|Greek and Roman Mythology > Cupid and Psyche
Cupid and Psyche
latest fables of the Greek mythology. It has not been found
earlier than the close of the second century of the Christian
era. It bears marks of the higher religious notions of that
time.) The two elder were charming girls, but the beauty of the
youngest was so wonderful that language is too poor to express
its due praise. The fame of her beauty was so great that
strangers from neighboring countries came in crowds to enjoy the
sight, and looked on her with amazement, paying her that homage
which is due only to Venus herself. In fact, Venus found her
altars deserted, while men turned their devotion to this young
virgin. As she passed along, the people sang her praises, and
strewed her way with chaplets and flowers.
This perversion to a mortal of the homage due only to the
immortal powers gave great offence to the real Venus. Shaking
her ambrosial locks with indignation, she exclaimed, "Am I then
to be eclipsed in my honors by a mortal girl? In vain then did
that royal shepherd, whose judgment was approved by Jove himself,
give me the palm of beauty over my illustrious rivals, Pallas and
June. But she shall not so quietly usurp my honors. I will give
her cause to repent of so unlawful a beauty."
Thereupon she calls her winged son Cupid, mischievous enough in
his own nature, and rouses and provokes him yet more by her
complaints. She points out Psyche to him, and says, "My dear
son, punish that contumacious beauty; give thy mother a revenge
as sweet as her injuries are great; infuse into the bosom of that
haughty girl a passion for some low, mean, unworthy being, so
that she may reap a mortification as great as her present
exultation and triumph."
Cupid prepared to obey the commands of his mother. There are two
fountains in Venus's garden, one of sweet waters, the other of
bitter. Cupid filled two amber vases, one from each fountain,
and suspending them from the top of his quiver, hastened to the
chamber of Psyche, whom he found asleep. He shed a few drops
from the bitter fountain over her lips, though the sight of her
almost moved him to pity; then touched her side with the point of
his arrow. At the touch she awoke, and opened eyes upon Cupid
(himself invisible) which so startled him that in his confusion
he wounded himself with his own arrow. Heedless of his wound his
whole thought now was to repair the mischief he had done, and he
poured the balmy drops of joy over all her silken ringlets.
Psyche, henceforth frowned upon by Venus, derived no benefit from
all her charms. True, all eyes were cast eagerly upon her, and
every mouth spoke her praises; but neither king, royal youth, nor
plebeian presented himself to demand her in marriage. Her two
elder sisters of moderate charms had now long been married to two
royal princes; but Psyche, in her lonely apartment, deplored her
solitude, sick of that beauty, which, while it procured abundance
of flattery, had failed to awaken love.
Her parents, afraid that they had unwittingly incurred the anger
of the gods, consulted the oracle of Apollo, and received this
answer: "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."
This dreadful decree of the oracle filled all the people with
dismay, and her parents abandoned themselves to grief. But
Psyche said, "Why, my dear parents, do you now lament me? You
should rather have grieved when the people showered upon me
undeserved honors, and with one voice called me a Venus. I now
perceive that I am a victim to that name. I submit. Lead me to
that rock to which my unhappy fate has destined me." Accordingly,
all things being prepared, the royal maid took her place in the
procession, which more resembled a funeral than a nuptial pomp,
and with her parents, amid the lamentations of the people,
ascended the mountain, on the summit of which they left her
alone, and with sorrowful hearts returned home.
While Psyche stood on the ridge of the mountain, panting with
fear and with eyes full of tears, the gentle Zephyr raised her
from the earth and bore her with an easy motion into a flowery
dale. By degrees her mind became composed, and she laid herself
down on the grassy bank to sleep. When she awoke, refreshed with
sleep, she looked round and beheld nearby a pleasant grove of
tall and stately trees. She entered it, and in the midst
discovered a fountain, sending forth clear and crystal waters,
and hard by, a magnificent palace whose August front impressed
the spectator that it was not the work of mortal hands, but the
happy retreat of some god. Drawn by admiration and wonder, she
approached the building and ventured to enter. Every object she
met filled her with pleasure and amazement. Golden pillars
supported the vaulted roof, and the walls were enriched with
carvings and paintings representing beasts of the chase and rural
scenes, adapted to delight the eye of the beholder. Proceeding
onward she perceived that besides the apartments of state there
were others, filled with all manner of treasures, and beautiful
and precious productions of nature and art.
While her eyes were thus occupied, a voice addressed her, though
she saw no one, uttering these words: "Sovereign lady, all that
you see is yours. We whose voices you hear are your servants,
and shall obey all your commands with our utmost care and
diligence. Retire therefore to your chamber and repose on your
bed of down, and when you see fit repair to the bath. Supper
will await you in the adjoining alcove when it pleases you to
take your seat there."
