Valentine’s Day is coming up, and a lot of people find themselves celebrating it in different ways. Most spend it with their significant other, a lot of people hate the holiday and some even find themselves totally unaffected by it. As someone who loves fairy tales, fables and similar literature, it’s no surprise that one of my favorite myths revolves around Eros, the god of love, and his wife Psyche.
The story begins with Psyche, a woman who lives with a very wealthy family in a spectacular palace. Psyche is intelligent, gentle, and above everything else, extremely beautiful. She is so beautiful, in fact, that men came from all over just to get a look at her. People began calling her the human Aphrodite.
However, the real Aphrodite, was not happy about this. Because so many people were coming to view Psyche, her temples were empty and the humans weren’t worshipping her. Aphrodite is known for being incredibly vain and obsessed with her looks. She is also known for being spiteful to anyone who crosses her. You do not want Aphrodite mad at you.
One day, Aphrodite called her son Eros, the god of love. One of the things Eros is known for is causing mischief. He’s an expert with the bow and arrow, and his arrows are deadly. One stab from them and you fall in love with the first living thing you see. As you can imagine, this causes a lot of problems for humans. But it was fun for Eros to watch.
Aphrodite proceeds to complain to her son in what I imagine to be a very long and over-dramatic speech about how all the mortals attention was being placed on Psyche and not her. She tells Eros to go down to the mortal and shoot her with an arrow. Aphrodite assured her son that the first thing Psyche saw would be a huge embarrassment to the young girl, and people would go back to worshipping Aphrodite. Eros agreed because he thought it would be funny and because I’m sure he was a little bit afraid of his mother. Who wouldn’t be, right? (She sounds a little unhinged.)
What Aphrodite didn’t know is that Psyche did not like being as beautiful as she was. Sure men dropped by to admire her and give her gifts, but none of them ever actually proposed. Both of her older sisters were already married off to wealthy noblemen. She also hated how people only saw her beauty, not her personality. She wanted someone to love her for who she was, not what she looked like. Psyche was very lonely.
One night while she was out in the garden, Eros appeared. He turned himself invisible (why not right? He’s a god, he can do what he wants) and began to aim to hit Psyche with his arrow. But he saw how sad and alone she felt. He was also struck by how incredibly beautiful she was in real life. All of a sudden a donkey came into view of the garden. This was what Aphrodite sent for Eros to have Psyche fall in love with. Eros became angry.
At this point there’s a few different accounts of what happened. Some people say Eros shot himself in the foot on purpose so he technically wouldn’t be lying to his mother when he said he fired an arrow, because that totally makes sense. Others say that Eros accidentally shot himself and fell in love with Psyche. A third version is that he never fired an arrow at all and just fell in love with her naturally. I’m more partial towards that last one because it makes (spoiler alert) their love for each other seem more authentic rather than forced by magic.
The next day, Psyche’s parents dropped a bomb on her and decided to consult an oracle to find out who Psyche would marry. Naturally as a girl in her mid twenties her opportunities for marriage were becoming slimmer and if she didn’t grab a man soon she’d be an old maid. Psyche’s father travelled to the oracle and asked who would wed his daughter. The oracle told him that she would wed a terrible monster who even the gods feared. Terrified, he asked what he should do. He was told to leave his daughter on the edge of a nearby cliff, where she would be taken to the home of her husband.
Being father of the year, Psyche’s father naturally followed the oracle’s instructions and left his daughter standing on the edge of a cliff. She was dressed like a bride and the entire town formed the wedding procession. But once she kissed her mother goodbye, Psyche was left alone.
Psyche was left waiting on the cliff for a while. She was cold and frightened. Eventually though, Zephyr, the West Wind, picks her up and flys away. The two travel for a long time until he sets her down at the edge of a meadow. Psyche walks along and finds herself in front of a magnificent house. The doors open by themselves magically. Though she is afraid, Psyche goes inside.
The house is furnished with the most wonderful and lavish decor and furniture. The walls are covered in silks and jewels, and there are exotic animals for pets. Psyche finds herself in awe of the house. A voice whispers for her to come eat, but when she looks there is nobody there (she’s not hearing voices, the servants are invisible). A chair is pulled out at a large table filled with food. She sits, and as she eats, her plate and cup are never empty.
Once she was full, the voice led Psyche to an enormous bathroom with a tub that’s basically an inground pool. Invisible servants scrubbed her until she was even more beautiful than usual. Then they dressed her for bed.
Finally Psyche was taken to her room. It was as enormous and luxurious as the rest of the house. But she didn’t have long to admire it before the entire room was covered in darkness to the point where she couldn’t see. But she could feel a person standing in front of her (if you haven’t guessed, it’s Eros).
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m your husband,” Eros replied.
“But who are you really? I can’t see,” she said. Her husband chuckled.
“Your sight will return in the morning. But you must never know who I am. If you found out, it would ruin us,” he explained. “You are the mistress of this house. You may go where you like and do as you wish. I will never deny you anything.” Psyche was afraid, as any sane person would be. But upon touching her husband’s shoulders and head, he felt like a man. Not the evil beast the oracle said he would be. The two stayed up late and talked, until Psyche fell asleep and Eros had to leave in the morning.
Psyche would be left alone during the day to amuse herself with the beauty of the house. Her husband would return at night and leave once again when the sun rose. She could take a stroll in the garden, but she couldn’t go farther than that.
