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Psyche opening the Golden Box, by John William Waterhouse (1903) 
Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
(Photo credit: Wikipaintings)
The Golden Ass is a Project Gutenberg publication: [EBook #1666] Book 4, Chapter 22[i]
Ovid (20 March 43 BCE – CE 17/18) is the author of the Metamorphoses, a fifteen-book Latin narrative written in dactylic hexameter, the “noble verse.”
Apuleius (c. 125 – c. 180 CE) is the author of the Golden Ass (Asinus Aureus) an eleven-book Latin narrative, first entitled Metamorphoses, but renamed The Golden Ass by Augustine of Hippo (St Augustine).
Marriage of Cupid and Psyche (ca. 1773), jasperware by Wedgwood based on the 1st-century Marlborough gem, which most likely was intended to depict an initiation rite (Brooklyn Museum) Photo credit: Wikipedia


In November 2011, I wrote a post on ApuleiusGolden Ass, the only novel that has come down to us from Latin Antiquity in its entirety and which happens to be about metamorphoses. I am revisiting the Golden Ass because we have looked at fables in which a cat and a mouse are metamorphosed respectively into a woman and a maid.  In the world of fables, a realistic world, nature will out, so our cat and mouse return to their natural selves.

Other fiction featuring metamorphoses

  • Fairy tales;
  • Werewolf stories (lycanthropy).[ii]

Fairy tales are home to metamorphoses. Beast is turned into a beast and will remain a beast until Beauty accepts to marry him as he is, i.e. as Beast. The moment Beauty tells Beasts that she will marry him, a curse is lifted and beast returns to his former princely self. Such is the stuff of fairy tales. But let us look at sources.

Ovid and Apuleius

The theme of metamorphosis is rooted mainly in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses and, to a lesser extent, in ApuleiusThe Golden Ass, first entitled Metamorphoses. In The Golden Ass,  Lucius is accidentally metamorphosed into an animal and that animal happens to be a donkey, which may explain why Augustine of Hippo (St Augustine) “demoted” Apuleius’ Metamorphoses by giving it a different title. Augustine renamed the book The Golden Ass and The Golden Ass it has remained, despite one rather lofty “digression,” the tale of Cupid and Psyche. Psyches, the most beautiful woman in the world, will be metamorphosed into a goddess by the ultimate fairy godmother, the gods of Greco-Roman antiquity assembled.

The Golden Ass

The Outer Story

The Golden Ass combines an outer story and inner stories. The outer story is called a frame story. The inner stories are sometimes called in-set stories. In the case of The Golden Ass, the outer story is a rather lewd account of the transformation of Lucius, as in Lucius Apuleius (Apulée), into a donkey.

Lucius wishes to become a sorcerer, or a witch, so he can transform himself into a bird and is told by his friend Milo that Milo’s wife is a witch who can transform herself into a bird. Lucius watches her metamorphosing herself into a bird and accidentally turns his own person into a donkey. At the end of the novel, after all sorts of trials and tribulations, Lucius retrieves his human form, assisted by Isis, a goddess and a magician.

The Inner Stories or “Digressions” are:

  1. Aristomenes’ Tale
  2. Thelyphron’s Tale
  3. The Tale of Cupid and Psyche
  4. The Tale of the Wife’s Tub
  5. The Tale of the Jealous Husband
  6. The Tale of the Fuller’s Wife
  7. The Tale of the Murderous Wife

By and large, the inner or in-set stories or tales bear some resemblance to the outer story. The story is different but the tone is that of Lucius, now transformed into a donkey. The exception is Cupid and Psyche. We are transported into a world filled with gods and goddesses, but these gods and goddesses sometimes mingle with mere mortals. We therefore have a taste of magic realism. Professor Matthew Strecher defines magic realism as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” (See Magic Realism, Wikipedia.)

In psychology the word “psyche” refers to the mind but to a large extent, it also refers to the soul, which is immortal. The “digression,” or in-set tale, is entitled Cupid and Psyche, but Psyche’s name is Psyches. She is the third daughter of a King, a motif which links her to fairy tale protagonists. Moreover, Psyches has two married but jealous sisters, as does Cinderella. However, the third daughter marries a god. Cinderella has to settle for a mere prince.

