The Myth of Cupid and Psyche

A statue of Cupid and Psyche in the State Hermitage Museum, Russia.
Vincenzo Lombardo / Getty Images

The story of Cupid and Psyche comes to us from the ancient Roman novel "Metamorphoses" by Apuleius, which was written in the latter half of the second century CE.

The great Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite (or Venus in Latin), was born from the foam near the island of Cyprus, for which reason she is referred to as "the Cyprian." Aphrodite was a jealous goddess, but she was also passionate. Not only did she love the men and gods in her life, but her sons and grandchildren, as well. Sometimes her possessive instincts led her too far. When her son Cupid found a human to love—one whose beauty rivaled hers—Aphrodite did all in her power to thwart the marriage.

How Cupid and Psyche Met

Psyche was worshiped for her beauty in her homeland. This drove Aphrodite mad, so she sent a plague and let it be known that the only way the land could get back to normal was to sacrifice Psyche. The king, who was Psyche's father, tied Psyche up and left her to her death at the hands of some presumed fearsome monster. You may note that this isn't the first time in Greek mythology that this happened. The great Greek hero Perseus found his bride, Andromeda, tied up as prey for a sea monster. In the case of Psyche, it was Aphrodite's son Cupid who released and married the princess.

The Mystery About Cupid

Unfortunately for the young couple, Cupid and Psyche, Aphrodite was not the only one trying to foul things up. Psyche had two sisters who were as jealous as Aphrodite.

Cupid was a wonderful lover and husband to Psyche, but there was one odd thing about their relationship: He made sure Psyche never saw what he looked like. Psyche didn't mind. She had a fulfilling life with her husband in the dark, and, during the day, she had all the luxuries she could ever want.

When the sisters learned about the luxurious, extravagant lifestyle of their lucky, beautiful sister, they urged Psyche to pry into the area of his life that Psyche's husband kept hidden from her.

Cupid was a god, and, as beautiful as he was, he did not want his mortal wife to see his form. Psyche's sister didn't know he was a god, although they may have suspected it. However, they did know that Psyche's life was much happier than theirs. Knowing their sister well, they preyed on her insecurities and persuaded Psyche that her husband was a hideous monster.

Psyche assured her sisters they were wrong, but since she'd never seen him, even she started having doubts. Psyche decided to satisfy the girls' curiosity, and so one night, she used a candle to look at her sleeping husband.

Cupid Deserts Psyche

Cupid's divine form was exquisite, and Psyche stood there transfixed, staring at her husband with her candle melting. While Psyche dawdled, a bit of wax dripped on her husband. Her abruptly awakened, irate, disobeyed, injured husband-god flew away.

"See, I told you she was a no-good human," said mother Aphrodite to her convalescing son Cupid. "Now, you'll have to be content among the gods."

Cupid might have gone along with the separation, but Psyche couldn't. Impelled by the love of her beautiful husband, she implored her mother-in-law to give her another chance. Aphrodite agreed, but there were conditions.

The Epic Trials of Psyche

Aphrodite had no intention of playing fair. She devised four tasks (not three as is conventional in mythic hero quests), each task more exacting than the last. Psyche passed the first three challenges, but the last task was too much for her. The four tasks were:

  1. Sort a huge mount of barley, millet, poppy seeds, lentils, and beans. Ants (pismires) help her sort the grains within the time allotted.
  2. Gather a hank of the wool of the shining golden sheep. A reed tells her how to accomplish this task without being killed by the vicious animals.
  3. Fill a crystal vessel with the water of the spring that feeds the Styx and Cocytus. An eagle helps her out.
  4. Aphrodite asked Psyche to bring her back a box of Persephone's beauty cream.

Going to the underworld was a challenge for the bravest of the Greek mythical heroes. Demigod Hercules could go to the underworld with ease, but human Theseus had trouble and had to be rescued by Hercules. Psyche, however, was confident when Aphrodite told her she would have to go to the most dangerous region known to mortals. The voyage was easy, especially after a speaking tower told her how to find the entryway to the underworld, how to get around Charon and Cerberus, and how to behave before the underworld queen.

The part of the fourth task that was too much for Psyche was to bring back the beauty cream. The temptation was too great to make herself more beautiful—to use the cream she procured. If the perfect beauty of the perfect goddess Aphrodite needed this underworld beauty cream, Psyche reasoned, how much more would it help an imperfect mortal woman? Thus, Psyche retrieved the box successfully, but then she opened it and fell into a deathlike sleep, as Aphrodite had secretly predicted.

Reunion and Happy Ending to the Myth of Cupid and Psyche

At this point, divine intervention was called for if the story were to have an ending that made anyone really happy. With Zeus' connivance, Cupid brought his wife to Olympus, where, at Zeus's command, she was given nectar and ambrosia so she would become immortal.

On Olympus, in the presence of the other gods, Aphrodite reluctantly reconciled with her pregnant daughter-in-law, who was about to give birth to a grandchild Aphrodite would (obviously) dote on, named Voluptas in Latin, or Hedone in Greek, or Pleasure in English.

Another Story of Cupid and Psyche

C.S. Lewis took Apuleius' version of this myth and turned it on its ear in "Till We Have Faces." The tender love story is gone. Instead of having the story seen through the eyes of Psyche, it's seen through her sister Orval's perspective. Instead of the refined Aphrodite of the Roman story, the mother goddess in C.S. Lewis' version is a far more weighty, chthonic earth-mother goddess.