Eros and Psyche
Of all the Greek mythology tales, of which there are many, the story of Eros and Psyche is a fan favorite. Eros or Cupid, as the Romans named him was the Greek god of carnal love. In Latin he is called Amor (love) or Cupid (desire). Eros was the assistant, and according to some the son, of Aprhodite, the goddess of love and fertility. He made people fall in love by shooting an arrow into their heart.
The earliest – and the only extended – source for this fairytale is Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass.
The myth of Eros and Psyche
Once upon a time there lived in the West parts a king and a queen who had three daughters, all of them beautiful beyond belief. The two elder girls were so stunning that they exceeded all other mortal women in loveliness; but the beauty of the youngest of the three, Psyche (which is Ancient Greek for “Soul”), was such that even goddesses envied her. People came from all over the world to admire Psyche, and they were so smitten with her “maidenly majesty” that they even started paying her the divine honors typically reserved for Aphrodite, whose ceremonies were neglected and whose temples were defaced.
Aphrodite, to say the least, wasn’t that flattered by all of this, so she sent her son Eros among the mortals with a simple mission: to fuel in Psyche love for “the most miserable creature living, the most poor, the most crooked, and the most vile, that there may be none found in all the world of like wretchedness.” Some say that it was because he accidentally pricked himself with his arrows, others because Psyche was just that beautiful; either way, the minute Eros laid his eyes upon this beautiful mortal maiden, he fell in love with her; and, for once, he decided to disobey his mother.
Now, Psyche’s two sisters had enjoyed their fair share of suitors, culminating in their royal marriages to two foreign kings. However – thinking her an embodiment or an unknown daughter of Aphrodite – nobody had even dared to ask for the hand of Psyche, who, consequently, started hating herself for her own beauty. Distraught, Psyche’s father went to Miletus and asked Apollo’s oracle for an advice on how he could find a husband for his youngest daughter. The oracle replied that Psyche’s husband “is no wight of human seed,/ But serpent dire and fierce as may be thought,/ Who flies with wings above in starry skies/ And doth subdue each thing with fiery flight.” To meet this evil spirit – feared by the gods themselves – Psyche must be clad in her mourning garments and left alone on a rocky mountaintop, from where her future husband would come and fetch her.
Little did the king and queen knew – and even less did Psyche – that the god described by the oracle was none other than Eros. Soon after she was left alone on the craggy mountaintop, the frightened Psyche was lifted by Zephyrus, the West Wind, who wafted her gently down into a deep valley, and laid her even gentler in a bed of most sweet and fragrant flowers. In the midst of a nearby wood, Psyche happened upon a heavenly palace, so luxurious and splendid that even Zeus himself would have perhaps marveled at it.
After being provided by a host of invisible servants with the most delectable of meals and all kinds of pleasurable things, Psyche went to bed; there, in the darkness, she was visited by Eros, her unknown husband, who “made a perfect consummation of the marriage,” and left Psyche just before dawn.
And so the days passed for Psyche who, for a while, wished for nothing more. Eventually, a baby started growing inside her, and she couldn’t help but thinking that nothing could ever spoil her happiness. However, after some time, she realized that unshared gladness is not as joyful as the shared one, and she suddenly started missing her family. So she asked her still unseen husband – who had explicitly told her that he would leave her if she ever sees his face – if it would be possible for her sisters to visit her from time to time. After she solemnly swore that she would ignore her sisters’ pleas and advises (whatever they may be), Eros granted Psyche her wish. And so the West Wind lifted Psyche’s sisters just as he had once lifted Psyche herself, and softly brought them down in the palace of Eros.
Thousands upon thousands of embraces and kisses were shared between the sisters during their reunion. However, with every next visit, the elder sisters of Psyche grew more and more envious of their sibling’s extraordinary fortune. And when Psyche once confessed to them that she had no idea what her husband looks like, they scared her stiff that her husband must be an ugly beast who plans to devour her baby once she gives birth. Eventually, they convinced her to kill him.
That very night, after their lovemaking, Psyche approached the blissfully asleep Eros with a lamp and a razor. It didn’t take her long to identify him: she didn’t only see hairs of gold, purple cheeks, and neck whiter than milk, but also her husband’s bow and arrows lying beside him. Awestruck and curious, she pulled one of the arrows out of the quiver and pricked herself while doing this. The pain startled her, and a drop of burning oil fell from her lamp upon the shoulder of Eros; this awoke the god momentarily and, just as soon as he realized that his wife had broken her promise, he fled away without a word. Too bad that Psyche, owing to the arrow wound, had now fallen even more intensely in love with her husband.
