A certain King in Greece had three daughters. The eldest two, who were good-looking girls, were well and richly married, but the youngest, whose name was Psyche, was more beautiful than men had ever dreamed of. Hundreds came daily to her father’s palace simply to behold her, while far and wide the rumor ran that she was the golden-haired goddess Aphrodite herself, the queen of beauty appearing to mankind on earth. Indeed, so dazzling was Psyche’s beauty that men came not to Woo her but to worship her. No one asked for her hand in marriage, but the palace steps and courtyards were piled high with offerings of fruit, flowers, cattle, gold ornaments, and precious embroidery. Meanwhile, the temples of Aphrodite, once thronged, were dead and empty, since men preferred to pray and sacrifice to the living Psyche rather than to the marble images in the temples of the goddess.
Now Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, was the most temperamental of all the gods. Thus when she saw that her worship was neglected, she was furiously jealous of the innocent Psyche and begged her son to take a terrible revenge. Eros, whom we know better as Cupid, was a tall young man with fair, smooth cheeks and golden hair, rosy-winged, and armed with a golden bow. He was the god of love, and his arrows were arrows of desire. Aphrodite bade him take his bow, choose out some loathsome monster, and strike the heart of Psyche that she might fall in love with it and bring herself into dreadful misfortune.
Meantime, the king, Psyche’s father, was frightened by the notice that his daughter was getting. He well knew how easy it was to arouse the jealousy of the immortals, and he would gladly have married off his daughter to some prince of a distant land. There he hoped the people would regard her as a queen, not as a goddess. Since, however, no man had dared to ask for Psyche as a wife, he was hard put to it to find a way out of the difficulty. At last he decided to send a message to the oracle to ask Apollo who it was that Psyche should have for a husband, but when he received the answer of the oracle, he was bitterly sorry that he had asked. The riddling rhyme of the oracle hinted at a strange beast, a winged monster – maybe a dragon or a serpent, the wise men thought. Furthermore, it demanded that Psyche be led immediately outside the city up to the top of a great, towering rock, and there left to meet her fate. Fond as he was of his daughter, the king dared not disobey the oracle’s direct command. It was the custom in those days to take the bride to her husband’s house with a great procession. Therefore the king made all ready as though for a bride, but the pinewood torches were black and smoking, the pipes played a dirge, not a wedding dance, and instead of acrobats and dancers, mourners, clad in black, led the procession. With weeping and lamentation they brought Psyche to the rock and left her to endure what might befall.
Psyche was caught up by a gentle wind and carried away to a very pleasant valley where she was set gently down in a fowering meadow. Before her was a shady grove and a bubbling stream, while by the stream she saw a marvelous house. It was built of ivory inlaid with silver, and the pillars were of gold. When she came nearer, she saw the entrance was paved with glowing pictures made out of various bright stones. As she went wondering through the open doors and caught a glimpse of the treasures within, a soft voice spoke to her out of the air, saying, “Fair Psyche, all this wealth is at your command. We whose voices you hear are your servants. We will prepare for you a bath, lay out fresh garments, and serve you with whatever food you wish.”
This they did, and as Psyche ate, the invisible spirits played soft music and sang to her, while all around she heard sounds as though she were sitting at a banquet with a multi- tude of people.
At night, Psyche took one of the little oil lamps whose unprotected flame burned clear and steady in the stillness o£ the air and went to bed. Then when all was dark someone came to her room who kissed her, and made love to her, and called himself her husband. They talked together in the darkness until they fell asleep, but when Psyche awoke in the morning, her husband was gone without her having seen his face.
Things went on in this way for some while. All day long Psyche lived by herself in the ivory palace surrounded by invisible servants who hastened to fulfill every desire. Every night when the lamp was out, her husband came to her room and stayed with her. Before light came, he vanished, and always he impressed upon her that she must not try to find out who he was lest terrible misfortune follow. Psyche was content at first, for she loved her husband, but during the long hours of the day when she was alone, she thought often of her parents and her sisters and of the great distress they must be feeling upon her account. Finally she could bear it no longer and asked her husband for news of them.
“Your sisters have gone up to the rock from which I took you,” he replied, “and there they are mourning as though you were dead.”
When Psyche heard this, she implored her husband to let her sisters visit her that she might show them she was well and happy and give them messages for her parents. He was very unwilling to grant this at first, for he feared that the sisters would question Psyche too closely as to what sort of person he was. However, Psyche begged him, saying that she was very unhappy; so at last he gave in.
