All relationships have their highs and lows, their moments of crisis and monotony. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is down to local sentiments. The story that revolves around “true love”, however, is not only of all time, but also of all cultures. On a level that transcends time and culture we are propelled by a collective desire for “the one”. It is a desire that inspires people to perform acts of heroism or hurl themselves off cliffs.
In my view the story of Eros (love/desire) and Psyche (the soul) is the most fundamental love story of all, one which reveals the nature of this powerful impulse and the things that need to happen before this union can bring lasting happiness.
Eros and Psyche
In ancient Greece lived a king and queen in peace and prosperity. They had three daughters. The eldest was pretty, the middle one was clever, but the youngest, Psyche, was different. Psyche was pretty as well as smart, but above all she was charming. This made her so beautiful that people used to say “She is almost as beautiful as Aphrodite.” As Psyche grew up, her beauty was praised far and wide. Young men travelled from afar to admire her, but none asked for her hand. Psyche’s days were filled, but her nights were empty.
People came to the palace in ever greater numbers, hoping to catch a glimpse of Psyche and forgetting all about Aphrodite. Over time, the fires in Aphrodite’s Temple went out and the people became cold and ill-tempered. The king saw himself obliged to arbitrate in more and more disputes and transgressions. Illness was rife and it looked as if the sun was struggling to break through. Seriously worried, the king decided to visit the Oracle of Delphi.
The Oracle had sad tidings for the king. It told him that Aphrodite was jealous and angry that her temples were being neglected. Psyche had to go. If she were married off to a monster of the sea, Aphrodite would be restored to her former glory and with it the warmth in people’s relationships.
Sighing and lamenting, the king returned to his palace and shared the dreadful news. The whole palace began weeping and wailing and the country was plunged into mourning. Nobody doubted the verdict and nobody rose up to defend Psyche. What the Oracle said had to happen!
And so the preparations for the wedding were made. Psyche was dressed in the loveliest of wedding gowns and a long procession set off to accompany her to the sea where she would be left to wait for her bridegroom.
Because no union is brought about without Eros, Aphrodite had instructed her son to make his way to the place where Psyche and the sea monster were to meet. Once he had done the job with his arrows, Psyche would willingly follow her husband into the sea.
Eros was a practical joker and liked the idea of the most charming girl in the world falling in love with an ugly sea monster. From a distance he saw the sorrowful procession approaching. He watched as the king, the queen and the relatives said their goodbyes and returned homewards with the rest of the procession. There she was, Psyche, all by herself in her gorgeous wedding gown. She was beautiful and brave, but the tension became too much for her and she fainted. When he saw this, Eros stumbled and pricked his hand on one of his own arrows. And so it happened that Eros fell head over heels in love with Psyche. He flew to her, lifted her up and took her to his earthly paradise.
The realm of Eros
When Psyche came to, she looked round and marvelled at everything she saw. She found herself in the most magnificent palace she had ever seen. It exceeded even her wildest dreams. As she made her way from room to room and then on to the garden she found that curiously enough everything she wished for simply materialized. When she felt peckish, the next room would be a dining room with a table full of delicious dishes. If she wanted to bathe, the next room would be a bathroom where the water had exactly the right temperature. When it grew dim she made her way to a bedroom where she promptly fell asleep. She woke up when she felt somebody lying down next to her in the dark. A slight shudder and then a wave of love engulfed her and without any reservations they made love for many a sweet hour.
But at the break of day he disappeared again. This went on for several days and when Psyche asked him to stay he told her that he would arrive at dusk and would always leave again before dawn. And that she should never ask him for his name.
For a long time life was paradise for Psyche. At night she made love, for many a sweet hour, and during the day she dreamt of her lover who would be back in the night. But it did not last. The days seemed to be getting longer and longer and she was beginning to feel a bit bored, because splendour is not fulfilling.
Psyche’s thoughts began to drift to home and to her sisters. Her nights were full, but her days were empty. Then, one night, Psyche asked Eros if her sisters could come and visit. She felt so lonely. Eros refused, but Psyche kept pressing until he gave in. Eros instructed a messenger to invite the sisters and bring them to his earthly paradise.
The messenger’s invitation aroused the sisters’ curiosity. Having dropped Psyche off, they thought they would never see her again. And now suddenly this invitation. So the sisters agreed to come along and accompanied the messenger to Eros’s palace.
