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Psyche
Ψυχή

0122: Psyche. Statue by W. v. Hoyer, 1806-1873. Neue Pinakotek, München.

Short outline of the story
(to read afterwards)

Psyche was the daughter of an unknown king. Her beauty was so extraordinary that men would worship her instead of courting her. Aphrodite then, out of jealousy for her beauty, sent Eros to make Psyche fall in love with some unworthy man while an oracle said that Psyche must wed a horrible monster on the top of a mountain. Psyche then was first exposed, and then carried by the wind to a castle. But Eros, instead of obeying Aphrodite, fell in love with Psyche and visited her every night, although never allowing Psyche to see him. However, following the advices dictated by jealousy that her two sisters gave her, Psyche managed to know who her lover was. Eros then deserted her, and when their love was discovered, Psyche suffered the wrath of Aphrodite, who mistreated her in many ways. However, after several complications the lovers could reunite, and Psyche was reconciled with Aphrodite and made immortal.

"Soul, considered collectively, has the care of all that which is soulless, and it traverses the whole heaven, appearing sometimes in one form and sometimes in another." (Socrates. Plato, Phaedrus 246b).


Story of Eros and Psyche,
or How Love (Eros) came to the Soul (Psyche)

Little rascal

The Eros who met Psyche is the son of Aphrodite, a very wicked boy as some say, lacking all manners, and spending his time in running all night long from building to building, and with his arrows breaking up respectable homes.

Psyche worshipped for her beauty

Psyche was one of the three daughters of an otherwise unknown king and his queen. All three sisters were very beautiful, but Psyche's beauty was beyond description. People would talk about her as if she were Aphrodite incarnated as a mortal. Her beauty was such that she was regarded as a new Goddess of Love, and as her Fame spread many came from distant countries to witness this extraordinary wonder.

Aphrodite neglected

As a result, the shrines of Aphrodite were empty and her festivals neglected, and instead of visiting the temples of this sweet goddess, people made long pilgrimages to see the greatest beauty of their time, the princess Psyche. In this way they started worshipping Psyche, scattering flowers in her path, and addressing her by the titles that belong to lovely Aphrodite.

Ridiculous cult

The goddess disliked this state of affairs, as there is nothing more ridiculous than when a mortal is regarded and honoured as a god. For, however brilliant a human may be, there is no way of comparing a mortal, who walks upon the dirty mud of earth, with the subtle delicacy of those who inhabit Heaven.

Possible remedy

So, as so many had lost their minds worshipping a mortal as a god, Aphrodite thought the time had come to put things right, and calling her darling son Eros, she instructed him to shoot his arrows against the girl, and thus make her fall in love with some kind of accomplished outcast of a man, the worst specimen of the human race he could find, lacking rank, fortune, character, intelligence, courage, and whatever good quality one could think of, and being in the most perfect state of degradation.

Psyche feels miserable

During all this time Psyche got not satisfaction at all, because men, instead of falling in love with her in a plain way, stared at her, praised her, and paid her all kinds of honours, without ever daring to make love to her. So while her elder sisters were married to kings, the mass of admirers and worshippers were still treating her like a wonderful statue. And because of this absurd situation, Psyche, who had remained single, started feeling miserable, and began to hate that same beauty of hers, which had turned her into an object of cult.

The Oracle

Even her father started fearing that this inconvenient cult might upset the gods, which inevitably happens when humans transgress the limits of their nature, acting as if they were someone else. So he went to the Apollo's Oracle at Miletus, and there he asked where he was to find a husband for her daughter, given that all men showed such an abnormal behavior. But the answer he received was of no consolation, since the Oracle declared that Psyche was to marry a horrible monster on the top of a mountain.

The Day of the Wedding

Following the Oracle, a procession, looking more like a funeral cortege than a bridal train, was then formed to lead Psyche to the top of the mountain, and there they left her weeping and trembling until the West Wind (Zephyrus 1), suddenly springing up, lifted her off the ground, and having carried her down into a valley, laid her gently on a bed starred with flowers. There she stopped crying and fell asleep, and when she awoke she walked towards a near-by wood, and in its very heart she found a palace, so wonderfully built that she knew at once that this was the residence of a god.

The first night

When she had walked among the many wonders treasured in this fabulous castle, a voice coming from nowhere informed her that the castle was hers, and gently invited her to rest in the bedroom while she awaited her bath and the wedding banquet. When later the banquet was over, she went to her bedroom, and while she lay awake in the dark she heard the gentle whisper of her unknown husband, as he was climbing into bed with her. But after having made love to her, her husband left her, just before daybreak. And in this way night after night her husband paid her visit, without ever showing himself.

The Family's Concern and the Husband's Warning

Meanwhile, Psyche's parents and sisters were wasted in grief and tears believing her dead, and the sisters reunited with the parents in order to console them. And when her sisters started searching for her, the unknown husband warned Psyche not to listen or look at them if she wanted to avoid utter ruin and unhappiness.

