Our contemporary media is saturated with images and motifs of the “fairytale princess”: the damsel who oftentimes finds herself in distress, or more recently the feminine heroine that muscles their way onto the screen and page. But where did this iconic stereotype come from? Who is responsible for the folktale character we’ve come to love and disparage in equal measure? In large part the mythical character of Psyche, one of our first “princesses”, comes down to us from the 2nd century CE work Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass by Roman writer Apuleius. Born Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis in Numidia (c. 124 CE), he was a Roman Platonic philosopher and author most known for his work The Golden Ass wherein the story of Psyche is found. He was known for an association with the Platonic school of thought, which could have factored into writing the story of Psyche as an allegory.
This article provides an overview of Psyche, the Roman mortal-turned-goddess.. tracing and examining her various depictions from Hadrian’s reign to the Renaissance and Victorian periods, with the addendum of her iconography in 20th/21st century culture
Who is Psyche?
Psyche is the Graeco-Roman mythological wife to Eros/Cupid, the God of Love and the son of Aphrodite. As Cupid/Eros represents the Heart (and thus the physical desires of the Body) Psyche represents the Soul and so the two have been unified in most of their depictions. Though the most recognized version of Psyche can be found in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass where she was described as the daughter of an unnamed royal couple, alternative parentage, including goddess-like status has been attributed to her. Yet many artistic interpretations choose Apuleius’ version wherein the mortal Psyche is given immortality by Jupiter/Jove. The word “psyche” has been widely recognized to mean the inner thought of the human being, the Platonic soul which guides our choices. Psyche’s Roman name is Anima, a word defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary to mean “an individual’s true inner self that in the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung reflects archetypal ideals of conduct… an inner feminine part of the male personality”.
Psyche’s Story: The First Folktale?
Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (Books 4-6) was the first depiction of Psyche as a character in the literary canon, and from this tale the Renaissance and subsequent iterations take their inspiration. This is the first full-length narration of Psyche as she is known to the Romans. Psyche’s tale was situated within the larger story of Lucius’ unfortunate transformation into an ass, and was told to him following an altercation with a band of robbers.
In Apuleius’ narrative, Psyche was the youngest daughter of an unnamed royal couple. She was so unparalleled in beauty that she was worshipped in place of Venus (the Roman version of Aphrodite), an occurrence of hubris which angered the goddess; she commanded her son Cupid to make Psyche be “detained by the most ardent love of the lowest of mankind, whom fortune has deprived of his dignity, patrimony, and safety” (Thomas Taylor, 68). Unable to find a suitor due to Venus’ influence, Psyche’s father asked Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi for answers. As a favour for Cupid, who had seen Psyche and fallen for her, Apollo’s message informed the king that Psyche must be wedded to a monster, for no mortal man was destined to be her husband. After a wedding march up a tall mountain–that much more resembled a funerary procession–Psyche was left cliff-side, to be swept away by the Zephyr wind and carried off to a beautiful palace. There, her servants were invisible and her new husband only arrived at night, in darkness when he could not be seen.
Lonely, Psyche asked for the company of her sisters and after much cajoling, her unknown husband granted her request by eliciting a promise that she not be swayed by any requests to seek his true identity. Upon seeing such a lavish abode, the sisters jealously sowed doubt about her husband being anything but a horrid monster; in the night Psyche looked upon him and was so shocked and awed by the beauty that was the god Cupid, her husband, that her grip on the candle loosened and wax burned him. Cupid fled from her, but Psyche loved him enough to search for him; in her travels she fatally punished her elder sisters, and was denied help by both Ceres and Juno due to Venus’ power over mortal and immortal alike. At last she found Venus’s dwelling who then enslaved her, tasking her with three seemingly impossible deeds, all of which Psyche successfully completed with the help of kind objects and creatures. Psyche’s final task sent her to the Underworld, where she met Proserpina, in order to retrieve a box of the goddess’ beauty. The overwhelming desire to open the box—as Pandora once did—consumed Psyche and, when she did so, succumbed to a deathly sleep.