Not knowing what to do, Psyche started searching for Eros right away. She wandered through country after country and prayed for help, but it was all in vain. Even Demeter and Hera, afraid that everything else would offend Aphrodite, refused to aid Psyche on her quest. Seeing no way out, Psyche eventually came to the palace of Aphrodite herself. Furious that her son had disobeyed her commands, the goddess of love and beauty showed no mercy. She took Psyche violently by her hair and tore her apparel, mocking her for conceiving an illegitimate child; afterward, she handed her over to her two servant-maidens, Sorrow and Sadness, and started torturing her by giving her tasks as formidable as those of Heracles.
Aphrodite took a great quantity of “wheat, barley, millet, poppy seed, peas, lentils, and beans, and mingled them all together in a heap.” Psyche’s task was to sort out the seeds into separate heaps within a single day. Not knowing even where to begin, Psyche started crying. Fortunately, an ant heard her and felt sorry for her; so, she quickly rounded up all the ants of the country, and they all came, helping Psyche finish the job just in time.
Next, Aphrodite tasked Psyche with gathering the golden wool from a nearby flock of murderous sheep with sharp horns. This time, a divinely inspired green reed advised her, through the sounds of a gracious melody, to wait until the sheep fall asleep in the heat of the afternoon, and only then gather the locks of their golden fleeces hanging upon the nearby briar bushes. Psyche followed the advice and brought Aphrodite a lapful of golden wool, but the goddess was still not impressed.
Related: The Myth of Sisyphus
Aphrodite’s third task was even more complicated: Psyche had to fill a jar with the waters from the black and deadly river Styx, parts of which flowed on the top of a distant mountain. Psyche went to much trouble to merely get to the place, only to find that on each side of the river, there lay a great never-sleeping dragon, appointed to keep the waters safe. Psyche froze with fear and was so out of her mind that she wasn’t even able to cry anymore.
Seeing her there, and remembering that he owed a favor to Eros, Zeus’ eagle suddenly flew down from the clouds and snatched Psyche’s jar out of her hands; then he filled it to the top with the waters of Styx and brought it back to the maiden. Psyche joyfully returned to Aphrodite and ecstatically presented her with the jar; Aphrodite, however, had something else on her mind: the fourth and final task.
The final task
Appropriately, this one surpassed by far all the others in the degree of difficulty. Namely, this time Psyche was supposed to go to the Underworld and ask from Persephone a day’s worth of her beauty, pack it in a box and quickly bring the box back to Aphrodite. Reasoning that the only way for her to visit Hades was by dying, the despairing Psyche went up one high tower with the intention of throwing herself headlong into hell. However, inspired by divine providence, the tower revealed to her a better way. And, more or less, Psyche did everything the tower told her to.
First, she went to the hill Taenarus in the Peloponnese, where she found a hole leading to Hades. However, she didn’t go there with empty hands, taking with her two coins and two pieces of bread soaked in barley and honey. She used the first coin to pay Charon for her fare across the Styx, and the first bread to mellow Cerberus and be allowed entry to the palace of Hades. There she found Persephone and, following the tower’s advice, rejected all of her fine meals, asking instead for a crust of brown bread and a favor. After being granted the latter one, Psyche fetched a little of Persephone’s beauty and returned to the land of the living, bribing Cerberus with her second bread and paying off Charon with her last coin.
However, as it usually happens, she disobeyed the very last instruction: just like Pandora had done once with her jar, Psyche too opened the box of Persephone. This time, though, the act was neither out of curiosity nor out of spite: Psyche had merely hoped that a dash of divine beauty should help her win back the love of Eros. However, “she could perceive no beauty nor anything else save only an infernal and deadly sleep, which immediately invaded all her members as soon as the box was uncovered, in such sort that she fell down on the ground, and lay there as a sleeping corpse.”