Psyche's anxiety

But when she again saw herself left alone by this lovely but still mysterious husband, she felt like a prisoner in the wonderful palace, even forbidden to relieve the minds of her worried sisters. And as she knew nothing better than crying, and at the same time said that she would die unless she were allowed to see her lovely sisters, her unknown husband consented. However, he warned her that her sisters were evil-minded women, and would try to make her discover how he looked like; and that if she ever agreed to this it would be the end of her happiness, and she would lose him for ever. On hearing this Psyche, calling him "soul of my soul" and thanking him many times, said that she never would consent to such a thing. So he, overcome by her and his own love, however reluctantly, promised to arrange the visit of her sisters, and as always disappeared at daybreak.

Psyche's sisters come to visit her

Next day the West Wind brought Psyche's sisters from the top of the mountain to the castle, and as the unknown husband had said, they started to feel miserably jealous as soon as they arrived and saw the wonderful abode of Psyche. And as it is the case in such circumstances, they thought that Psyche was really not worth such goddess-like prosperity, for themselves, if they had the chance, they would know better than her how to make proper use of such masses of jewels, embroidered dresses, floors made of gems and set in gold, and all other marvels.

Misery grows

So, having been confronted with such tremendous wealth, the sisters now saw their own husbands, not as kings as they really were, but rather as beggars, and their own palaces they judged to be shabby homes; and having received presents from Psyche, they decided not to show them to anybody, and not even mention that Psyche was still alive. For through such a simple device they intended to deprive Psyche of the pleasure of being rich, because, what pleasure is to be found in possessions, they reasoned, if nobody knows about it ? But for the future they agreed to think of a way of making this proud Psyche a little bit more humble, and so to say, bring her back to reality.

New visit, new warning

Psyche

The god knew that a storm was about to come with the sisters' next visit, and he once more warned Psyche not to speak a word about him, as the sisters were scheming for their destruction and would finally urge the now pregnant Psyche to look at her husband's face. But as Psyche insisted, and now she even argued that it would be bad for the baby if she felt unhappy, the god, out of love, consented again, and as before disappeared at daybreak.

Sowing Doubt

When the sisters paid a new visit, they reminded Psyche of Apollo's oracle, and carefully put into her mind that she was perhaps lying all nights with a poisonous snake. And as doubt became the master of Psyche's mind, the sisters found her ready to receive their bold instructions: to prepare a lamp and a knife for the night and to wait for her husband's sleep, and then, with the light to assist her, plunge the knife in her husband's neck and cut off his head.

Preparing crime

Psyche, determined to follow the instructions, went back to her room, and like anybody fostering such intentions, her mind was like a storm. For this way of solving troubles never fails to create even greater worries from the very beginning. But the course of action had been decided, and when the moment came she uncovered the lamp and let its light shine on the bed.

The god discovered

Well done! But no need for the murderous knife! For there was no poisonous snake, but the sweet and beautiful god gently sleeping. Psyche could now not stop staring at his beauty. Examining his weapons, she pulled an arrow out of the quiver, and on touching the point with his finger to try its sharpness, she pressed too hard and pierced the skin, and out came a drop of blood. This is is how Psyche was wounded by the love weapons of Eros, falling desperately in love with him, forgetting everything, and letting the lamp drop on the god's shoulder, who awakening spread his wings and flew away without a word. But as Psyche had seized his leg, Eros, flying down, returned her to the ground, and there explained to her how he had disobeyed his mother Aphrodite and fallen in love with her, and how he now would be flying away from her, which happened immediately.

Psyche's requital

Psyche discovers Eros. 2116: Statue by Reinhold Begas, 1831-1911. Altes Museum, Berlin.

This is how Psyche paid back the bad advices she had received. First of all she went wandering in the woods, but later she came to the city, where her elder sister was queen of a "shabby" kingdom. When Psyche met her sister the queen, she told her how she had discovered Eros lying in her bed, and how he, coming to his senses because of the drop of scalding oil, had called her wicked, saying that he would divorce her and marry her elder sister instead. So, on hearing those splendid news, Psyche's sister rushed off to her "shabby" husband and king, and said that she had to travel home at once because her parents were dead. Having then arrived to the top of the mountain, she called for Eros and the West Wind, and taking a leap, she cast herself down and was destroyed by the rocks which cut her to pieces. And exactly the same thing happened to the other sister.

Psyche wanders, Eros is sick, and the world decays

In the meantime, Psyche went on traveling, looking for Eros, who was in no country but in Heaven lying in bed and suffering from the love-disease. But as a result of this the world had become ugly and dull because as Pleasure, Grace, and Wit had now disappeared from the surface of the earth, nobody cared for their children, or for their friends and lovers, and everybody found even disgusting to show any kind of affection.

Aphrodite intervenes

So when Aphrodite learned from a gull that this disaster was the outcome of her son's love pains, not for a Muse or another goddess, but for a mortal woman, who besides had been her rival because of her extraordinary beauty, she was really upset, and coming back to Heaven after witnessing the miserable state of earth, she threatened Eros with taking his weapons away from him and giving them to someone else, covering him with all sorts of reproaches.

