. Reluctantly he consented but warned her not to discuss him or the nature of their life together. Her sisters greeted her with warm embraces. But they became jealous when they realized their wealth was nothing in comparison with hers. So they began plotting a way to ruin her.

Psyche's sisters began to arouse suspicion and fear that her husband of the dark was not some handsome god, but really the serpent monster prophesied by the oracle of Apollo. “Be careful or one night he would devour you,” they warned her “arm yourself with a sharp knife, and check out his face with a lamp when he's asleep.”

Psyche's heart began to fill with terror instead of love. That very night she did as her sisters suggested and when her husband was asleep, she took a sharp dagger to bed and lit her oil lamp. When the light came on, she realized it was not a monster but the most beautiful man she had ever seen. In fact, her husband was none other than Cupid himself in all his glory. Shocked by her finding, she trembled and a drop of hot oil from the lamp fell on Cupid's shoulder and the pain awakened him. At the sight of this mistrust, Cupid fled without a word.

Psyche roamed all night in search of her husband but there was no sight of him. Meanwhile Cupid had gone to his mother's chamber to have his wound cared for, but as soon as Venus heard the story she left Cupid in his pain. She became even more jealous and angry. She vowed to show Psyche what it felt like to bring down the wrath of a goddess.

Psyche's search for Cupid was to no avail. Finally she went to Venus herself and begged forgiveness and offered to do penance so she could see Cupid again. Venus was angry at seeing Psyche, but would grant her wish if she completed a series of formidable tasks. She led Psyche to her temple storehouse where there was one huge heap of wheat, barley, millet, beans, lentils and poppy seeds— and said “Sort these grains, putting all of the same kind in a pile by themselves, and get it done before twilight.” Then Venus departed, leaving Psyche to her dilemma.

As Psyche sat in despair, overwhelmed by her impossible task, Cupid stirred up a little ant to take compassion on her. The leader of the ant hill summoned an army of his six-legged creatures to help. Wave after wave of ants lined up as if for battle and before nightfall all the seeds were arranged in ordered neat piles. Then the brave ants returned whence they had come. When Venus returned from her banquet, she was surprised that Psyche had completed her chore. “Your work is by no means done” said Venus. She threw Psyche a piece of black bread for her supper and went away.

The next morning, Venus devised a more perilous task for Psyche. “Look down in the valley below,” she ordered, “there are sheep grazing near the riverbank with fleece of gold. Go and bring back to me some of the golden wool from their backs.” When Psyche reached the river, she thought of ending her sorrow by drowning herself, but a voice bade her not to: “Do not give up hope, fair Psyche— the rams are ferocious and will kill you when you get close. Wait till sunset when the flock is tired and resting. Then you may gather the golden fleece sticking to the bushes and tree trunks.” So Psyche followed the plan and brought Venus her fleece of gold.

Venus then tested Psyche's courage and demanded a jar of ice-cold water cascading out of a mountain peak. As she approached the waterfall, Psyche realized that only a winged creature could reach it. This time the eagle of Jupiter came to her aid. He seized the flask from her with his beak, filled it under the falling mountain stream, and placed it quickly in Psyche's anxious hands.

But Venus had one final task for Psyche— “Go down to the Underworld and ask Proserpina (Persephone) to fill this box with some of her beauty.” Psyche found her guide in a tower on her path. It gave her careful directions on how to get to Proserpina's palace. She was told to bring two coins in her mouth as round-trip fees for Charon, the Styx ferryman, and six honey cakes to feed the three-headed monster dog Cerberus on her way in and out of the palace gates. Psyche followed her guide's instruction precisely and Proserpina was happy to do Venus a favor, handing back to Psyche the box filled with an elixir of beauty.

The voice in the tower had warned Psyche not to remove the lid of the box, reminding her the evil spell that befell Pandora. However, Psyche was curious to see the beauty-charm in the box. With all the trials and tribulations she had gone through, she needed some beauty potion if she was to see her husband Cupid again. She opened the box but there was nothing inside. Suddenly a heavy mist arose from its chamber and caused her to fall into a deathlike sleep.

Cupid's wound was finally healed, and he could bear no longer the absence of his beloved Psyche. He slipped through the windows of his mother's chamber, and flew to the spot where Psyche had fallen. He stirred Psyche awake with a light touch of one of his arrows— “Again, you have almost perished by your curiosity.” He wiped the sleep from her eyes and placed it into the box. Cupid told her to take the box to his mother and all would be fine. To make sure, Cupid flew up to Mount Olympus and spoke with Jupiter himself. Although Cupid had been playful, making gods & goddess fall in love with his arrows at will, he agreed to end his mischief. Jupiter summoned all the gods, including Venus, and announced the marriage of Cupid and Psyche. Mercury brought Psyche to the palace of the gods, and Jupiter himself gave her the ambrosia to make her immortal. Venus was finally satisfied, for with Psyche up in Heaven, she would not command attention and admiration from the men on earth. In due time, Psyche and Cupid had a daughter who was given the name Pleasure.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Commentary ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The tale of Cupid and Psyche first appeared in Lucius Apuleius' Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass in the middle of the 2nd century A.D., and is usually considered allegorical. The Greek word for Psyche means butterfly, and also means soul. The transformation of the dull fuzzy caterpillar into the colorful beautiful butterfly is indeed a miracle. Psyche then symbolizes the human soul, which is purified by misfortunes and sufferings in the temporal world, until she summons the courage within to accomplish the impossible tasks. Only then is she rewarded with the true blessedness and joy of eternity.

It has just occurred to me that the tasks which Venus imposed on Psyche may be related to the four elements of the Greeks. The separation of the grains corresponds to the element of earth since seeds need soil to incubate themselves and grow. It is important to establish roots, and planting oneself in mother earth is taking the first step on the spiritual path. Getting the golden fleece from the rams corresponds to the element of fire. The rams are fierce under the noonday sun because fire burns so Psyche had to wait till sunset to gather the fleece of gold (nourishing symbol of fire). The cascading stream on the mountain peak corresponds to the element of water, although the eagle who got it for Psyche is more associated with air. Psyche's descent into the underworld suggests the image of earth, but Proserpina's beauty potion which arose out of the box was a heavy mist corresponding to the element of air. Completing the four tasks of Venus represents the integration of the four elements— earth, fire, water, and air into the soul. Only then was Psyche rewarded by Jupiter with ambrosia corresponding to the fifth element— ether or the elixir of immortality.

I've used the following sources in the retelling of this ancient love story.
For further reading, consult your library or these links at

Apuleius, Cupid and Psyche, Cambridge University Press (1991)
Thomas Taylor (translator), Apuleius, Fable of Cupid & Psyche (Reprint 1999)
Erich Neumann, Amor and Psyche: Psychic Development of the Feminine (1991)
Robert A. Johnson, She: Understanding Feminine Psychology (1989)
Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable (Reprint 1995)
Michael Grant, Myths of the Greeks and Romans (Revised Edition 1995)
Doris Orgel, The Princess and the God (Reprint Edition 1997)
Marie Charlotte Craft, Kinuko Craft (Illustrator), Cupid and Psyche (1996)

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