Sunday, August 24, 2008

Cupid and Psyche - The Story of the Godliness of the Soul

By Bhaskar Banerjee

There was once a king who had three daughters, all lovely maidens, but the youngest, Psyche, excelled her sisters greatly. Her fame spread, and from everywhere men journeyed to gaze upon her with wonder and adoration and do her homage as though she were in truth one of the immortals, and no one ever gave a thought to Venus herself. Her temples were neglected, her altars foul with cold ashes. All the honours once hers were now given to a mere girl destined someday to die.

As always when the goddess was in trouble, she turned for help to her son, that beautiful winged youth whom some called Cupid and others Love, against whose arrows there is no defense, neither in heaven nor on the earth. "Use your power" said Venus, "and make the hussy fall madly in love with the vilest and most despicable creature there is in the whole world". Venus left Cupid with the happy confidence that he would swiftly bring about Psyche's ruin.

What happened, however, was not what she had counted on. Psyche did not fall in love with a horrible wretch. In fact, she did not fall in love at all. Both her sisters, though inferior in beauty, were splendidly married, each to a king. Psyche, the all-beautiful, sat sad and solitary, only admired, never loved.

Her father finally travelled to an oracle of Apollo to ask his advice on how to get her a good husband. Apollo said that Psyche, dressed in deepest mourning, must be set on the summit of a rocky hill and left alone, and that there her destined husband, a fearful winged serpent, stronger than the gods themselves, would come to her and make her his wife.

So was done, and on the high hilltop in the darkness Psyche sat, waiting for she knew not what terror. As she wept and trembled, a soft breath of air, the gentle breathing of the west wind, Zephyr, came through and lilted her up; her troubles left, she slept. She woke up besides a bright river and on its bank was a most stately mansion which seemed deserted, but voices came which she could clearly hear. "We are your servants. Please enter the house without fear and bathe and refresh", the voices told her, laying a most lavish banquet in thin air.

The bath was the most delightful, and the food the most delicious she had ever enjoyed, while a great choir seemed to be singing to the harp. Throughout the day except for the strange companionship of the voices she was alone, but in some inexplicable way she felt sure that with the coming of the night her husband would be with her. And so it happened. When she felt him beside her and heard his voice softly murmuring in her ear, all her fears left her. She knew without seeing him that here was no monster or shape of terror, but the lover and husband she had longed and waited for. She was happy and time passed swiftly with this half-and-half companionship.

One night, however, her unseen husband told her that her sisters were coming to weep for her at the summit of the hill from where she had disappeared, and that she should not meet them as it forbade sorrow for her. But the woman in her could not accept this condition, and she wept and wept, until he told her, "Do your way then." Zephyrus brought the sisters down on his wings, and all rejoiced their meeting. They talked and talked, but the sisters slowly and gradually grew very jealous to see the grandeur and the riches of the palace that made their own look drab in comparison.

So they planned a plot, and convinced their sister that her husband was in fact an evil, otherwise why should he shun the light of the day and come to her unseen only on nights. The two jealous sisters told Psyche, then pregnant with Cupid's child, that rumor was that she had married a great and terrible serpent who would devour her and her unborn child when her time came for it to be fed. They urged Psyche to conceal a knife and oil lamp in the bedchamber, to wait till her husband was asleep, and then to light the lamp and slay him at once if it was as they said. Psyche sadly followed their advice. In the light of the lamp Psyche recognized the fair form on the bed as the god Cupid himself, and cursing her folly, attempted to kill herself with the knife she had intended to use to use on him. However, she dropped the knife, and her spirits were raised as she gazed on the beautiful young god. She curiously examined his golden arrows, and accidentally pricked herself with them, and was consumed with desire for her husband. She began to kiss him, but as she did, a drop of oil fell from Psyche's lamp and onto Cupid's chest and he awoke. He flew away, but she caught his ankle and was carried with him until her muscles gave out, and she fell to the ground, sick at heart.

Cupid, in the meanwhile had gone to his mother's chamber to have his wounds cared for, but when Venus heard his story and learned that it was Psyche whom he had chosen, she left him angrily alone in his pain, and went forth to find the girl of whom made her still more jealous.