Psyche gave ear to the admonitions of her vocal attendants, and
after repose and the refreshment of the bath, seated herself in
the alcove, where a table immediately presented itself, without
any visible aid from waiters or servants, and covered with the
greatest delicacies of food and the most nectareous wines. Her
ears too were feasted with music from invisible performers; of
whom one sang, another played on the lute, and all closed in the
wonderful harmony of a full chorus.
She had not yet seen her destined husband. He came only in the
hours of darkness, and fled before the dawn of morning, but his
accents were full of love, and inspired a like passion in her.
She often begged him to stay and let her behold him, but he would
not consent. On the contrary, he charged her to make no attempt
to see him, for it was his pleasure, for the best of reasons, to
keep concealed. "Why should you wish to behold me?" he said.
"Have you any doubt of my love? Have you any wish ungratified?
If you saw me, perhaps you would fear me, perhaps adore me, but
all I ask of you is to love me. I would rather you would love me
as an equal than adore me as a god."
This reasoning somewhat quieted Psyche for a time, and while the
novelty lasted she felt quite happy. But at length the thought
of her parents, left in ignorance of her fate, and of her
sisters, precluded from sharing with her the delights of her
situation, preyed on her mind and made her begin to feel her
palace as but a splendid prison. When her husband came one
night, she told him her distress, and at last drew from him an
unwilling consent that her sisters should be brought to see her.
So calling Zephyr, she acquainted him with her husband's
commands, and he, promptly obedient, soon brought them across the
mountain down to their sister's valley. They embraced her and
she returned their caresses. "Come," said Psyche, "enter with me
my house and refresh yourselves with whatever your sister has to
offer." Then taking their hands she led them into her golden
palace, and committed them to the care of her numerous train of
attendant voices, to refresh them in her baths and at her table,
and to show them all her treasures. The view of these celestial
delights caused envy to enter their bosoms, at seeing their young
sister possessed of such state and splendor, so much exceeding
They asked her numberless questions, among others what sort of a
person her husband was. Psyche replied that he was a beautiful
youth, who generally spent the daytime in hunting upon the
mountains. The sisters, not satisfied with this reply, soon made
her confess that she had never seen him. Then they proceeded to
fill her bosom with dark suspicions. "Call to mind," they said,
"the Pythian oracle that declared you destined to marry a direful
and tremendous monster. The inhabitants of this valley say that
your husband is a terrible and monstrous serpent, who nourishes
you for a while with dainties that he may by and by devour you.
Take our advice. Provide yourself with a lamp and a sharp knife;
put them in concealment that your husband may not discover them,
and when he is sound asleep, slip out of bed bring forth your
lamp and see for yourself whether what they say is true or not.
If it is, hesitate not to cut off the monster's head, and thereby
recover your liberty."
Psyche resisted these persuasions as well as she could, but they
did not fail to have their effect on her mind, and when her
sisters were gone, their words and her own curiosity were too
strong for her to resist. So she prepared her lamp and a sharp
knife, and hid them out of sight of her husband. When he had
fallen into his first sleep, she silently rose and uncovering her
lamp beheld not a hideous monster, but the most beautiful and
charming of the gods, with his golden ringlets wandering over his
snowy neck and crimson cheek, with two dewy wings on his
shoulders, whiter than snow, and with shining feathers like the
tender blossoms of spring. As she leaned the lamp over to have a
nearer view of his face a drop of burning oil fell on the
shoulder of the god, startled with which he opened his eyes and
fixed them full upon her; then, without saying one word, he
spread his white wings and flew out of the window. Psyche, in
vain endeavoring to follow him, fell from the window to the
ground. Cupid, beholding her as she lay in the dust, stopped his
flight for an instant and said, "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? But go; return to your sisters, whose advice you seem to
think preferable to mine. I inflict no other punishment on you
than to leave you forever. Love cannot dwell with suspicion."
So saying he fled away, leaving poor Psyche prostrate on the
ground, filling the place with mournful lamentations.
When she had recovered some degree of composure she looked around
her, but the palace and gardens had vanished, and she found
herself in the open field not far from the city where her sisters
dwelt. She repaired thither and told them the whole story of her
misfortunes, at which, pretending to grieve, those spiteful
creatures inwardly rejoiced; "for now," said they, "he will
perhaps choose one of us." With this idea, without saying a word
of her intentions, each of them rose early the next morning and
ascended the mountain, and having reached the top, called upon
Zephyr to receive her and bear her to his lord; then leaping up,
and not being sustained by Zephyr, fell down the precipice and
was dashed to pieces.
Psyche meanwhile wandered day and night, without food or repose,
in search of her husband. Casting her eyes on a lofty mountain
having on its brow a magnificent temple, she sighed and said to
herself, "Perhaps my love, my lord, inhabits there," and directed
her steps thither.
