Psyche: The Goddess of the Soul
Psyche: The Goddess of the Soul
Her name is still used to describe the mind today, but do you know the myth that tells the story Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul?
Eros and his beautiful wife Psyche appeared in Greek art as early as the 4th century BC, but unfortunately only one written narrative of their story has survived.
The Golden Ass, part of the Metamorphoses written by Lucius Apuleius in the 2nd century AD, is a Roman-era work that tells of the romance between Eros and a human princess and how she was elevated to godhood after many trials and tribulations.
With only one version of the story remaining it’s hard to tell what was a widespread belief and what came from the imagination of the individual writer. Stories always change from one writer to the net, but with Psyche and Eros we have only one version to rely on.
Still, the story of Eros and Psyche has become one of the most popular Greek myths.
As a legend of love, betrayal, and family conflict, it’s easy to see why the myth of Psyche has lived on as one of the greatest love stories of the ancient world!
Psyche the Mortal Princess
Psyche was born as a mortal, the daughter of a king and queen that the surviving story do not name. She had two older sisters as well.
From an early age, the princess was renowned for her beauty. People would travel from around Greece to catch a glimpse of the stunning young girl.
Beauty, particularly for women, was Aphrodite’s domain and those with exceptionally good looks were said to be blessed by her. But as Psyche grew older and more lovely, some began to say that her beauty surpassed that of even the goddess.
Some people even claimed that she was a new goddess sent to supplant Aphrodite as the most beautiful being in the universe. Worshippers came to see Psyche instead of visiting Aphrodite’s temples.
Like many of the Greek deities, Aphrodite was no stranger to jealousy. Claims that Psyche’s beauty was a rival to her own instead of a blessing made the goddess furious.
One of Aphrodite’s favorite ways to get revenge on those who wronged her was by calling on her son, Eros. With a single shot from his arrows, Eros could make anyone fall desperately in love.
Aphrodite planning to have Eros target Psyche. Making the beautiful young girl fall madly in love with an unsuitable man would lead to a lifetime of misery.
Eros, who was always obedient to his mother’s commands, set out to make Psyche fall in love with the most hideous, ill-fated man alive.
The king and queen, meanwhile, had their own concerns about Psyche’s future.
Her sisters had been married to suitably wealthy and powerful men, but no suitors had come to seek their youngest daughter’s hand. Psyche’s beauty made men love her from afar, but no one dared to hope to marry her.
Her father feared that the family had somehow incurred the anger of the gods, and his daughter’s lack of marriage prospects was a curse that had been laid upon them.
Her parents sought the advice of an oracle. To their dismay, they were told that their daughter was fated to marry a being so terrible that even Zeus feared him.
Convinced Psyche would become the wife of a dreadful monster, her parents prepared to send her to the mountaintop where they were told her groom waited.
What they, and Aphrodite, did not know was that Eros had failed in his mission to bring doom on the unfortunate girl. As he had lined up his shot, he had pricked his own finger with one of his magical arrows.
Eros himself had fallen in love with Psyche.
Her parents prepared as if for a funeral instead of a wedding and led their daughter to the mountain. The entire city mourned for the loss of their beautiful princess.
Psyche was abandoned on the mountaintop to wait for her husband. As she sat alone and cried, Zephyrus, the West Wind, began to blow around her.
The wind wrapped around her until it carried her off the ground. Gently, Zephyrus took the girl down the mountain and into a lush, peaceful valley.
In a grove of trees, she saw a splendid palace. When she entered it, she found that it was full of every type of riches she could imagine.
She saw no one in the palace but could hear the whispered voices of the servants. When she wished for anything, whether it was food or music, it was brought to her as if by air.
Her new husband was invisible as well. He visited her at night and spoke to her in the dark, but was always gone by morning.
Eros knew that misfortune would befall them both if Psyche were to know his identity, so he made her swear that she would never try to see his face.
While Psyche was content, she began to feel lonely. She knew her family believed her dead, or worse, and she wanted nothing more than to see her sisters.
Even though he had concerns, Eros agreed to allow Psyche’s sisters to visit her. Zephyrus carried them to the palace.
The sisters were amazed that not only was Psyche happy and healthy, but that she lived in such a grand place. Compared to their own marriages, which had been arranged to unkind men who were much older, Psyche seemed to be very lucky.
The only thing that seemed wrong with Psyche’s new position was that she had never actually seen her husband. She didn’t even know his name.
Her sisters, who were growing more jealous by the minute of her good fortune, insisted that something must be wrong with her mysterious husband if he wouldn’t even let her look at him. He must have been a monster after all.
Psyche tried to ignore them, but after they left she began to grow more suspicious herself. Fueled by jealousy and greed, the sisters had managed to put doubt in her mind.
