“Love sets up resonances in the deepest abysses of our being. It is a lightning flash of the eternal within the flow of time.”
Aldo Carutenuto, Eros and Pathos: Shades of Love and Suffering
Butterflies are very popular funerary motifs. The soul is like a butterfly (“Psyche” in Greek): short-lived and attracted to Light. Love and Death, Eros and Tanathos, are closely connected: in love an individual self is obliterated through merging with the beloved. Love brings mortal wounding, suffering and agony, which reminds me of a somewhat disturbing quote from one of Franz Kafka’s letters to Milena: “You are the knife I turn inside myself, this is love. This, my dear, is love.” From the heights of bliss to the depths of despair: that is Psyche’s way in the myth. Through death, which is an organic and symbolic part of life, she is born into eternal life by undergoing tests, purifications, death, resurrection, and ascension. “Death is the translation of life into soul,” beautifully wrote James Hillman in Animal Presences. Psyche is both mortal and immortal.
The last part of the story, in which Psyche has important tasks to fulfill, shows the making of her Self. In the previous two parts of the series, with a knife and a lamp she cut through the sensual oblivion of living in the belly of the uroboric monster and embarked on a journey towards separateness and consciousness. Her goal is merging with her beloved Eros but to be able to form an alchemical union with him she has to first become an individual psychological entity.
The angry and wounded Eros abandons Psyche and life loses its meaning for her. Without Love the Soul has no reason to live and she contemplates suicide. The story continues in Psyche’s Knife:
“Psyche believed that all was lost. She left the palace and threw herself into the river, but the river, fearful of offending Eros, bore her up and carried her to the opposite bank. There Psyche encountered the god Pan… When he saw the forlorn girl, he immediately knew that she was suffering the pangs of love. “Do not try to kill yourself,” he advised, “but go instead to the god of love and plead with him.
Edward Burne-Jones, Pan and Psyche
Psyche left but she wandered aimlessly. After a time, she found herself in the kingdom where one of her sisters ruled, and so she sought an audience with her. ‘I did as you advised,’ Psyche told her, “and discovered that my husband was none other than the god of love. He abandoned me with bitter words and said he knew that he had married the wrong sister. Now he means to make you his bride.’
Psyche’s sister was overjoyed by this news. She ran to her husband, inventing some excuse for her sudden departure, and then quickly made her way to the rocky promontory where the West Wind had twice carried her safely to Psyche’s former home. The sister leaped into the air, eager for the arms of Eros, and fell to her death on the crags and boulders below.
Psyche wandered on and came to the kingdom of her other sister, whereupon Psyche related the same story. This sister … met the same violent fate.”
In Asteroid Goddesses, Demetra George says that Psyche archetype is connected with psychic sensitivity, especially towards the mind and feelings of another, but also with being able to feel and communicate with nature. The meeting of Pan by the river is very significant. Pan is the faun, the god of the wild, the horned deity known for his sexual powers. Nature takes Psyche under her wing: every soul on the path of individuation is cherished by Nature. That scene is the making of Psyche in the sense that it shows her connection with Nature because the soul’s separation from nature is an illusion of the mind. By throwing herself into the river Psyche agrees to let go of the obsessive and patriarchal need to control the natural flow of life and time. She lets herself be guided by archetypal powers – Nature, the current of Life, and the gods and goddesses (our inborn archetypes). She is now grounded in Nature and ready to evolve spiritually.
What she did to the sisters may sound cruel, but from a symbolic standpoint is necessary: the relationships that do not feed our souls need to be eliminated, however harsh that may sound. As Jesus said, “I do not come to bring peace, but to bring a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” (Matthew 10: 34-39). Or as Emily Dickinson put it so beautifully: “The soul selects her own society. Then shuts the door.” After this purification, Psyche is now ready to meet the wrathful Aphrodite. She visits Demeter and Hera first to buy some time, but gets no help from either of the goddesses. Gods are demanding: you cannot substitute one for another, they all demand your worship.
