Cupid and Psyche -- An Ancient Mystery Tale

By Eloise Hart

Cupid and Psyche is a story about love. It is also about beauty, truth, and goodness, for these are three aspects of love: and it is about death, the hereafter, and rebirth. Its simplicity touches our hearts, and at the same time tantalizes our minds with hints of teachings that neophytes experienced during the higher degrees of initiation in the Mystery schools of ancient times.

Beneath the story's romantic presentation lies a profound theme: the quest of the human soul, Psyche, for divine love, Eros (Cupid), and Divinity's desire for expression. This theme, while particularly popular with the Greeks, has been expressed with variations in poetry and fairy tale, sculpture and painting.

Briefly, the story [Eros and Psyche: A Fairy-Tale of Ancient Greece, retold after Apuleius by Paul Carus.] is about a princess named Psyche, who was so beautiful that when it came time for her to wed no suitors could be found -- for everyone worshiped her from afar believing that she was the appearance on earth of the Goddess of Love. While this attention saddened and embarrassed the young princess it infuriated Aphrodite, the real Goddess of Beauty and Love. She directed her son, the young and fun-loving Eros, to cast a spell upon Psyche that would cause her to fall in love with some despicable creature and in consequence to suffer so greatly that her beauty would fade. Obediently Eros descended to earth, but the moment he saw the maiden his heart filled with love.

Psyche's parents meantime had gone to the Oracle at Delphi for advice. The Pythia's reply was explicit: dress Psyche in mourning, escort her to the top of the mountain, and leave her to await her bridegroom who, in the words of Apollo, would be "that terrible tyrant whose jurisdiction extends from heaven to hell." Grief-stricken, the royal parents would not have obeyed had not Psyche, weary of her lonely life, insisted they comply. She was led in funeral procession to the summit of the mountain and left there as the sun slowly set. Zephyrus, the evening breeze, at the behest of Eros, carried her down into the valley below. Upon waking, Psyche found herself before the entrance of a magnificent palace. She entered and walked from room to room, admiring the treasures they contained. Voices in the air bade her welcome to her new home, entertained her with music, and ministered to her every desire.

In the darkness of night Eros arrived and, though invisible to her, his words and embraces were so tender and loving she knew that this was the lover she had always longed for. When he asked her to give him her trust and her love and to become his bride, even though she must promise never to look upon him, she readily pledged him her troth.

Life for Psyche was happier than ever, but after a time she grew homesick. To cheer her Eros arranged for her two sisters to visit, but warned that if she revealed the secret of their marriage, their happiness would end as he would be forced to depart. Psyche promised to say nothing, but under the pressure of her sisters' questioning she let something slip which they twisted to convince her that she had married a monster and must slay him.

Tormented with doubts, Psyche determined to discover the truth about her invisible husband who always disappeared before dawn. She arose, lit a lamp, and turned to look for the first time upon her beloved:

When lo! the air about her seem'd to burn, And bright celestial radiance fill'd the room.
Too plainly O she saw, O fair to see!
Eros, 'twas Eros' self, her lover, he,
The God of love, reveal'd in deathless bloom. -- Poetical Works of Robert Bridges, "Eros and Psyche," p. 125.

Overwhelmed by his beauty Psyche inadvertently tipped the lamp and a drop of oil spilled on his shoulder, waking the slumbering god. "O simple-hearted Psyche," he exclaimed, "how could you doubt me? Now I must depart." In an instant he was gone. Psyche, brokenhearted, set out to find her beloved, not knowing that he had returned to Olympus where his mother tended his wound and had him guarded lest he return to earth.

Psyche searched through long and weary years but found no trace of Eros. She entered the temples of Demeter and Hera to seek their aid, and they advised her to be steadfast and faithful: "If Eros still loves you, no power on earth or in heaven will keep him from you." Psyche realized now that Eros must be on Olympus and was wondering how she could reach him when Hermes (Mercury), messenger of the gods, appeared and offered to carry her there. She gladly accepted. Upon her arrival, however, Aphrodite had her seized and would have had her destroyed had Psyche not pleaded for clemency. She offered to serve the goddess in every way possible could she but see her beloved once more. Aphrodite agreed -- with the stipulation that Psyche had first to accomplish three tasks, which the goddess knew were impossible for mortals to perform. The first was to separate by nightfall the seeds in an enormous pile of mixed grains; the second, to fetch golden fleece from a herd of fierce wild sheep; and the third, to obtain a cupful of black water from the source of the river Cocytus which was guarded by dragons. Psyche accomplished the first with the help of ants; the second, by following the advice of a nymph; and the third with the aid of the eagle of Zeus.

Aphrodite was amazed and set Psyche one more task: to descend into Hades and obtain from Persephone enough spray from the Fountain of Youth to restore the beauty the goddess had lost caring for her son's burnt shoulder. Again Psyche received help. She made the perilous descent, overcame all obstacles and lures of the underworld, and finally received the precious spray from Persephone. Returning, Psyche had to pass through the same ordeals once more and in addition resist the temptation to open the mysterious vial. Upon reaching the world of the living she began to weaken: "One drop of this potion would restore my own beauty and bring Eros to my side . . . only one little drop . . . no one would know." She barely touched the lid when it sprang open and poisonous fumes enveloped her and she fell into a deathlike stupor. Eros, having recovered and escaped his guards, at this very moment arrived at her side. Quickly he restored the vapor to its container and, with a kiss, wakened the unconscious Psyche. Only later did he chide her for her curiosity, and explain to her that spray from the Fountain of Youth, being derived from the Water of Death, overcomes mortals and causes them to pass through death and rebirth.

