Psyché et l'Amour (Cupid and Psyche),  also known as Psyche Receiving Cupid's First Kiss (1798), oil on canvas by François Gérard

The ancient fairy tale of Cupid and Psyche, where love endures against all odds

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The mythological tale of Cupid and Psyche is one of the few Greek and Roman myths that has not fully become assimilated into modern consciousness. Though adapted somewhat into the better known "Beauty and the Beast"—first written by French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont as "La Belle et la Bête"—the correlation to the earlier ancient text is relatively unrecognized.  Cupid is often still portrayed as a chubby baby cherub with a fondness for arrows, and Psyche is still predominately unknown outside the psychological community –"psyche" means "soul" in ancient Greek and was subsequently utilized in the literature of psychologists.  However, in the ancient world, Cupid and Psyche's love was well documented and appreciated among the literary scholars.  Despite that its original Greek form is now lost, the length of the text remains within Lucius Apuleius' The Golden Ass , a side anecdote that—in many ways—overshadows the remainder of the novel.

Once upon a time...

Cupid and Psyche's narrative begins as most modern fairy tales do: with a kingdom, a daughter with an insurmountable burden over her head, a trial, and a subsequent moral.  It is as follows: a king and queen give birth to three daughters, but only the third possesses unearthly beauty.  Apuleius' text claimed that her beauty was so astounding the "poverty of language is unable to express its due praise."  Rumors spread of this girl, Psyche's, astounding loveliness, eventually reaching the ears of the Roman goddess Venus.  Angry that so many mortals were comparing Psyche's beauty to her own—and in many ways claiming that the mortal surpassed her—Venus calls upon her son Cupid to demand that he use one of his arrows of desire to ensure Psyche fall in love with a human monster.

Obedient as always to his mother, Cupid then descends to the earthly plane to do as she wishes.  Yet he was so astonished himself by the mortal princess' beauty that he mistakenly shot himself.  From that moment, Cupid was irrevocably in love with the princess.  Around this time, it became evident to her parents that Psyche's attractiveness had angered the gods, as no mortal man would take her hand in marriage.  Imploring the temple of Apollo, they learn that Psyche is destined for a much worse fate than celibacy: "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."  Psyche, conscious of the mistakes of her mortal kingdom for praising her so highly, is content to follow the oracle's advice.

Psyche's Wedding (Pre-Raphaelite, 1895) photo by Edward Burne-Jones

Psyche's Wedding (Pre-Raphaelite, 1895) photo by Edward Burne-Jones ( Wikimedia Commons )

From the top of the highest cliff, dressed in funerary garbs, Psyche is swept away by the west wind, Zephyr.  She is brought to a striking valley, in the center of which stands a palace so magnificent it could not have been built by any hands other than the gods'.  Surrounded by luscious trees with a crystalline fountain at its heart, Psyche soon comes to the conclusion that this golden hall is her new home, further reiterated by the voice of her new husband echoing through the halls.  This faceless stranger begins to visit her in the night, every night, to make love to her in the darkness.  But despite his nighttime tenderness, Psyche is haunted by the oracle's claim that he was a monster.

Psyche's Betrayal

When allowing her two sisters to visit, they are jealous of her beautiful home and insist that Psyche's husband really is a monster and she owes it to herself to find out.  So Psyche is convinced to break her husband's only request of allowing his face to remain a secret and look upon him in the night.  In doing so, she damns their relationship.

Amor and Psyche(1589), oil on canvas by Jacopo Zucchi

Amor and Psyche(1589), oil on canvas by Jacopo Zucchi ( Wikimedia Commons )

A single drop of oil falls from the candle Psyche lights to gaze at his face, waking him, and Cupid, in all his majestic beauty, flees their home, distressed by her betrayal.   Distraught, Psyche goes in search of her husband, traveling for many days, until she comes to the temple of Ceres, the motherly goddess of grain. 

The Trials

Ceres instructs Psyche to surrender herself to Venus and take whatever ill will the goddess throws at her.  Obeying Ceres' advice, Psyche is thus given three seemingly impossible tasks to complete. First, the princess has to separate the grains of Venus' temple's storehouse into piles of barley, millet, beans, etc. Second, Psyche has to steal golden wool from a herd of sheep; third and finally, Psyche is ordered to travel into the underworld and request from Queen Proserpina a little of her beauty to pass along to the goddess of love. This task, however, demands a further challenge: that Psyche keeps the box in which the beauty is placed tightly closed, for fear of terrible repercussions.

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