The next morning when her sisters came to the rock and searched all around it weeping and calling, Psyche heard and answered them, commanding the wind to lift them up and set them down in the valley where she now was. Then she came out and fell on their necks with great rejoicing· After a while, when she had kissed and comforted them, she led them into her house. She showed them all the beauty of it with its treasures of gold and silver, her rich garments, and her invisible servants who offered them refreshment and played and sang to them while they ate. As for her husband, she pretended he was away for a while, inventing quickly something to satisfy her sisters. But when she saw that they were becoming too curious, she said their visit must end this time and, loading them with gifts and many messages, she sent them back as they had come.
The sisters went on their way with gold and precious jewels, but as they came down from the rock where the wind had left them, they began to talk with envy of Psyche’s luck. “It is not fair,” said the eldest, ”that our youngest sister, who set herself up to be a goddess and caused our parents all this sorrow, should now be so fortunate.”‘
“No indeed,”‘ answered the other. “We two have worshiped the gods and done our duty. Yet we have been married off into distant countries, you to a man almost as old as our father, and I to one who has the gout and is always ailing. Psyche was always the favorite. Now if we tell what we have seen, she will be more beloved than ever. Let us hide the gifts she gave us and pretend we could not find her. What cares she for us and her parents?” Accordingly the two wicked sisters hid Psyche’s presents and said nothing of having seen her, leaving their parents to mourn their lost daughter and to make much of the two that were left.
In the meantime Psyche, suspecting nothing, had only pleasant memories of her sisters. For some time she was happy, but presently she grew lonely again and asked her husband if she might see them once more. He gave consent to this unwillingly, for he was suspicious of them, but since Psyche’s heart was set on it, he could not deny her. This time the sisters were full of fattery, and the visit went off well until they began to question her curiously about her hus-band. At this Psyche became confused, trying to put them off with vague answers, for she had forgotten exactly what she had said before. The two persisted when they saw her at a loss and began to notice that her account of her husband did not agree at all with her former one. As they went home that day they put their heads together and hit on the truth, namely that Psyche had never seen her husband and actually did not know what he was like. Here they saw their opportunity to make trouble, and when they visited Psyche for the third time, they forced her to admit that this was indeed the case.
“Alas, my poor Psyche,” said the elder sister, “can it really be that you do not know your dreadful fate and why your husband has forbidden you to see him? He is a great serpent whom hunters have often watched swim across the river to this place. Did not the oracle of Apollo warn you that you would marry a fearful monster? To be sure, he is kind to you now, but presently he will grow tired. One night when he comes to your chamber, he will seize upon you, and you will die horribly in his jaws.” With that she and her sister wept so convincingly that Psyche was almost terrified out of her wits.
“What shall I do,” she stammered fearfully, ito save myself from this?”
“Take a knife with you to bed,” said the elder sister, “and hide it till your husband is asleep. Then get up quietly and fetch the lamp that you always carry to your bedroom. By the light of this you will see the monster and may cut off his head.”
In fear and trembling Psyche promised to follow her sisters’ advice, So that now these two departed happily, sure that they had caused trouble. Either Psyche’s husband was indeed a monster, or if he were not, at least he would be angry with her for having disobeyed him.
In the middle of the night Psyche rose very gently, feeling for her knife, and stole barefoot across the room to fetch the lamp. At every movement from the bed she held her breath, but soon the flickering little flame was alight. Slowly, foot by foot she crept back, holding the lamp high and peering at the form that lay turned away from her on the bed. Finally she stood right over him and saw all clearly. It was Cupid, the god of love himself. It was he, and she could not be mistaken. He lay there, long dark lashes closed and golden curls all rumpled, one hand beneath his cheek. On his shoulders rested white wings, each feather tipped with rose, while at the foot of the bed his golden bow and arrows glittered strangely as the lamp wavered in her trembling hand. Psyche gave a great start of fear and joy, and with that a drop of burning oil fell from her lamp onto the right shoulder of the god. At this he started up with a cry and seeing Psyche, with the lamp still raised in her left hand and the forgotten knife in her right, he cried, “Oh faithless wife, would you spy out my secret against my express command? I will take vengeance on your sisters for this, and as for you, since you cannot be true to me, I will come no more.” With that he spread his wings and fled away.