Consequently, the tale of Cupid and Psyche is a “digression.”  The main link between Cupid and Psyche and The Golden Ass is a metamorphosis, except that  Psyches does not turn into an animal. On the contrary, her appearance does not change and her story is one of upward mobility. Psyche means soul. She escapes mortality, the human condition, by becoming a goddess. The soul is immortal.


Cupid and Psyche, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1889)
(Photo credit: Wikipaintings)

Cupid and Psyche  

(quotations, including the spelling, are from [EBook #1666] Book 4, Chapter 22)
The Romans borrowed Greek mythology but changed the name of each god.  Venus is the Latin name for Aphrodite. 
The story has several variants, but basically it is about jealousy. Venus (Aphrodite), the goddess of love is jealous of a human being, Psyche or Psyches, the third and only unmarried daughter of a King and Queen. She is considered more beautiful than Venus and people travel long distances to see her. Venus is jealous and sends her son Cupid (Eros) to find “the most miserablest creature living” and make him Psyches’ husband. 
Meanwhile, Psyches has been placed at the top of a hill as her parents think a man might take her at last. She is not married. Cupid, who has made himself invisible, does not perform his dastardly deed. Psyches is “blowne by the gentle aire and of shrilling Zephyrus” to a castle. They become man and wife: “after that hee had make a perfect consummation of the marriage.” But he only visits during the night and he has directed her not to look at him during his nightly visits.
Psyches is pregnant and misses her sisters, so Cupid allows them to visit. When they arrive, they praise her: “O dear sister Psyches, know you that you are now no more a child, but a mother: O what great joy beare you unto us in you belly?”
Both older sisters are unhappily married and jealous of Psyche who lives in a castle. To get rid of the husband she is not allowed to see, they fool Psyche into thinking that Cupid is a monstrous serpent and must be killed. As her sisters suggest, Psyches carries a candle so she can see Cupid and kill him: “with your bare feet goe and take the lampe, with the Razor in your right hand and with valiant force cut off the head of the poisonous serpent, wherein we will aid and assist you: and when by the death of him you shall be made safe, we wil marry to some comely man.” Psyches sees Cupid and falls in love, but a drop of hot wax falls from the candle and burns Cupid inadvertently. He wakes up and leaves as he had warned he would: “hee commaunded Zephyrus to carry me away from the bounds of his house.”
After she has been abandoned, Psyches goes looking for Cupid. At one point, she seeks the help of Venus, not knowing that Venus is her enemy. Venus asks Psyches to perform impossible tasks, the last of which is deadly. Venus wants Psyches to fetch beauty from Proserpina, Queen of the Underworld, put some of that beauty into a golden box, and return the box to her. Alas, one does not return from the Underworld, which means that Psyches will die if she goes to the Underworld. 
Knowing that she must die, Psyches 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 appease Cerberus
(Kerberos), the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to the Underworld. Proserpina (Persephone) gives Psyches the box, but instead of beauty, it contains infernal sleep. Psyches is curious, opens the box, and lapses into a coma.
By then, Cupid (Éros), who has wings, the equivalent of a magic carpet, has forgiven Psyches and flies to her rescue. A kiss revives her and they then go to Jupiter (Zeus). Cupid asks Jupiter to transform Psyches into a goddess. Jupiter appeases Venus and he then convenes the gods who, after deliberating, grant Cupid’s request. Cupid’s Psyches is therefore transformed into a goddess by drinking ambrosia (“ambroisie,” or Nectar), the drink of Greek gods, and therefore escapes the human condition: mortality.
“And then he [Jupiter] tooke a pot of immortality, and said, Hold Psyches, and drinke, to the end thou maist be immortall, and that Cupid may be thine everlasting husband. By and by the great banket and marriage feast was sumptuously prepared, Cupid sate downe with his deare spouse between his armes: Juno likewise with Jupiter, and all the other gods in order, Ganimedes filled the port of Jupiter, and Bacchus served the rest. Their drinke was Nectar the wine of the gods, Vulcanus prepared supper, the howers decked up the house with roses and other sweet smells, the Graces threw about blame, the Muses sang with sweet harmony, Apollo tuned pleasantly to the Harpe, Venus danced finely: Satirus and Paniscus plaid on their pipes; and thus Psyches was married to Cupid, and after she was delivered of a child whom we call Pleasure.”
Proserpina, by
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874),
Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood



In Apuleius, Psyche is Psyches and has parents. She seems a human being. Moreover, in mythology, gods lose their godliness through sexual contact, generally, with a mortal being. Psyches is a human being and, therefore, a mortal. So it is not possible for her to be transformed into the mortal she already is. Therefore, Apuleius presents us with a complicated “digression.” Psyches is metamorphosed into a goddess, an immortal being, by drinking ambrosia, and then gives birth to a child named Pleasure. It is all very fanciful. Psyche means the soul and the soul is immortal.