It is worth noting that Psyche was a pregnant woman during all of these travels, as Apuleius wrote a conversation between Cupid and Psyche where he discussed the mortality of the unborn child forming in his wife’s womb. Considering the difficulties of pregnancy for Graeco-Roman women, this is an incredible feat.
Meanwhile, Cupid healed from his wound and sought out his wife; he rescued her from the vapours of the box and chided her curiosity, which had gotten her into so much trouble. They took the box to Venus, and then flew to Jove’s court where Cupid made his appeal for their marriage. Jove was able to convince Venus to back down, and the two were married in a proper wedding on Mount Olympus, surrounded by the pantheon which Psyche subsequently joined as a new immortal.
Psyche as a Damsel, Psyche as a Heroine
Psyche is the quintessential foundation for the female “heroine” figure of Western lore (I cannot comment on any Near/Far Eastern connections). Roman and Roman note that Beauty and the Beast is the most recognized adaptation of the myth (427-428), but Psyche has embedded herself recognizably in many of our modern fairytale heroines, with various aspects of her journey as a heroine traceable to women like Belle, Cinderella, even Snow White.
With the modern-day definitions and debates of feminism in literature, Psyche holds two positions that echo in today’s fairytales: Beauty and the Beast (“Female Heroine”) vs Snow White (“Damsel in Distress”).
The more helpless aspects of Psyche could be said to connect to Snow White, a culturally recognized “damsel”, while the strength of curiosity and her convictions to rescue her husband are emulated in recent adaptations of Beauty and the Beast; she is two sides of a coin. Psyche being a multifaceted personality is reminiscent of other goddesses like Athena, who in her turn occupied several roles in the Grecian and Roman pantheons–in particular her Maiden and Mother roles. This can serve to cement Psyche as a divine feminine figure with her own paradoxes and complexities.
Bell states that Psyche’s myth is indicative of the two aspects of the woman during Apuleius’ time: the negative gossiper and stubborn mind, but also an affectionate wife unafraid of admitting her mistakes (386-387).
Beauty and The Beast
Both Bell, Roman, and Roman in their respective encyclopedias mention the heavy influence of Psyche’s story on subsequent folktale, and both point out Beauty and the Beast (by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) as being incredibly similar.
In his book Fairytale in the Ancient World, Graham Anderson devotes a chapter analyzing both Cupid and Psyche and Beauty and the Beast. He notes that both derive from an archetypical narrative structure of trespass (Beauty’s father with the rose; Psyche’s beauty against Venus), a monstrous “wedding” and fantastical castle, the revelation of true natures, and subsequent apotheosis or ascendancy (the Beast’s transformation; Psyche’s divinity).
Perhaps there is a relevant connection to the way female heroines are depicted in modern media; accusations of Stockholm Syndrome have in the last half century circled the character of Belle in Beauty and the Beast. The agency of the female in contemporary society would never have been a concern for writers in Apuleius’ time; Psyche’s agency to sate her curiosity lands her into trouble.
Where along the line did that morph into the strong-willed Belle? What qualities does Psyche possess that would hold up to what modern feminists would call a “strong female”? Below is an interview with actress Emma Watson, who plays Belle in the 2017 live-action Disney film, who was asked the question about Stockholm Syndrome.
Is such a discussion as relevant to Psyche’s character as it is today with Belle? It’s certainly a worthy point to make, considering the intention of this class and website as a whole is to raise a discussion around the lives and trials of women in antiquity.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon
East of the Sun and West of the Moon is the Norwegian interpretation of the Beauty and the Beast fable, though if it is directly descended from the Cupid and Psyche tale or simply from other European lore is debatable. This one really emphasizes the “wicked stepmother” motif, with both hero and heroine under coercion. The heroine, like Psyche, brings about her companion’s tragedy by gazing upon him when forbidden not to, and must complete a dangerous and arduous task to set things right again.