Psyche decided that she would see the truth for herself. That night, she hid a lantern and a knife near her bed.
After her husband had fallen asleep next to her, Psyche lit the flame. She held the knife close by prepared to kill him if he was a monster after all.
Instead of a monster, she saw the perfect face of the god of love.
She also saw the quiver of arrows he kept at the foot of the bed. Examining them, she pricked her finger on one, causing to fall more deeply in love than she already had.
As she admired her sleeping husband, she didn’t notice a single drop of oil spill from the lamp she was holding. It hit the god’s shoulder, waking him instantly as it burned him.
Eros was furious. His wife had not only disobeyed his warning, but had been prepared to kill him in his sleep.
Despite her protests and apologies, he left. Psyche, now completely in love with him, was alone.
Her sisters, however, got their just rewards.
They had never been convinced that Psyche had truly married a monster. Instead, certain that her mysterious husband would have turned her out when she tried to kill him, both sisters attempted to offer themselves as replacements.
They each climbed a cliff, asking Zephyrus to take them to the palace as he had before. Each were ignored, though, and fell to their death.
Eros returned to his mother’s palace to have his burned shoulder healed. The wound had burned so deeply that the servants claimed his life was in danger.
When Aphrodite heard that her son had been in the country with a girl, she was amused, thinking he had simply been having fun with one of the nymphs.
When she learned, however, that he had actually been spending his nights with the very girl she had sworn to destroy, the goddess was furious. She threatened to strip Eros of his divinity and renounce him as her son for the betrayal.
Hera and Demeter heard her shouts. They argued that Eros was not a child and that his mother couldn’t hope to control him forever.
Aphrodite, however, ignored their advice. She ordered her servants and followers to search everywhere until they found Psyche.
Psyche, meanwhile, had been wandering the earth searching for her husband. She was so distraught she even considered throwing herself off a cliff, but Pan happened to be passing by and advised her not to throw her life away.
Eventually, she came to a temple of Demeter. She was so exhausted that she collapsed inside.
Demeter appeared to her, along with Hera. They warned her that Aphrodite was searching for her but they could offer no help without upsetting the goddess themselves.
Psyche knew it was only a matter of time before Aphrodite caught up to her. The angry goddess had enlisted the help of Hermes and promised a reward to any human who brought news of her whereabouts.
Soon enough, she was dragged into Aphrodite’s temple. The goddess’s fury only increased when she saw that Psyche, who she regarded as completely unworthy of Eros, was pregnant.
Aphrodite called for Sollicito (Melancholy) and Tristie (Sorrow) who tortured the unfortunate girl. But Aphrodite had devised psychological torture for her, as well.
She first conjured a massive pile of grains, at least seven different kinds all mixed together in a heap. She ordered Psyche to sort the tiny grains by that night or face her wrath.
When she left, Psyche didn’t bother even trying to sort the seeds. She knew it was an impossible task designed only to humiliate and frustrate her.
Suddenly, however, the grains began to shift. An army of ants had arrived to complete the task for Psyche.
Aphrodite knew Psyche must have had help. The next day she presented her daughter-in-law with another task – to pluck a tuft of wool from one of the fiery golden sheep of the dawn.
This time she was aided by the reeds at the edge of a stream. They whispered to her that after noon the sheep would calm down and she could find the wool stuck in the foliage where they had laid down.
The next day Psyche was sent to the mountain where the River Styx began its course. She was ordered to college a jug of the icy water from the very top of the mountain.
The path was treacherous. Vicious snakes guarded it and the water itself yelled warnings and reproaches to anyone who came near.
Psyche was terrified, but again received help. Zeus’s giant eagle took the jug for her, telling the snakes and the water that his master had sent him for it.
Aphrodite had hoped that her first three impossible tasks would have been too much for the human girl, but Psyche had managed to complete each one. For her final task, she devised a plan that would certainly rid her of her unwanted daughter-in-law.
Psyche in the Underworld
For her fourth task, Aphrodite ordered Psyche to go to the underworld.
She gave the mortal woman a box and commanded her to go to Persephone. The queen of the underworld, she said, had a special beauty cream that Aphrodite needed because of the stress of caring for her sick son.
Psyche knew without a doubt that she would never make the trip alive. Even most of the gods could not travel freely to and from Hades’ Realm.
She made her way to a high tower, determined to end her suffering by throwing herself from its height. But the stones of the tower spoke to her, advising hope and telling her how to face each of the perils she would encounter among the dead.
She took the tower’s words to heart and, making her way to the entrance she’d been told to find in Sparta, descended into the land of the dead.
She avoided the traps and dangers of the underworld. She paid Charon his fare, fed a sweet honey cake to Cerberus, and made her way to Persephone’s palace safely.
