Eros and Psyche by blackeri
Plato perceived love as the desire and pursuit of the whole, as he wrote in Symposium. The tale of Eros and Psyche is a story of the soul’s desire for wholeness. It has been haunting me for years both in my conscious and unconscious (dream) life. Nothing can spoil the tale for me; its beauty is eternal, its mystery unfathomable. I would like to devote some place to that story on my blog, and I know one post will do it little justice, as it is so complex and carries so much symbolic weight.
The first thing that needs to be said is that the story of Eros and Psyche cannot be found in any Greek mythology if you decided to look it up. It is actually a part of a Latin novel The Golden Ass written by Apuleius in 2nd century AD. Apuleius recounts a story that is much, much older, dating back to at least 4 century BC and which was very important to ancient Greeks, especially those involved in sacred mysteries.
The names of the main protagonists surely stir imagination: Eros (love, desire, sexual passion) and Psyche (soul, life, breath of life, also – a butterfly). Let us look at the origins of the main hero and heroine. Eros plays a decisive role in the Orphic myth of creation, as described by Robert Graves in Greek Myths:
“Some say that all gods and all living creatures originated in the stream of Oceanus which girdles the world, and that Tethys was the mother of all his children.
But the Orphics say that black-winged Night, a goddess of whom even Zeus stands in awe, was courted by the Wind and laid a silver egg in the womb of Darkness; and that Eros … was hatched from this egg and set the Universe in motion. Eros was double-sexed and golden-winged and, having four heads, sometimes roared like a bull or a lion, sometimes hissed like a serpent or bleated like a ram. Night … lived in a cave with him, displaying herself in triad: Night, Order and Justice. Before this cave sat inescapable mother Rhea, playing on a brazen drum, and compelling man’s attention to the oracles of the goddess. (Eros) created earth, sky, sun, and moon, but the triple-goddess ruled the universe, until her sceptre passed to Uranus.”
The Primordial Eros, surrounded by the circle of Zodiac
The Orphics were a religious group in ancient Greece, revering the mythical poet Orpheus, who was said to have invented the Mysteries of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and ecstasy. The Mysteries were very much connected to the Underworld with an enormous reverence that the Orphics dedicated to the goddess Persephone, consort of Hades.
In his story of Eros and Psyche, Apuleius follows the mainstream myth and presents Eros as the son of Aphrodite. At the beginning Eros is nothing like the powerful Orphic deity. Rather, he is enmeshed with his mother and meekly fulfills all her orders. In the course of the story, both Eros and Psyche wake to their inner power and both get in touch with their inner, essential divinity. In the end Eros, the winged god, marries Psyche (butterfly), who has transformed and got her own wings as a result of her long, arduous and trying process of individuation. Two books have shaped my understanding of the myth: Amor and Psyche by Erich Neumann and Elisabeth Eowyn Nelson’s Psyche’s Knife: Archetypal Explorations of Love and Power. Neumann asserts that the myth portrays the psychic development of the feminine, while Nelson is chiefly preoccupied with the rich symbolism of the knife that appears very early in the story.
It is worth starting our exploration of the myth with Psyche’s early life. I think Nelson tells the story beautifully, so I am going to use her wording:
“In western Greece there once lived a king and queen who had three daughters. The eldest two were beautiful but the youngest, Psyche, was so incomparably lovely that no words could describe her. … the people… began to view her as a fresh incarnation of the goddess of love herself, Aphrodite … As word of her loveliness spread far and wide, travelers flocked to the kingdom to worship Psyche as the new goddess. In their eagerness, the people neglected the altars of Aphrodite.
When the true Aphrodite realized that the honors due to her were being granted to a mortal, she was outraged and vowed revenge. … Aphrodite begged Eros to fly one of his arrows and make Psyche fall in love with a vile and disgusting creature. …
Time passed, and Psyche’s older sisters eventually married noble husbands. But though Psyche grew more beautiful with each succeeding year, no man dared approach her. She was worshipped by all – and she remained untouched and alone. The king her father … consulted the oracle. To his horror he was told to dress Psyche in funeral robes to meet her spouse, for she was fated to marry a monstrous, terrifying bridegroom. On the designated day, the king and queen and all the people mournfully conducted Psyche to a high cliff, chained her to the rocks, and left the young woman to face her destiny.
Pierre-Paul Prud’hon: Psyche Abducted by the Zephyrs
Psyche waited and trembled, then felt the gentle breath of the West Wind. It … lifted her up and carried her down to a lush, green valley. When she awoke, she saw a forest with a fountain in the center and a magnificent palace… Psyche timidly walked inside and found that the rooms were filled with radiant, golden light. Then a voice welcomed her, saying, “All that you see here about you is yours. We shall attend to your every need.” Psyche looked for the speaker but saw no one. Then a different voice offered Psyche a refreshing bath, while still another invited the young woman to a banquet fit for a queen.”
At night, under cover of darkness, a stranger appeared in her bedroom and made love to her, and so it continued until Psyche’s sisters came to visit and planted a grain of doubt in Psyche’s heart. Perhaps she indeed married a monster? The truth was that the god Eros had disobeyed his mother, and having pricked himself with his own arrow, fell in love with Psyche, and wanted her for himself. He was not ready yet to disobey his mother openly.
What strikes me about the beginning of the story is Psyche’s loneliness and isolation: both as her parents’ daughter and then as the “wife.” She is a soul on the verge of her destiny: wrapped in the safe cocoon of the collective unconscious. She has not been born yet: she has not left the safe womb of the goddess. She is not in love with a person, but more with the archetype or the idea of love. She rests in the state of sweet inertia. She is not an agent, rather a passive participant in her own life. She appears to be gentle, loving, and of a very pure heart and intentions. She is all about Love, but without Judgement. According to Neumann, she is indeed imprisoned by the monster: the maternal uoroboros and the undifferentiated, unconscious state connected with it. She loves a man, but he has no face.
The story starts with the paradise-like unity, harmony and a seeming completion, but soon doubt and conflict sneak in, for such is a way of the development of consciousness. Psyche must embark on her own journey, she must extricate herself from the suffocating bond she has found herself in.