The unfortunate Psyche dropped the knife and the lamp by the bedside where she stood, and ran through the house and down to the river after her husband, calling out to him as she went. When he sped on over the river without even once looking back, she threw herself in, desperate to follow him or die. She might have drowned but that the river pitied her and carrying her far downstream, cast her up gently on a grassy bank. From there she wandered far and wide seeking Cupid, till at last in desperation she came into Aphrodite’s temple, thinking that from Cupid’s mother, even though her enemy, she might gain news.
For a long time after Aphrodite had told her son to punish Psyche, she suspected nothing, but finally the white sea gull, which is Aphrodite’s favorite bird, sped to her with news of what had been going on. Aphrodite was filled with fury against Psyche and her son. She had already forbidden Cupid to see his wife again. Now she determined to take revenge. She therefore had the girl brought before her and spoke mockingly to her, abusing her for having dared as a mortal to marry with a god. Since she had laid claim to godhead in this fashion, let her show that she could do as gods do. With that Aphrodite had her servants bring in sacks of different grain, barley, poppy seed, beans, peas, lentils, and many others. These she poured out on the stone foor of the temple, all mingled together. Then she bade Psyche sort them out. “Since you are a goddess, you can finish it by nightfall,” said she. With that she swept away, threatening fearful torments if the task were not performed, while poor Psyche sat on the cold foor, gazing with despair on the mountainous heap.
Though Cupid was angry with Psyche, he had not forgotten her. He dared not openly disobey his mother, but presently Psyche found herself idly watching a small black ant who was dragging away a grain of poppy seed. Then she saw another with a grain of barley, and presently two more struggling with a pea. In a few minutes the whole heap was alive with ants who were picking up the grains and carrying them one by one to separate heaps. Almost it seemed as though the grains were moving of themselves. By the last rays of the sun she saw the whole was sorted, and she wept tears of joy because she had escaped the anger of the goddess and because she saw that Cupid had protected her. The last rays shone too on the white feet of the golden goddess, who had come to see what had happened. At the sight she was angry indeed, for she knew it was the work of Cupid. Nevertheless she had no excuse to punish Psyche and merely threat- ened her with another task on the next day.
Next morning Aphrodite bade Psyche look across the river at some great, shining sheep that were grazing on a green meadow. The goddess demanded some of their golden wool, but Psyche went down to the river side to throw herself in and end her sorrows rather than to find a crossing place. As she came near, the wind in the reeds made murmuring music, and when she bent over the edge, she could hear what it was saying.
“Psyche, beware of the terrible sheep, for they are savage as the wild boar in the woods. Wait till the midday sun shines down on their golden feece and makes them hot and heavy. Then they will come galloping down to the river bank, tearing through the brambles and thickets in their eagerness to drink. But when they have drunk and refreshed themselves, they will go back to their meadow. Then you may cross the river and gather from the brambles the wool that they have left there. Thus you may save your life and satisfy the goddess.”
When she heard this, Psyche grew glad again, since she knew that Cupid was caring for her. She did exactly as the wind said and came home at evening to Aphrodite with an armful of the wool. When the goddess saw Psyche thus again successful, she few into a passion and determined once and a for all to get rid of the girl. This time she handed her bottle and said, “Fill this bottle for me with the water of the Styx. There it lies.” Pointing out a dreadful dark chasm in a mountain side, she left Psyche once more to her fate.
The Styx was a black and deadly river that fowed through the underworld as a boundary to the home of the dead. So terrible were its waters that even the spirits could not cross through its stream but had to pay Charon, the ghostly ferry. man, to carry them over. But Charon would not carry the unburied dead. These wandered up and down the grey mud of the river banks, always seeking to cross, but never daring to enter the waters, and the high, thin sound of their wailing echoed across the Stream.
When Psyche entered the black gorge where the dreadful river flowed down into the earth, the great reptiles who live on the mud banks raised their scaly snouts and opened their dull eyes to blink at her. She was terribly afraid and stood as though turned to stone, unable, like the dead, to approach the stream. Straightway an eagle, the royal messenger of Zeus, snatched the bottle from her hand, flew far out over the monsters, and filled it with the water. Once more Psyche went successful into the presence of Aphrodite.
This time Aphrodite was astonished, but she merely held out to Psyche a little box, saying, “Take this box down to Hades and ask the queen of the underworld to fill it with a little of her beauty. If the Styx does not frighten you, surely you can cross into the land of the dead.”
