Long ago a king and queen had three lovely daughters. The two older ones were just a bit above ordinary. But the youngest, named Psyche, was the fairest and brightest girl in the kingdom. People began to desert the altars of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, and worship Psyche instead. In fact, some were even beginning to call Psyche the second Aphrodite.
Aphrodite, furious about Psyche’s fame, ordered her son Cupid to wound the princess with one of his arrows. “Avenge your mother!” she cried. “Make Psyche fall in love with the vilest of men - the most miserable and meanest beast you can find!”
Cupid set at at once to do his mother’s bidding. But when the god of love laid eyes upon the fair maiden, he accidentally pricked his own finger with one of his arrows - and he himself fell in love with Psyche.
Tormented by his sudden passion, Cupid immediately flew to Apollo, the god of light and truth, and asked for his help.
Soon afterwards all of Psyche’s admirers mysteriously vanished. Her father couldn’t understand why his daughter’s suitors had stopped calling. Fearing the gods might be angry with him, he asked Apollo for advice.
“Perhaps it has been decreed your daughter is to marry a god,” Apollo said. “Leave her alone on top of a mountain, and soon you will find out if a god wants her for a wife.”
When Psyche’s father returned home and reported what Apollo had said, a cry of grief went up from the household, for they all knew they would soon lose their beautiful Psyche. But since the commands of the gods must always be obeyed, the king and queen prepared their daughter for her lonely exile.
The whole city lit torches. And to the sound of a lonely flute, people chanted a funeral hymn as they escorted the beautiful princess up a steep mountain. When they reached the topmost peak, Psyche spoke to her family and friends: “Fear not. Do not torment yourself with grief, but leave me now to meet my fate.”
After her brave words, everyone bid her good-bye; and as they filed down the mountainside, their torches were nearly extinguished by their tears.
Psyche also cried until she finally fell asleep on the deserted mountaintop. But while she slept, the gentle West Wind lifted her up and bore her down to a flowery plateau. And in the morning, when she woke, she found herself lying in a bed of grass before a great palace that had a roof of ivory and columns of gold. A chorus of sweet music filled the air, and the soft voices of invisible beings whispered in her ear, “ All of this is yours now.”
Psyche wandered about the golden, gleaming palace. She bathed herself in refreshing spring waters and ate a wonderful dinner, which invisible hands placed before her.
During the night, Cupid came to her. “You are my wife,” he said in the dark. “I love you more than anything. But I must ask that you never try to look upon my face. I will only visit you in the night; but our nights will be glorious and filled with joy.”
When Psyche asked why she could not look at him, Cupid only said, “Honor my request, for if you look upon me, we will be separated forever.” Actually Cupid was afraid that if Psyche discovered he was the son of Aphrodite, she would adore him as a god, rather than love him as an equal.
Psyche loved her nightly visits with Cupid, though during the day she was sad and lonely. One night, she asked her husband to allow her to send for her two older sisters.
“If they come here, it will be the beginning of our doom,” Cupid said.
“Oh, no! Please, let them come!” Psyche begged. “If you won’t allow me to see you, at least allow me to see my sisters!”
It sadden Cupid to hear these words, so her ordered the West Wind to bring Psyche’s older sisters to see her.
When the sisters arrived at the palace, they were overjoyed to find Psyche alive and well. But as soon as they began to look about and note the splendor in which she lived, they grew envious. By the time they returned home, they were in a jealous rage because their own husbands were not as wealthy as Psyche’s.
On their second visit to the palace, the sisters demanded to meet Psyche’s husband.
“I’m afraid I cannot let you see him,” she said.
“Why? Is he so ugly that you are ashamed?”
“No, he cannot allow himself to be seen. Even I have not seen him in the daylight.”
"What?” her sisters screamed.
“I try not to mind,” said Psyche. “He’s very gentle and kind, and he seems to love me more than life itself.”
The two sisters grew more envious than ever when they heard how much Psyche’s husband loved her. When they returned home, they tore their hair and wailed with sorrow because their own husbands were cold and unkind.