The sisters greeted Psyche with tears and many a cry of surprise. They admired the beautiful palace, the luxury, the delicious meals. But soon the first notes of envy crept into their voices. Both sisters had made good matches. They lived in nice palaces, had plenty of servants and were still pretty and clever. In short, enough to keep them satisfied. But seeing Psyche in her palace, talking nineteen to the dozen about all the gifts she received, was a bit much for them. Besides, Psyche could not stop talking about those wonderful nights. And that was galling.
“So what does that husband of yours do to afford such luxury?” they asked. Psyche had not anticipated that question. She started stuttering something along the lines of “he is a trader, merchant, travels a lot”, but she suddenly sounded a lot less happy. When, at the end of the day, the sisters were taken home again, they said to one another: “How odd, Psyche does not even know what her husband does for a living. He travels, she says. Well, if you ask me, she is unhappy. I would want to know more about what my husband does on his travels. If he were my husband I would give him the third degree.” Meanwhile Psyche told herself: “Next time they come, I will have to be better prepared for their questions. They might be worried to learn that I have no idea what my husband does.”
The next time the sisters visited Psyche was well-prepared. But the sisters were even better prepared. So it was not long before Psyche burst into tears and the sisters discovered that Psyche did not even know her husband! That he came in the dead of night and took off again at the crack of dawn. As they left, they said to one another: “Psyche may have many riches, but she is really unhappy. We have to help her!”
When the sisters came to visit Psyche a third time they brought an oil lamp with them. In the night Psyche should hold the lamp up to her husband to see what he looked like. “He could be a dreadful monster,” they said. Psyche hid the lamp under the bed and the sisters went home, pleased at the thought that they would soon find out!
That night, when Eros was asleep, Psyche slipped out of bed and grabbed the oil lamp. She lit the lamp and held it over the sleeping Eros. What she saw took her breath away. Her lover was the God of Love himself! Unable to stop staring, she did not realize that the lamp was tilting more and more. Eventually a few drops of burning oil dripped onto Eros’s shoulder. He woke with a start and immediately realized what had happened: “You should not have done that!” he exclaimed. He tried to fly to the open window, but his wounded wing was paralyzed. Eventually he managed to get to the window and he was off. He did not return.
The dark forest
Upon Eros’s disappearance, Psyche broke down and began to cry inconsolably. But Eros was gone, irretrievably gone, and with him the beautiful palace, the fountains and the gardens had disappeared too. Psyche remained behind in a huge, dark forest. She did not know what to do. But among the trees she made out the faint light of a small temple. It was a temple devoted to Demeter. “Demeter, mother of all, will want to help me,” Psyche thought, and built a fire for an offering. But the smoke collapsed. Demeter refused to accept the offering.
Next she arrived at one of Athena’s temples. “Maybe Athena can give me some good advice,” Psyche thought. But again, the smoke of her offering to Athena collapsed. At her wit’s end, Psyche wanted to throw herself into the river and end her life. She was leaning forward, staring at the water, when she heard something rustling behind her back. She turned and saw the God Pan. Pan shook his head. “Surely you are not serious about doing that?” he said. “Come, tell me what’s wrong.”
As Psyche told her story, Pan smiled, all the while gently shaking his head. When she was done he said: “There is only one solution. You must make you way to the temple of Aphrodite herself and ask her for the love of her son.” Psyche set off. It was going to be extremely difficult of course, since Aphrodite was furious, so her expectations were not very high. “But,” Psyche thought, “I can always jump in the river.”
Psyche found the Temple devoted to Aphrodite in a lovely clearing on the edge of the forest. The river could be glimpsed in the distance and behind it fields that gave way to hills and a mountain ridge at the end of the valley. Psyche entered and started building a sacrificial fire. The smoke spiralled upwards. The fire got bigger and bigger and the smoke spirals became smoke clouds. The clouds rose straight up and then Aphrodite appeared with a large retinue.
Aphrodite was tall, beautiful and imposing. Without a word, she glared at Psyche, who felt herself becoming smaller and smaller down at the foot of the altar. “How dare you!” Aphrodite yelled. “How dare you enter my shrine, you little schemer!” Psyche wanted to run away, away from this infuriated Goddess. But instead she mustered her courage, stepped forward and said: “I have come out of love, I have come for your son”
“What?! You think you have come out of love,” Aphrodite mocked her. “What do you know about love? Let me teach you what love is! Do you see that mound outside? That mound consists of all the seeds in the world. All mixed up. When I return by nightfall tomorrow you will have picked through and sorted that mound. Each variety neatly sorted into small piles.” Aphrodite turned and left with her large retinue in tow.