Men had gone down into the land of Hades and returned again, but only a very few, and these were heroes of mighty strength or under the protection of the gods. Psyche understood that the goddess sought her death, and in fact she knew no other way than death to reach the underworld at all. Despairing then of any solution, she made her way slowly up a great tower, thinking to throw herself down from it and die. Once again, however, Cupid cared for her, and as she looked down on the green woods and valleys for the last time, a voice spoke to her out of the air saying, “Do not lose heart now, Psyche, for your trials are almost at an end. Go down to the hill of Tenaros, where yawns the mouth of a still, dark cave. Take with you two small copper coins in your mouth to give to Charon, one for the passage over the Styx and another to return. In each hand take a piece of bread scattered with barley meal and dipped in honey to throw to the great dog Cerberus who guards Hades’ gate. Let nobody by the wayside tempt you to help him, lest you drop one of these. In order to deceive you, Aphrodite will cause shadowy figures to sit by the wayside begging aid, but pass them all by till you come to the house of Hades and do your errand. When Hades receives you there and would entertain you well, accept nothing that is offered but dry, brown bread. Do not sit in his chairs or join in his feasting, for if you do, you will never return. Only sit on the ground in front of him until the queen has filled your box. Take the box and return immediately, but be sure you do not open it as you come.”
Psyche thanked the voice and did as it said. While she felt her way down the grey and ghostly cavern, not daring to put out her hands lest she drop the bread she carried, an old man driving a donkey with a load of sticks came to meet her up the path. As he turned aside to give her room, the donkey slipped, and all the sticks fell scattering and bouncing down the rocks. The poor old man wrung his hands and hobbled about, trying to gather them up and repack the donkey’s load. But he was lame and stiff so that he could not clamber, and he prayed Psyche to help him. Then she remembered the words of the voice and would not, but went on, though the old man called piteously after her down the long, dark road.
At last she came to the grey mud of the Styx and the crowds of ghostly figures that eddied around its bank. These fed aside as she approached them, shrieking on a high, shrill note, and she passed through the lane they made for her to the water’s edge. Charon, the ferryman, was old and bent and ragged, and he stood upright in his ancient barge, lean- ing on a pole. His straggling locks and beard and the clothes he wore were grey as the river mud; only his eyes were red. He took the copper coin from Psyche’s lips into one skinny hand and without a word began to pole his boat slowly into the middle of the stream. As they came out from the bank, Psyche heard a dreadful cry from the black water and saw an old man trying desperately to swim across and holding up his hands in agony towards the barge. Forgetting what she held, she stretched out her hand to him, then seeing the bread in it, she withdrew it just in time. The old man gave a final cry and sank, but the barge moved on.
The dark, gleaming gates of Hades towered on the other side. Psyche cast a shuddering glance at the three-headed dog that growled before it, and threw him a piece of bread. He snapped at it angrily, snarling as he devoured it, but he made no move when Psyche slipped quickly past. Thus she came into the shadowy house and did all that the voice had commanded her, refusing food and entertainment, and asking only for the box filled with the beauty of Hades’ queen. When she came out past Cerberus, she gave Charon the other coin, and then heard the sounds of wailing die down behind her as she clambered up the steep and rocky road. At last she stepped out of the mouth of the cavern into the brilliant sun and sat to rest in thankfulness for her escape. Here het eyes fell on the box of divine beauty that she carried in her hand and she grudged Aphrodite its possession, saying to herself, “If I take a little of this beauty, will not Cupid find me fairer to look upon” At this thought she opened the box and bent over it, but could see nothing therein. Only an oppressive and deadly scent came fowing out, until presently she felt her senses reeling and fell to the ground, stretched out in a death-like sleep.
There she might have slept for ever, overcome by the beauty of the gods, had not Cupid been searching for her. He had been to the throne of Zeus and won consent to his marriage with Psyche. At last, therefore, he came to take her up to Olympus as his bride. He roused Psyche and took away the deadly spell, restoring it to the box whence it had escaped. Then leading her by the hand, he brought her up to Olympus, where the gods received her royally. Zeus came out to meet her and presented her to Aphrodite, commanding the goddess to be reconciled. He handed to Psyche a golden cup. As she drank, the nectar of the gods coursed through her veins so that she was changed into an immortal. Finally in the palace of Olympus, Cupid and Psyche held their wedding feast. The Graces decked the hall with roses; the Muses lifted their lovely voices in a marriage song; Apollo played for their pleasure on his golden lyre; and to crown all in honor of the marriage, lovely, white-footed Aphrodite danced.