The queen was kind and inviting, as Psyche had been told she would be. She took the box away to fill it and handed it back to Psyche to complete her mission.
She was almost back to the land of the living when curiosity overtook her. She reasoned that with Aphrodite’s own beauty products she could make herself attractive enough to win back her husband’s affections.
The words were scarcely out of her mouth when she opened the box. But inside there was no beauty-lotion or anything other than the sleep of Hades, a truly Stygian sleep. As soon as the lid was removed and it was laid bare, it attacked her and pervaded all her limbs in a thick cloud. It laid hold of her, so that she fell prostrate on the path where she had stood. She lay there motionless, no more animate than a corpse at rest.
-Apuleius, The Golden Ass
Luck was with Psyche, however. Eros had recovered on the day Aphrodite sent her to the underworld and realized that he missed his wife.
He set off to find her and make amends. He reached the entryway to the underworld just as the cursed sleep took her.
Eros removed the sleep and placed it safely back in its box, gently chiding his wife for once again letting her curiosity overcome her judgement.
The couple knew, however, that they still had to contend with his mother. For the first time, Eros bypassed Aphrodite and presented himself before the throne of Zeus.
Zeus heard the younger god’s story and had sympathy, having fallen in love with many mortals himself. He also knew that Eros was the reason he had desired those human women and hoped that marriage might temper the love god’s mischievous ways.
The oracle that Psyche’s father had consulted before her first wedding had not been entirely wrong. She had married an immortal being of such great power that Zeus himself feared it.
He was wise enough to use it, though. While he hoped marriage would temper Eros’s impetuosity, he also told the younger god that in exchange for blessing the marriage he would expect help wooing any attractive mortal woman he set his sights on in the future.
Zeus acknowledged, however, that Aphrodite had been right on one count. The law stated that marriages must be between men and women of equal status, so a mortal woman like Psyche was not a fit match for a god.
He had Psyche brought to Olympus and handed her a cup of Ambrosia. With Zeus’s blessing and the food of the gods, she became a goddess and a fitting match for Eros.
Aphrodite’s anger was quenched. Her daughter-in-law was now an acceptable goddess and the grandchild she carried would be born into a lawful marriage.
While her first wedding had been conducted like a funeral, the banquet the gods held to celebrate Psyche’s lawful marriage to Eros was properly celebratory. Even Aphrodite danced to Apollo’s music.
The wedding of Eros and Psyche on Olympus became one of the greatest celebrations in history, gathering all the gods together to welcome a new member into their midst.
Psyche became the goddess of the soul, which the Greeks believed had to endure hardships before a person could attain true happiness. Her daughter Hedone was the goddess of pleasure.
The Story in Fable and Folklore
The myth of Eros and Psyche may have only survived in one written account, but it has influenced literature and storytelling for nearly 2,000 years.
Elements of the story influenced European folklore for centuries. The idea of a mysterious, possibly monstrous, lover and a beautiful princess plagued by curiosity has appealed to people from many different backgrounds.
“Beauty and the Beast” is often seen as a reinterpretation of the Psyche myth. The 16th-century French version of the tale even includes the protagonist’s jealous sisters.
Cinderella, who also has two envious sisters, is at one point given the task of sorting lentils and beans from ash. She is aided by birds, similar to the help Psyche received from the ants.
The miller’s daughter in “Rumpelstiltskin” receives similar help in her tasks.
In “The Little Mermaid,” the mermaid’s sisters give her a knife which she is nearly prepared to use to kill her beloved Prince when he leaves her. Like Psyche, she also contemplates using it to end her own suffering.
The story also provides moral lessons that transcend any particular telling or culture.
The Greeks warned against Psyche’s curiosity, particularly when it took the form of disobedience. Defying first her husband, then her mother-in-law, was the cause of all of the girl’s troubles.
The issue between Eros and Psyche is also one of distrust. While the concealment of his identity made her distrustful, she betrayed him when she broke her promise not to look at him as he slept.
For the Greeks, the story also held an important lesson about propriety and maintaining the social order.
Aphrodite’s fury was because Psyche, as a mortal, was not considered a fitting wife for Eros. Only when their social status matched would Aphrodite approve of the union.
Later Christians took Psyche’s personification of the soul as an allegory for the soul being corrupted by sexual love and desire. In their view, Eros robbed Psyche of her life and her torments were due to their physical relationship.
The story as a romance became popular during the Enlightenment when ancient views came into vogue. The trials the couple faced fit romantic European ideals of love.
Operas and ballets based on the story were popular in the 17th century, written by such luminaries as Moliere, Matthew Locke, and Jean-Baptiste Lully.
The popularity continued into the 19th century, with writers like Mary Tighe, William Wordsworth, and John Keats all offering their own retellings of the myth.
