Psyche, the beautiful and mortal woman tangled in the games of the gods and seduced by her own curiosity. The Greek word psyche means spirit or soul.
The story of Eros and Psyche is an archetypal tale that has bears many similarities with other myths of this kind (Pandora, Persephone) and is a precursor to many popular fairy tales, most notably Beauty and the Beast but also Cinderella and The Little Mermaid.
Psyche by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1892. Psyche by Guillaume Seignac.
Psyche Honoured by the People by Luca Giordano, 1692-1702.
“Indeed huge numbers of both citizens and foreigners, drawn together in eager crowds by the fame of such an extraordinary sight, were struck dumb with admiration of her unequalled beauty; and putting right thumb and forefinger to their lips they would offer outright religious worship to her as the goddess Venus.”
Venus and Cupid by Raphael, 1517-18.
As word spread of Psyche’s beauty, worship of the actual goddess was neglected and Venus got mightily pissed.
“she summoned that winged son of hers [Cupid], that most reckless of creatures, whose wicked behaviour flies in the face of public morals… Groaning and crying out in indignation, ‘By the bonds of a mother’s love,’ she said, ‘I implore you, by the sweet wounds of your arrows, by the honeyed burns made by your torch, avenge your mother – avenge her to the full. Punish mercilessly that arrogant beauty, and do this one thing willingly for me – it’s all I ask. Let this girl be seized with a burning passion for the lowest of mankind, some creature cursed by Fortune in rank, in estate, in condition, someone so degraded that in all the world he can find no wretchedness to equal his own.’”
Cupid in Flight is Struck by the Beauty of Psyche by Maurice Denis, 1908.
Unfortunately for Aphrodite, Cupid found Psyche just as lovely as everyone else.
Psyche’s Parents Offering Sacrifice to Apollo by Luca Giordano, 1692-1702.
Psyche was so beautiful that no one wanted to marry her and she was beginning to feel awfully lonely. Her dad who was concerned they were being punished went to see the oracle of Apollo at Miletus who said:
“On mountain peak, O King, expose the maidFor funeral wedlock ritually arrayed.No human son-in-law (hope not) is thine,But something cruel and fierce and serpentine;That plagues the world as, borne aloft on wings,With fire and steel it persecutes all things;That Jove himself, he whom the gods revere,That Styx’s darkling regards with fear.”
Psyche’s Wedding by Edward Burne-Jones, 1895.
So Psyche was sent to her funeral wedding on top of the mountain, crying all the way.
Psyches Parents Abandon her on the Summit of the Mountain by Maurice Denis, 1909.
Psyche Being Carried Off by Zephyr by Egisto Ferroni.
Psyche enleve par les Zephyrs by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1808.
“Her, however, fearful and trembling and lamenting her fate there on the summit of the rock, the gentle breeze of softly breathing Zephyr, Blowing the edges of her dress this way and that and filling its folds, imperceptibly lifted up; and carrying her on his tranquil breath smoothly down the slope of the lofty crag he gently let her sink and laid her to rest on the flowery turf in the bosom of the valley that lay below.”
The Bath of Psyche by Frederick Leighton, 1879.
In the valley was an elaborate Palace and a bodiless voice told her it was hers.
“Psyche recognized her happy estate as sent by divine Providence, and obeying the instructions of the bodiless voice she dispelled her weariness first with sleep and then with a bath.”
Psyche Served by Invisible Spirits by Luca Giordano, 1692-1702.
“She could see no one but merely heard the words that were uttered, and her maids were nothing but voices to her.”
Cupid and Psyche by François-Edouard Picot, c. 1817.
“Night was well advanced when she heard the gentle sound. Then, all alone as she was and fearing for her virginity, Psyche quailed and trembled, dreading, more than any possible harm, the unknown. Now there entered her unknown husband; he had mounted the bed, made her his wife, and departed in haste before sunrise.”
Cupid and Psyche by Jaques-Louis David, 1817.
“Things went on in this way for some little time; and, as is usually the case, the novelty of her situation became pleasurable to her by force of habit, while the sound of the unseen voice solaced her solitude.”
Believing Psyche dead, her sisters made their way to the mountain to morn her. Having already persuaded her husband to allow them to visit her (against his warnings) Zephyr flew them down to her palace.