“Aphrodite attacked Psyche, tearing her clothes, her hair, and striking her again and again. “Where is your beauty now, worthless girl? Do you have any strength, or value, or perseverance left? We shall test your mettle and see!”
Don’t we all sometimes feel lashed by the goddess of love? Psyche is tortured by Aphrodite’s two maids, Melancholy and Sorrow; after some time the goddess proceeds to assign Psyche four impossible tasks:
“In the center of the floor was an enormous heap of mixed seeds, barley, millet, and other grains, which Aphrodite commanded the girl to sort by nightfall. … Psyche sat down, bewildered and forlorn, not noticing her first helpers. An ant, followed by thousands more, crawled towards the seeds. …they sorted the entire heap into many separate mounds.”
The first lesson of the soul pertains to humility and industry, patience and determination. Ants remind Psyche that she should relinquish her sense of being special; also Aphrodite’s scorn had served the same purpose. Separation is an important stage of the alchemical process; it demands discernment and good judgement to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The next task consisted in collecting the fleece of ferocious golden rams, whose force and cruelty was the strongest at noon. Psyche was offered assistance by a green reed:
“Psyche, do not approach the rams directly. … Later, when the sun begins to set, go to the meadow where the rams have grazed and collect the bits of fleece caught on the low-hanging branches.”
Psyche is successful again thanks to achieving a taoist mindset, being at one with nature, not confronting the ferocious solar beasts openly but by gently collecting their treasures under the soft light of the moon. Neumann sees this labour as bringing fruitful contact between the masculine and the feminine, between solar and lunar consciousness.
“Symbolically, the sun emanates its light and projects its creative energy outward. The reflective quality of the moon returns the light back toward the source, thereby completing the soli-lunar circuit.”
Demetra George, Asteroid Goddesses
The third task is even more daunting:
“Aphrodite handed Psyche a delicate crystal flask. “Take this and fetch me water from the river Styx.” Psyche was aghast. She knew that its waters were poisonous even to the gods. With dread, she walked toward the place where the fierce waters tumbled over a sheer cliff into a deep gorge below… At that moment, Zeus’s eagle took pity on Psyche, swooped down and grasped the flask in his talons. Skimming gracefully next to the deadly water, the eagle filled it and returned the flask to the girl.”
The river Styx (“the river of hate”) was the boundary between the Earth and the Underworld. All the gods used to swear their oaths by it. On her path, Psyche is now integrating the archetypally masculine energies symbolized by the eagle: a solar bird of consciousness. Eagles are the opposite energy to the energy carried by the river Styx: thus this labour entails the unification of opposites. In connection with eagle symbolism, Cirlot shares an interesting thought in his Dictionary of Symbols: “… the constellation of the Eagle is placed just above the man carrying the pitcher of Aquarius, who follows the bird’s movement so closely that he seems to be drawn after it by unseen bonds. From this it has been inferred that Aquarius is to be identified with Ganymede, and also with the fact that even the gods themselves need the water of the Uranian forces of life.” The higher Aquarian waters of pure understanding are juxtaposed with the murky, toxic waters of hate flowing in the Styx. Both streams reflect the mysteries of Life and Death, as the whole myth of Eros and Psyche does.
Aphrodite did not relent and gave Psyche her last, the most formidable task. It is the fourth task, a number that Jung especially cherished: a number of completion. The mandala, the most perfect symbol of the Self (the unity of consciousness and unconsciousness) is divided into four parts. It is an image of a stable, eternal order. Also, Jung postulated that the male holy trinity needs the female fourth figure to achieve depth and wholeness, to unite the above with the below. Four is the number of matter (mother), the earth, the material manifestation.
“Psyche’s fourth and final task was beyond compare: she was to go down into the underworld and collect a beauty ointment from Queen Persephone. Psyche was well aware that no mortal ever returned from such a journey… In despair, Psyche spied a tall tower and again planned to kill herself. But the tower took pity on her and offered this advice: enter the underworld prepared with two coins for the ferryman and two honey cakes for Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates. “All along the journey,” the tower warned, “there will be lures to keep you from your purpose. You must resist each one. Above all, do not open the ointment from Persephone, for it will be deadly to you.”
