(Catch Part 1 here.)
There’s a piece of Roman literature called The Golden Ass, which is in many ways a prefigurement of the modern novel. The narrative follows the protagonist, a young Roman noble named Lucius, as he meddles with a witch and is transformed into an ass (and his subsequent misadventures as he tries to regain his natural shape).*
Embedded in this frame tale is a series of smaller, shorter narratives, all of which reflect symbolically on the thematic content of Lucius’s journey. One of those narratives is the story of Cupid and his bride Psyche.
Allow me to set the stage for you: Lucius (the ass) and a young maiden have been waylaid on the highway by a gang of bandits. They are brought back to the bandits’ den, where the maiden panics because she’s sure she’s going to be murdered. (Not an unreasonable assumption.) To calm her down, the bandits’ crone of a mother tells the young girl a fairy tale. What follows is a Cliff’s Notes version of that tale.
Once upon a time, there was a princess so beautiful that the goddess Venus** herself envied her. This princess, named Psyche, was good and kind and virtuous, and was loved by everyone in her kingdom except for her two wicked sisters. (Ah, the wicked sisters. No fairy tale is complete without them.) As she got older, her beauty and goodness only grew, and so did Venus’s envy, until it got to the point that the goddess couldn’t take any more.
“Go shoot Psyche through the heart with one of your golden arrows,” she said to her son Cupid, “And make her fall in love with some hideous monster.”
So Cupid set off to cause mischief for the beautiful Psyche. But as he was drawing his bow, his hand slipped, and he ended up pricking himself with his own arrow. And in that moment, the god of love fell victim to his own magic, and was enamored of the princess Psyche.
Cupid knew that his mother would never approve of the match, so he made himself invisible and went to Psyche’s father to ask for*** her hand in marriage. The two of them were wed, and Cupid spirited Psyche away to his castle, which was filled with all manner of gold and jewels. But Cupid took pains to ensure that Psyche would never see him and never know his face. He left her home alone all day, visiting her only at night, and he would always make himself invisible when he left the next morning.
Psyche didn’t mind. She knew that her invisible husband loved her, and she had a palace full of shiny things, which was apparently all it took to content a woman in Lucius Apuleius’s view. But one day, when her wicked sisters were visiting her, they planted the seed of doubt in her mind.
“Your husband is a hideous monster,” they said, “And that’s why he is always so careful to hide himself from you.”
That night, when Cupid came to visit her, Psyche was not herself. She couldn’t get her sisters’ words out of her head. And so late that night, when Cupid had fallen asleep and was lying beside her in bed, Psyche lit a candle and held it over his face so that she could see the man she had married.
Needless to say, he was gorgeous.
Psyche was so shocked by this revelation that her hand slipped, and hot wax from the candle spilled down onto her lover’s chest and awakened him. Realizing that she had seen him, Cupid fled without a word.
The next night, he didn’t return.
Nor the next.
I’ll collapse the end of the story, but basically Cupid never came back. Struck with grief, Psyche wandered the world looking for him until she came to a temple of Venus. She begged Venus to return her husband, and Venus agreed only if Psyche could complete a series of impossible tasks. Some extreme fairy-tale crap happened involving ants and bees doing all of Psyche’s work for her.
And at the end of it, she was reunited with Cupid. What’s more, she was made a goddess, and allowed to rule alongside her husband in Olympus.
Now, this is a beautiful fairy tale. This myth is very, very dear to my heart, and part of why I’m sharing it with you now is simply that I love it. Jean Cocteau’s classic film Beauty and the Beast is also a beautiful rendition of this myth’s thematic content, if you’re interested. But setting that aside, I think there’s a profound symbolism embedded here, which we can tie back to my previous post on Tarot’s Strength and the Star.
The obvious interpretation of this myth is, of course, that the head (psyche) and heart go together. In this instance, they’re literally married, and you get the idea that one is incomplete without the other. (This also has interesting implications when we reframe the myth in the context of Nietzsche’s Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy. See a post about that here.)
But let’s look at the evolution of Psyche’s character. She starts out very much as the Star. She’s pure, she’s beautiful, she’s one hell of a virgin, and everyone around her loves her (except, of course, for the wicked people, who can’t abide goodness).
And then she transforms.
First off, on the literal level, she gets married to the god of sex and is presumably no longer a virgin. Color me Freudian, but I think that’s a reasonable plot assumption to make. However, at that point in the story, her transformation isn’t complete. In fact, it hasn’t even begun. Because she’s still very innocent. She spends her time with shiny playthings, but her life has no actual substance. And her love is quite literally kept in the dark.
Only when she takes agency upon herself and decides to seek out the identity of her husband does that start to change. Psyche has sought knowledge and gained it–but that knowledge has come at a price. She can no longer live the empty paper-doll life she had before.
So she wanders. She seeks greater truth. She drains waterfalls and moves mountains and does a couple of other impossible things, and with each act, she becomes stronger. Moreover, she gains agency with each act, becoming more of an independent human being. (Remember that the Star, being a maiden, is in many ways a child; she symbolizes rebirth, but that rebirth too often comes with a need to be nurtured and cared for.) She starts to grow up.
Hell, she takes on Venus, the goddess of love herself. And Psyche wins that battle of wills. At the end of the story, her husband is restored to her, but neither Psyche nor her life is the same. Psyche becomes a goddess, powerful in her own right (and, I’m inclined to think, powerful over her beast of a husband). She has gone from her previous innocence to a state of literal godly transcendence.
That’s some powerful stuff, right there.
I think I’ll leave this post off here, but I hope I’ve given you something to think about. My first-ever Tarot journal had arrows scrawled between Strength and the Star, and the words “PSYCHE PRE- AND POST-EROS” in giant letters. I’ve always felt that this myth shows transformation and personal growth, taking us from the Star to Strength, and perhaps even beyond. I think there really is a connection here, and a beautiful process of personal empowerment to be had for those people who resonate with this symbolism.
*The author, Lucius Apuleius, was a priest in the mystery cult of Isis. It is, then, not entirely surprising that the goddess Isis turns our fictional Lucius back into a man after he agrees to join her religion. The Romans were not exactly fond of subtlety.
**Names in this myth are confusing. “Psyche” is a Greek word, meaning something like “soul”, but as Lucius Apuleius was Roman, all of the other names have been Romanized. Instead of the primordial, chthonic Eros, we have impish Cupid. Instead of Aphrodite, Venus. And so on.