Psyche Showing Her Sisters Her Gifts From Eros by Jean-Honore Fragonard, 1753.
“she showed them the great riches of the golden palace and let them listen to the retinue of slave-voices. And refreshed them sumptuously with luxurious bath and the supernatural splendours of her table.”
They got super jealous.
Cupid continued to warn Psyche against her sisters. He knew their plans to convince Psyche to reveal his face and that if she did she would no longer be with him and furthermore, she was now with child, a child that would only be born divine if she kept their secret.
Psyche’s Doubt by Patricia Watwood, 2004.
Psyche’s sisters told her that her husband was “an immense serpent, writhing its knotted coils, its bloody jaws dripping deadly poison, its maw gaping deep,” and her fear caused her to forget her husband’s warnings. She believed her sisters lies and agreed to uncover her husband’s face and kill him. However she had her doubts, “she loathed the monster and loved the husband.”
Cupid and Psyche by William Etty.
“Night came and with it her husband, who, having first engaged on the field of love fell into a deep sleep.Then Psyche, though naturally weak in body, rallied her strength with cruel Fate reinforcing it, produced the lamp, seized the blade, and took on a man’s courage.”
Psyche Discovers That Her Secret Lover is Cupid by Maurice Denis, 1908.
“She saw a head of golden hair dripping with ambrosia, a milk-white neck, and rosy cheeks over which strayed coils of hair becomingly arranged, some hanging in front, some behind, shining with such extreme brilliance that the lamplight itself flickered uncertainly.”
Cupid and Psyche by Orazio Gentileschi, 1628-30.
“but meanwhile that wretched lamp… disgorged from its spout a drop of hot oil on to the right shoulder of the god… The god, thus burned, leapt up and seeing his confidence betrayed and sullied flew off from the loving embrace of his unhappy wife without uttering a word.”
Psyche by George Frederick Watts, 1880.
Psyche parasite de amor by Sava Hentia.
“But as he rose Psyche just managed to seize his right leg with both hands,” when exhausted she let go and fell to the ground Cupid stopped and said “this is what I repeatedly warned of in my care for you. But those worthy counsellors of yours shall speedily pay the price of their pernicious teaching; your punishment shall merely be that I shall leave you.’ And with these last words he launched himself aloft on his wings.”
Pan and Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones, 1872-74.
Psyche tried to drown herself but the river bore her unharmed to the shore where the god Pan happened to be sitting. Pan said to her “do not try to destroy yourself again by jumping of heights or by any other kind of unnatural death. Stop weeping and lay aside your grief; rather adore in prayer Cupid, greatest of gods, and strive to earn his favour, young wanton and pleasure-loving that he is, through tender service.’”
In her wanderings Psyche came across both her sisters and telling them that Cupid had forsaken her and instead wanted to marry each respective sister, they hurried to the mountain and flung themselves from the summit, killing themselves on the rocky crags below.
At this point Venus heard some nasty rumours about her son and learnt that he was in love with Psyche. She was not a happy camper.
Psyche at the Throne of Aphrodite by Edward Hale, 1883.
Searching for her lost love Psyche finally decides to give herself up to Venus’s wrath in hopes of finding Cupid in his mother’s house.
Psyche Before the Throne of Venus by Henrietta Rae, 1894.
Venus called in her handmaids Care and Sorrow “and Psyche was handed over to them to be tormented, In obedience to their mistress’s orders they whipped the wretched girl and afflicted her with every other kind of torture, and then brought her back to face the goddess.”
Venus Punishing Psyche with a Task by Luca Giordano, 1692-1702.
“Then she [Venus] took wheat and barley and millet and poppy-seed and chick-peas and lentils and beans, mixed them thoroughly all together in a single heap,”
Venus commanded Psyche sort the seeds and such by evening.
“[Psyche] stood in silent stupefaction, stunned by this monstrous command. Then appeared an ant, one of those miniature farmers; grasping the size of the problem, pitying the plight of the great god’s bedfellow and execrating her mother-in-law’s cruelty, it rushed round eagerly to summon and convene the whole assembly of local ants.”
The ants sorted all the seeds by evening and vanished before Venus’s return.
Psyche in the Temple of Love by Edward John Poynter, 1882.