A. Zick. Psyche and Charon
The tower is the first “non-organic” advisor to Psyche. It may stand for human culture and wisdom, symbolic of ascent. It is a symbol of wholeness because it is both masculine (phallic) and feminine (an impregnable fortress). It denotes self-imposed restrictions: it gives Psyche very detailed instructions which must be followed to the letter. The underworld can only be navigated with a steadfast and focused attitude. The lures that tempted her were a man whose bundle of wood had tumbled from the back of his donkey, who asked for her help; later a corpse floating on the surface of the river Styx lifted a cold hand, pleading for help. Psyche showed restraint and resolve and did not allow herself to be distracted. She knew her resources were limited and she did not squander them. She refused to dine with Persephone and made her way back with the ointment in her hand.
In ancient Greek mysteries, only those who ritually descended into Hades could be called full initiates. A collection of descent myths passed on to us is very rich: my favourite being Inanna’s descent into the Underworld ruled by her sister, Ereshkigal. The descent was prominent in Orphic mysteries as well: the original descent story being of Orpheus coming down to Hades to claim his wife Eurydice. We know very little about these fascinating ancient mysteries but what happened was probably that the hierophant was guiding the initiates into trance and through an out-of-body spiritual experience. The ultimate purpose was to lose all the earthy attachments and overcome the fear of death. The realm of Hades hides enormous riches: the new possibilities to turn our lives around, to experience rebirth and renewal, to rejuvenate ourselves by finding the greatest treasure. We descend to retrieve the lost splinters of our Self.
Paul Alfred Curzon, Psyche in the Underworld
Psyche emerges from the Underworld and the story continues:
“Then Psyche paused. She considered the jar of ointment and lifted a hand to caress her own careworn face. “Why should I simply give this to Aphrodite?” she wondered.” Why not use some of it myself, to recover my beauty so that my beloved Eros will be irresistibly drawn to me?” With that, Psyche opened the jar – and immediately fell into a Stygian sleep. At that moment, Eros felt something stir. … He scanned the landscape And, spying the sleeping Psyche, Eros kissed her awake…”
Edward Burne-Jones, Psyche Opening the Box
Antonio Canova, Amor and Psyche
Edward Burne-Jones, Eros Delivering Psyche
He flew to Mount Olympus and professed his love. Psyche was accepted among the Olympians as the new goddess. Shortly after their child was born, a girl whose name was Pleasure (Joy).
In all interpretation of the myth that I have come across Psyche is scorned for her “narcissistic” wish to be beautiful for Eros. But I think we can look at what she did form a symbolic standpoint: the soul wants to purify itself and be beautiful to in order to merge with the Beloved (understood as God, like in Sufism or Christian mysticism). She is a drop that longs after the ocean.
We can also view the myth from an alchemical perspective. The alchemists, in their quest for gold (understood as the highest unity of body, mind and spirit and the actualization of the Self) considered the world to be governed by a myriad of paired forces (opposites). They perceived the Soul to be an organ of the Spirit and the Body an instrument of the Soul. Their goal was self-knowledge and they sought to harmonize and balance the opposing forces first within themselves and then to project that inner order on the outside world. The child of Eros and Psyche is the fruit of such a union, it symbolizes the loving centre of our being. To me, Psyche is heroic but not in a traditional, patriarchal sense. She completely redefines the heroic. As Eric Neumann wrote in Eros and Psyche: “She can stand up to the disintegrating power of the archetypes and confront them on an equal footing. Yet all this does not occur in a Promethean-masculine opposition to the divine, but in a divine, erotic seizure of love.”
Paul Baudry, Cupid and Psyche
Elizabeth Eowyn Nelson, Psyche’s Knife: Archetypal Exploration of Love and Power
Erich Neumann, Amor and Psyche