The following is a slightly edited retelling from Wiki with my notes embedded – if you’d like to read the original article (which I highly recommend) and hunt down all the relevant links, you can click here.
The Greeks and Romans, despite our current, Western, provincial views on sexuality, were actually a very moral and psychologically aware people – their myths explore many concepts relating both to historical shifts in cultural behaviors and traditions, but those myths also explore the deeply heroic journey each person takes to find themselves – the journey Western Mysticism now calls the Journey of the Fool.
The Story of Psyche and Eros, or Psyche and Cupid, is one such tale – the tale of the confrontation and destruction of ego through shadow work and chthonic mystery via sex magick and pranic healing. Cupid and Psyche is a story from the Latin novel Metamorphoses, also known as The Golden Ass, written in the 2nd century AD by Apuleius. It concerns the overcoming of obstacles to the love between Psyche and Cupid, and their ultimate union in marriage. Although the only extended narrative from antiquity is that of Apuleius, Eros and Psyche appear in Greek art as early as the 4th century BC. The story’s Neoplatonic elements and allusions to mystery religions accommodate multiple interpretations, and it has been analyzed as an allegory and in light of folklore, fairy tale, and myth. To Boccaciio (an Italian author, poet, correspondent of Petrarch, and important Renaissance humanist from the 14th century), the marriage of Cupid and Psyche symbolized the union of Soul and God. The Song of Solomon supported his theory, and and William Blake’s “Luvah and Vala” showed obvious agreement – which is why this myth is the cornerstone of our study today.
More importantly, the story is set inside another story in such a way as to create a mirror effect to the story outside – frequently, when working with Shadow, just as the inner psyche is crumbling, the outer world is also falling apart. Not only that, but as with all mirrors that face mirrors, when working with Shadow, we are all faced with the Abyss – the Abyss of Self, as well as every Abyss – the story within a story, both following similar patterns further emphasizes the effect of shadow work, demonstrating how the Tower must fall in all ways, in order for the Star to rise, to understand the Unconscious at work (the Moon) and become the full glory of Self (the Sun) releasing all Judgment, and thus completing the cycle (the World).
In other words – this myth is a map inside of a map.
There was once a king and queen who had three very beautiful daughters. The youngest and most beautiful was Psyche. Psyche was so beautiful that her parents and her admirers prayed and made offerings to her, instead of to the Goddess of Love. They whispered that she was the second coming of Venus, or Her bastard daughter. Venus was, of course, extremely offended, and demanded that her son Cupid shoot Psyche with one of his arrows and make her fall in love with a monster. Cupid, however, when he finds her sleeping, is so struck by her beauty that his arrow slips from his fingers and strikes his own leg, and so he falls in love with the girl and desires to possess her for himself.
The beginning of the story is one of a fall. Psyche literally means Soul/Mind/Spirit – In ancient terms, EGO or PERSONA. In other words, in the context of the story, the parents of the mind, the ego, worshipped that mind, that ego, to the exclusion of Love… and so that ego becomes destined to be married to a monster. When we talk about facing the Shadow, one of the things that comes up again and again is how the ego throws up illusions when confronted with the Shadow – not because that’s what the shadow IS… but because the ego is AFRAID. So the Ego throws up illusions against the shadow, creates monsters. Eventually, though… you gotta ignore the monster… and marry yourself. It’s inner alchemy. It’s the Great Work.
Ego is always there – there’s no denial in the myths about that. The comment is that the problem arises when ego is WORSHIPED OVER LOVE. Love must come first. And not just Outward Love. ALL FORMS OF LOVE.
So let’s look at Love a little more before we continue the story, and continue to dig deeper.
Venus is The Morning Star. You can think about that later, but I really want you to remember that, because it’s pivotal. Venus is the dawn star that heralds every new day. She is, was, and forever will be the Morning Star. She is also the Goddess of Love. In this story, she is a Herald, but I’ll leave you to figure out what exactly she Heralded, because it’s not obvious, even to Her. You have to dig for that and I’m not your spoon.
The Goddess of Love has two aspects which can be separated into four faces. The Mother and the Romantic – The Mother who can be nurturing and warm, or stern and hard; The sultry seductress or the jealous monster. She is the Goddess of Love and Beauty – and all those aspects have qualities which are both beautiful and terrible. Nurture can be smothering. Warmth can be suffocating. Sternness can be cold. Hardness can be cruel. Sultry can be addictive, seduction can be thoughtless, jealousy can be wrathful, and a monster can be a murderer. Love is all things… including hate. It is the most terribly beautiful thing in the Multiverse… and anyone who doesn’t treat it like broken glass is in for a rude awakening.
The worst thing that anyone can do is not love themselves or let love in. The second worst thing that anyone can do is be an insufferable fool who only loves themselves, too much, and doesn’t deserve it. She is not kind to either, and does not suffer fools gladly.
