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Greek Mythology: Eros & Psyche

John is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in History and researches mythology and folklore in his free time.

Eros, son of Aphrodite, was a dutiful son and devout mischief maker. What fun there was to be had in power of love! And of course, what opportunities for revenge. For he had both the Golden Arrows, which caused one to fall irreparably in love with the first person one sees, and the Leaden Arrows, which gut love, tear it asunder, and cause immense aversion to a lover. His mother discovered the power of the first, when while playing with Eros, was scratched deeply with one of his Golden Arrows. She at first believed the wound a trifle… until she fell in love with Adonis. Many others learned the power of the Golden Arrows firsthand, while fewer discovered the heartache of the Leaden. Eros himself was not immune to love. He took a wife, named Psyche, and although their road was rocky, they did find happiness in the end. It is one of the major myths of Eros, and one of the few times he openly defied his mother.

A statue of Eros and Psyche

A statue of Eros and Psyche

The Myth of Eros and Psyche

Psyche was born the youngest daughter of a royal couple. While her sisters were lovely, Psyche was achingly beautiful. Men flocked to see her, and many crowded the streets for just a glimpse of this royal child. The temples and altars to Aphrodite were abandoned as the men left to see Psyche. Aphrodite, furious at the young woman, commanded Eros to take revenge. He collected water from the two fountains that sit in his mothers’ garden. One fountain held the waters of joy, the other the waters of bitterness. He collected water from both and set out upon his task.

In the dark of the night, he arrived in Psyche’s bedchambers. Slowly he crept to her and pulled the vial of the waters of bitterness from his quiver. In doing so, he also dislodged a single Golden Arrow. As he began to drip the waters onto the lips of Psyche, he scratched himself with the loose arrow. With a flash of despair, he pulled the vial of the waters of joy and washed away the bitter water. Realizing what he had done, Eros fled.

Where once the men flocked to see Psyche, now they turned away. No marriage offers were given, and her sisters were married before her. In despair, her parents consulted the oracle of Apollo. The Oracle gave them this advice, “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”[1] Despite her parent’s grief, Psyche traveled to the mountain with a solemn procession. They left her on a small ridge to await her fate. Alone she waited until Zephyr scooped her up and deposited her in a small grove. Exhausted, she slept.

Psyche entering Eros' Garden

Psyche entering Eros' Garden

Upon waking, she discovered a large palace and saw that it was not the work of any mortal man. This was the retreat of a god. All manner of art was displayed on the walls and vaulted ceilings. All manner of treasures were displayed. Moved by wonder and curiosity, she slowly entered the building. A voice greeted her, but Psyche could see no one. The disembodied voice told her, gently,
“Sovereign Lady, all that you see is yours. We whose voices you hear are your servants and shall obey all your commands with the utmost care and diligence”.[2] She was immediately fed wonderous foods and listened to the stirring music of the unseen performers. Of her husband, there was no sign.

He came to her only at night and fled long before the sun could rise. Despite this, he adored her, and Psyche quickly found herself falling in love with him. She pleaded with him at times to allow her to see him, but he always refused, answering, “If you saw me, perhaps you would fear me, perhaps you would adore me, but all I ask of you is to love me. I would rather you love me as an equal than adore me as a god.”[3] The nights turned quickly into weeks, then months. Psyche had grown content in her new home, but over time the palace chafed at her. There was none of her family there, and no one with whom she could share these delights. One night, as her husband settled into their bed, she asked him for permission to fetch her sisters to visit. He was displeased but understood. It is no light thing to invite mortals to the palaces of the gods. After some thought, he consented that her sisters should be brought to the palace for a visit.

Psyche's sisters persuade her a serpent is sleeping with her

Psyche's sisters persuade her a serpent is sleeping with her

The next morning, she went to Zephyr and asked him to ferry her sisters to her. When they arrived, she was overjoyed and showed them the palace and the art, and all the treasures. The unseen servants brought the sisters food, and the invisible performers played soft music. The two sisters grew more envious with each step taken through the palace and their envy broke through during their meal. They questioned Psyche about her husband. She managed to dodge some questions but finally had to admit the truth; she did not know what her husband looked like, nor where he fled during the daylight hours. Appalled, they immediately began counseling Psyche and attempted to convince her that her husband was a monster. And if he were a monster, she needed to know. She should bring a lantern to bed and see who exactly her husband was. It was best, in their opinion, to bring a knife as well, just in case. Psyche laughed at their suggestions, but the seed of doubt had been planted.


