The Beauty/Soul Connection
The myth of Psyche (the word “psyche” means “soul” in Greek), Cupid, her invisible lover (Eros in Greek), and Cupid’s mother, the goddess of beauty and love, Venus (Aphrodite in Greek), illustrates how deeply Beauty, Soul, and Love are interrelated. This relationship can show up in a modern context of the spa experience. The many spa treatments readily available might be presumed to be merely pampering and possibly even decadent. However, if approached in the right frame of mind, they have the potential to touch us deeply and nurture the soul.
The story of “The Invisible Lover” is a chapter from the greater work of The Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass)
by a Roman, Lucius Apuleius, who is credited with recording it in the second century CE. However, there is no doubt that a tradition transmitted by Plato from six centuries earlier played an important part in shaping the myth. Although Apuleius uses the Roman names for the deities, in this commentary, I will refer to their Greek names.
The primary character of this story is a stunningly beautiful young daughter of a king, Psyche. Her beauty is so extraordinary that people neglect the temples of the Aphrodite and worship the mortal, Psyche. This enrages the divine Aphrodite who sends her son, Eros to mete out her punishment. Aphrodite commands Eros to cause Psyche to be consumed with passion for the vilest of men; a man who is destined to have neither health, nor wealth, nor honor; one whose misery has no equal. On his way to fulfill this command, Eros is pricked by his own arrow so that he, himself, falls in love with Psyche. This curious triangle of characters sets up a potent story of metamorphosis.
It is not uncommon for the experience of beauty to touch us deeply. These encounters have a tendency to lead us more deeply into soul. There is some quintessential relationship between soul and beauty. In The Metamorphosis (The Golden Ass) by Apuleius, this relationship is personified through the beautiful and mortal, Psyche and the great goddess, Aphrodite.
Aphrodite presides over three primary domains. She is the goddess of love, desire, and beauty. Her dominion over beauty relates directly to the conflict in the tale. This connection between the realm of Aphrodite and her future daughter-in-law, Psyche, exemplifies the relation between beauty and soul.
Beauty is a universal concept; its representation is not.
The representation and personal experience of beauty tends to emerge from a cultural context, historical moment, personal genius and possibly innate predispositions. Various forms and media have been used to represent beauty, yet a precise definition seems to be elusive. Nevertheless, when beauty touches us, the experience is profound and recognizable.
The ingredients in the recipe which describes this experience may include awe, a generous dollop of aesthetic arrest and a pleasant sprinkling of delight. Due to the archetypal nature of beauty, psychic energy may be released when beauty is confronted which may be experienced as sublime.
This essay focuses on beauty’s relationship to soul using a general notion of beauty and Aphrodite as its representation. What does this particular story have to tell us about the nature of the relation between Beauty and Soul?
In the story, the reader meets an enraged Aphrodite. Aphrodite is a major deity in the pantheon with significant power and influence over mortals as well as divine beings. She is also a jealous and vengeful goddess.
The Greek word “Psyche” translates to the English word “soul.” In Greek art, Psyche was frequently depicted as a moth or butterfly. Psyche in this story is worshipped as if she is Aphrodite. There is a natural beauty of the soul. The beauty of Psyche is so striking that people turn to her in worship and in so doing turn away from Aphrodite, the true goddess of beauty. Through this adoration and veneration Psyche did not have her own identity. She was not seen as herself. Nonetheless, it is through the beauty of soul, the extraordinary beauty of Psyche, that the goddess of beauty takes an interest in her. Aphrodite commands her son, Eros, to aim his arrows so that Psyche would love a base and unfortunate man.
However, quite the opposite is what actually happens. Eros himself is pricked by his own arrow and falls in love with Psyche. Out of fear of his mother’s wrath, Eros hides Psyche in a remote area and remains unseen, coming to Psyche only in the cover of night. Psyche is naïve and unquestioning as she lives in a paradise tended by disembodied voices, without care or strife and yet forbidden to look upon her husband.
Although Psyche’s sisters are presented as jealous and mean, it is through their prompting that ultimately sends Psyche on her path. Believing her sisters’ lies that her husband is a monster with a monstrous snake body, she prepares to illuminate this monstrosity as he sleeps and slay him.
In the process of shedding light on him while he is sleeping, she is pricked by the arrow of love and falls in love with Eros. Eros, realizing that Psyche has seen and recognized him, punishes Psyche by abandoning her.
Psyche realizes what fate has befallen her. After a failed attempt at suicide, she destroys the voices that brought her to the disunion with her love. In what appears as acts of vengeance, Psyche sends the voices to their doom.
Don’t we all have voices in our lives we would like to still as effectively as Psyche quiets those of poor council? All of this drama leads eventually to Psyche supplicating herself at the feet of the great goddess Aphrodite. What appears as a circuitous route nevertheless leads Psyche to the house of Aphrodite.
If this myth is a reasonable representation of the relation of soul to beauty, then it can be said that the natural beauty of soul is not an unqualified boon. It is because of this natural beauty that Psyche is introduced to her future husband. So that is a good thing. It is also because of this natural beauty that she finds herself at the receiving end of the wrath of the great goddess, Aphrodite, which is a bad thing. Up to this point in the story, Psyche, or soul, is immature, naïve, or both. There does not appear to be any recognition of the importance of Beauty.
Since Psyche is worshipped as the new “Earth-born” Aphrodite, Psyche, has no identity of her own. However, there is no indication that Psyche attempts to evade the situation of being worshipped as a goddess. At whose temple does Psyche worship?
Later in the story Psyche approaches the place of worship of Demeter and Hera asking for protection, only to be rebuffed. It is only when she surrenders to her situation that Psyche meets Aphrodite. This is no great reunion. Aphrodite is a viper. Even though Psyche is pregnant with the future grandchild of Aphrodite, she shows Psyche no mercy. After physically and verbally abusing Psyche, Aphrodite sets several impossible task before Psyche.
Up to this point in the myth, Love, Beauty, and Soul appear to have a disharmonious connection. Both Psyche and Eros are living a lie. Aphrodite is out of countenance and viciously jealous.
Every archetype has a shadow side. This myth begins with these shadow aspects of these archetypal characters.
How honest is love that is hidden in the dark and lives in fear?
How mature is a soul who naively questions nothing?
How unattractive is beauty that is so venomous and myopic?
In my next post I will continue with the tale by focussing on The Four Tasks Aphrodite assigns Psyche. Until then be alert to the Beauty/Love/Soul connection in your world. Let me know what you see.