Despite the music and hobbies to occupy her, and the nightly visits from her husband, Psyche was lonely. She had been lonely before, but this was a whole new level. She missed her family. One night, she worked up the courage to ask her husband for a visit.
“Please, can’t my sisters visit? I miss them,” she begged. Eros said no initially. But after enough begging and pleading and puppy dog eyes, he finally gave in.
Psyche’s sisters visited, and they were hella jealous of her new place. They had always been jealous of Psyche for her beauty and all the attention she had received, but now they were pea green with envy.
As the three sisters were all sitting down for lunch when they began to pester Psyche with questions about her husband.
“What does he look like? Is he as ugly and evil as the oracle said he would be?” One of them asked.
“No, he’s very handsome,” Psyche said with a smile.
“Well what does he look like?” the other sister said.
“I don’t know. I just know he’s the kindest man I’ve ever met,” Psyche replied dreamily. I imagine she was looking off into space with a stupid smile like most women do when they talk about the guy they’re in love with.
“It doesn’t matter if he’s kind! It could be a terrible beast you’re lying next to at night!” her sisters shrieked. One of them handed Psyche a dagger because she happened to be carrying one on her visit. The other sister gave her a lantern (again, coincidence? I think NOT).
“Tonight when he’s asleep, light this lantern. If he’s a monster, use this dagger to kill him,” they advised.
Psyche went back and forth on the idea. On the one hand, she loved her husband and didn’t really like the idea of murdering him. On the other hand though, she was afraid her sisters were right and she was married to a monster.
Later that night, as her husband lay sleeping, her curiosity won out. Psyche lit the lamp and crept to her husband’s bedside, dagger in hand. As the light fell on his sleeping form, she gasped in surprise.
Her husband was no monster. In fact, he was beautiful. She recognized him as Eros from the enormous wings sitting on his back. As she leaned forward to kiss him, three drops of oil spilled from the lantern and burned his shoulder. The god woke, eyes flashing. Psyche stumbled back. Eros saw the knife and became more furious.
“Wife how could you?” he asked angrily. “I asked you only one thing, and you didn’t listen!”
“I’m sorry! Please, don’t leave!” Psyche cried as Eros flew to the window. He shook his head in anguish.
“I’m sorry Psyche. But love without trust is no love at all,” he replied sadly before flying away.
If you ask me, Eros was stupid if he thought his marriage would last without telling his wife who he really is. If he tried that today, he’d be single forever. But that’s just my opinion.
Several months after she had betrayed her husband, Psyche wandered into an empty temple with water shrines. She realized it was the temple to her mother-in-law, Aphrodite. As she prayed, the goddess herself appeared and she did not look happy.
“You have a lot of nerve praying to me after what you did to my son,” Aphrodite snapped. Psyche hung her head in shame.
“I know, my lady. But I want to see Eros again. Please help me,” she begged. It took a lot of convincing before Aphrodite finally gave in.
“You want to see my son? Fine. But it won’t be easy. I shall give you a series of tasks. If you succeed, you and your unborn child will see Eros,” she said. (Yes you heard me right. Psyche was pregnant).
Psyche was placed in a room with an enormous pile of barley, wheat, and other grains. She had until morning to sort them into piles. She worked tirelessly through the night and barely made a dent. She began to weep in despair. But a local colony of ants took pity on her. Thousands of them came and sorted the pile. When Aphrodite returned, the pile was gone and replaced with the perfectly organized grains.
The second task was to gather some golden fleece from the golden ram. Golden rams are notorious for ripping people to shreds with their enormous horns though. But a nearby nymph showed her a trick: the river where the rams drink are full of briars. When they drink, the briars catch loose fleece. All she had to do was collect the loose fleece on the briars.
The third task was naturally the most difficult.
“Go to the Underworld and ask Persephone to place some of her beauty in this box,” Aphrodite instructed. Psyche took the box and headed to the entrance to the Underworld. An old peddler appeared before she boarded the boat to Hades’ domain.
“Before you go,” he said, “take these.” He handed her a bag with a loaf of bread and two coins. “Place the coin under your tongue when you enter and exit the Underworld. Allow Charon, the ferryman, to take them. Do not hand them to him. Use the bread to distract Cerberus, the three headed dog. Do not eat or drink anything while you are there. Do not open the box of beauty either.” Psyche nodded and began the journey.
She actually did as she was told for once. She put the coin under her tongue and was ferried into the Underworld, which was as grim and depressing as you can expect. She gave Cerberus a bit of the bread and went to see Persephone.
Persephone was accommodating and gave Psyche some of her beauty into the box. Psyche managed to make it back to the mortal realm, the details of which are not important. As she was walking along the path to present the box to Aphrodite, she realized how haggard and gross she looked. Psyche decided to try and look inside and borrow some of the beauty. She wanted to look her best for her husband.
But it turns out the box was really full of sleep, and Psyche fell down in the road in a deep sleep.
At that moment, Eros conveniently appeared because surprise! It was him helping his wife all along. His shoulder had healed and he was done complaining to his mommy about it.He also felt bad for leaving his wife, as he should have. He picked her up and gently woke her.
“You didn’t listen when I told you not to open the box,” he gently chastised. Psyche felt ashamed.
“I just wanted to be beautiful for you,” she confessed.
“You are beautiful,” he replied.
The two of them flew up to Olympus, where Psyche was made immortal and given her own set of wings. She gave birth to a daughter, who they named Voluptas (or Pleasure).
I hope you all enjoyed the myth! As I said before, it is my absolute favorite myth to read about. Let me know if you want to hear about any more!