The Story of Psyche
In Greek “psyche” means
butterfly, and inspired by the butterfly’s powers of transformation, the
Ancient Greeks used the same word to describe the human soul.
The story of Psyche and Eros (Cupid) is one of the loveliest of the Greek myths.
Once there lived a King and Queen who had three daughters.
The youngest was called Psyche and she was so beautiful that everybody loved
her. At last her fame reached the ears of Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of
Beauty. Aphrodite grew very jealous of this mortal girl, and sent her son Eros,
the god of love, to punish her.
Eros found Psyche fast asleep. He pierced her with one of his arrows and Psyche opened her eyes. Feeling ashamed to have harmed anyone so lovely, Eros pierced himself, and scattered the healing drops over Psyche. The princess recovered immediately, but from that day forth no suitors came to ask her hand in marriage, and no young man was moved by her beauty.
Her parents became alarmed, and sent a message to the Oracle at Delphi, asking what misfortune had befallen their daughter. The Oracle replied that “Psyche would never marry a mortal man. Her husband awaited her on the mountain top. He was a monster and none could withstand his power.”
When the people of the kingdom heard this reply they were filled with grief, but Psyche said that she would go to the mountain top to meet her husband. Accompanied by a vast train, the princess journeyed to the top of the mountain, and then bade farewell to her parents and remained there alone.
A soft wind, called Zephyr, lifted her up and carried her away to a green bank. Here Psyche fell asleep, and when she awoke she found herself outside a large palace. The doors stood open and, as if in a dream, Psyche arose and walked into the palace. Light streamed in through the windows, and the pillars were made of gold. Suddenly a voice began to speak.
“Fair Psyche, this is your palace and we are your servants. You may not see us but we will wait on you night and day. Eat, drink and be rested.”
Psyche obeyed their commands, and when she was refreshed her husband came to her. His voice was sweet and his words were gentle, but he too was invisible, and she begged him to show himself to her.
“I cannot,” he said. “If you saw me you would be dazzled by my radiance. I am a god, but I hide myself from you so that you can love me as a husband.”
Psyche accepted these words, and for a long time they lived together very happily; at last, however, she was filled with a longing to see her family once again. At her request the gentle Zephyr carried her sisters to her, and she greeted them with joy. Seeing Psyche’s prosperity, the two sisters grew jealous. When Psyche told them about her husband they cried out in horror.
“Oh Psyche, he is the monster you were warned of! Tonight you must hide a lamp and a dagger in your bedchamber, and when he comes to you, slay him while he is asleep.”
Psyche loved her husband dearly but she was blinded by her sisters’ words. That night, when her husband lay asleep beside her, she lit the lamp she had hidden. To her amazement she saw a radiant winged god, and she recognised him to be Eros himself. As she gazed at him a drop of hot oil fell from the lamp onto the sleeper’s face.
“Alas, O foolish Psyche,” cried Eros awakening. “Your frailty has brought about our misery. I cannot dwell where there is suspicion – go to your sisters, since you love them more than me.”
With these words the god of love rose on his wings and flew away.
Poor Psyche wept bitterly and began to wander far and wide, looking everywhere for her beloved.
One day she came to a temple belonging to Demeter, goddess of the Harvest. The sheaves of corn inside were strewn all over the floor, and Psyche set them in order. Demeter was pleased by this kind act, and appeared to the princess.
“Your suffering is due to the anger of the goddess Aphrodite,” she said. “I cannot protect you from her, but I can advise you to go and beg her forgiveness. If she punishes you, bear the trial with patience.”
Psyche thanked Demeter and travelled to the temple of Aphrodite. The goddess of Beauty soon appeared to her and told her that to prove her repentance she must pass certain tests. Psyche agreed and Aphrodite led her to a storehouse. It was filled with seeds as tiny as the grains of sand on a beach.
“Separate these grains,” commanded Aphrodite, “and place each kind together.”
Poor Psyche gazed on the heaps of grain in despair, but an army of ants came to her out of the fields, and carried out the goddess’s command.
When Aphrodite saw that the task had been accomplished she frowned and set Psyche a still harder test.
“Take this box,” she said. “I wish you to go with it to the Underworld. Ask Queen Persephone to fill it with beauty, and bring it back to me.”
This task seemed impossible, but Psyche set off to the Underworld, and obtained all she required. On her return journey she began to think about the contents of the box she was carrying.
“I have grown so pale and weary with grief,” she thought. “What would my dear husband think of me? Perhaps I can take a little of this beauty, to make myself fair again.”
Psyche opened the box and out flew the sleep of Death which lay within.
She fell to the ground, and lay as if dead.
All this time Eros had been longing for his beloved wife. When his mother, Aphrodite, left the palace, he also slipped away and flew to where Psyche was lying. He closed the box that lay open beside her, and touching her with his magical arrows, brought her back to life.
“O Psyche,” he said. “Once again your curiosity has almost destroyed you. But do not fear. Carry out my mother’s bidding, while I seek the mercy of our father, Zeus.”
Eros flew to Mount Olympus and told the story of Psyche to the Father of the Gods. Zeus was filled with compassion and called Psyche to him.
“Here, my child,” he said. “Drink this cup of heavenly ambrosia and become immortal; you and your husband shall never be parted again.”
Psyche obeyed, and she and Eros dwelt for evermore amongst the gods of Heaven.
Real History Home Page Home