Although the story of Cupid’s love for Psyche (or at least for a maid) was known by Hellenistic times, the one known literary source for this complete tale is Metamorphoses (second century; The Golden Ass, 1566) by Lucius Apuleius. This Latin book deals with the transformation of Lucius into an ass, his year-long journey and checkered adventures, his ultimate restoration to human shape, and his devotion to the Egyptian goddess Isis. At the center of this eleven-book work is couched the story of Cupid and Psyche, as told by an old crone to a beautiful young woman. This “pleasant tale and old wives’ story,” as the crone put it, belongs to the genre of the folktale, and throughout the world variations on this story are known. Apuleius’s readers would have immediately recognized the character Psyche as typical of the heroines of Greek “novels” or “romances”: She is lovely and in love, but she is also timid, pious, naïve, and curious. This last characteristic, her most serious fault, Apuleius uses to relate Psyche to Lucius, the central figure of the novel. As a result of curiosity, both are violently thrown into a life of suffering and of despair; both overcome their trials and achieve true happiness by devotion to a deity.
Through the years, Cupid and Psyche has been recognized for its allegorical possibilities. Cupid (“desire”; Eros in Greek) is one of the oldest allegorical divinities. Psyche, in turn, means “soul.” That Apuleius intended symbolic reflection of the larger work is hardly debatable, but that he saw the story as a vehicle of teaching Christian virtue is unfounded. Nevertheless, the universal charm of the story prompted Fulgentius Planciades (sixth century) to allegorize thus: The city is the world, Psyche’s father is God, her mother is matter, her sisters represent flesh and the will, Venus is lust, and Cupid is “cupidity”; Fulgentius’s allegory, however, does not have satisfactory consistency. Pedro Calderón de la Barca (seventeenth century) saw the three daughters as paganism, Judaism, and the Church, the last of whom was wedded to Christ. The Platonists, who no doubt recognized echoes from Plato’s Phaedros (Phaedrus, 1792), saw the sisters as the tripartite soul: Desire and spirit are overcome by pure reason, and the ultimate acceptance of the rational soul among the gods symbolizes freedom from the Orphic cycle of death and rebirth. Jungians see Psyche as the psychic development of the feminine; Venus symbolizes fertility, and the marriage to Cupid is sexual bondage.
In this story, Cupid is considerably more mature than the familiar Hellenistic winged archer-cherub, and his beauty is emphasized; nevertheless, he is still mischievous and his mother’s minion. Venus, however, is an outright burlesque; she seems to have grown more vain with age and motherhood, and her jealousy of the beautiful young virgin Psyche is decidedly un-Christian. Still, such a characterization is necessary if Venus is to be given the role of the folktale witch who sets the apparently impossible tasks, which are also appropriate to Venus’s role as mother-in-law, since the wool, grain, water, and beauty are Psyche’s symbolic dowry, representing wifely abilities and virtues.
Tasks and journeys are traditional themes in heroic tales, especially when they are punishments for some sacrilege. Psyche’s crime, despite her original guilelessness, is twofold: She offends Venus, and she violates her husband’s trust. It is interesting to observe how in Apuleius’s version Psyche, who is so simple that she cannot even lie to her sisters about her husband, even after being told not to mention him, loses her innocence as soon as she is persuaded by them to kill...
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the “monster.” Thereafter she has a part in the trouble that follows. Psyche, therefore, loses innocence, but she gains knowledge and a chance to regain happiness—eternally. This is the theme of the larger work, theMetamorphoses, in which Lucius is initiated into the Isiac mysteries and becomes the priest of Isis, forsaking the evils of a world of asses in human flesh.
In the course of the story, Apuleius has Cupid warn Psyche that if she keeps secret the strange nature of their marriage, the child she bears will remain divine. Apuleius ends his story with the birth of a child who is fittingly called Voluptas, or “Joy.” Thus, the eternal union of love and the soul does result in the soul’s divine, that is, immortal, joy.
As a product of the classical age, Cupid and Psyche is full of familiar classical literary and mythological illusions. The “labors” motif includes the traditional journey to the underworld (such as with Herakles, Orpheus, Odysseus, and Aeneas). The deserted Psyche recalls the despair of Ariadne, Andromeda, and Dido. The theme of the opened container recalls Pandora. Psyche’s apotheosis, or deification, finds precedent especially in the myth of Herakles. As for the gods, their portraits become near parodies of Homeric models, in that they act with stereotypical predictability. Later versions of Cupid and Psyche are found in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Genealogia deorum gentilium (c. 1350-1375; genealogies of the Gentile gods) and in Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean (1885). In addition Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Molière, Pierre Corneille, Thomas Heywood, and Joseph Beaumont have told their versions of the Cupid and Psyche fable.