She had no sooner entered than she saw heaps of corn, some in
loose ears and some in sheaves, with mingled ears of barley.
Scattered about lay sickles and rakes, and all the instruments of
harvest, without order, as if thrown carelessly out of the weary
reapers' hands in the sultry hours of the day.
This unseemly confusion the pious Psyche put an end to, by
separating and sorting every thing to its proper place and kind,
believing that she ought to neglect none of the gods, but
endeavor by her piety to engage them all in her behalf. The holy
Ceres, whose temple it was, finding her so religiously employed,
thus spoke to her: "O Psyche, truly worthy of our pity, though I
cannot shield you from the frowns of Venus, yet I can teach you
how best to allay her displeasure. Go then, voluntarily
surrender yourself to your lady and sovereign, and try by modesty
and submission to win her forgiveness; perhaps her favor will
restore you the husband you have lost."
Psyche obeyed the commands of Ceres and took her way to the
temple of Venus, endeavoring to fortify her mind and thinking of
what she should say and how she should best propitiate the angry
goddess, feeling that the issue was doubtful and perhaps fatal.
Venus received her with angry countenance. "Most undutiful and
faithless of servants," said she, "do you at last remember that
you really have a mistress? Or have you rather come to see your
sick husband, yet suffering from the wound given him by his
loving wife? You are so ill-favored and disagreeable that the
only way you can merit your lover must be by dint of industry and
diligence. I will make trial of your housewifery." Then she
ordered Psyche to be led to the storehouse of her temple, where
was laid up a great quantity of wheat, barley, millet, vetches,
beans, and lentils prepared for food for her doves, and said,
"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." Then Venus departed and left her to her task.
But Psyche, in perfect consternation at the enormous work, sat
stupid and silent, without moving a finger to the inextricable
While she sat despairing, Cupid stirred up the little ant, a
native of the fields, to take compassion on her. The leader of
the ant-hill, followed by whole hosts of his six-legged subjects,
approached the heap, and with the utmost diligence taking grain
by grain, they separated the pile, sorting each kind to its
parcel; and when it was all done, they vanished out of sight in a
Venus at the approach of twilight returned from the banquet of
the gods, breathing odors and crowned with roses. Seeing the
task done she exclaimed, "This is no work of yours wicked one,
but his, whom to your own and his misfortune you have enticed."
So saying, she threw her a piece of black bread for her supper
and went away.
Next morning Venus ordered Psyche to be called, and said to her,
"Behold yonder grove which stretches along the margin of the
water. There you will find sheep feeding without a shepherd,
with golden-shining fleeces on their backs. Go, fetch me a
sample of that precious wool gathered from every one of their
Psyche obediently went to the river-side, prepared to do her best
to execute the command. But the river-god inspired the reeds
with harmonious murmurs, which seemed to say, "O maiden, severely
tried, tempt not the dangerous flood, nor venture among the
formidable rams on the other side, for as long as they are under
the influence of the rising sun, they burn with a cruel rage to
destroy mortals with their sharp horns or rude teeth. But when
the noontide sun has driven the flock to the shade, and the
serene spirit of the flood has lulled them to rest, you may then
cross in safety, and you will find the woolly gold sticking to
the bushes and the trunks of the trees."
Thus the compassionate river-god gave Psyche instructions how to
accomplish her task, and by observing his directions she soon
returned to Venus with her arms full of the golden fleece; but
she received not the approbation of her implacable mistress, who
said, "I know very well it is by none of your own doings that you
have succeeded in this task, and I am not satisfied yet that you
have any capacity to make yourself useful. But I have another
task for you. 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 come of her own.' Be
not too long on your errand, for I must paint myself with it to
appear at the circle of the gods and goddesses this evening."
Psyche was now satisfied that her destruction was at hand, being
obliged to go with her own feet directly down to Erebus.
Wherefore, to make no delay of what was not to be avoided, she
goes to the top of a high tower to precipitate herself headlong,
thus to descend the shortest way to the shades below. But a
voice from the tower said to her, "Why, poor unlucky girl, dost
thou design to put an end to thy days in so dreadful a manner?
And what cowardice makes thee sink under this last danger, who
hast been so miraculously supported in all thy former?" Then the
voice told her how by a certain cave she might reach the realms
of Pluto, and how to avoid all the dangers of the road, to pass
by Cerberus, the three-headed dog, and prevail on Charon, the
ferryman, to take her across the black river and bring her back
again. But the voice added, "When Proserpine has given you the
box, filled with her beauty, of all things this is chiefly to be
observed by you, that you never once open or look into the box
nor allow your curiosity to pry into the treasure of the beauty
of the goddesses.
