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...
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