Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 2 Chapter 1 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 2, Chapter 1 : Cupid and Psyche | Summary

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Summary

Venus (Aphrodite) becomes jealous of a young princess named Psyche (which means soul), whose beauty and sweetness becomes renowned around the world. She sends Cupid to strike Psyche with one of his arrows and make Psyche fall in love with an ugly man, but Cupid falls in love with Psyche himself. For a long while after, men continue to marvel at Psyche's beauty, but no one marries her. Her sisters marry, and her father consults Apollo's oracle to find what is to be done about his daughter. The oracle tells the king that Psyche is destined to marry a serpent, and she is to be left alone on a hillside to meet her groom who will likely kill her. Psyche welcomes death as an alternative to the shame of being unwanted.

When she is left on the hillside, the West Wind, Zephyr, bears her away to a great mansion staffed by friendly but unseen servants who tend to her every need. At night, her husband finally comes to her, and she can tell he is not a serpent. Still, she is not allowed to see him. She is happy with him but also lonely, so she convinces him to let her see her sisters when they come nearby. The sisters are jealous of her great fortune and devise a plan to ruin her. They convince her husband is, indeed, a serpent in disguise, and urge her to kill him. She does not carry through with the murder, but she does use a lamp to view her husband's face as he sleeps and is so overcome with his beauty that she drips hot oil on his shoulder. She realizes too late that her husband is Cupid, as he flees the mansion, telling her, "Love cannot live where there is no trust."

Psyche wanders the earth seeking her husband, who has returned to his mother to have his wound tended. Eventually, Psyche comes to Venus's temple as well, and enters the service of the goddess, hoping to catch up with Cupid. Venus assigns Psyche a series of impossible tasks, such as separating seeds and fetching water from the source of the River Styx. The forces of nature assist Psyche, and she successfully completes these tasks. When Venus sends Psyche to the underworld to fetch a box of beauty from Proserpine, Psyche peeks inside the box before she returns and is rendered unconscious. By this time, Cupid has recovered and is looking for his wife. He finds her and revives her, then takes his case to Jupiter (Zeus) who allows the couple to be officially wed and makes Psyche immortal. Venus no longer objects to the match because Psyche is now a goddess and her presence in Olympus no longer distracts Venus's worshippers on earth. Thus, Love and the Soul are united forever.

Analysis

Edith Hamilton takes this story from the Latin writer Apuleius, so the account uses the Roman names for Aphrodite and Eros, Venus and Cupid, respectively, which is notable because the Roman names for gods may be more immediately recognizable to casual readers. Other elements of this story may be even more familiar to casual readers, as the plot elements and motifs have made their way into later folk and fairy tales. For example, a casual reader may recognize that the plot of "Beauty and the Beast" borrows several very specific elements from Psyche's experience in her husband's mysterious mansion—such as the faceless servants and the central mystery of the proprietor's identity—making this myth one example of many classical myths that heavily influence later texts in Western culture. Certainly, this story presents a pattern for romantic love popularized in Western culture. The central couple must surpass many seemingly insurmountable obstacles to live "happily ever after."

Venus's role in this story reveals how jealous and petty the gods can be. As a goddess, it seems unthinkable she might feel threatened by any mortal, but this and other myths demonstrate how much of life is a competition between gods and humans. Furthermore, mortals are largely unaware such competitions are taking place. Psyche does nothing to incur Venus's wrath except to be born a beautiful and pleasant woman. In other myths, gods punish mortals for boasting and comparing themselves to the gods, but Psyche does not boast. Her mere existence is a sufficient offense for Venus, which shows how the gods' system of punishment and reward is rooted in self-interest more than justice or fairness.

In this story, beauty carries moral value. Venus plans to have her son make Psyche fall in love with an ugly man as punishment for Psyche's beauty. Psyche is driven essentially to thoughts of suicide by the humiliation of seeing her less attractive sisters marry before her. Once Psyche is living in Cupid's mansion, her suspicions and fears peak when her sisters suggest her husband is monstrous in appearance (and these sisters are driven to their evil plot against Psyche by their own jealousy of her beauty). Psyche does not really believe her husband is a monster that might kill her, but the possibility that he is ugly makes her want to see his face, even though he has treated her with consistent kindness. Her love for him only becomes a certainly for her once she is able to see his face. Venus demonstrates with the series of impossible tasks she assigns Psyche that too much beauty is a moral failing worthy of punishment, but Venus reveals her own moral failing by making this assignment. That the forces of nature itself come to Psyche's aid reinforces the more prominent message that those who are beautiful are unconditionally deserving of love and happiness.

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