The sisters grew so jealous of Psyche, they decided to spoil her happiness. The next time they came to the palace, one said, “We don’t believe your husband is so wonderful after all.”
“Oh, but he is,” said Psyche.
“Oh, but he is not!” said the other sister. “We’ve been to an oracle, and she said your husband is a loathsome, horrible monster! And, that’s why he won’t let you look upon him!”
“No! That’s not true!” cried Psyche.
“It is! And what’s more - she said he’s just waiting for you to have his child, and then he plans to kill you!”
"No! No!” Psyche wept.
But finally her sisters persuaded her that her husband was indeed a horrible monster; and they convinced her that in the night, she most hold a lantern above him - and then cut off his head.
In the dark, all was quiet, except for the sound of Cupid’s soft breathing as he slept. Psyche trembled as she slipped from their bed and fetched the oil lamp and knife she’s hidden earlier.
When she returned to bed, Psyche lit her lamp, then slowly lifted it above Cupid’s head. She was stunned to see the flushed, shining face of Aphrodite’s son. Even her lamplight burned brighter with joy as it beheld the beautiful god.
In a daze, Psyche gently touched Cupid’s golden curls and his white, shining wings and his quiver of arrows. When she touched one of his arrows, she pricked herself - and fell deeply in love with the god of love. Psyche felt such rapture she nearly swooned to the floor. As she caught herself, a drop of oil fell from her lamp onto Cupid’s shoulder.
Cupid woke up. When he saw Psyche staring wide-eyed at him, holding a knife in her hand, a look of sadness crossed his face. “My love, were you afraid that I was a hideous monster?”
Before Psyche could answer, he said, “There can be no love if there is not trust. I will never come to you again.” And with those sad words, he started to fly away.
Crying out in grief, Psyche grabbed onto Cupid and clung to him as he soared high into the sky. But soon, overcome with weariness, she fell to the ground. Then she lay alone in the cold dark night, wishing she could die.
Thereafter, Psyche wandered the earth, searching for her lost husband. She didn’t know that Cupid was as sad as she; and that he lay in bed at his mother’s palace, wounded by his love for her.
Psyche desperately sought help from all the gods and goddesses, but none wished to incur the wrath of Aphrodite. Only Demeter, the goddess of grain would give her counsel.
“Seek Aphrodite and beg her forgiveness,” Demeter advised, “for her son now lies in her palace, mourning for you. And Aphrodite tires of caring for him. Beg her to unite the two of you again.”
But Aphrodite let out a wild shriek when she saw Psyche humbly standing on her doorstep. The great goddess ordered her handmaidens Trouble and Sorrow to fall upon the girl and tear her clothes and pull her hair.
When the dreadful attack was over, Aphrodite smiled at Psyche who lay trembling on the ground. “Now, you want to see my son? Don’t you know he loathes you and wishes to never lay eyes upon you again? Really, you are such a plain and unfortunate creature, I almost take pity upon you. Perhaps I should train you to be more fitting for a god.”
Aphrodite then gave Psyche a task to perform. She led the girl to a store house filled with grains of many kinds. “Sort all these by evening,” she said. And with that, she disappeared.
As Psyche stared hopelessly at the piles of barley, lentils, and poppy seeds, an amazing thing began to happen. An army of ants assembled; and within minutes, waves of ants crawled up the piles of grain. Each ant carried one tiny seed at a time - until all the seeds were sorted in three different piles.
When Aphrodite returned at nightfall, she flew into a rage. “Some one has helped you!” she shrieked. “In the morning I demand you complete another task!” Then Aphrodite threw Psyche a piece of hard black bread and left her to sleep on the cold threshing floor.
The next morning, Aphrodite pushed Psyche out into the rosy dawn. “Go to the pasture beside the flowing stream!” the goddess said. “There live the fierce rams with the golden wool. Gather some of their fleece - and then you might be a person worthy of my son’s love.”