Runaway Wanted

Most of all Aphrodite wished now to catch the runaway princess who would not acknowledge she had a mistress in the goddess of love, punish her, and reestablish order and affection on earth, along with the worship she herself deserves. So an announcement was made, and a reward was offered to whoever would give any information about Psyche, and the reward was this:

"Seven sweet kisses from the mouth of Aphrodite herself, and one exquisitely delicious thrust of her honeyed tongue between his pursed lips." [Apuleius, The Golden Ass]

Psyche and Charon. print013: A. Zick: Psyche and Charon, art journal c.1892.

Old Habit catches Psyche

It is not known if Old Habit, who finally caught Psyche, received the promised reward, or whether he was able to enjoy it. In any case Psyche was brought to Aphrodite, who promised her the sort of welcome that a good mother-in-law is bound to give her son's wife, and clapping her hands the goddess called her attendants Anxiety and Grief, and gave Psyche over to them for a lesson.

Psyche punished with tasks

When Anxiety and Grief had done their job, torturing Psyche in all possible ways, they brought her back to Aphrodite, who let the pregnant girl know that she was not at all happy to become the grandmother of what she called a bastard. So she gave Psyche some impossible tasks to work on, like classifying huge quantities of different grains, just to see, she said, how industrious she was. But even if in every task Psyche was helped by someone who felt pity for her, she nurtured the desire of ending her miserable life, and went about planning how she would take her life. And take her life was what Aphrodite herself seemed to desire, because finally she ordered Psyche to fetch water from the river Styx, a task she only survived thanks to Providence, who always notice when innocent souls are in trouble, and Zeus' Eagle, who filled the jar with the requested Stygian water.

Most difficult task

So when Psyche returned with the water in the jar, Aphrodite thought she must be a clever and wicked witch, and gave her yet another task: to go to Queen Persephone in the Underworld carrying a box and ask the queen of the dead for a little of her beauty, and having done so, bring the box back to Aphrodite, who had to make such a drain of her own beauty while taking care of her sick son by night.

Guide to the Underworld

Psyche thought that the most direct way to the Underworld was to jump from a tower, but as she was about to take her life, the tower broke into human speech, dissuaded her of taking a way without return, and instructed her about the entrance to the Underworld that may be found at Taenarum in southern Hellas, and about the convenience of taking with her two pieces of barley bread soaked in honey for the Hound of Hades, and two coins in her mouth for the greedy ferryman Charon (one for the arrival and one for the return). For Avarice lives in the Underworld, and there they do not do anything for nothing, which in fact makes it difficult for poor people to achieve true death, as they instead had to wander without hope on this side of the river Styx, which is in fact similar to their fate on earth, where they are prevented to achieve true life. Psyche was also instructed not to feel pity for anybody in the Underworld, and never grant the requests of the dead, as hauling them into the boat or giving any kind of help, for Pity is strictly forbidden in that world.

Psyche in the Underworld

Psyche did what she was told, and when she met Persephone, still following instructions she sat on the ground instead of on the cushioned chair she was offered, and she refused the meal that was served in front of her. For he who eats in the Underworld has to stay there for ever, and he who sits in that chair forgets everything. So Persephone, having listened to Psyche, filled the box as the girl requested, and Psyche was allowed to return to the world of lovely light.

Curiosity puts Psyche in danger again

But as before Psyche could not restrain her curiosity, and thinking besides that taking a tiny touch of the beauty contained in the box would show that she was clever and not a fool who lets go by such an splendid opportunity, she opened the box, but out crept not beauty but truly Stygian sleep, and falling to the ground, she lay like a corpse, the open box beside her.

Eros rescues Psyche

As Aphrodite holds her son's bow Eros is married to Psyche. 2303: The marriage of Eros and Psyche. Painting by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, 1708-87. Gemälde Galerie Kulturforum, Berlin.

Now Psyche would have slept for ever, had not Eros, now recovered from his sickness, come to her and awakened her, which was bound to happen. For there is no place for Love to dwell except in the Soul, who animates all things, and there is no meaning for the Soul to live and be awake except for the sake of Love. So Eros shut the cloud of sleep up again in the box and roused Psyche with the harmless prick of an arrow.

Eros helped by Zeus

Eros now consoled Psyche, but fearing his mother, he flew off to Heaven, and casting himself as a suppliant at the supreme god's feet, he pleaded his case. So Zeus, who had been defiled by Eros so many times, found on this occasion the opportunity to prevent Eros, by marrying him, from shooting so many arrows at his divine heart, so often and in such an unpredictable manner. Zeus then called a council of the gods in which he informed his decision, that Eros was to marry Psyche, possess her, and cherish her for all times to come.

Immortality and offspring

This is how Psyche, through Eros' office, entered Heaven and gained immortality. For as Love cannot dwell in any other place but the Soul, the Soul cannot enter Heaven but through Love. And Lucius Apuleius, who, as far as it is known, was the only one to have ever written these facts, though he himself denies to have committed them to writing, says that the child of Eros and Psyche was named Pleasure.


Family 

Parentage

Mates

Offspring

Notes

unknown king & unknown queen

Volupta

Volupta is Pleasure.

Related sections
Sources
Abbreviations

Apuleius, The Golden Ass 4.28, 6.20.

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