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 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