Eros – who could bear neither the sight nor the absence of Psyche anymore – secretly flew out through a window of his chamber and, upon reaching Psyche, wiped away the cloud of sleep from her face, and put its essence back in the box. Then, he lifted his beloved wife into the air, and Psyche was able to bring her present to Aphrodite just in time. Not wishing to see her tortured anymore, Eros immediately went to Zeus and begged him for approval. Zeus consented and made Psyche immortal by giving her ambrosia, not only so that she and Eros may be united in marriage as equals, but also so that Aphrodite may finally be appeased. In due time, Psyche’s baby was born. It was a healthy daughter whom the married couple named Voluptas; fittingly, when she grew up, she became the Goddess of Pleasure.
What are the ancient sources for Eros and Psyche?
Although the story of Psyche and Eros (Cupid) can be found depicted in Greek art dating back to the 4th century BCE, the most famous and complete telling of the myth is found in ancient Roman literature, in the 2nd-century CE novel Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, written by Apuleius.
Adaptations of Eros and Psyche
Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
The retelling by C.S. Lewis is one of y favorites because it is from a different perspective: that of Psyche’s sister, Orual. Lewis gives you a glimpse of the world and the upbringing of Psyche and her sisters, through the lens of the eldest sister that is least loved by their father.
Orual’s possessive love of Psyche offers some explanation for the events that unfold after Eros falls in love with Psyche. There is great introspection in this retelling, and a chance to see this classic Greek tale in a completely different light.
Soul in Darkness by Wendy Higgins
Wendy Higgins’s retelling retains the ancient Greece setting and sticks to its origins, using their Roman names: Princess Psyche is so adored by the public that visitors begin leaving her the same gifts and offerings that Venus gets. This version, however, gives us more insight into Cupid’s personality and motivations, and provides a closer look at how Psyche could fall in love with a husband she only meets in the dark, and one she’s been told is a monster.
Love in Color by Bolu Babalola
Bolu Babalola’s collection is filled to bursting with her version of love stories from classic myths around the world. These stories center women and draw from lore in West Africa, the Middle East, ancient Greece, and more. One of these love stories is that of Eros and Cupid, so you will be treated to a lushly written retelling of their timeless tale in this collection.
Cupid and Psyche by M. Charlotte Craft
M. Charlotte Craft’s retelling is more faithful to the original myth, with the same setting and events as they unfolded for Cupid and Psyche. The difference here is that it’s a gorgeously illustrated version, lovingly depicted by famed illustrator Kinuko Y. Craft (M. Charlotte Craft’s mother). Forty paintings accompany the beautifully told tale.
Electric Idol by Katee Robert
Katee Robert takes Eros and Psyche to the future with this modern retelling. In the sleek city of Olympus, Psyche has incurred the wrath of Aphrodite, who sends her son (and trained killer) Eros to end Psyche’s life. Eros has been the monster in the shadows for his mother for so long that he almost believes that’s all he is…until he tries to carry out this mission for her. Because once he sees Psyche and experiences her kindness, he can’t do it. The only way to save her from his mother’s rage is to protect her himself by marrying her.
Cupid: A Tale of Love and Desire by Julius Lester
Julius Lester artfully weaves humor into his Cupid-focused version of their love story. Cupid has spent all his time dispensing love and heartache to others, only to find himself at the other end of the arrow (and on the wrong side of his mother’s anger) when he falls in love with Psyche. This is a delightful, lighthearted, and romantic retelling that injects levity into a story that can oftentimes be interpreted quite heavily.
Destined by Jessie Harrell
Jessie Harrell’s retelling refreshes the role that Aphrodite plays in Psyche’s life: that of the spurned surrogate mother instead of the jealous goddess. Aphrodite is so pleased that mortals are worshiping Psyche’s beauty that she wishes for Psyche to marry her son, Eros. Except Psyche refuses to marry a stranger. The denial sends Aphrodite into a rage, and she demands retribution that Eros can’t bring himself to carry out for her. He brings Psyche to his home in secret to protect her, and a romance between blossoms from there.
Painted Blind by Michelle A. Hansen
The ancient Greek setting meets the modern world with Michelle A. Hansen’s retelling. Psyche is a model from a sleepy town in Montana, and her modeling photos reenacting Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus make their way to her hometown and capture the real Venus’ attention. Furious that a mortal girl is making a mockery of her image, she sends her son for revenge; except he has no interest in harming Psyche. He rescues her instead, and their classic love story plays out from there.