The Story of Psyche and Eros

Dr. C. George Boeree

In Macedonian: Приказната за Психата и Еросот (translated by Katerina Nestiv)
In Chinese: 賽琪和厄洛斯的故事 (translated by Liu Yu)

The so-called psyche or butterfly is generated from caterpillars which grow on green leaves, chiefly leaves of theraphanus, which some call crambe or cabbage. At first it is less than a grain of millet; it then grows into a small grub; and in three days it is a tiny caterpillar. After this it grows on and on, and becomes quiescent and changes its shape, and is now called a chrysalis. The outer shell is hard,and the chrysalis moves if you touch it. It attaches itself by cobweb-like filaments, and is unfurnished with mouth or any other apparent organ. After a little while the outer covering bursts asunder, and out flies the winged creature that we call the psyche or butterfly.  (From Aristotle's History of Animals  551a.1)
Psyche was one of three sisters, princesses in a Grecian kingdom.  All three were beautiful, but Psyche was the most beautiful.  Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, heard about Psyche and her sisters and was jealous of all the attention people paid to Psyche.  So she summoned her son, Eros, and told him to put a spell on Psyche.

Always obedient, Eros flew down to earth with two vials of potions.  Invisible, he sprinkled the sleeping Psyche with a potion that would make men avoid her when it came to marriage.  Accidentally, he pricked her with one of his arrows (which make someone fall in love instantly) and she startled awake.  Her beauty, in turn, startled Eros, and he accidentally pricked himself as well.  Feeling bad about what he had done, he then sprinkled her with the other potion, which would provide her with joy in her life.

Sure enough, Psyche, although still beautiful, could find no husband.  Her parents, afraid that they had offended the gods somehow, asked an oracle to reveal Psyche's future husband.  The oracle said that, while no man would have her, there was a creature on the top of a mountain that would marry her.

Surrendering to the inevitable, she headed for the mountain.  When she came within sight, she was lifted by a gentle wind and carried the rest of the way.  When she arrived, she saw that her new home was in fact a rich and beautiful palace.  Her new husband never permitted her to see him, but he proved to be a true and gentle lover.  He was, of course, Eros himself.

After some time, she grew lonely for her family, and she asked to be allowed to have her sisters for a visit.  When they saw how beautiful Psyche's new home was, they grew jealous.  They went to her and told her not to forget that her husband was some kind of monster, and that, no doubt, he was only fattening her up in order to eat her.  They suggested that she hide a lantern and a knife near her bed, so that the next time he visited her, she could look to see if he was indeed a monster, and cut off his head if it was so.

Her sisters convinced her this was best, so the next time her husband came to visit her, she had a lamp and a knife ready.  When she raised the lamp, she saw that her husband was not a monster but Eros!  Surprised, he ran to the window and flew off.  She jumped out after him, but fell the ground and lay there unconscious.

When she awoke, the palace had disappeared, and she found herself in a field near her old home.  She went to the temple of Aphrodite and prayed for help.  Aphrodite responded by giving her a series of tasks to do -- tasks that Aphrodite believed the girl would not be able to accomplish.

The first was a matter of sorting a huge pile of mixed grains into separate piles.  Psyche looked at the pile and despaired, but Eros secretly arranged for an army of ants to separate the piles.  Aphrodite, returning the following morning, accused Psyche of having had help, as indeed she had.

The next task involved getting a snippet of golden fleece from each one of a special herd of sheep that lived across a nearby river.  The god of the river advised Psyche to wait until the sheep sought shade from the midday sun.  Then they would be sleepy and not attack her.  When Psyche presented Aphrodite with the fleece, the goddess again accused her of having had help.

The third task Aphrodite set before Psyche was to get a cup of water from the river Styx, where it cascades down from an incredible height.  Psyche thought it was all over, until an eagle helped her by carrying the cup up the mountain and returning it full.  Aphrodite was livid, knowing full well that Psyche could never have done this alone!

Psyche's next task was to go into hell to ask Persephone, wife of Hades, for a box of magic makeup.  Thinking that she was doomed, she decided to end it all by jumping off a cliff.  But a voice told her not to, and gave her instructions on making her way to hell to get the box.  But, the voice warned, do not look inside the box under any circumstances!

Well, Psyche received the box from Persephone and made her way back home.  But, true to her nature, she was unable to restrain herself from peeking inside.  To her surprise, there was nothing inside but darkness, which put her into a deep sleep.  Eros could no longer restrain himself either and wakened her.  He told her to bring the box to Aphrodite, and that he would take care of the rest.

Eros went to the heavens and asked Zeus to intervene.  He spoke of his love for Psyche so eloquently that Zeus was moved to grant him his wish.  Eros brought Psyche to Zeus who gave her a cup of ambrosia, the drink of immortality.  Zeus then joined Psyche and Eros in eternal marriage.  They later had a daughter, who would be named Pleasure.

The Greek name for a butterfly is Psyche, and the same word means the soul. There is no illustration of the immortality of the soul so striking and beautiful as the butterfly, bursting on brilliant wings from the tomb in which it has lain, after a dull, grovelling, caterpillar existence, to flutter in the blaze of day and feed on the most fragrant and delicate productions of the spring. Psyche, then, is the human soul, which is purified by sufferings and misfortunes, and is thus prepared for the enjoyment of true and pure happiness.  (From Bulfinch's Mythology:  The Age of Fable,  chapter XI)

© Copyright 1999, C. George Boeree.  All rights reserved.

Image:  The Abduction of Psyche, by William Adolphe Bourguereau (1825 - 1905).