Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1184
Psyche, daughter of a Greek king, is as beautiful as Venus and sought after by many princes. Her father, seeking to know what fate the gods might have in store for her, sends some of his men to Apollo’s oracle to learn the answer. To the king’s horror, the oracle replies that Psyche is to become the mate of a hideous monster, and the king is ordered to leave his daughter to her fate upon a mountaintop, to prevent the destruction of his people. Clad in bridal dress, Psyche is led to a rocky summit and left there alone. The sad and weary young woman soon falls into a swoon.
Venus, jealous of Psyche’s beauty, calls her son Cupid and orders him to use his arrows (whoever is struck with one of his arrows falls in love with whomever he or she is looking at) to turn Psyche’s heart toward a creature so hideous that mortals will be filled with loathing at the sight of Psyche’s mate. Preparing to shoot his arrow, Cupid, seeing his victim, is transfixed by her beauty. He drops his arrow and it strikes him in the leg. He falls in love with Psyche and decides that she should be his forever. While Psyche sleeps, Zephyrus comes at Cupid’s bidding and carries her to the valley in which Love’s house stands. There she awakens in a grove of trees in which stands a magnificent golden palace. She enters the building and wanders through the sumptuously furnished rooms.
At noon, Psyche finds a table lavishly spread. A voice invites her to eat, assures her that the house is hers, and tells her that the being who is to be her lover will come that night.
As she lies in bed that night, a voice close beside her tells her not to be afraid. The voice speaks so tenderly that Psyche welcomes her unseen suitor and holds out her arms to him. When Psyche awakens the next morning, her lover is gone, but he left behind a gold ring and placed a circlet on her head.
For a time Psyche lives happily in the golden palace, visited each night by the lover whose face she does not see. At last, however, she becomes homesick for her two sisters and her father. One night, she asks her lover to permit her sisters to visit her the next day. He gives his consent, but he warns that she is not to tell them about him.
Zephyrus carries the sisters to the valley. Overjoyed to see them, Psyche shows them the beauties of the palace and gives them many gifts. Jealous of her good fortune, they try to make her suspicious of her unseen lover. They suggest that her lover is a serpent who changes into the form of a youth at night, a monster who will at last devour her. To save herself, they advise her to hide a lamp and a knife by her bed so that she might see him and slay him as he sleeps.
Psyche does as they suggest. That night, as her love lies asleep, she lights the lamp and brings it close so that she might look at him. When she sees the perfectly handsome young man by her side, she is powerless to use her knife. As she turns, sobbing, to extinguish the flame, a drop of burning oil falls on Cupid’s shoulder. Awakening with a cry, he looks at her reproachfully. With the warning that love cannot live with suspicion, he leaves the palace. Psyche tries to follow but falls in a swoon at the threshold.
When she awakens, the palace vanishes. Determined to seek her lover, she wanders alone across the countryside and through cities, hunting the god. Meanwhile, Cupid takes his vengeance on her sisters. To each he sends a dream that she will become his bride if she will throw herself from the mountaintop. Both sisters, obeying the summons, find only the arms of Death to welcome them.
No god will give the wandering Psyche shelter or comfort or protect her from the wrath of Venus. At the temples of Ceres and Juno, she is turned away. At last, she comes to the court of Venus herself. Warned by her heart to flee, she is nevertheless drawn before the throne of the goddess. Venus decides that Psyche should be kept as a slave. She is to be given a new task to do each day and is to live until she once more begins to hope.
Psyche’s first task is to sort a huge pile of mixed seeds and grain into separate heaps, with the warning that if there is so much as one seed in the wrong pile she will be punished. However, by dusk, she separates only small heaps of grain. Cupid so pities her that he commands myriad ants to complete the task for her.
The next day, Psyche is ordered to gather the golden fleece of Venus’s sheep. Obeying the advice of a reed at the edge of the river, she waits until the animals are asleep and then collects the wool that was left clinging to the bushes.
Psyche’s third task is to fill a jug with the black water that flows down a steep mountain into the rivers Styx and Cocytus. She is able to complete this task with the aid of a bird that carries the jug to the stream, collects the water, and brings it back to her.
On the fourth day, Psyche is given her most difficult task; she is to go to the land of the dead and there collect some of the beauty of the goddess Proserpine in a golden box. If she succeeds, Venus promises she will treat Psyche kindly thereafter. To visit Proserpine—in the land of the dead—and to return, however, is an impossible achievement. In despair, Psyche determines to cast herself from a tower, but as she is about to kill herself a voice calls to her and tells her how she might fulfill her mission.
Following instructions, Psyche travels to Proserpine’s realm. There she might stay on forever if she did not think suddenly of her love. On her way back, she almost reaches the daylight when envy seizes her. She opens the box, thinking she will have whatever it contains for herself, but no sooner does she lift the lid than she falls into a deep sleep filled with nightmares. She would have been there forever had Cupid, going in search of her, not found her. He awakens her with one of his arrows and sends her on to his mother with the box.
Then he flies off and presents himself before Jove with his petition that Psyche be made immortal. Jove, after hearing his pleas, sends Mercury to conduct Psyche into the presence of the gods. There she drinks from the golden cup of ambrosia that Jove hands her and becomes immortal. She and Cupid are at last united for all time.
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