Psyche stood by the flowing stream that bordered the pasture where the wild rams grazed. As she watched the beasts fight with one another, she knew she could never get near the wool without being killed. She felt such despair she wanted to drown herself in the stream.
But then a green swaying reed began to whisper melodically, “Do not slay yourself, Psyche. Nor approach those terrible sheep. In the noonday heat, when the sheep are napping, slip into the pasture and pick the golden wool that clings to the sharp briars and thorny bushes.”
At noontime when the drowsy rams lay down for a nap, Psyche crossed the stream and crept into the pasture. And within a short time, she had gathered all the golden wool that clung to the twigs and briars.
When Aphrodite saw Psyche’s wool, she smiled bitterly, “Someone must be helping you,” she said, and gave her yet another task. This time she wanted Psyche to fill a crystal goblet with icy mountain water from the mouth of the Stygian river.
Psyche took the goblet from Aphrodite and began climbing the craggy rocks of the mountain. But when she got near the top, she realized this was the worst task yet, for the rocks near the mouth of the river were hopelessly steep and slippery. Just as she decided to fling herself off the mountain, an eagle flew over.
“Wait!” the eagle cried.
“Give me the crystal goblet, and I will fly to the mouth of the black river
and get water for you!”
Psyche gave her goblet to the eagle, and he held the vessel tightly with his fierce jaws as he flew to the mountain peak. After he’d filled the vessel and returned it to Psyche, she carried the dark water back to Aphrodite.
When Psyche handed the goblet to Aphrodite, the goddess accused her of being a sorceress. Then she gave Psyche the cruelest task of all: she ordered her to carry a box to the underworld and ask Queen Prosperina for a small portion of her beauty.
Psyche knew this was the end, for she would never gain the courage to descend to the underworld, the terrifying land of the dead. With great despair, she climbed to the top of a high tower and prepared to hurl herself to her death.
But just as she was about to jump, the tower spoke: “What cowardice makes you give up now, Psyche Be kind to yourself, and I will tell you how to reach the underworld and how to succeed in your quest.”
After she promised to kill herself, the tower told Psyche how to travel to the land of the dead. “Take two coins and two pieces of barley cake,” the tower said. “A lame donkey driver will ask you for help, but you must never refuse him.
“Then give one coin to Charon, the ferryman, and he will take you across the river Styx to the underworld. As you cross the water, the groping hand of a dying man will reach out to you, but you must turn away. You must also refuse to help three women weaving the threads of fate.”
“When you come to Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog that guards the palace doors, give him a barley cake, and he will friendly to you. Do all of this again on your way out. But most importantly, when you carry the box of beauty from Prosperina back to Aphrodite, do not open it - whatever you do, do not open the beauty box!””
Psyche did as the tower told her, until finally she had secured the box of beauty from Prosperina, queen of the dead. Then she repeated her actions as she left the underworld. She gave Cerberus a cake on the way out of the palace; she gave Charon a coin to take her across the river Styx; and she refused to stop for any who tried to ensnare her with cries for help.
But when Psyche was close to Aphrodite’s palace, a burning curiosity overtook her. She was dying to open the box and use a small portion of Prosperina’s beauty.
Psyche gingerly lifted the lid of the box. But she did not find the beauty inside - instead, she found a deadly sleep; and as the sleep overtook her, she crumpled to the road.
Meanwhile Cupid had escaped out of the window of his palace room; and as he was flying over the earth, searching for Psyche, he saw her lying unconscious beside the road.
Cupid hastened down to her and quickly gathered the sleep from her body and closed it back inside the box. Then he woke Psyche with a kiss.
Before Aphrodite could catch them, Cupid lifted Psyche from the ground and carried her high into the heavens to Mount Olympus to the home of Zeus, god of the skies; and he bid Zeus to officially marry them.
After Zeus married Cupid and
Psyche, all of Mount Olympus celebrate the couple - except for Aphrodite,
of course. She raged about for weeks. But within a year, the
aging goddess became the grandmother of a beautiful baby girl named Bliss.