A connection can be made between Psyche as the Snow White figure in relation to her Evil Stepmother (aka Venus, the irate mother-in-law), who holds great jealousy of the younger woman’s widely recognized beauty. Because of this, the heroine is punished and finds herself, again, in a remote abode surrounded by inhuman companions. To a lesser extent, the figure of the Hunter sent to kill Snow White could be interpreted as a parallel to Cupid, as both men are swayed by the innocence of the young women and spirit them away. Imagery of the bow and arrow, a weapon common to hunters as well as the iconic God of Love, can further support this.
Psyche also succumbs to the “sleep of death” found in both the Snow White as well as the Sleeping Beauty fairytales; her “prince charming rescuer” arrives in the form of Cupid.
Psyche’s Literary Persona
Three major adaptations/reinterpretations (out of many more) have surfaced in research of Psyche’s character through chronology. As with any folktale, many writers and artists have taken their turn at expressing the tale of Cupid and Psyche, each with interesting takes on the subject. These were the three I found that showcased a more diverse concept of her character.
“Bulfinch’s Mythology: Stories of Gods and Heroes”
Thomas Bulfinch’s translated adaptation is far shorter than Thomas Taylor’s pure translation, though the main plot of the story remains the same. The changes he makes increase the sentimentality of the story; this gives his adaptation a gentle nature, one that heightens the connection between the two lovers.
- Bulfinch gives us a scene where Cupid is so shocked by Psyche that he pricks himself with his own arrow, thereby falling in love with the girl.
- Psyche only visits Ceres; the pious behavior of the young girl prompts the goddess to give her advice on placating Venus.
- Cupid himself helps Psyche with the first task, sorting grain, by cajoling an ant into gathering its brethren and helping.
- Bulfinch also gives a short etymology of the word “psyche”, stating how it means both “soul” and “butterfly”, opining that the tale is an allegory for the transcendence of the human soul through suffering and trial.
“Till We Have Faces: C.S.Lewis”
Written in 1956 as his last great work, the novel takes the unusual (and subsequently imitated) literary deviation of telling Psyche’s story from the perspective of the oldest sister, who is given the name Orual. This alternative exploration of the tale is the result of Lewis attempting to explain the “illogical” actions of the characters; why should the sisters behave with such vitriol? There are clear undertones of Christianity within the work as Lewis was a practicing Christian, and the conversion Orual undergoes in recognizing the error of her accusation of the gods echoes that religious influence.
“However I might have devoured Bardia, I had at least loved Psyche truly. There, if nowhere else, I had the right of it… I had cared for Psyche and taught her and tried to save her and wounded myself for her sake.
We want to be our own. I was my own and Psyche was mine and no one else had any right to her.” (Orual, 285-292)
It also paints the sister in a far more rational and friendly light, whose behavior is motivated out of genuine love and concern. Lewis brings more dimension to the other female characters of this myth, giving them fleshed out motivations as clear as Psyche’s.
“Robert Bridges: Eros and Psyche”
Robert Bridge’s Eros & Psyche (1885) is a narrative poem arising from the late Victorian era; he follows in his adaptation much of the same plot as can be found in The Golden Ass. Bridge’s cantos number 12; he chooses to tell the story of Psyche under the framework of the seasons, with a canto for every month of the year.
For what is Beauty, if it doth not fire
The loving answer of an eager soul?
Since ’tis the native food of man’s desire
(Canto 4, April)
Like Bulfinch, Bridge provides an explanation for Cupid’s love of Psyche; in this case the Fates intervene for Cupid’s mischievous assignment (for both mortal and immortal) of unobtainable love.
Psyche’s Artistic Persona
Mosaic Artwork (2nd-6th centuries CE)
The Hatay Sanal Archaeological Museum holds a variety of diverse mosaics, among which are some of our earliest examples of Psyche in art form. She appears both with [The Mosaic of Eros and Psyche] and without [The Mosaic of Psyche] her husband Cupid. She is shown with butterfly wings, the common symbol of her metamorphic apotheosis from mortal woman to divine goddess.