Poor Psyche in her despairing wanderings was trying to win the gods over to her side. She searched far and wide for her lover, finally stumbling into a temple to Ceres where all was in slovenly disarray. As Psyche was sorting and clearing, Ceres appeared, but refused any help but advice, saying Psyche must call directly on Venus, the jealous shrew that caused all the problems in the first place. Psyche next called on Juno in her temple, but Hera, superior as always, said the same.

Finally, Psyche found a temple to Venus and entered it. The goddess laughed aloud and asked her scornfully if she was seeking a husband since the one she had had would have nothing to do with her because he had almost died of the burning wound she had given him. "But really," she said, "you are so plain and ill-favoured a girl that you will never be able to get you a lover except by the most diligent and painful service." With that she mixed the smallest of seeds into a big heap and ordered Psyche to separate all the grains before nightfall. An ant took pity on Psyche and with its ant companions separated the grains for her.

Venus was outraged at her success and told her to go to a field where golden sheep grazed and get some golden wool. A river-god told Psyche that the sheep were vicious and strong and would kill her, but if she waited until noontime, the sheep would go to the shade on the other side of the field and sleep; she could pick the wool that stuck to the branches and bark of the trees. Venus next asked for water to be filled in a flask from the Styx and Cocytus flowing from a cleft that was impossible for a mortal to attain because so slippery being its rocks, was also guarded by great serpents. This time her saviour was an eagle, who poised on his great wings, and with the flask on its beak, brought it back to her full of black water.

But Venus kept on. One cannot but accuse her of some stupidity. The only effect of it all was that it made her more determined to try once again. Claiming that the stress of caring for her son has made her depressed and ill, causing her to lose some of her beauty, she set Psyche on a task to go to the Underworld and ask Persephone, the queen of the Underworld, for a bit of her beauty in a box that Venus gave to Psyche. Psyche decided that the quickest way to the Underworld would be to throw herself off some high place and die and so she climbed to the top of a tower. But the tower itself spoke to her and told her the route through Tanaerum, a great hole in the earth that would allow her to enter the Underworld alive and return again, as well as telling her how to get by Cerberus, the three-headed hell dog by throwing him a sop, then down to where she must pay Charon, the ferryman, a penny to make her cross the river of the dead, Styx; how to avoid other dangers on the way there and back, and most importantly to eat of no food whatsoever; for otherwise she would dwell forever in the Underworld. Psyche followed the orders explicitly and ate nothing while beneath the earth.

Her next trial she brought upon herself through her womanly curiosity and, still more, her vanity. Deciding that she could use some beauty herself, she opened the box. Inside, she could see no beauty; instead a deadly languor took possession of her and she fell to infernal sleep.

At this juncture the God of Love himself stepped forward. Cupid was healed of his wound by now and longing for Psyche. It is a difficult matter to keep Love imprisoned. Breaking open Venus' locks, he flew out looking for his wife. She was lying almost beside the palace, and he found her at once. In a moment he had wiped the sleep from her eyes and put it back in the box. Then waking her with just a prick from one of his arrows, and scolding her a little for her curiosity, he bade her to take Proserpine's box to his mother and he assured her that all thereafter would be well.

While the joyful Psyche hastened on her errand, Cupid flew to Mount Olympus and begged Jove to aid them. Jove called a full and formal council of the gods, and declared it was his will that Cupid might marry Psyche. Jove then had Psyche fetched to Mount Olympus, and gave her a drink made from ambrosia, granting her immortality. This, of course, completely changed the situation. Venus could not object to a goddess for her daughter-in-law, the alliance had become eminently suitable. No doubt she reflected also that Psyche, living up in heaven with a husband and children to care for, could not be much on the earth to turn men's heads and interfere with her own worship.

So, all came to a most happy end. Love and the Soul (for this is what Psyche means) had sought each other and, after sore trials, came to a union that could never be broken.

Bhaskar Banerjee runs iBongo Inc. as a Business Development Manager for iBongo Inc. and manages a recently developed website - He is dedicated and works hard to ensure success.

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