Cupid and Psyche

Cupid and Psyche
Cupid and Psyche, by Antonio Canova, c. 1808, in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg.

Cupid and Psyche (/ˈsaɪkiː/; also known as The Tale of Amour and Psyche and The Tale of Eros and Psyche), is a legend that first appeared as a digressionary story told by an old woman in Lucius Apuleius' novel, The Golden Ass, written in the 2nd century CE. Apuleius likely used an earlier tale as the basis for his story, modifying it to suit the thematic needs of his novel.

It has since been interpreted as a Märchen, an allegory and a myth. Considered as a fairy tale, it is either an allegory or a myth, but the folkloric tradition tends to blend these.[1]



Envious and jealous of the beauty of a mortal girl named Psyche, Venus asks her son Cupid (known to the Greeks as Eros) to use his golden arrows while Psyche sleeps, so that when she awakens, Venus (Aphrodite in the Greek tradition) would place a vile creature for her to fall in love with. Cupid finally agrees to her commands after a long debate. As he flies to Psyche's room at night, he turns himself invisible so no one can see him fly in through her window. He takes pity on her, for she was born too beautiful for her own safety. As he slowly approaches, careful not to make a sound, he readies one of his golden arrows. He leans over Psyche while she is asleep and before he can scratch her shoulder with the arrow, she awakens, startling him, for she looks right into his eyes, despite his invisibility. This causes him to scratch himself with his arrow and fall deeply in love with her. He cannot continue his mission, for every passing second he finds her more appealing. He reports back to Venus shortly after and the news enrages her. Venus places a curse on Psyche that keeps her from meeting a suitable husband, or any husband at that. As she does this, it upsets Cupid greatly, and he decides as long as the curse stays on Psyche, he will no longer shoot arrows, which will cause the temple of Venus to fall.

Michelangelo Palloni, fresco Sleeping Psyche, c. 1688, Wilanów Palace.

After months of no one — man or animal — falling in love, marrying, or mating, the Earth starts to grow old, which causes concern to Venus, for nobody praises her for Cupid's actions. Finally, she agrees to listen to Cupid's demands, allowing him one thing to have his own way. Cupid desires Psyche. Venus, upset, agrees to his demands only if he begins work immediately. He accepts the offer and takes off, shooting his golden arrows as fast as he can, restoring everything to the way it should be. People again fall in love and marry, animals far and wide mate, and the Earth begins to look young once again.

When all continue to admire and praise Psyche's beauty, but none desire her as a wife, Psyche's parents consult an oracle, which tells them to leave Psyche on the nearest mountain, for her beauty is so great that she is not meant for a mortal man. Terrified, they have no choice but to follow the oracle's instructions. But then Zephyrus, the west wind, carries Psyche away, to a fair valley and a magnificent palace where she is attended by invisible servants until nightfall, and in the darkness of night the promised bridegroom arrives and the marriage is consummated. Cupid visits her every night to sleep with her, but demands that she never light any lamps, since he does not want her to know who he is until the time is right.

Statue of Cupido and Psyche kissing, 2nd century AD. Room E of the House of Cupid and Psyche. Ostia Antica, Latium, Italy

Cupid allows Zephyrus to take Psyche back to her sisters and bring all three down to the palace during the day, but warns that Psyche should not listen to any argument that she should try to discover his true form. The two jealous sisters tell Psyche, then pregnant with Cupid's child, that rumour is that she had married a great and terrible serpent who would devour her and her unborn child when the time came for it to be fed. They urge Psyche to conceal a knife and oil lamp in the bedchamber, to wait till her husband is asleep, and then to light the lamp and slay him at once if it is as they said. Psyche sadly follows their advice. In the light of the lamp Psyche recognizes the fair form on the bed as the god Cupid himself. However, she accidentally pricks herself with one of his arrows, and is consumed with desire for her husband. She begins to kiss him, but as she does, a drop of oil falls from her lamp onto Cupid's shoulder and wakes him. She watches him fly away, and she falls from the window to the ground, sick at heart.

Psyche then finds herself in the city where one of her jealous elder sisters live. She tells her what had happened, then tricks her sister into believing that Cupid has chosen her as a wife on the mountaintop. Psyche later meets her other sister and deceives her likewise. Each sister goes to the top of the peak and jumps down eagerly, but Zephyrus does not bear them and they fall to their deaths at the base of the mountain.