If interested in a wider variety of mythological and ordinary feminine representation, browse the museum’s online collection.
Renaissance Artwork and the Loggia di Psiche (The Corridor of Psyche)
The Renaissance is when both Apuleius’ work (and by extension, Psyche) were rediscovered and adopted into the Christian standard, as was the case for many other Classical works and myths. Renaissance artwork by artists such as Raphael and Jacopo Zucchi later influenced Romantic and Victorian artists such as:
- John William Waterhouse (Psyche Opening the Golden Box);
- John Reinhard Weguelin (Psyche)
- Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (Psyche Lifted Up by Zephyrs)
- William-Adolphe Bouguereau (The Abduction of Psyche)
- Louis-Jean-Francois Lagrenee (Amor and Psyche)
- Goya (Allegory of Love, Cupid and Psyche)
- Antonio Canova (Cupid and Psyche; Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss)
It can be noted that in nearly all artistic renderings of the Renaissance and Victorian periods, the figure of Cupid is that of a beautiful unbearded young man who, like Psyche, is on the cusp of transforming into adulthood. Together they compose a unified construction of youth and beauty which was envied by gods and mortals alike.
The scene of the Wedding Feast was also a very popular choice during the Renaissance. Commissioned by Agostino Chigi in 1517 to decorate a loggia, the artist Raphael’s décor of the Loggia di Psiche in the Villa Farnesina is both a magnificent and expansive gallery of frescos. Assisted in the artistic endeavor by his pupils, in addition to the wedding itself, the fresco cycle also shows the various tasks Psyche was subjected to; despite the eroticism of the naked figures, Raphael intended the cycle to represent the virtue of womanhood. There are 14 specific images within the larger “tapestry”, all intended to be viewed chronologically as one walks down the entrance hall.
Cupid and Psyche, a marble statue residing in the Capitoline Museums, was a 2nd century CE Roman version of an original from the late Hellenistic period. Perhaps one of the first chronological depictions of Psyche’s physique in full, as otherwise her iconography was limited mainly to a butterfly (the symbol of her metamorphoses into a goddess) or wall paintings.
The youthfulness of both figures is greatly emphasized. They are entwined together, a position which suggests their complimentary nature; this fits the narrative that Apuleius wrote which stated that under Jove, the legality of Cupid and Psyche’s marriage is legitimate and pure.
Domus of Cupid and Psyche
In Ostia (c. 4/5th century CE) this house possesses a statue residing in one of the larger rooms. Like the Capitoline’s statue, these two figures are dressed and positioned in a a similar fashion, and occupy a central focus in the space. Perhaps this is suggestive of a more daily, domestic reverence to Psyche and Cupid as gods involved with mortal worship beyond the written tale that Apuleius wrote down.
While this article will not be addressing at length the psychological field of thought surrounding Psyche, it is worth mentioning the scholarly conversation regarding the connection between the Soul and Heart. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, Apuleius was a member of the Platonic school of thought, and subsequently his work and characters have been analyzed by psychologists for Platonic themes. A particularly useful source, if one wishes to delve further into the topic, is James Gollnick’s “Psychological Interpretations of The Eros and Psyche Myth” which discusses subjects such as:
- Freudian and Jungian interpretations
- Allegorical interpretations explaining social and religion customs
- Dream interpretation and its archaic connection to myth
Gollnick even brings up that “most [psychologists] assume the story tells us something about the ‘feminine’, whether about women or the feminine aspects of men. In the range of psychological interpretations, Psyche may be a woman, an adolescent girl, women in general, consciousness, a psychotic’s mind, the anima (or personification of a man’s unconsciousness), a dream or fantasy ego or the highest psychic qualities of the human mind” (1992, 113).
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