The Ant Queen
At daybreak Psyche embarked on her impossible task. She picked up a handful of seeds and carefully sorted them according to type. Peas with peas, beans with beans and mustard seeds with mustard seeds. She would never pull it off this way, but making a start seemed the only way forward. Then suddenly she saw something moving among the seeds. On the palm of her hand she spotted an ant among the seeds, an ant wearing a small crown.
“Hey, who are you?” she exclaimed, startled. The ant threw her an indignant look. “So now you notice me? When you were in the earthly paradise you ignored me.” “I am so sorry,” Psyche said, because it was true of course. But the Ant Queen, flattered by Psyche’s humility, asked her what was wrong. Psyche told her about Aphrodite and that by nightfall she was supposed to have sorted the entire mound of seeds. “Oh, but I can help, you know,” the ant said and started producing a sharp tone. It sounded a bit like whistling, but different. Suddenly Psyche saw lots and lots of ants approaching from all directions. They crawled onto and into the mound of seeds and a little later, much to Psyche’s surprise, they all emerged again, all carrying a seed in their legs and, believe it or not, all with a separate variety. By the end of the day the temple garden was full of small piles, each with one of the seeds of the world.
The Crystal bowl
Night fell and Aphrodite appeared, along with her retinue. Surprised and angry she surveyed the work done and snapped: “Right, well, obviously this was not all that difficult. Tomorrow’s task is harder. Here is a crystal bowl. Go to the river Styx and fill this bowl with the water of life. I shall be back by nightfall and woe betide if you fail to complete your task.” And off she went again.
Psyche stood there with the bowl, despairing at the thought of the task at hand. It was too difficult. But she fell asleep and the following morning she set off.
The Styx is the river that emerges out of Hades at an extremely high point from where it plunges straight down into a deep ravine. Without protrusions or coves anywhere. Getting close enough to the edge to fill up a bowl is impossible. Again, Psyche had no choice but to simply get going. The sun was high and hot in the sky. Psyche held the bowl in her hands and that is how it happened that a ray of sunshine reflected off the crystal bowl right in front of Zeus’s throne. His curiosity piqued, Zeus looked down to see where the light beam came from. And there he saw Psyche, making her lonely way. The Gods tend not to interfere in each other’s business – and this was something between Aphrodite and Psyche – but he took pity on Psyche and sent his eagle down to help her. The eagle landed in front of her and offered to fly past the river with the crystal bowl so it could be filled with the water of life. Grateful, Psyche handed the bowl to the eagle, which took it in its beak and flew off. A little later it was back with a full bowl.
The rams of Helios
Psyche took the bowl and arrived back at the temple just before nightfall. Aphrodite reappeared, this time even angrier at Psyche’s success. “Tomorrow,” she said, “tomorrow you will fail. I want you to fill this bag here with the golden hair of Helios’s rams. Before night falls.”
Helios’s rams were aggressive, everybody knew. Nobody ventured out into the fields were the rams were grazing. Psyche started crying, but Aphrodite just smiled and left. Psyche was desperate. “This is too difficult,” she thought to herself. “I am going to drown myself.” So she walked to the river where tall reeds grew along the water’s edge. When she pushed the reeds aside, they began to whisper.
“Psyche,” the reeds whispered, “there is a way of obtaining the wool without going anywhere near the rams. The animals spend their days grazing on the south-facing slopes, but towards the evening they return and cross the river at a narrow spot among the bushes. When they do, their golden hair gets stuck in the bushes. Once the rams have moved on, you can remove the tufts and fill your bag.”
Psyche thanked the reeds and went to bed. But she had trouble sleeping and at first light, she saw the golden rams cross the river and move up into hills. When night falls, the reeds had told her. The day wore on and on. “What if it does not work?” Psyche kept thinking. “If it does not work, there will not be any time to try something else!”
The sun was setting when Psyche saw the rams make their way back from the hills to the river. She waited for as long as she dared and then went to look for the path on the other side. Yes, the rams had passed and yes, the bushes were full of golden hair that had snagged on the thorns. Psyche quickly filled the bag and ran back to the Temple where her arrival coincided with that of Aphrodite. The goddess was furious. “First you received help from the smallest creatures, then you were assisted by the great Zeus himself and this time you were helped by the plants. No living soul will be able to help you carry out tomorrow’s task. Tomorrow you are going to the underworld, to the realm of Hades and Persephone. There you will ask Persephone for her celebrated beauty cream, which you will bring to me before night falls.”