Psyche searches far and wide for her lover, finally stumbling into a temple where everything is in slovenly disarray. As Psyche is sorting and clearing the mess, Ceres (Demeter to the Greeks) appears, but refuses any help beyond advising Psyche that she must call directly on Venus, who caused all the problems in the first place. Psyche next calls on Juno in her temple, but Juno gives her the same advice. So Psyche finds a temple to Venus and enters it. Venus then orders Psyche to separate all the grains in a large basket of mixed kinds before nightfall. An ant takes pity on Psyche, and with its ant companions, separates the grains for her.

L'Amour et Psyché,by François-Édouard Picot, 1819

Venus is outraged at her success and tells her to go to a field where golden sheep graze and to retrieve some golden wool. A river-god tells Psyche that the sheep are vicious and strong and will kill her, but if she waits until noontime, the sheep will go to the shade on the other side of the field and sleep; she can then pick the wool that sticks to the branches and bark of the trees. Venus next asks for water flowing from a cleft that is impossible for a mortal to attain and is also guarded by great serpents. This time an eagle performs the task for Psyche.

Psyché aux enfers by Eugène Ernest Hillemacher, 1865

Venus, furious at Psyche's survival, claims that the stress of caring for her son, made depressed and ill as a result of Psyche's lack of faith, has caused her to lose some of her beauty. Psyche is to go to the Underworld and ask the queen of the Underworld, Proserpina (Persephone to the Greeks), to place a bit of her beauty in a box that Venus had given to Psyche. Psyche decides that the quickest way to the Underworld is to throw herself off some high place and die, and so she climbs to the top of a tower. But the tower itself speaks to Psyche and tells her the route that will allow her to enter the Underworld alive and return again, as well as telling her how to get past Cerberus (by giving the three-headed dog a small cake); how to avoid other dangers on the way there and back; and most importantly, to eat nothing but coarse bread in the underworld, as eating anything else would trap her there forever. Psyche follows the orders precisely, rejecting all but bread while beneath the Earth.

However, once Psyche has left the Underworld, she decides to open the box and take a little bit of the beauty for herself. Inside, she can see no beauty; instead an infernal sleep arises from the box and overcomes her. Cupid (Eros), who had forgiven Psyche, flies to her, wipes the sleep from her face, puts it back in the box, and sends her back on her way. Then Cupid flies to Mount Olympus and begs Jupiter (Zeus) to aid them. Jupiter calls a full and formal council of the gods and declares that it is his will that Cupid marry Psyche. Jupiter then has Psyche fetched to Mount Olympus, and gives her a drink made from ambrosia, granting her immortality. Begrudgingly, Venus and Psyche forgive each other.

Psyche and Cupid have a daughter, called Voluptas (Hedone in Greek mythology), the goddess of "sensual pleasures", whose Latin name means "pleasure" or "bliss".

Relations and origin

In Greek mythology, Psyche was the deification of the human soul. She was portrayed in ancient mosaics as a goddess with butterfly wings (because psyche is also the Greek word for 'butterfly'). The Greek word psyche literally means "spirit, breath, life or animating force".

Psyche was originally the youngest daughter of the king and queen of Sicily, and the most beautiful person on the island. Suitors flocked to ask for her hand. She eventually boasted that she was more beautiful than Aphrodite (Venus) herself, and Aphrodite sent Eros to transfix her with an arrow of desire, to make her fall in love with the nearest person or thing available. But even Eros (Cupid) fell in love with her, and took her to a secret place, eventually marrying her and having her made a goddess by Zeus (Jupiter).

Though concerning gods and goddesses, Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche was generally relegated to the status of a "mere" folktale (in English a fairy tale). However, through Perrault's Mother Goose Tales and with the popularity of other such collections in 17th century France, folk tales become recognized in Europe as a legitimate literary genre.

Later adaptations

William Adlington translated the tale into English in 1566.[2]

At the conclusion of Comus (1634), the poet John Milton alluded to the story of Cupid and Psyche.

Psyche, by William Adolphe Bouguereau
"Celestial Cupid, her famed son, advanced,
Holds his dear Psyche sweet entranced,
After her wandering labours long,
Till free consent the gods among
Make her his eternal bride;
And from her fair unspotted side
Two blissful twins are to be born,
Youth and Joy; so Jove hath sworn."