“I inflict no other punishment on you than to leave you forever. Love cannot dwell with suspicion”

— Thomas Bulfinch

After her sisters returned home, Psyche asked the servants for a candle. While they were occupied, she stole a knife hiding it under her pillow. Just before dusk she lit the candle and shielded it so no light escaped. Once her husband had returned home and retired to bed, Psyche lay awake waiting for her husband to fall asleep. Once she heard his breaths fall into a slow rhythm, she slipped out of bed grabbing the shielded candle and the knife, leaning carefully over her husband. She unshielded the candle just a crack. The dimmest of lights shone through, but it was enough. Before her lay the most beautiful young man she had ever seen. He was lean and muscular. Golden curled hair tumbled from his scalp. As soft contented smile graced his face, and a dimple pulled at the corner of his mouth. She moved the candle along his body, enraptured. From his back sprouted two downy white wings. Fascinated, she leaned over him more, paying no heed to the candle. A drop of burning hot oil spilled from the candle onto her husband’s shoulder. In a flash, he was awake. He sprang up, causing Psyche to cry out and swing blindly with the knife. She scored a line across his skin, and he spread his wings wide, leaping out the window. Psyche tried to follow, forgetting that the window could only lead to the ground below. She fell to the ground and lay still for a moment in shock. Eros, seeing her fall, stalled his flight and hovered above her. “ O Foolish Psyche, is it thus you repay my love? After having disobeyed my mother’s commands and made you my wife, will you think me a monster and cut off my head?”[4] Sadly, he advised for her to return to her sisters, as he obviously cared more for their counsel than his. “I inflict no other punishment on you than to leave you forever. Love cannot dwell with suspicion”[5] He finished.

Around her, the meadow and palace vanished, and Psyche found herself in a field, not far from where her sisters dwelt. Grieving, she fled to them. After pouring out her tale of woe, her sisters pretended to be sympathetic, while they truly rejoiced. After all, the god now had no wife and may seek one of them to take Psyche’s place. Consumed by this thought, they both sneaked to the top of the mountain. They called Zephyr and threw themselves into the air, expecting to be supported by the Lord of Winds. He did not heed their call, and both were killed by the long fall to the rocks below.

Now alone and despondent, Psyche took to wandering. Each day she looked at the tall mountain reaches, hoping to find her husband’s palace. She found a large temple at the top of one such mountain, only to find that the inside was in complete disarray. It was as if those in charge of the harvest scattered both harvest and tools through the temple. Psyche found a purpose in putting the temple to rights, and sorted the harvest, put away the tools, and cleaned the temple thoroughly. The goddess whose temple it was, Ceres, arrived and found her hard at work setting her temple to rights. Knowing Psyche from the tales spreading even now on Olympus, Ceres took pity on the girl. While she could not shield Psyche from Aphrodite, she could help her ask for forgiveness. In doing so, she might yet find Eros. In the end, she sent Psyche to Aphrodite’s temple. Once there, Psyche found a furious goddess waiting for her.

The seething goddess decided to test Psyche’s industry and housewifery and set her a task. In the barn, there lay an enormous pile of every kind of grain, bean, lentil, and vetches. Proudly, Aphrodite pointed to the pile. “Take and separate all these grains, putting all of the same kind in a parcel by themselves and see that you get it done before evening.”[6] And in saying so, turned and walked away. Psyche was struck dumb. She had not expected an easy task, but it would have been impossible to sort the pile in a week, let alone a few hours! Hopeless, she cried out in frustration and despair.

In another part of the temple, Eros heard his wife’s cry. Quickly he summoned a single ant and spoke to it quickly. It scurried away bearing his orders. It stirred its entire nest and marched them to the barn where Psyche sat. With the help of the ants, the pile was completely sorted just as Aphrodite stepped back into the barn. She was stunned that the task was complete and knew Psyche had help. In disgust, the goddess threw a piece of moldy bread to the woman and left her there for the night.

Early the next morning, Psyche was roused by Aphrodite and dragged out to a river. Just across the river grazed the sheep that bore the golden fleece. Pointing at the sheep, Aphrodite instructed, “Go fetch me a sample of that precious wool gathered from every one of their fleeces”[7] Easily enough done, thought the woman, and went to cross the river. Before her foot could touch the water’s edge the god of the river warned that so long as the sheep were under the sun, they were enraged. While so enraged they could easily injure a god or kill or mortal. The god advised that she wait until the sheep were driven under the trees by the scorching noon sun, then collect the scraps of wool left behind on trees and bushes. Psyche followed his advice, and in doing so collected the wool for Aphrodite. The goddess was incensed, certain that the sheep would have killed the mortal.

Finally, the goddess hit upon a task difficult enough to prevent Psyche’s return. She gave Psyche a box and asked her to go to Persephone in the Underworld. “Here, take this box and go your way to the infernal shades, and give this box to Proserpine and say, ‘My Mistress Venus desires you to send her a little of your beauty, for in tending her sick son she has lost some of her own.’”[8] She then warned Psyche not to take too long, as she needed the beauty for the meeting of the goddesses that night. Knowing that to travel to the underworld meant her death, Psyche took the box and went on her way. She found the highest tower she knew of and prepared to throw herself off the top. A voice stopped her and asked why she would do such a thing. Psyche explained, and the voice explained how to reach the underworld safely without killing oneself. It also warned her never to open the box. Pleased, Psyche collected the beauty and was on her way back to Aphrodite when curiosity overtook her. What was the beauty of the goddesses? Could this beauty help her win back her husband? Carefully, she cracked open the box. And promptly collapsed in a deep sleep, that being all the box contained.

Eros finds Psyche, asleep.

Eros finds Psyche, asleep.