Dejected, Psyche lay down to sleep. Hades, where the dead went and nobody came out alive!
The following morning she set off. Soon the landscape turned flat and desolate. Ahead, a large barren plain emerged, with a watchtower in the middle. “Oh no,” she thought, “Hades is guarded! I will never be able to slip past unnoticed.” She sat down and tried to think. Then suddenly, in a flash, she saw the truth. “If nobody gets out of the underworld alive,” she reasoned, “there is no need for it to be guarded. In that case, the tower is there to protect us, the living, and it is safe to take a look around.”
Psyche hurried towards the tower and found a small door. It was open so she entered. Inside, the tower addressed her: “Going to Hades is dangerous and the chances of returning are minute, even when you follow my instructions to the letter. On the shelf in front of you are two loaves of bread. And two coins. When you get to the river Styx you will come upon a ferryman who is prepared to take you across. He must be paid a coin. One on the way over and one on the way back. Once you are on the other side you will have to pass Cerberus, the two-headed hellhound. Hurl one loaf at the two heads and they will start fighting for the bread so you can slip past. Next you will see the three women spinning the thread of your life. They will ask you if you want to spin your own thread. You refuse and quickly move on. This brings you to the dining hall where Hades and Persephone are entertaining at a banquet. Remember, you are not allowed to eat or drink in Hades, except a glass of water as a courtesy to your host and hostess. Ask Persephone for a jar of her beauty cream and she will give it to you. Then you must return as fast as you can.”
Psyche thanked the tower, picked up the two loaves and put the two coins under her tongue. Thus equipped, she made her way to the river separating the land of the living from the realm of the dead. The ferryman was waiting by the river to take her across. She handed him one of the coins. When she reached the other side the hellhound with its two heads was growling and snarling, its teeth bared, ready to tear her to pieces. Psyche threw one of the two loaves at the heads, which immediately started fighting over it. She slipped past. On a platform she saw three old women spinning. They were the norns spinning the threads of people’s lives. “Come here, sweet child,” they called out to Psyche. “Come here and spin your own thread.” The thought that she might not die if she did flashed through Psyche’s mind, but heeding the tower’s warning she refused and moved on as fast as she could. There it was, the hall of Hades and Persephone. They were sitting down to a big meal, just as the tower had predicted. Hades invited her most kindly to take a seat and help herself to some food. It all looked most tempting. But Psyche refused, as the tower had told her to, and just had a glass of water. She then asked Persephone for a jar of beauty cream for Aphrodite. Persephone gave it to her with a smile, for she knew Aphrodite only too well. Psyche thanked her, turned round and went back the same way, hurrying past the spinners, throwing the second loaf to the hellhound and giving the ferryman another coin for the crossing. And there she was, back on land, on the side of the living.
The beauty cream
Psyche was exhausted. She came upon a well and decided to drink a bit. But when she saw herself reflected in the water, she exclaimed “Oh no. I look terrible. So old and weary. What was the point of all this now that I have lost the beauty of my youth during this arduous journey! If Eros were to see me like this everything would be lost.” But then her eye fell on the jar with beauty cream. “I guess I could take a little,” she thought to herself. “Just enough to make me look attractive again.”
She opened the jar. An intoxicating scent rose up. Psyche was about to take some of the cream, but the scent was too strong and she fainted.
All seemed lost. But after having been wounded by the hot oil, Eros had gone to his mother, who locked him in her palace. Broken-winged, he was unable to escape. But time heals all wounds and one day he managed to escape. He flew to Zeus’s realm where he begged the Council of the Gods for permission to marry Psyche. “We would have to make her immortal,” said Zeus. “And your mother is unlikely to approve.” But Aphrodite, who also had a seat on the Council, nodded her assent. And thus Psyche secured her own place in the World of the Gods.
Filled with joy, Eros flew down and found Psyche unconscious by the well. He carried her up Mount Olympus where they got married. In the world of the immortals Eros and Psyche were a happy couple. For all eternity.
This particular version of Eros and Psyche is one I have cobbled together from a wide range of sources, using my own interpretation.