Cupid and Psyche
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1889
We associate metamorphism with Ovid (20 March 43 BCE – 17/18 CE) and Apuleius (c. 125 – c. 180 CE), but metamorphism is also frequent in fairy tales and has a dark side in lycanthropy, or werewolf stories.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is our fundamental text on this subject. There were Greek stories of metamorphoses, but Greece did not have an Ovid. Nor did it have an Apuleius. For the time being, I will leave Ovid’s Metamorphoses aside and take a peak at Apuleius’s version of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. That story is a ‘digression’ in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, a novel in which a man becomes a donkey, at least temporarily.
Apuleius: The Golden Ass
Apuleius’s Golden Ass is the only complete novel we have inherited from Greco-Roman antiquity. It was written in the 2nd century AD. Its structure resembles that of Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s Tales of Kalilah wa Dimna. There is a main story in which are inserted many stories or ‘digressions.’ For this reason, it could be labelled a picaresque novel, except that an old woman tells the myth of Psyche and Cupid, as a digression, which seems very odd, given the outer narrative and other inner stories.
The Outer Story
In the outer story, the protagonist is Lucius who wishes to become a witch so he can transform himself into a bird. He is told my his friend Milo that Milo’s wife is a witch who can transform herself into a bird. Lucius watches her turning herself into a bird and, accidentally transforms himself into a donkey. At the end of the novel, after all sorts of trials and tribulations, Lucius retrieves his human self, assisted by Isis, a goddess and a magician.
The Inner Stories
As for the inner stories, they too are lewd, except for the beautiful myth of Cupid and Psyche, the last of the inner stories. It is told by an old woman through several books and it resembles fairy tales.
As the story goes, Venus (Aphrodite), the goddess of love, is jealous of a human who is the most beautiful woman in the world, Psyche, and claims to be more beautiful than Venus.
Venus is jealous and therefore sends her son Cupid (Eros) to kill Psyche with one of his arrows. However, Cupid, who has made himself invisible to perform his dastardly deed, falls in love with Psyche and takes her to a castle. They become man and wife, but he only visits with her in the night. Moreover, she is directed not to look at him during his nightly visits. One night she is fooled by her sisters into carrying a candle and killing Cupid who, they claim, is a monstrous serpent. She does as her sisters suggest, sees that her husband is Cupid and burns him with her candle. She falls in love, but Cupid leaves her as he had warned.
After she has been abandoned, Psyche goes to Venus to request help. Venus tells her to perform four impossible tasks, three of which she performs through the mediation of ants, a river god and an eagle. But the fourth task is truly impossible. Venus asks Psyche to fetch beauty from Proserpina (Persephone), Queen of the Underworld, which means that Psyche must die. So she climbs to the top of a tower and is about to throw herself down when the tower starts to speak. She is told how to go to the Underworld. However, the box she is given does not contain beauty; it contains infernal sleep. She therefore falls into a coma.
By then, Cupid (Eros), who has wings has forgiven her and flies to rescue her. He goes to Jupiter (Zeus) to ask the gods’s permission to transform Psyche into a goddess. Jupiter and the other gods deliberate and end up granting Cupid’s request. Psyche is therefore transformed into a goddess by drinking ambrosia. She has escaped the human condition: mortality.
* * *
In Greek mythology, Psyche is the soul. Her role in the myth we have just glimpsed is therefore quite different. In fact, she is a human being, but a human being promoted to the state of godliness, which is the reverse of most myths. Usually, gods lose their godliness though sexual contact with a human.
The myth of Cupid and Psyche is part of mythology and does not seem to belong to folklore. As in The Golden Ass, the narrative seems once again out of place, yet is not. Could this be an early manifestion of magical realism? I must investigate further.
There is definitely more to metamorphism than meets the eye.
* * *
November 2, 2011