In the 20th century and beyond, portrayals of Eros and Psyche had been less literal retellings.
- The True Heart – The 1929 novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner translated the story to a Victorian English setting. It was such a complete reimagining that readers did not see the connection until the author pointed it out.
- The Robber Bridegroom – Written in 1942 by Eudora Welty, this novella sets elements of a classic folktale in the state of Mississippi. Three decades later it was adapted into a musical for the Broadway stage.
- Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis, better known as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, wrote this novel to give reasoning to the actions taken in The Golden Ass, which had always struck him as illogical.
- “Psyche: Love Drove Her to Hell” – H.D. (Hilda Dolittle) rewrote the myth as a poem, one of many she penned based on Classical mythology.
Even when the tale is not entirely retold, the romance and trials faced by Psyche made their way into stories for thousands of years.
Cupid and Psyche in Art
The story of Eros, or Cupid as he was known to Latin speakers, and Psyche became a favorite subject for artists.
The pair were seen in art long before the only recorded story of their marriage was written. Over time, their images became ever more popular.
Psyche as a goddess was usually depicted as a beautiful young woman with the wings of a butterfly. She was also shown with another maiden of a similar type, which may have been her daughter Hedone.
While Psyche occasionally appeared on her own, it was the story of her marriage to Eros that really captured the imaginations of ancient artists.
In the ancient world, the two literally embodied the way in which love connected to the soul, a bond that transcended even death. Their images were popular on rings and sarcophagi to illustrate the lasting bonds between couples.
In Renaissance Italy, the rediscovery of the ancient writings led to a surge in popularity. Romantic Renaissance ladies had Cupid and his wife painted on their own wedding chests.
The rich description of their wedding in The Golden Ass gave Renaissance artists the perfect scene for depicting the entirety of the Greco-Roman pantheon. One Dutch painter worked over 80 separate figures into his painting.
The couple alone was another popular motif. Like the Greeks, later artists took full advantage of the scenes that allowed them to depict idealized bodies.
A painting of the couple by William Page was banned from exhibition in the 1840s after being called the most erotic painting of the century.
In sculpture, as well, the couple’s embrace allowed for the portrayal of beautiful forms in particularly graceful poses. They were usually shown embracing in poses that highlighted the skil of the artists who had carved the image.
The Soul and the Mind
While her legend may be poorly preserved, Psyche’s name is one of the most widely used today. This isn’t due to the popularity of her love story, but rather to her domain as the goddess of the soul.
Our modern meaning of psyche is slightly different than the Greek idea of the soul.
To the ancient Greeks, the soul was an immortal part of any living thing. Humans, animals, and plants had different types of souls, but some part of every living thing always endured after death.
Socrates put forward the idea that the soul could better learn wisdom after death because it was no longer encumbered by the body. In some schools of thought the soul was not developed only in life, but after death as well.
Love was an especially important factor in the development of the soul. Deep love, like the type produced by Eros’s magical arrows, remained as a part of the soul for all eternity and forever linked the people who shared it.
In modern psychology, the psyche refers to the whole of the human emotional and mental state. These inform the person’s thoughts, personality, and behavior.
Psychology, a word that itself contains Psyche’s name, is the study of this. Psychologists seek to understand how the human psyche functions, develops, and changes.
Cognitive scientists today prefer to simply use the word “mind,” but the study of psychology has produced numerous theories, treatises, and studies of the psyche through the years.
Today the word soul has a much different meaning than its Greek counterpart, but at their roots, the modern and ancient interpretations of the psyche are not so dissimilar. Both describe the core aspects of a human’s personality as influenced by their nature and experiences.
The Enduring Appeal of Psyche
It is noteworthy that the story of Psyche’s marriage to Eros has remained so popular. Many myths have much more remaining evidence but little recognition.
The story of Eros and Psyche has all the elements that people love about ancient mythology.
There’s a story of unlikely lovers who maintain their bond against all odds.
Psyche serves as an unexpected heroine who must overcome difficult and deadly trials to prove her worth. The tasks set before her are every bit as daunting as those given to great heroes like Perseus and Heracles.
For modern readers, Psyche reminds us of stories of princesses we have all heard before. While those stories were actually influenced by hers, Psyche is a familiar archetype for modern readers.
The story of Eros and Psyche has a trip to the underworld, intrigue among the gods, and even the deaths of wicked, jealous sisters. There is betrayal, scheming, and a last minute rescue from the brink of death.
In some ways, the lack of plentiful source material may have helped the myth survive. There is no confusion over conflicting narratives or changing details, just one complete and cohesive story.
The story of Psyche has endured despite its scant written evidence because it is filled with the romance, adventure, and intrigue that make for a truly captivating tale.