The Great Love Story of Cupid and Psyche

Background on the Ancient Classical Myth

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) in the wake of Jung, like Erich Neumann and Marie-Louise von Franz, as well as writers from Shakespeare to Keats to C.S. Lewis. 

But, how did this story come to be in our classic lexicons?

Cupid (Eros)

Scene from The myth of Cupid and Psyche, by Felice Giani, 1794, tempera wall painting
DEA / A. DE GREGORIO/ De Agostini Picture Library/ 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

Cupid and Psyche by Annie Swynnerton (1891)
Cupid and Psyche by Annie Swynnerton (1891). CC Flickr User freeparking

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.

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

You can't always pin down the author of a myth, especially one that shares so many elements with Beauty and the Beast and other fairy tales of its ilk, but 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. He comes up elsewhere in history because he was eventually charged with practicing witchcraft. 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.

Source of the Myth of Cupid and Psyche

Apollo Chasing Daphne, by Gianbattista Tiepolo.
Apollo Chasing Daphne, by Gianbattista Tiepolo. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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 embedded in Lucius' tale and comes from Books 4–6.

Apuleius is only one of the authors of a book known as Metamorphoses. In the relatively modern world, Kafka wrote a Metamorphoses story and before Apuleius' time, so did Ovid: Cupid and Psyche were not in these versions.

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Cupid's arrows caused Apollo to lust after Daphne and Daphne to hate Apollo, with the end result that she was transformed into a tree.

Plato and the Symposium to Diotima

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

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

Some scholars find the roots of Apuleius's tale in the Platonic Symposium to Diotima, also called the "Ladder of Love." In one of the stories recounted, 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. 

Ancient Sources

A scene from Smetata's 'The Bartered Bride' a version of the Cupid and Psyche myth presented by the Sadler's Wells Opera Company at Sadler's Wells, London on April 3, 1956. Denis De Marney/Getty Images

The Cupid and Psyche myth was codified by Apuleius, but he apparently fleshed out the tale based on existing folktales. There are at least 140 folktales from all over Europe and Asia that contain the following elements in the Cupid and Psyche myth: 

  • a woman is married to an unseen, supernatural male 
  • there is a prohibition or taboo placed on the bride against seeing her husband
  • the bride breaks that taboo
  • the husband disappears
  • the bride searches for her husband
  • the bride undergoes a series of trials and tasks
  • one of those tasks involves simulated death or a descent to the underworld
  • the wife and husband reunite
  • the lovers' enemies are punished

The Psychology of Cupid and Psyche

gi-cupid.jpg
Cupid. MIYOKO KOMINE / Getty Images

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.

The Myth of Cupid and Psyche

Venus in a Half Shell From Pompeii
Venus in a Half Shell From Pompeii. CC bengal*foam at Flickr.

Are you ready? Here is the re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the time Psyche's parents unwarily humiliated the powerful, but vain love goddess Venus (Aphrodite).

Sources

Venus and Cupids
Venus and Cupids. Photograph by Bruce M. White. J. Paul Getty Museum