Psyche & Eros

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PSYCHE AND EROS

            The story of Psyche and Eros was first written down in the second century A.D. in Apuleius' novel The Golden Ass.  It is the tale of one Lucius, a wealthy young man who journeys to Thessaly to learn magic.  He plays with magic as superficially as he dallies with women.  Typical of unconscious men, he finally goes too far and he gets turned into an ass.  As an ass he is tortured and burdened with hard work, and along the way he witnesses almost every form of human love and betrayal imaginable.   In the end, he eats a rose and is restored to his human form, and he decides to undergo initiation in the mysteries of Isis and Divine Love.  At one point in his suffering as an ass, he is forced to carry a virgin bride to a robber's hideout, and overhears a fairy tale an old woman tells to quiet the girl's fears.  This is the tale of Psyche and Eros.

 

            A great king and queen have three daughters.  The youngest is so beautiful that men worship her as a goddess and neglect the worship of Aphrodite, called Venus, for her sake.  One result is that the girl, whose name is Psyche, has no suitors, for men reverence her supposed divinity too much to ask for her hand in marriage.  So her father consults Apollo's oracle about her marriage, and is told to hope for no mortal bridegroom.  He is told that he must expose Psyche on the mountain-top to be the prey of a fierce and cruel beast.  Her wedding and her funeral are to be one.  With heavy heart, he carries out the oracle.

            Now Aphrodite, in a jealous rage over men's acclaim of Psyche's beauty, and the neglect of her worship, sends her son Eros to afflict the girl with an irresistible passion for the basest of men.  But when Eros goes to carry out his mother's plans, he himself falls in love with the beautiful girl.  As soon as she is left on the mountain as a sacrifice, he has the West Wind carry her off to a secret valley where he has built a hidden palace for her.  There he visits her at night and makes her his bride, but he forbids her to see his face.  She is content for a while, until in her loneliness she begs to see her two sisters.

            Now her sisters are beautiful with a human beauty, and so they each have married kings.   But when Eros reluctantly brings them to see Psyche, they are jealous of her wealth as well as her status as the wife of a god, and plot her downfall.  The god tells Psyche that she must not let her sisters talk her into trying to see him, or else she will bring ruin on them both, and on the child that she bears.  But innocent Psyche cannot believe that her sisters would betray her, and when they insist that she must be married to a monster since he refuses to let her see him, she forgets the love they share and listens to her sisters' plan.

            And so that night she takes with her a lamp to see by and a sharp knife to kill the monster with.  But when she lights the lamp, she is overwhelmed by the beauty of the god, and touching one of his arrows, proceeds to fall in love with Love himself.  As she bends over him to drink in his beauty, some of the hot oil from her lamp spills on his shoulder, and he awakens with a cry of pain.  He rebukes her and flies away.  The palace crumbles behind Psyche as she sets out on her wanderings, exiled from her lord. 

            The sisters have little time to enjoy their triumph, for Eros soon sends them to their deaths.  Psyche, meanwhile, is in such despair that she tries to throw herself into a river, but the god Pan stops her and warns her that she cannot kill herself.  Then he tells her to call on the God of Love for help.  Psyche wanders on, coming to the temples of Demeter and Hera, but the goddesses refuse to help her for fear of Aphrodite's wrath.  Finally, when Aphrodite offers a reward for her, Psyche decides to go submit herself to the Goddess.

            Aphrodite keeps Psyche as a slave, beats her, and finally sets her four seemingly impossible tasks, threatening death each time if she fails.   First, She sets Psyche to sorting out seeds - all sorts of seeds: barley, oat, millet, poppy, sesame, chickpea and more - into separate piles.  Psyche despairs for her life until an army of friendly ants comes to her aid, completing the impossible task by nightfall.  Next, she is sent to collect the golden wool from some man-killing rams.  Psyche wants to drown herself again, but a reed by the riverside whispers to her that if she but waits until the heat of the day is past, while the rams rest in the cool afternoon breeze, she can go and pick the golden wool off the bushes and branches of the meadow without fear. 

Aphrodite is angry and amazed when She finds that Psyche has accomplished these two tasks, and sets her a third.  Psyche must fetch a cupful of the icy waters of the river of Death, which can only be reached by climbing the highest mountain.  There, two dragons guard the spring which gushes from the mouth of a cave into a pool and then quickly disappears again into the earth.  When Psyche sees the path, she knows there is no way to accomplish her task.  In her desolation, she is numb beyond tears.  But Zues takes pity on her and sends his eagle to help her.  The eagle takes the cup and fills it with the waters of death, and returns to Psyche.  Gratefully, Psyche returns to Aphrodite with the cup. 

         Now Aphrodite gives Psyche her last, and most dangerous task.  She bids her go to the Land of the Dead and ask its' Queen, Persephone, to send back to Venus a boxful of her beauty.  Psyche imagines that her end is near, and determines to find her way swiftly to Persephone's kingdom.  She climbs a high tower to cast herself down, but is stopped by a mysterious voice, which tells her that she can survive the journey to the underworld and come back safe and whole.  She is told that on the way she will be asked for help by various people who seem to deserve her pity, but she must refuse them all and keep silent. 

Taking with her gold coins for Charon, the ferryman, and barley cakes for the ferocious, three-headed dog, Cerberus, Psyche treads the path of the underworld, holding fast to the knowledge imparted to her.  She declines Persephone's offer of food and comfort, accepting only bread and water, until she claims the box of beauty.  Then she returns to the upper world. 

            Now Psyche had heeded all the warnings, but finding herself at the end of her journey she weakens, and seeing the task almost completed, she succumbs to the temptation to take some of Persephone's beauty for herself.  She opens the box, and a shadow covers her over.  She falls to the ground unconscious.

            While Psyche completes her tasks, Eros is recovering from his wound in his mother's house.  Aphrodite keeps him away from Psyche while he is hurt, but when he recovers, he stretches his wings and flies away in search of Psyche.  Finding her unconscious on the ground, he wipes away the shadow from her beloved form and puts it back in the box.  Psyche awakens to her beloved, who takes her to Olympus, where she is accepted by Aphrodite and married to Eros by Zeus.   She is made a goddess, and in due time, gives birth to a daughter named Joy. 8