Psyche encouraged by this advice obeyed it in all things, and
taking heed to her ways travelled safely to the kingdom of Pluto.
She was admitted to the palace of Proserpine, and without
accepting the delicate seat or delicious banquet that was offered
her, but contented with coarse bread for her food, she delivered
her message from Venus. Presently the box was returned to her,
shut and filled with the precious commodity. Then she returned
the way she came, and glad was she to come out once more into the
light of day.
But having got so far successfully through her dangerous task a
longing desire seized her to examine the contents of the box.
"What," said she, "shall I, the carrier of this divine beauty,
not take the least bit to put on my cheeks to appear to more
advantage in the eyes of my beloved husband!:" So she carefully
opened the box, but found nothing there of any beauty at all, but
an infernal and truly Stygian sleep, which being thus set free
from its prison, took possession of her, and she fell down in the
midst of the road, a sleepy corpse without sense or motion.
But Cupid being now recovered from his wound, and not able longer
to bear the absence of his beloved Psyche, slipping through the
smallest crack of the window of his chamber which happened to be
left open, flew to the spot where Psyche lay, and gathering up
the sleep from her body closed it again in the box, and waked
Psyche with a light touch of one of his arrows. "Again," said
he, "hast thou 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."
Then Cupid, as swift as lightning penetrating the heights of
heaven, presented himself before Jupiter with his supplication.
Jupiter lent a favoring ear, and pleaded the cause of the lovers
so earnestly with Venus that he won her consent. On this he sent
Mercury to bring Psyche up to the heavenly assembly, and when she
arrived, handing her a cup of ambrosia, he said, "Drink this,
Psyche, and be immortal; nor shall Cupid ever break away from the
knot in which he is tied, but these nuptials shall be perpetual."
Thus Psyche became at last united to Cupid, and in due time they
had a daughter born to them whose name was Pleasure.
The fable of Cupid and Psyche is usually considered allegorical.
The Greek name for a butterfly is Psyche, and the same word means
the soul. There is no illustration of the immortality of the
soul so striking and beautiful as the butterfly, bursting on
brilliant wings from the tomb in which it has lain, after a dull,
grovelling caterpillar existence, to flutter in the blaze of day
and feed on the most fragrant and delicate productions of the
spring. Psyche, then, is the human soul, which is purified by
sufferings and misfortunes, and is thus prepared for the
enjoyment of true and pure happiness.
In works of art Psyche is represented as a maiden with the wings
of a butterfly, alone or with Cupid, in the different situations
described in the allegory.
Milton alludes to the story of Cupid and Psyche in the conclusion
of his Comus:--
"Celestial Cupid, her famed son, advanced,
Holds his dear Psyche sweet entranced,
After her wandering labors long,
Till free consent the gods among
Make her his eternal bride;
And from her fair unspotted side
Two blissful twins are to be born,
Youth and Joy; so Jove hath sworn."
The allegory of the story of Cupid and Psyche is well presented
in the beautiful lines of T. K. Hervey:--
"They wove bright fables in the days of old
When reason borrowed fancy's painted wings;
When truth's clear river flowed o'er sands of gold,
And told in song its high and mystic things!
And such the sweet and solemn tale of her
The pilgrim-heart, to whom a dream was given.
That led her through the world, Love's worshipper,
To seek on earth for him whose home was heaven!
"In the full city, by the haunted fount,
Through the dim grotto's tracery of spars,
'Mid the pine temples, on the moonlit mount,
Where silence sits to listen to the stars;
In the deep glade where dwells the brooding dove,
The painted valley, and the scented air,
She heard far echoes of the voice of Love,
And found his footsteps' traces everywhere.
"But never more they met! Since doubts and fears,
Those phantom-shapes that haunt and blight the earth,
Had come 'twixt her, a child of sin and tears,
And that bright spirit of immortal birth;
Until her pining soul and weeping eyes
Had learned to seek him only in the skies;
Till wings unto the weary heart were given,
And she became Love's angel bride in heaven!"
The story of Cupid and Psyche first appears in the works of
Apuleius, a writer of the second century of our era. It is
therefore of much more recent date than most of the legends of
the Age of Fable. It is this that Keats alludes to in his Ode to
"O latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe's sapphire-regioned star
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heaped 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-mouthed prophet dreaming."
In Moore's Summer Fete, a fancy ball is described, in which one
of the characters personated is Psyche.
" not in dark disguise to-night
Hath our young heroine veiled her light;
For see, she walks the earth, Love's own.
His wedded bride, by holiest vow
Pledged in Olympus, and made known
To mortals by the type which now
Hangs glittering on her snowy brow,
That butterfly, mysterious trinket,
Which means the soul (though few would think it),
And sparkling thus on brow so white,
Tells us we've Psyche here to-night."