At this time Cupid is being guarded and prevented from seeing Psyche, it’s all very sad.
Venus continued to send Psyche on seemingly impossible tasks, but she was continually aided and thus successful.
Amor and Psyche by Károly Lotz, 1902.
Psyches third task was to collect an urn of water from a spring gushing from the summit of a mountain.
“Psyche was turned to stone by the sheer impossibility of her task, and though her body was present her senses left her: overwhelmed completely by the weight of dangers she was powerless to cope with, she could not even weep, the last consolation.”
The eagle of Jove came to her rescue this time and filled the urn full of the ice cold water.
Riverman by Errol Le Cain.
Venus’s final task is by far the worst. She is to take a casket into the underworld and request some of Proserpine’s beauty for Aphrodite.
In despair she sought to kill herself again and fling herself from a tower, but the tower told her how to face the perils of the underworld and off she went.
Psyche in the Underworld by Ernest Hillemacher, 1865.
“Psyche without delay made for Taenarus, where she duly equipped herself with coins and cakes and made the descent to the Underworld. Passing the in silence the lame donkey-driver, paying her fee fare to the ferryman. Ignoring the plea of the dead swimmer, rejecting the crafty entreaties of the weavers, and appeasing the fearsome rage of the dog with her cake, she arrived at Proserpine’s palace.”
Psyche in the Underworld by Paul Alfred de Curzon.
Proserpine filled the casket with her beauty and Psyche began her journey back out of the Underworld.
Psyche and Cerberus by Edmund Dulac.
“By the device of the second cake she muzzled the dog’s barking, and giving the ferryman her second coin she returned from the underworld much more briskly than she had come.”
Psyche Opening the Golden Box by John William Waterhouse, 1903.
Curiosity and a desire to please her beautiful husband got the best of her.
Stygian Dream of Psyche by Michelangelo Palloni, c.1688.
“she opened the box. But she found nothing whatever in it, no beauty, but only an infernal sleep, a sleep truly Stygian, which when the lid was taken off and it was let out at once took possession of her”
Cupid and Psyche by Anthony von Dyck, 1639-40.
Cupid Finding Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones, 1865.
“But Cupid’s wound had now healed and, his strength returned, he could no longer bear to be parted for so long from Psyche. He escaped from the high window of the room in which he was confined; and, with his wings restored by his long rest, he flew off at great speed to the side of his Psyche.”
Amor and Psyche by Johann Heinrick Füssli.
Cupid and Psyche by Benjamin West, 1808.
Psyche and Cupid by Jaques Balthasar Lidel.
“Carefully wiping off the sleep and replacing it where it had been in the box, he roused her with a harmless prick from one of his arrows.”
Cupid Pleads with Jupiter by Raphael, 1517-18.
“On swift wings he [Cupid] made his way to the very summit of heaven and pleaded his cause as a suppliant with great Jupiter. Jupiter took Cupid’s face in his hand, pulled it to his own, and kissed him, saying… I will do what you ask.”
Zeus called all the gods to council and announced his decision to wed Cupid and Psyche and make Psyche a goddess so that the match is between equals.
Le ravissement de Psyche by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1895.
Psyche et L’amour by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1889.
Cupid Carries Psyche to Heaven by Maurice Denis, 1909.
The Awakening of Psyche by Guillaume Seignac, 1904.
“Handing her [Psyche] a cup of ambrosia, ‘Take this, Psyche,’ he said, ‘and be immortal. Never shall Cupid quit the tie that binds you, but this marriage shall be perpetual for you both.’”
The Nuptials of Cupid and Psyche by Pelagio Palagi, 1808.
Cupid and Psyche by Giulio Romano, 1526-28.
“No Sooner said than done: a lavish wedding-feast appeared. In the place of honour reclined Psyche’s husband, with his wife in his arms,”
Cupid and Psyche by François Gérard, 1798.
Cupid and Psyche by Paul Baudry, 1892.
The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche by Pompeo Batoni, 1756.
“Thus was Psyche married to Cupid with all proper ceremony, and when her time came there was born to them a daughter, whom we call Pleasure.”
The Toilet of Psyche by Charles-Joseph Natoire, 1735.
And she totally lived happily ever after.
P.S. All quotes come from Apuleius, The Golden Ass