Many stories in Greek mythology stand the test of time and continue to drive narratives today. One legend, in particular, is the source of inspiration for many tales of harrowing challenges and the beauty of love.
Psyche is the Greek goddess of the soul, but her story doesn’t start with a life of immortality. Despite her inherent beauty and privilege, Psyche’s story is one of jealousy, fear, and ultimate triumph.
The Origins of Psyche
Contrary to popular belief, Psyche was not born a deity. She was the daughter of Greek royalty. The princess had two older sisters, but she was the subject of attention during her early years.
Psyche’s beauty knew no bounds. Many compared her to the goddess Aphrodite, who ruled over love and beauty. Aphrodite is also known as Venus in Roman mythology. Even priests said that her magnificence and fairness went beyond the goddess herself.
If you know anything about Greek mythology, you know that Aphrodite could have a jealous streak. When temples dedicated to the goddess ran empty, she turned to Psyche. The goddess believed that the princess was pulling focus as many worshiped her beauty. Aphrodite flew into a rage and sent her son Eros to do her bidding.
Eros, also known as Cupid in Roman mythology, was the Greek god of love and sex. Aphrodite sent her son to ensure that Psyche could only fall in love with someone hideous and detestable. But of course, things didn’t go according to plan.
The Start of Cupid and Psyche
While Eros went to Psyche to fulfil his mother’s wishes, he was caught off guard by her sheer beauty. The god fell in love with the mortal, ultimately forgetting his mother’s wishes. He spared her.
There are a couple of versions of what happens next. Some accounts say that Eros swept Psyche away to his palace. However, most scholars agree that there’s more to the story.
The most commonly retold version says that Eros left Psyche after sparing her, leaving her to live a life of loneliness.
Instructions from an Oracle
Despite her immense beauty, no one dared to ask her hand in marriage. Men admired her from afar, leaving her no available consorts. Pair that with the departure of her jealous sisters, and Psyche was a lonely princess. The lack of prospects for marriage left Psyche’s father worried about her fate. So, he went to the Oracle of Delphi for advice.
The Oracle of Delphi, also known as Pythia, was the high priestess at the temple of Apollo. When Psyche’s father came to her, the Oracle connected him to Apollo. Apollo spoke through the Oracle of Delphi, telling him that Psyche was to marry a beast that scared even the gods. He instructed the King to dress her up in funeral clothes, take her to the tallest rock spire, and leave her to her fate.
These instructions upset the King, but he obliged.
Eros and Psyche
Psyche’s father abandoned her at the tallest rock spire of his kingdom. After waiting for the beast to take her, Psyche grew fearful and decided to take her own life. She leapt from the spire to her doom. But instead of dying, she was rescued.
Zephyrus, an Anemoi and Greek lord of the West Wind, stopped her fall. He used his mighty wind to send her to the palace of Eros. However, she was not aware of her surroundings. Left in darkness, Psyche waited for someone to return.
Eros saw her waiting in the darkness. Instead of unveiling his identity, he told Psyche that she should never attempt to see him or learn his name. At first, she followed his orders and had a wonderful time in the palace. But eventually, she heard her older sisters calling to her. They told her to see her new husband’s real form, primarily out of jealousy.
She eventually snuck up on Eros as he slept. The oil from the lamp she used dripped onto his shoulder, burning him. Eros felt betrayed and fled his palace to seek solace from his mother, Aphrodite.
Psyche mourned the loss of her love and searched endlessly for him. Eventually, Aphrodite approached her. The goddess finally saw her opportunity to punish the beautiful princess. Aphrodite forced Psyche to complete four trials as a penalty for betraying Eros. The goddess designed the trials to be practically impossible.
The first was to sort and organize an uncountable number of seeds. As Psyche wept and did her best, a colony of ants crossed her path. Empathetic to her plight, they completed the task for her.
Next, she had to gather wool from a sheep that killed men. Once again, someone else came to the rescue. A river god instructed her to gather wool from nearby bushes instead of the sheep itself.
The third trial led Psyche to the Underworld. There, she had to gather water. The Eagle of Zeus came in to complete the task for her.
The final task was to collect beauty from Persephone. Persephone was the goddess of the Underworld, the wife of Hades, and the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. To Psyche’s surprise, Persephone gave her a small amount of her beauty in a sealed box.
Psyche’s Death and Resurrection
After accomplishing her four trials, Psyche made her way back to Aphrodite on Mount Olympus. However, she let the curiosity get the best of her. The princess opened the box that supposedly contained Persephone’s beauty. But instead of the beauty, she found the essence of death.
Psyche instantly died on her way to Mount Olympus. However, Eros was already on the way to find her. He forgave her and wanted to reunite with his wife. Her repentance touched him, and he was impressed by the lengths she would go to show her sorrow.
After finding her dead on the slopes of Mount Olympus, Eros swept her up and took her to the peak. There, he made her the personification of the soul. The two officially married and had a glorious ceremony by Greek gods and goddesses. They even had a daughter. She was named Hedone and became the goddess of physical joy.
Ultimately, Psyche and Eros lived happily ever after. But Psyche’s struggles continue to inspire many tales of love. Scholars believe that her story is an allegory for a soul guided by love.
As the personification of the human soul, Psyche’s name became the basis for words in many languages. In Greek, her name is ψυχή, which means “life.” This later inspired prefixes “psy” and “psych.”
Astronomer Annibale de Gasparis also used her name for an asteroid he discovered in 1852.
Psyche Facts & Trivia:
- Psyche is the ancient Greek goddess of the soul.
- Psyche was born a mortal.
- She is the daughter of an unknown Greek King and Queen.
- The symbol of Psyche is two butterfly wings.
- Psyche appears in “The Golden Ass,” also known as Metamorphoses of Apuleius.
- Psyche earned the ire of the Olympian goddess Aphrodite.
- Psyche married the god Eros, but he hid his identity from her.
- The most notable tale of Psyche involves trials from Aphrodite, which she gave as penance for breaking the trust of Eros.
- Psyche initially died exposure to the essence of death from Persephone.
- Eros took Psyche to Mount Olympus and turned her into the goddess of the soul.
- Eros and Psyche had a single daughter, Hedone.
- The goddess lends her name to the Latin prefix “psych,” which denotes the human mind. Her name is the basis for many words in the English language. For example, words like “psychology” and “psychoanalysis” all relate to the human mind. The same goes for many synonyms using her name as a prefix.
- The goddess is also the inspiration for the asteroid Psyche.
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