A Fairy Tale: to a certain Extent

The tale of Cupid and Psyche provides us with a template associated with fairy tales: the rags to riches narrative of CinderellaPsyches becomes a goddess. We also have jealous sisters, not to mention a jealous Venus, a mother-in-law (a stepmother). As for the invisible Cupid, he could well be a monstrous beast, in which case, Cupid and Psyche could be associated with Beauty and the Beast. The tale of Cupid and Psyche  is in fact associated with Beauty and the Beast.

“The fairy tales which modern scholars most often discuss in relation to an antecedent myth are those which involve an animal as bride-groom, best known by versions of ‘Beauty and the Beast’.”[iii] 

According to the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, the story of Cupid and Psyche is both a myth and a fairy tale, but the theme is not consistent with fairy tales. Unlike Beauty, Psyches does not have to lift a curse by saying she will marry Cupid. She must perform chores,  imposed by Venus, to be reunited with Cupid, but there is no disenchantment, i.e. no curse has turned Cupid into an animal-groom, so no curse has to be lifted.

“In fairy tale versions the question normally ends with a disenchantment motif as the heroine regains her partner by ending the spell which has enchanted him.”[iv]


Although Cupid and Psyche has affinities with fairy tales, it may be prudent not to classify it as such, except loosely. Classifications are helpful, but they should not be a Procrustean bed. The bed would always be too short or too long, and limbs therefore stretched or amputated. In Cupid and Psyche a man, albeit a god, comes to the rescue of a damsel in distress who is despised because she is the most beautiful woman in the world. The story moves forward propelled by a feeling inextricably linked with love which, in literature,  may be jealousy.

However, in Cupid and Psyche, the wedding that constitutes the proper ending of fairy tales and comedies seems out of place, but is it?  Cupid and Psyche became man and wife after he flew her to her castle: “after that hee had made a perfect consummation of the marriage.” She was not allowed to look at him, but when night fell, he “visited” her. This seems consistent with a myth. However, the tale of Cupid and Psyche is that of a pre-existing union. Consequently, the wedding takes on other virtues.  It could well be the official celebration of a threatened marriage. “All’s well that ends well.”

From the point of view of literary history, authors such as Chaucer (the many Tales), Shakespeare, Dante and Boccaccio (The Decameron) were inspired by tales contained in Ovid‘s MetamorphosesThe first translation of the Metamorphoses in English was by William Caxton in 1480. Caxton is also the first English printer. He printed Reynard the Fox. Apuleius’ Golden Ass inspired Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) and Jean de La Fontaine. 


Psyche’s Wedding, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1895), Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood


[i] The Golden Asse. Translated by William Adlington, first published 1566. This version is as reprinted from the edition of 1639. The original spelling, capitalisation and punctuation have been retained. [EBook #1666]
[ii] A werewolf, also known as a lycanthrope is a mythological or folkloric human with the ability to shapeshift into a wolf or an therianthropic hybrid wolf-like creature, either purposely or after being placed under a curse or affliction (e.g. via a bite or scratch from another werewolf). Early sources for belief in lycanthropy are Petronius (c. 27 – 66 BCE) and Gervase of Tilbury (c. 1150 – c. 1228 CE). 
(See Werewolf, Wikipedia.)
[iii] John Stephens, “Myth/Mythology and Fairy Tales,” ed. Jack Zipes, The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 330-334.
[iv] Loc. cit.
César Franck (10 December 1822 – 8 November 1890)
Psyché et Éros
William Revelli (12 February 1902 – 16 July 1994)
fond01_02Micheline Walker
4 August 2013
Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss
Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822)
Musée du Louvre
(Please click on the image to enlarge it.)