Eros, “the fairest among the deathless gods,” was also one of the most feared ones. And how could he not be? Even a single one of his arrows was enough to “unnerve the limbs and overcome the mind” of any god or mortal. However, this is not one of the numerous stories in which his arrows lead to someone’s everlasting happiness, or another’s eternal doom. This is the story of how Eros himself once fell in love with someone; and how that someone was willing to do anything not to lose him. Often read as “an allegory of the soul’s troublous journey through life towards a mystic union with the divine after death,” Eros and Psyche is one of the very few fairytales that have reached us from the Ancient world; and it is undoubtedly the most beautiful one.
Psyche, the Most Beautiful Maiden
The Youngest of the Three Daughters
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.
The Oracle’s Prophecy
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.
Psyche and Eros
The Marriage of Psyche
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.
Psyche Missing Her Family
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.
Psyche’s Jealous Sisters
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.
The Wanderings of Psyche
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.
The Trials of Psyche
First Task: Sorting Out a Heap of Grains
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.
Second Task: Gathering Golden Wool
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.
Third Task: Fetching a Jar of Stygian Water
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.
Fourth Task: The Underworld
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.
The Reunion of Eros and Psyche
The Curse of the Box
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.”
The Arrival of Eros
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.
The earliest – and the only extended – source for this fairytale is Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass. You can read the story in its entirety here, as translated by William Adlington in 1566; for a somewhat more readable modern reworking of the same translation, click here.