Cupid and Psyche Summary

Apuleius

Cupid and Psyche

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Cupid and Psyche Summary

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Cupid and Psyche is a famous Ancient Greco-Roman myth. Although the characters of Cupid and Psyche can be found in Greek art as early as the 4th century BC, the earliest written record of this story was written by Apuleius in the 2nd century AD. The story begins with a king and queen who have three daughters. The youngest daughter, Psyche, is of  such exceptional beauty that “the poverty of language is unable to give her due praise.” People travel to her, proclaiming the girl is the second coming of Aphrodite, and make offerings to her instead of the goddess herself.

Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, becomes jealous. Aphrodite tells her son Cupid, a young man with golden wings  who represents unrestrained passion, to go to Psyche, and make her fall in love with some low, ugly person. Cupid finds the sleeping Psyche and drops bitter water on her to bring her sorrow. He pricks her with a magical arrow, waking her and startling himself. Cupid accidentally pricks his own leg with the arrow, which unbeknownst to him, will cause the two to fall in love. Cupid feels badly for bringing the girl sorrow, and unaware that he is already in love with her, drops joyful water on her to bring her happiness.

Aphrodite continues to interfere in Psyche’s life, preventing any man from proposing to her. Psyche’s two sisters marry princes, but Psyche herself is lonely. An oracle of Apollo says Psyche will be “the bride of no mortal lover.” Her parents say their bitter goodbyes, and leave her alone on top of a mountain, adhering to the oracle’s prophecy that she will marry a monster.

The god of the western wind, Zephyr, picks the sleeping Psyche up and gently brings her Cupid’s palace. An invisible voice tells her that everything she sees is hers. She is treated like royalty, and every night her now-husband Cupid visits her in total darkness, refusing to let her see him. For a time she is happy, and she soon becomes pregnant.

Psyche misses her family, who thinks she is dead. These thoughts of her parents and sisters consume her, and she beseeches her husband to let her sisters visit. Cupid finally agrees, sending Zephyr to bring them.

Her sisters, awed by the wealth and splendor of the palace, become jealous of their little sister. They ask about her husband, and Psyche describes a beautiful youth who spent time hunting in the mountains. The sisters are suspicious, and Psyche admits she has never seen her husband. They convince Psyche  that her husband is the monster of the prophecy. The sisters tell Psyche to get a lamp and knife, and while her husband sleeps, light the lamp and look at him. If he is a monster, she must cut off his head. She obeys, but when she lifts the lamp, she instead sees an inhumanly beautiful man: Cupid. Psyche accidentally spills hot oil on his skin, burning him, and Cupid wakes. Feeling betrayed by his wife, he says “Love cannot dwell with suspicion,” and flies away forever.

Psyche finds herself just outside the city where her sisters dwell. She tells them everything, and the sisters feign sorrow and shock. They hope Cupid will choose one of them instead. They journey back to the mountain and jump of the peak, demanding Zephyr bring them back to Cupid. But Zephyr does not, and they are both dashed to pieces on the ground below.

Psyche wanders the earth, searching for her husband. She tidies some corn and barley inside a temple, hoping to please one of the gods enough to help her. The temple’s goddess, Ceres, says she cannot help but may give advice. Ceres tells Psyche to go to Aphrodite and surrender, and maybe Aphrodite will be appeased by submission.

But Aphrodite traps Psyche in a storehouse, demanding that she sort the monstrous piles of grains that lie there. While Psyche stares in despair at the task ahead of her, thousands of ants appear and sort the grains, one by one. When Aphrodite returns, she is furious, and leaves only a small piece of black bread for Psyche’s dinner. Psyche’s next challenge is to collect the legendary Golden Fleece from a flock of sheep grazing by a river. Psyche is destitute and hungry, and intends to drown herself in the river. But the reeds speak, warning Psyche about the fast flowing river and the temperamental rams. They help her collect the Golden Fleece. For the third task, Psyche must collect the black water from the rivers Styx and Cocytus, which lead to the Underworld. Once again, she is determined to give up, and throws herself from the cliff she stands on. This time, Zeus pities her, and sends his eagle to catch her. Next, Aphrodite instructs Psyche to visit Persephone in the Underworld and ask for a little of her beauty. Again, Psyche becomes hopeless and climbs a tower to throw herself off it, and again an anthropomorphised object—this time the tower—saves her. She must bring barley cakes for the three-headed dog Cerberus and two coins for Charon the Underworld ferryman to bring her across the river both ways. The tower also warns her not to open the box Persephone fills.

However, on her return to Aphrodite, Psyche looks at her disheveled appearance and thinks that Aphrodite can spare a little bit of beauty, so she will look prettier when reunited with Cupid. But inside the box is sleep, not beauty, and Psyche falls to the ground as if dead.

Cupid, unbeknownst to Psyche, had been divinely helping her through all her trials. Recovered from him burns and no longer able to bear being away from his love, Cupid flies to her. After he puts the sleep back into its box, Psyche revives. He then flies to Zeus, who publicly approves of the couple, convinces Aphrodite to leave them alone, and gives Psyche the drink of immortality, Ambrosia.

Finally, the marriage is made official, and their daughter, Pleasure, is born.

This story has been allegorised as the fall of the hidden soul. In Apuleius’ telling, Psyche is rewarded for her commitment to Cupid with immortality. An origin story claims the first rose is created from Psyche’s blood when she loses her virginity to Cupid. Motifs from the story appear in fairy tales like Rumpelstiltskin, The Little Mermaid, and more. It is a timeless story of enduring love, influencing theatre and literature of every era including Milton, Wordsworth, and Lewis, as well as and art including the fresco by legendary painter Raphael.