Psyche, Eros, and Aphrodite: The Beauty/Soul Connection – Part III

In Part II of this series (Psyche, Eros, and Aphrodite Part II), I explored three of the four tasks demanded of Psyche by her future mother-in-law, Aphrodite, from the story of “The Invisible Lover” which is a chapter in the greater work of The Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass).

Here, I continue my reflections on this myth with the fourth and final task.

Psyche’s success at accomplishing the previous three (seemingly impossible) tasks set before her does nothing to satisfy Aphrodite. Instead Psyche’s accomplishments tend to whip the frenzy of Aphrodite’s wrath into higher intensity.

In the fourth task Aphrodite sends Psyche to the depths of hell to gather a small bit of the beauty of Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, and deliver it to Aphrodite “with all speed.” Many descend to the Underworld, few return.  This fourth task appears to be beyond impossible.

As with the first three tasks, in this fourth task Psyche receives outside guidance.  However, this time it comes from an unusual source: a tower. Previously Psyche’s helpers have been from nature (ants, a water reed, and an eagle). The tower is a manmade object. It tells her how to get to the Underworld.  The Dead find this easy.  For the living, the descent is a demanding task all by itself.  And, of course, the return is rare indeed.  However, by heeding the tower’s advice, Psyche successfully descends and returns to the human realm of the living with the desired potion safely sealed and with a strong edict not to open it.

All the tasks Aphrodite cruelly demanded Psyche was able to accomplish as directed, much to Aphrodite’s chagrin. Now, with this final task, Psyche disobeys the powerful goddess of beauty. She does not deliver Persephone’s beauty cream. Psyche, overwrought that she lacks the divine beauty that the person she loves, Eros, would desire, she does the forbidden; she breaks the seal of the container holding the beauty from Persephone, that even the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, holds in high esteem.

When the seal is broken, instead of divine beauty, a thick cloud of slumber pours over Psyche and she collapses as if a sleeping corpse. If the story were to end here, we might say that Psyche overstepped her bounds and brought about her own demise. How often it seems we struggle and when we are close to success we give up or give in. The soul’s journey is fraught with obstacles. In this particular myth, these obstacles are set by divine beauty in the path of mortal beauty. And if this is where the story ended, it would seem the soul is not up to what is required of it.

Significantly, this is not the end of the story. Her beloved, Love himself, comes to her aid. He takes the sleep off Psyche and returns it to its container. Psyche continues her return to Aphrodite with the beauty from Persephone as originally required.

In the meantime, Eros marches to Mt. Olympus and pleads to his father god, Zeus. Zeus is swayed and admits Psyche to the halls of the Olympian gods.  Psyche is made immortal making her an acceptable wife in Aphrodite’s eyes for her son, Eros, and accepts her as a legitimate daughter-in-law.

If you recall, during all these trials and tribulations, Psyche was pregnant.  The child’s name that came of the union between Love and Soul (Eros and Psyche) is Pleasure.

This is a sophisticated myth and there are many interpretations of it.  I find it meaningful that it brings together Soul, Beauty, and Love in close familial ties. Aphrodite is not the the beauty of wilderness; that is the realm of Artemis. Aphrodite’s realm is the realm of culture.  Aphrodite is present when we make everyday life more beautiful and more ‘civilized.’  The art of Aphrodite often celebrates the beauty of life and reflects the divine in daily aspect.

This story is a story of Soul’s awakening.  Psyche enters the story as a beautiful but naive shallow untried girl who lacks the ability to discern. Psyche’s tasks represent the transformation of beauty of the natural soul into the beauty of a loving conscious soul.  The soul of mortals may innately be beautiful, but this tale reminds us that beauty is not enough. The soul’s awakening is a process in beauty. Beauty without soul is Apollonic aesthetics (line, form, frame, etc). Soul without Beauty is immature and incomplete. The trials that Aphrodite caused Psyche to undergo transforms the ignorant and naïve girl into a woman who was aware of what love costs and who knows at last the true face of her husband. If you reflect on your own life, undoubtedly you will find examples where your personal growth was comprised of these three elements (soul, love and beauty) making demands that formed and tempered you into a mature balanced whole.

Psyche’s story show us the birth of a new self, forged out of her pain and her growing capacity to disobey. She disobeys mortal and divine laws primarily due to her expanding commitment to love.