As he spoke Psyche herself was transformed, with iridescent wings unfolding from her shoulders; and when Eros placed his arm around her they rose together to Olympus where Zeus, king of the Immortals, welcomed the mortal maid who had valiantly proven her worth. In the presence of the gods, Zeus gave Psyche a draught of the nectar of immortality, and united the couple in wedlock.

According to the legend, Psyche's ascendance brought a special radiance into heaven, while on earth, mankind rejoiced that one of their own had been deified.

 * * *

The teachings presented in this tale deal with human consciousness, with its fall from on high, its captivity in realms of material illusion, its ages-long wanderings, and its metamorphosis as it awakens and recollects with increasing clarity its divine origin and nature. Thenceforth it endeavors to rise, as a butterfly freed from its chrysalis, into higher dimensions where it lives among the immortals. This is borne out in the story's most obvious hints.

The Greek word psyche, which means soul, self, also mind, was associated with the butterfly and its transformations. Psyche thus represents the human soul which is beautiful because an image and child of nous, divine intelligence, yet lonely because she is parted from her mother by ignorance. She, like all children of the Divine, is "cursed" or destined to enter the Cycle of Necessity -- to wed a monster (material life), and thereby suffer and lose her innocence, but through the tuition of love (Eros) her higher faculties awaken, and by aspiration and effort she overcomes lower attractions and ascends, gaining the greater beauty of spirituality.

Psyche, we remember, was a princess. Royal parents represent the highest material and/or spiritual attainments; kings and sometimes queens and fairy godmothers stand also, on occasion, for hierophants or spiritual teachers, while a princess or prince is the neophyte seeking to attain self-consciously the royal qualities of spirit. Eros, son of Aphrodite (Venus), divine love, is the many-aspected energizing force of love which manifests universally both as the Divine yearning to express and become aware of itself and, at the human level, as desire which, being dual, can be directed either towards worldly fulfillment or towards oneness with the divine.

Eros, ever present and loving though invisible, offers to wed, to unite with Psyche, if she will give him her trust and love. He awakens in her a longing for truth, teaches her that death need not be feared for spirit is deathless, is, in fact, increased when liberated from the body, and tests her resolve by inviting the two sisters. Psyche lights the lamp, dispelling darkness and ignorance together with her whole world of illusions. For one blinding, agonizing moment she feels utterly alone (as do neophytes during the initiatory trial until, having glimpsed the Divine, they feel its overpowering closeness). The dread darkness vanishes and light suffuses her being. She begins the long search during which hardship, disappointment, failure are the hallmarks of soul growth. Eventually she reaches a higher dimension requiring qualities which she brings forth as she completes the tasks that "no ordinary mortal can complete."

The final ordeal, the descent into Hades, describes in the veiled language of the Mysteries the supreme initiation, which occurs only rarely. According to G. de Purucker, when earth and moon are in alignment with Venus (Aphrodite), Mercury (Hermes), and the sun, the prepared candidate, whose emotional and mental nature is under complete control, is able consciously to leave his body and travel along magnetic pathways through the invisible spheres of the planets to the heart of the sun. When he reenters his slumbering body, every part of his nature is "enflamed by a halo of glory." The soul has followed in full awareness the path it heretofore traveled unconsciously during sleep and death. Having experienced the wonder-life beyond, he shares this knowledge, as far as he is able, with those who dwell in "darkness."

Psyche, as the neophyte-soul, passes the ordeal and is "resurrected" from mortal to immortal awareness. Her spiritual nature unfolds like wings of radiance. She is wedded with the divine essence within herself which, in this allegory, is Eros. References to the sun, moon, Venus, and Mercury in this fable and in its fairy tale version "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," reinforce its connection with the initiatory cycle of the Greek and Egyptian Mysteries. Not only do these celestial spheres provide the pathways of ascent and descent, but the directions, East and West, zenith (mountaintop) and nadir (valley floor) form the mystic cross. Its arms, reaching into the four directions of space, intersect at what has been described as the "sacred center," the "place of union" of heart and mind, from where it is possible to pass into other levels of consciousness. Aristotle spoke of the divine center where the "unmoved Mover" resides, the timeless, spaceless Now.

The tasks imposed by Aphrodite describe the development of moral, intellectual, and spiritual character. The sorting of grain with the ants' assistance suggests patience, diligence, and discrimination, while the idea of unification is symbolized by collecting the golden fleece -- the "golden strands" of truth. Ideas like these have made this a tale of enduring popularity. They have given generations assurance that despite loneliness and hardship, he who is pure of heart and steadfast of purpose will have guidance on his journey of lifetimes. He who makes himself worthy will come to know the divinity that waits just beyond sight.

Cupid and Psyche is indeed a story of love, and of love's transcendent power to raise the soul to divine awareness. As such, it is a fable to be cherished during those dark and silent moments that sanctify our lives.


(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1986; copyright © 1986 Theosophical University Press)

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