While working on my master’s thesis, I became heavily immersed in mythology, fairy tales, and folklore. When Nymeth at things mean a lot announced that the 43rd Bookworms Carnival would be on mythologies and retellings, I knew that I had to participate.
Cupid and Psyche. Annie Swynnerton, 1891.
One of the myths that I became particularly attached to was the story of Cupid and Psyche.
Cupid and Psyche first appeared in Lucius Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (2nd century C.E.) and is considered one of the first literary myths (or fairy tales). The story is overheard by Lucius, the golden ass, as he travels to find a way to break the enchantment that keeps him in animal form.
When Venus’s temple is neglected because her devotees are admiring the mortal princess Psyche, the vengeful goddess orders her son Cupid, god of love, to strike the beautiful girl with one of this golden arrows, so that she may fall in love with a hideous creature that will be set before her. Devoted son that he is, Cupid does as ordered but falls in love with Psyche himself. Suddenly, things get complicated.
Unwilling to lose Psyche, Cupid asks Zephyr to whisk his beloved away to his palace, where she will be wed to him in secret. The problem is how to keep it all from Venus?
Cupid marries Psyche, concealing his identity from her by cover of darkness and forbidding her from ever looking upon him. When Psyche’s jealous sisters learn of Psyche’s felicity, they convince her that she has married a beast too hideous to reveal himself.
Tempted by the mystery, Psyche lights a lamp while her husband sleeps and sees Cupid, who wakes as a drop of oil falls from the lamp.
All sorts of havoc ensues when Cupid flies off, leaving Psyche to deal with the fallout of his mother’s discovery. Determined to find her husband, Psyche successfully overcomes a set of Herculean challenges set by Venus, showing Venus that she’s more than just a pretty face.
Much of the criticism on Cupid and Psyche focuses on the matter of curiosity and the forbidden. Psyche is told to not look upon Cupid–What kind of power dynamic is that in a marriage?! But, behold, female curiosity at its best.
Like the story of Eve and the apple, you can read Psyche’s transgression in several ways. I choose to read it as Psyche’s desire to know. It’s a very powerful notion, to think of Psyche challenging Cupid’s mandate and taking control of the situation.
Psyche’s determination and steadfastness as she completes Venus’s impossible tasks reveal her mettle as a heroine; she undergoes a Hero’s Journey of her own and emerges triumphant. She’s no damsel in distress, Psyche.
While researching the story, I also had the opportunity to read Julius Lester’s amusing retelling of Cupid and Psyche:
Cupid: a tale of love and desire
It has been a while since I read it, but I do recommend it as an original take on the tale or as a starting point for research on Cupid and Psyche (Lester includes a great list of references at the back of the book).
You can find several versions of Cupid and Psyche online, but if you want to find an inexpensive copy with some decent explanatory notes, I recommend the Penguin Epics version. This is the one that I used when writing on the story.