The poet T. K. Harvey wrote:

"They wove bright fables in the days of old,
When reason borrowed fancy's painted wings;
When truth's clear river flowed o'er sands of gold,
And told in song its high and mystic things!
And such the sweet and solemn tale of her
The pilgrim heart, to whom a dream was given,
That led her through the world,– Love's worshipper,–
To seek on earth for him whose home was heaven!
"In the full city,– by the haunted fount,–
Through the dim grotto's tracery of spars,–
'Mid the pine temples, on the moonlit mount,
Where silence sits to listen to the stars;
In the deep glade where dwells the brooding dove,
The painted valley, and the scented air,
She heard far echoes of the voice of Love,
And found his footsteps' traces everywhere.
"But nevermore they met! since doubts and fears,
Those phantom shapes that haunt and blight the earth,
Had come 'twixt her, a child of sin and tears,
And that bright spirit of immortal birth;
Until her pining soul and weeping eyes
Had learned to seek him only in the skies;
Till wings unto the weary heart were given,
And she became Love's angel bride in heaven!"

Shackerley Marmion wrote a verse version of the Apuleius story called Cupid and Psyche which was published in 1637.

Mary Tighe in her poem Cupid and Psyche, first published in 1805, explains the origin of Cupid's love for Psyche. She adds two springs in Venus' garden, one with sweet water and one with bitter. When Cupid starts to obey his mother's command, he brings some of both to a sleeping Psyche but places only some of the bitter water on Psyche's lips and prepares also to pierce her with an arrow:

Roman marble Cupid and Psyche after a Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC
Nor yet content, he from his quiver drew,
Sharpened with skill divine, a shining dart:
No need had he for bow, since thus too true
His hand might wound her all-exposed heart;
Yet her fair side he touched with gentlest art,
And half relenting on her beauties gazed;
Just then awaking with a sudden start
Her opening eye in humid lustre blazed,
Unseen he still remained, enchanted and amazed.
The dart which in his hand now trembling stood,
As o'er the couch he bent with ravished eye,
Drew with its daring point celestial blood
From his smooth neck's unblemished ivory:
Heedless of this, but with a pitying sigh
The evil done now anxious to repair,
He shed in haste the balmy drops of joy
O'er all the silky ringlets of her hair;
Then stretched his plumes divine, and breathed celestial air.

In the later part of her tale, Tighe's Venus only asks one task of Psyche, to bring her the forbidden water, but in performing this task Tighe's Psyche wanders into a country bordering on Spenser's Fairie Queene as Psyche is aided by a mysterious visored knight and his squire Constance and must escape various traps set by Vanity, Flattery, Ambition, Credulity, Disfida (who lives in a "Gothic castle"), Varia and Geloso. Spenser's Blatant Beast also makes an appearance.

Tighe's work was appreciated by William Wordsworth and also an early influence on John Keats, whose short Ode to Psyche appeared in 1820.

William Morris retold the story in verse in The Earthly Paradise (1868–70). Robert Bridges wrote Eros and Psyche: A Narrative Poem in Twelve Measures (1885; 1894). A full prose adaptation was included as part of Walter Pater's novel Marius the Epicurean in 1885. Josephine Preston Peabody wrote a version for children in her Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew (1897). Thomas Bulfinch wrote a short adaptation for his Age of Fable which borrowed Tighe's account of Cupid's self-wounding. Sylvia Townsend Warner transferred the story to Victorian England in her novel The True Heart (1929), though few readers made the connection till she pointed it out herself.[3] C.S. Lewis retold the story in his 1956 book Till We Have Faces. Carol Gilligan uses the story as the basis for much of her analysis of love and relationships in The Birth of Pleasure (Knopf, 2002).

Fairy tale variants

As Bruno Bettelheim notes in The Uses of Enchantment, Beauty and the Beast is a variant of Cupid and Psyche.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Hendrik Wagenvoort, "Cupid and Psyche," reprinted in Pietas: Selected Studies in Roman Religion (Brill, 1980), pp. 84–92 online.
  2. ^ Under the title The XI Bookes of the Golden Asse, Conteininge the Metamorphosie of Lucius Apuleius (London 1566).
  3. ^ J. Lawrence Mitchell, "Ray Garnett as Illustrator". Powys Review 10 (spring 1982), pp. 9–28.

External links

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