Now that you understand Venus a little bit better… you will probably understand why she behaves the way she does in this myth. It’s the job of Love to make you prove to yourself that you do actually deserve the things you want. It’s the job of love to allow you to put obstacles in your own way until you actually stop beating yourself up. It’s probably kind of a sucky job. I can see why Christians get The Mornings Star all mixed up… in some places, it’s Jesus – a Herald of Love… and in others… it’s Lucifer, a Herald of Adversarial Work… Honestly, Love is BOTH. You face the dark before you face the dawn.
Now let’s look at Cupid/Eros.
It’s interesting, considering our current social perceptions of sex, what the Greco-Roman world had to say about sexual love, isn’t it. They paint Cupid as an INNOCENT in all this. More than that… despite His hobby of wandering around shooting people randomly with those lusty philandering arrows and causing all sorts of trouble… in this story, He’s supportive, gentle, generous, kind, pretty much the Nice Guy. He’s sensitive, strong, loving… and obviously, being Eros, not so bad in the sack… and in the end, He stands up to His mother (don’t worry, we’ll get to that later) for Love. REAL love. He’s honorable, even if He’s not entirely honest… He kept the secrets He had to keep in order to keep the woman He loved safe.
Culturally, Lust and Love were pretty much the same thing back then… and there was nothing wrong with physical love in any form in their eyes. Now, I know, someone’s going to want to bring up Agape… but Agape is spiritual love. It’s more chivalrous. It’s like… the love a mind feels for another mind.
These days we see emotional love and physical/sexual tension as being separate. In the Greco-Roman world… the two were synonymous. Agape might be included in a rare relationship… but Eros was EVERYWHERE. However… they also understood that casual lust, that a random hookup at the bathhouse, while fun, wasn’t love. They perceived Eros in those relationships where sexual love was something that occurred as a pattern, not as a random physical act. A brush with Eros was not the same thing as being SHOT BY HIM.
So… Eros is pretty sweet. Droolworthy. An ideal to either live up to, or swoon over… or both.
Back to our story.
Although her two humanly beautiful sisters have married, the idolized Psyche has yet to find love. (It’s hard to find love when your ego is in the way.) Her father suspects that they have incurred the wrath of the gods, and consults the oracle of Apollo. The response is unsettling: the king is to expect no human son-in-law, but rather a dragon-like creature who harasses the world with fire and iron and is feared by even Jupiter and the inhabitants of the underworld. (Time to face the shadow.)
Psyche is arrayed in funeral attire, conveyed by a procession to the peak of a rocky crag, and exposed. Marriage and death are merged into a single rite of passage, a “transition to the unknown”. Zephyr the West Wind bears her up to meet her fated match, and deposits her in a lovely meadow, where she promptly falls asleep. (Step one on the map – the willingness to fling yourself into the abyss of the unknown – to let go of control even just a little bit – because the death of the ego is the marriage of the whole self – so you go up, and you go down – the upper realm and the lower realm. It’s different for everyone, and each triggering and each vision is different, because each person is different.)
The transported girl awakes to find herself at the edge of a cultivated grove. Exploring, she finds a marvelous house with golden columns, a carved ceiling of citrus wood and ivory, silver walls embossed with wild and domesticated animals, and jeweled mosaic floors. A disembodied voice tells her to make herself comfortable, and she is entertained at a feast that serves itself and by singing to an invisible lyre. (The upper realm – the belief of, well, that wasn’t so bad. I guess I didn’t die after all… or I did, and it’s over, and my shadow’s just not a big deal, whew!)
Although fearful and without sexual experience, she allows herself to be guided to a bedroom, where in the darkness a man she cannot see makes her his wife. She gradually learns to look forward to his visits, though he always departs before sunrise and forbids her to look upon him, and soon she becomes pregnant. (The confrontation of sexuality and desire, hidden needs.)
Psyche’s family longs for news of her, and after much cajoling, Cupid, still unknown to his bride, permits Zephyr to carry her sisters up for a visit. When they see the splendor in which Psyche lives, they become envious, and undermine her happiness by prodding her to uncover her husband’s true identity, since surely as foretold by the oracle she was lying with the vile winged serpent, who would devour her and her child. (We always have good things, and we always fall to the opinions of others – we create monsters where there are none.)
One night after Cupid falls asleep, Psyche carries out the plan her sisters devised: she brings out a dagger and a lamp she had hidden in the room, in order to see and kill the monster. But when the light instead reveals the most beautiful creature she has ever seen, she is so startled that she wounds herself on one of the arrows in Cupid’s cast-aside quiver. Struck with a feverish passion, she spills hot oil from the lamp and wakes him. He flees, and though she tries to pursue, he flies away and leaves her on the bank of a river. (Thus we lose the good things because of the monsters we have created because we have accepted the programming of others rather than our own true selves’ good sense.)
There she is discovered by the wilderness god Pan, who recognizes the signs of passion upon her. She acknowledges his divinity, then begins to wander the earth looking for her lost love. (Acknowledgment of the path, and then the beginning of the search for self – the quest for unification of male and female, higher self and lower self, shadow and light.)
