The Great Love Story of Cupid and Psyche

A Happy Romance Between a God and a Mortal

The myth of Cupid and Psyche is one of the great love stories of the ancient world and it even has a happy ending. It's also a myth in which a heroine must show her mettle and come back from the dead. The story has been deservedly popular with psychologists (it does, after all, deal with a human psyche) like Erich Neumann and Marie-Louise von Franz, as well as writers from Shakespeare to Keats to C.S. Lewis. 

Cupid and Psyche Key Takeaways

  • Cupid and Psyche is a Roman myth written in the 2nd century CE, based on similar, much older folktales from Europe and Asia. 
  • The story is part of Africanus' comic novel "The Golden Ass."
  • The tale involves the love relationship between a mortal and a god, and it is a rarity in classical literature, in that it has a happy ending. 
  • Elements of Cupid and Psyche are found in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," as well as the fairy tales "Beauty and the Beast" and "Cinderella."

The Story of Cupid and Psyche

Cupid And Psyche.
Pscyhe leans over to get a closer look at her surprisingly handsome husband. "Cupid and Psyche." Found in the Collection of Accademia di San Luca. Heritage Images / Getty Images

According to the earliest version of the tale, Psyche is a stunningly beautiful princess, the youngest and most beautiful of three sisters, so lovely that people begin worshipping her rather than the goddess Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology). In jealousy and rage, Venus persuades her son the infant god Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a monster. Psyche discovers that she is revered as a goddess but never sought for human love. Her father seeks a solution from Apollo, who tells him to expose her on a mountaintop where she will be devoured by a monster. In obedience, she goes to the mountain, but instead of being devoured she wakes to find herself in a gorgeous palace and ministered to by unseen servants in the daytime, and joined by an unseen bridegroom in the nights. Against her lover's wishes, she invites her plainer sisters to the palace, where their envy is excited, and they convince her that her unseen bridegroom is truly a serpent who she must kill before he eats her.

Psyche is persuaded, and that evening, dagger in hand, she lights her lamp only to discover that the object of her plot is the adult god Cupid himself. Wakened by a drop of oil from the lamp, he flies away. Pregnant, Psyche attempts suicide and instead falls under the power of her still jealous and vindictive mother-in-law Venus, who assigns her four impossible tasks. The first three are taken care of—with the help of agents—but the fourth task is to go into the underworld and ask Proserpina for a portion of her beauty. Assisted by other agents again, she achieves the task, but returning from the underworld she is overcome by a fatal curiosity and peeks into the chest reserved for Venus. She falls unconscious, but Cupid awakens her and introduces her as a bride among the immortals. Venus is reconciled to the new resident of Mount Olympus, and the birth of their child "Pleasure" or "Hedone" seals the bond.

Author of the Myth of Cupid and Psyche

Lucius Apuleius Platonicus (Africanus)
Lucius Apuleius Platonicus born between 123 and 125 died circa. 180. Platonic philosopher and Latin prose writer. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The version of the myth of Cupid and Psyche that we have comes from an early, risqué novel by an African Roman of the 2nd century CE. His name was Lucius Apuleius, known as Africanus. His novel is thought to give us inside details of the workings of ancient mystery rites, as well as this charming romantic story of love between a mortal and a god.

Apuleius' novel is called either "Metamorphoses" (or "Transformations"), or "The Golden Ass." In the book's main plotline, the character Lucius foolishly dabbles in magic and is accidentally transformed into a donkey. The myth of the love story and the marriage of Cupid and Psyche is in some way a version of Lucius' own hope of redemption from the fatal error that turned him into an ass, and it is embedded in Lucius' tale in Books 4–6.

Ancient Sources of Cupid and Psyche

Plato and Aristotle - Danita Delimont - Gallo Images - GettyImages-102521991
Plato and Aristotle debate.

Plato and Aristotle - Danita Delimont - Gallo Images - GettyImages-102521991

The Cupid and Psyche myth was codified by Apuleius, but he apparently fleshed out the tale based on much older existing folktales. There are at least 140 folktales from all over Europe and Asia that have components that include mysterious bridegrooms, evil sisters, impossible tasks and trials, and a trip to the underworld: "Cinderella" and "Beauty and the Beast" are two that immediately leap to mind.

Some scholars also find the roots of Apuleius's tale in Plato's "Symposium to Diotima," also called the "Ladder of Love." In one of the stories, at a feast for Aphrodite's birthday, the god of Plenty got drunk on nectar and fell asleep. Poverty found him there and resolved to make him the father of her child. That child was Love, a demon who always aspires to something higher. The goal of every soul is immortality, says Diotima, and the foolish seek it through worldly recognition, the common man through fatherhood, and the artist through the making of a poem or image. 

A God and a Mortal: Cupid (Eros) and Psyche

Scene from The myth of Cupid and Psyche, by Felice Giani, 1794, tempera wall painting
Cupid relents and forgives Psyche, 1794, by Felice Giani (1758-1823), tempera wall painting, Palazzo Laderchi, Faenza, Emilia-Romagna. DEA / A. DE GREGORIO / Getty Images

The iconic Cupid with his baby-fat hands clenching his bow and arrows is all too familiar with Valentine's Day cards. Even during the Classical period, people described Cupid as a sometimes mischievous and precocious ancient baby, but this is quite a step down from his original exalted heights. Originally, Cupid was known as Eros (love). Eros was a primordial being, thought to have arisen out of Chaos, along with Tartarus the Underworld and Gaia the Earth. Later Eros became associated with the love goddess Aphrodite, and he is often spoken of as Aphrodite's son Cupid, most notably in the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

Cupid shoots his arrows into humans and immortals alike causing them to fall in love or hate. One of Cupid's immortal victims was Apollo.

Psyche is the Greek word for soul. Psyche's introduction to mythology is late, and she wasn't a goddess of the soul until late in life, or rather when she was made immortal after her death. Psyche, not as the word for soul, but as the divine mother of Pleasure (Hedone) and wife of Cupid is known from the 2nd century CE.

The Psychology of Cupid and Psyche

In "Amor and Psyche," mid- 20th-century German psychologist and student of Karl Jung's Erich Neumann saw the myth as a definition of the psychic development of women. He said that according to the myth, to become fully spiritual a woman must take a journey from her sensual, unconscious dependence on a man to the ultimate nature of love, accepting him for the monster he hides within.

By the late 20th century, however, American psychologist Phyllis Katz argued instead that the myth is about the mediation of sexual tension, the basic conflict between male and female natures, resolved only by the ritual of "true" marriage. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Hermia and Lysander from A Midsummer Night's Dream
Hermia and Lysander. A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1870, painted by John Simmons (1823-1876). Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Scholar James McPeek has pointed to the Cupid and Psyche myth as one root of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and not just because there is a magical transformation of someone into a donkey. McPeek points out that all of the lovers in the story—Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, and Titania and Oberon—find "true marriages" only after suffering through bad ones created and resolved by magical means. 

The first translation of "The Golden Ass" into English was in 1566, by William Adlington, one of many scholars known as the "Golden Age of Translators" in the Elizabethan era; Midsummer's was written about 1595 and first performed in 1605.

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