Psyche and Cupid: the ancient story with a happy-ever-after

Psyche and Cupid: the ancient story with a happy-ever-after

Psyche and Cupid: the ancient story with a happy-ever-after

Psyche and Cupid

Researching my latest novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, was an absolute pleasure, for it involved reading up on ancient mythology. I was especially interested, as the novel’s title conveys, in stories of the gods; but as my heroine Oriel points out in the book, so many of the stories of the ancient civilisations end in tragedy. Not so, I am glad to share, for my favourite love story inspired by mythology, that of Cupid and Psyche.

Cupid was the Roman god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection, and his Greek counterpart was Eros. Psyche is Greek for ‘soul’ (hence the use of the word in modern times in relation to psychoanalysis). The story of Cupid and Psyche was first committed to paper in the second century AD by the Roman writer Apuleius, but in fact the tale of Eros and Psyche dated back much further, as evidenced by depictions in Ancient Greek art.

The story of Cupid and Psyche, as written by Apuleius, is long and detailed, but here is a condensed version:

The story begins with a beautiful princess. So beautiful, in fact, that the goddess Venus is threatened by her. How dare the mortals admire this Psyche rather than her? Venus orders her son, Cupid, to deal with Psyche by using one of his arrows to make her fall in love with a monster. But he scratches himself with his own arrow, and when he sees Psyche he falls completely, irrevocably in love with her.

Psyche’s father, meanwhile, goes to see the oracle of Apollo to ask why Psyche has not found love like her two sisters. The oracle’s answer: she will be taken by a fearsome dragon-like creature and bear his monstrous offspring. Her father is horrified, but apparently resigned to her fate. He leaves her, dressed in funeral attire, in a rocky crag, to be claimed.

The West Wind bears Psyche to a meadow, where she finds a beautiful and luxurious house of gold. There she is to live, alone – but for a ghostlike presence which makes itself known through whispers. That night, the monster comes to her in the darkness and makes her his wife. She cannot see him, she can only feel him. He comes to her every night, but is gone by sunrise.

He, of course, is no monster. He is Cupid.

Meanwhile, Psyche’s family has become concerned about her fate. Cupid allows the West Wind to bring her sisters so that they may see she is safe – and happy even, for she is with child. The sisters are awed by the luxury in which they find Psyche living, and very, very curious about the monster who is her husband. ‘You have not seen him – not ever?!’ they exclaim when Psyche tells them all. With their cajoling, she decides that really is a situation that must be remedied.

So comes the night that Psyche hides a lamp in her bedroom, and lights it once her husband is sleeping. But it is no monster she sees in the light; it is the most attractive man she has ever seen. In her shock, she stumbles, spilling oil from her lamp. The commotion awakens Cupid – and discovering he has been outed, he flees.

Psyche is left alone, heartbroken for her lost love, wandering the land in search of him. Ultimately, she is drawn to the gods, and she helps in temples dedicated to Ceres and Juno – and then, Venus herself. Venus is gleeful that she may punish Psyche: she beats her and mocks her, and then sets her a series of apparently impossible tasks. For each task, however, Psyche receives help, arranged by Cupid, from wildlife and even other gods who take pity on her; until during her final trial, when she must collect a box containing beauty from the queen of the underworld, she falls unconscious.

It is Cupid who finds Psyche, Cupid who awakens her, Cupid who appeals to Jupiter that he and Psyche be permitted to be together, in peace. Eventually, Jupiter agrees. Venus is told in no uncertain terms to leave the lovers alone; Psyche is given ambrosia, that she may be immortal as a goddess; and all the gods celebrate the official marriage of Psyche and Cupid with a huge banquet.

The story of Cupid and Psyche has been inspiring romantics ever since it was rediscovered during the Renaissance. Pictured with this article is part of a painting by French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau, painted in 1895. Many other artists have painted depictions of the lovers, including Raphael, Goya and John William Waterhouse. Writers, too, have been inspired by this ancient story, penning plays, poems and novels in which they interwove details from the legend. Few people realise that the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast is in fact an adaptation of part of the Cupid and Psyche story.

I will leave you with one of my favourite works inspired by the Ancient Greek myth: ‘Ode to Psyche’ by John Keats, in which the narrator is determined to worship Psyche as a goddess.

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung 
         By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear, 
And pardon that thy secrets should be sung 
         Even into thine own soft-conched ear: 
Surely I dreamt to-day, or did I see 
         The winged Psyche with awaken’d eyes? 
I wander’d in a forest thoughtlessly, 
         And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise, 
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side 
         In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof 
         Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran 
                A brooklet, scarce espied: 
Mid hush’d, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed, 
         Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian, 
They lay calm-breathing, on the bedded grass; 
         Their arms embraced, and their pinions too; 
         Their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu, 
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber, 
And ready still past kisses to outnumber 
         At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love: 
                The winged boy I knew; 
But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove? 
                His Psyche true! 
O latest born and loveliest vision far 
         Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy! 
Fairer than Phoebe’s sapphire-region’d star, 
         Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky; 
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none, 
                Nor altar heap’d with flowers; 
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan 
                Upon the midnight hours; 
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet 
         From chain-swung censer teeming; 
No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat 
         Of pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming. 
O brightest! though too late for antique vows, 
         Too, too late for the fond believing lyre, 
When holy were the haunted forest boughs, 
         Holy the air, the water, and the fire; 
Yet even in these days so far retir’d 
         From happy pieties, thy lucent fans, 
         Fluttering among the faint Olympians, 
I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspir’d. 
So let me be thy choir, and make a moan 
                Upon the midnight hours; 
Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet 
         From swinged censer teeming; 
Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat 
         Of pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming. 
Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane 
         In some untrodden region of my mind, 
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain, 
         Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind: 
Far, far around shall those dark-cluster’d trees 
         Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep; 
And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees, 
         The moss-lain Dryads shall be lull’d to sleep; 
And in the midst of this wide quietness 
A rosy sanctuary will I dress 
   With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain, 
         With buds, and bells, and stars without a name, 
With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign, 
         Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same: 
And there shall be for thee all soft delight 
         That shadowy thought can win, 
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night, 
         To let the warm Love in! 


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4 years ago

Thanks for sharing the story of Psych and Cupid.