Eros, now recovered, had left his mother’s temple in search of his wife. He found her where she lay, deep in the enchanted slumber. He pulled out an arrow, and gently nudged Psyche awake, amused. Delighted, she embraced her husband, who chuckled. “Again, thou hast almost perished by the same curiosity. But now perform exactly the task imposed on you by my mother and I will take care of the rest.” [9]

It was no hardship now to deliver the box to Aphrodite, who fell into the same enchanted sleep as Psyche when the box was opened. Eros, knowing it was the only chance, flew to Olympus and begged for an audience with Zeus. Thus granted, he pled his case to the chief god. Zeus, moved by the tale and strength of Eros’s love, summoned Aphrodite and persuaded her to approve of the match. Now with full approval, Psyche was brought to Olympus and gifted with the ambrosia that would turn her immortal by Zeus. “ Drink this Psyche,” he said, “and be immortal; nor shall Cupid ever break away from the knot in which he is tied, but these nuptials shall be perpetual.”[10] And at last were Eros and Psyche united forevermore. In time, she bore to Eros a daughter named Voluptas or Hedone, who became the goddess of sensual and physical pleasure.

The Wedding Feast of Eros and Psyche! See all the gods and goddesses in attendance?

The Wedding Feast of Eros and Psyche! See all the gods and goddesses in attendance?

Analysis

On the first reading of this myth, there are several important lessons that immediately become evident. First and foremost goes back to Eros' quote, "Love cannot dwell with suspicion" Suspicion can work just as well as one of Eros' Leaden arrows in destroying a relationship. While it is possible to love someone you cannot or do not trust, it is difficult to maintain a steady relationship with that person. The whole of this myth is built around that trust. Psyche did not trust Eros to not be a monster as described by the Oracle, and Eros did not trust Psyche enough to show her who he was and what he looked like. This lack of trust put a strain on their relationship.

Another important lesson to be found in this myth is the perils of jealousy and greed. Psyche's sisters were jealous of her, even more so when Psyche showed them her good fortune. Their deaths cannot be blamed on anyone but themselves. They attempted to return to the palace to seduce or otherwise convince Eros to marry one of them. Instead, when the flung themselves into the air expecting Zeyphr to grab them, all they found was death on the rocks below. The jealousy of Aphrodite can be touched on as well. It was her jealousy of Psyche that made her send Eros to take revenge on her, ultimately leading to the marriage of Psyche and Eros.

Thomas Bulfinch, the main source for this article, also served up an interesting analysis. Psyche, in Greek, means butterfly. I believe that this myth can serve as a great analogy for a butterfly. The caterpillar must be broken down completely and survive in order to become a butterfly. Here Psyche must survive the trials of Aphrodite in order to be reunited with her husband and become immortal. Sometimes the challenges are just preparing us for a greater reward.

One interesting aspect of this myth is that Psyche appears to completely obey the oracle without question. In Greek culture, it was believed that the Oracles were the mouthpieces of the gods. Because of this, they wielded immense power. If they made a declaration, it was considered to be the same as the gods themselves making that declaration. To disobey an Oracle was then the same as disobeying the gods and carried a harsh penalty for any who dared.

A Note on Names and Varients

In many cases, this myth is known as "Cupid and Psyche". In this case, I have chosen to use the original Greek names for many of the main characters. Eros is also known as Cupid in the Roman myths, just as Aphrodite is known as Venus and Zeus is known by Jove or Zeus. Another important consideration is the difference between the Greek and the Roman gods. While many Greek gods had a counterpart in Roman myth and vice versa, it cannot be assumed that they are always exactly the same. In this case, Eros and Cupid could be seen as two distinct gods. In Greek myth, Eros as the god of love is at times described as a primordial force. He is often depicted as a young, gorgeous man with white downy wings. He may or may not be the son of Aphrodite, but is strongly associated with her.

In Roman myth, Cupid is mostly depicted as a young, mischevious child. His name comes from the Roman translation of Eros. He is strictly the son of Aphrodite and is always seen as a "young" god. As time passed, he has become what we think of as Cupid today, a very young child/infant with the bows and arrows of his station, flying around while wearing what appears to be a diaper. In this case, as the myth was originally Greek in origin, I have chosen to use the Greek names for the gods.

There are, of course, several variants to this myth. In one case, it was not Eros that found Psyche asleep on the way back to Aphrodite, but Hermes, who alerted Eros to her plight and informed him of all the maiden had done to win back his love. In another, Eros disguised himself as a simple hunter. Psyche was allowed to see him in the daylight, but never as he slept, for it was then his true nature was revealed. In yet other variants, Eros is not the son of Aphrodite, but her companion. In this variant, Eros is among the oldest and most powerful of gods.

Source Texts

The quotes for this article were pulled from Bulfinch's Mythology. Quotes were pulled from pages 69-73 of the Leatherbound Classics edition. I also consulted the following websites for variants on the myth:


https://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/psyche-and-eros-myth/

https://www.ancient-greece.org/culture/mythology/eros-psyche.html

https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/cupid.html


Photos were all sourced from WikiCommons.


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© 2018 John Jack George