An often required component in fairy tales is an injunction not to do something.  If the protagonist is to succeed in many wonder tales, this injunction must be broken.  Here, too, in this myth, disobeying is precisely what leads to attainment of the desired outcome.  I am not suggesting that you go out and find a law to break.  Rather, think about that voice in your head that tells you “It must be done this way” or “Don’t do that”.  What is the origin of that voice?  Is it a parent?; a minister?; a coach?; etc.  Reflect on the relevance of that injunction in your current adult life.  Is it time for you to nurture a “growing capacity to disobey” those injunctions of childhood that are no longer relevant?

For much of this story, Psyche and Aphrodite are prominent and Eros is off stage.  Soul and Beauty are front and center.  One way to view this narrative is as a depiction of the connection soul and beauty have in the growing, maturing, and creative process. The path of balancing this connection of Beauty and Soul is arduous. It requires a commitment to love, a stout heart, and perseverance. The reward is the experience of the divine.

Where in your life are you exposed to beauty in art?; beauty in nature?; beauty in personal care?These are pathways to nurture, soothe or enliven the soul. Next time you are aware of an experience of beauty such as a sunset, fragrance, spa treatment, etc., try to envision it as an opportunity for soul to take flight. (Psyche in art was often depicted as a butterfly or moth.)  Listen to music and dance; abandon yourself to color at a paint store, touch every bolt of cloth at a fabric store. Immerse yourself in an experience of beauty and watch soul’s reaction.

 

If you are interested in pursuing this myth further, try these sources:
Amor and Psyche by Erich Neumann

The Myth of Analysis by James Hillman

The Golden Ass of Apuleius by Marie-Louise von Franz

The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis, and Hestia by Ginette Paris

“The beauty which brings desire is closer to a ‘state of grace’ and is composed more of audacity and charm than by conformity with an external norm.” – Ginette Paris

Psyche, Eros, and Aphrodite: The Beauty/Soul Connection Part I

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.

STORY OVERVIEW

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.

THE COMMENTARY

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.

Numinous and the numinosum

Recently I was asked to explain the word “numinous”.  So, here goes:

The word “numinous” was coined by Rudolf Otto from the Latin numen, meaning a god, cognate with the verb nuere, to nod or beckon, indicating divine approval.  This word, or its noun, the “numinosum,” refers to any phenomenon experienced as a manifestation of tremendous power felt to be objective and outside the self.  It is a crucial element of religious experience.  For Otto, the numinosum is non-rational and irreducible; it cannot be defined, only evoked and experienced.

According to Lionel Corbett, the numinous grips or stirs the soul.  The numinous produces a kind of holy terror, awe or dread which Otto describes as a feeling of the ‘mysterium tremendum.’ It can also erupt in the modern person as the experience of the uncanny or the supernatural.  Such awe may be overwhelming or it may be gentle as the still small voice.  The uncanny is not a function of intensity but rather of a specific quality. [see The Religious Function of the Psyche by Lionel Corbett for a detailed discussion on this.]

I experience the redwoods of northern California as a portal into the numinous.  The magnificence of these sentinels  “stirs my soul.”  I stand in awe of their grandeur.  There is something “uncanny” about them.  For me, these expressions of nature, I experience as supernatural.  There is something larger at work here; something that cannot be defined; only experienced.

According to Richard Tarnas in Cosmos and Psyche the numinous is also defined as something that suddenly confronts human awareness with an unexpected dimension of reality, something that is experienced as “Wholly Other” than the mundane sphere, that utterly transcends and subverts the everyday world of conventional experience, and that disrupts the very ground of one’s being as it was previously construed.  Jung’s notion of synchronicity can be recognized as the inexplicable coincidence that carries a numinous charge.

For me, myths are not necessarily numinous in and of themselves; just as the menu is not the meal, the map is not the landscape, and the road sign is not the way, etc.  What myths do is to alert us to the possibility of the numinous.  They help us recognize when we are in the grips of the mysterium tremendum.  The numinous can be beatific like Dante’s vision of Beatrice.  It can also hold a terror as when a demon visits us in a dream and we awaken breathing heavily in a cold sweat.  And, the numinous can also be experienced gently as the still small voice. Regardless of the form, the soul is deeply stirred.

My attraction to myth is many layered.  One of these layers is simply because myths are great stories.  Also, they typically contain pearls of wisdom.  They are mirrors reflecting the human condition.  And, I could go on.  However, for the purposes of this commentary, let me say that I am attracted to myths because they are metaphors for life that cannot really be explained directly.

Myths are keys opening the door beyond which lies the numinous.

Neo at the Architect's door

Neo at the Architect’s door

I hope this helps clarify the word “numinous.”  I currently do not have a forum, but I would be interested in hearing about your “numinous” experiences.