Psyche visits first one sister, then the other; both are seized with renewed envy upon learning the identity of Psyche’s secret husband. Each sister attempts to offer herself as a replacement by climbing the rocky crag and casting herself upon Zephyr for conveyance, but instead is allowed to fall to a brutal death. (There are many who try to mimic your own personal journey – it’s yours and they will fall trying to do so – a journey is secret – you can share it, but understand that those who try to walk your walk will fail. Make them walk their own.)
In the course of her wanderings, Psyche comes upon a temple of Ceres, and inside finds a disorder of grain offerings, garlands, and agricultural implements. Recognizing that the proper cultivation of the gods should not be neglected, she puts everything in good order, prompting a theophany of Ceres herself. Although Psyche prays for her aid, and Ceres acknowledges that she deserves it, the goddess is prohibited from helping her against a fellow goddess. A similar incident occurs at a temple of Juno. Psyche realizes that she must serve Venus herself. (Remember that proper cultivation of not just the gods, but also yourself is necessary… put not just your spiritual life, but also your physical life in order during your passage. Juno is a reminder for self-reflection – put the past in order just as much as you put your present in order – mind, body, spirit – ALL must be put into order – and then all must be turned to serving Love. As for that – why should you serve Love? Love, welling from deep within you, Love that drives you, Love that is your passion, Love that gives you purpose and dreams – not some far-away old man on a throne, stroking His white beard claiming omniscience and omnipotence, screaming about your free will while the world falls apart, but the love within you that honestly moves your own Soul – what else would anyone serve? In the end, it’s what we all serve – Love is the Law, Love under Will. Your Soul’s Love. Your Soul’s Will. Your desire to manifest that here, and make a goddamned difference in this mess. Who else will? But hey… you don’t actually have to choose that… again – it’s all about choice… every step of the way, you get asked to choose. You could always not choose Love, and fall flat on your face. I dunno what happens then, because I chose this way. But I imagine it’s possible. Otherwise why would the word “Choose” be bandied about so much?)
Venus revels in having the girl under her power, and turns Psyche over to her two handmaids, Worry and Sadness, to be whipped and tortured. Venus tears her clothes and bashes her head into the ground, and mocks her for conceiving a child in a sham marriage. The goddess then throws before her a great mass of mixed wheat, barley, poppyseed, chickpeas, lentils, and beans, demanding that she sort them into separate heaps by dawn. But when Venus withdraws to attend a wedding feast, a kind ant takes pity on Psyche, and assembles a fleet of insects to accomplish the task. Venus is furious when she returns drunk from the feast, and only tosses Psyche a crust of bread. At this point in the story, it is revealed that Cupid is also in the house of Venus, languishing from his injury. (Finally, the confrontation with Shadow begins – and as you see… Ego throws up many illusions to avoid accepting the loss of the worship of SELF, and the return to worshipping LOVE – but the process of stripping away all pride is not something you go through without help – you are never left alone… if you remember to ask for it. This process always reminds me of that one movie, Mortal Kombat – “You must face yourself. You must face your Enemy. You must face your Fear. You must face your worst nightmare.” They got it backwards. Your worst nightmare is that your fears are your enemy, and you have to face yourself. That is the passage to meeting your shadow. Not merging – but meeting.)
At dawn, Venus sets a second task for Psyche. She is to cross a river and fetch golden wool from violent sheep who graze on the other side. These sheep are elsewhere identified as belonging to the Sun. Psyche’s only intention is to drown herself on the way, but instead she is saved by instructions from a divinely inspired reed, of the type used to make musical instruments, and gathers the wool caught on briers.
For Psyche’s third task, she is given a crystal vessel in which to collect the black water spewed by the source of the rivers Styx and Cocytus. Climbing the cliff from which it issues, she is daunted by the foreboding air of the place and dragons slithering through the rocks, and falls into despair. Jupiter himself takes pity on her, and sends his eagle to battle the dragons and retrieve the water for her.
The last trial Venus imposes on Psyche is a quest to the underworld itself. She is to take a box and obtain in it a dose of the beauty of Proserpina, queen of the underworld. Venus claims her own beauty has faded through tending her ailing son, and she needs this remedy in order to attend the theatre of the gods.
Once again despairing of her task, Psyche climbs a tower, planning to throw herself off. The tower, however, suddenly breaks into speech, and advises her to travel to Lacedaemon, Greece, and to seek out the place called Taenarus, where she will find the entrance to the underworld. The tower offers instructions for navigating the underworld:
The airway of Dis is there, and through the yawning gates the pathless route is revealed. Once you cross the threshold, you are committed to the unswerving course that takes you to the very Regia of Orcus. But you shouldn’t go empty-handed through the shadows past this point, but rather carry cakes of honeyed barley in both hands, and transport two coins in your mouth.
The speaking tower warns her to maintain silence as she passes by several ominous figures: a lame man driving a mule loaded with sticks, a dead man swimming in the river that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead, and old women weaving. These, the tower warns, will seek to divert her by pleading for her help: she must ignore them. The cakes are treats for distracting Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of Orcus, and the two coins for Charon the ferryman, so she can make a return trip.
Everything comes to pass according to plan, and Proserpina grants Psyche’s humble entreaty. As soon as she reenters the light of day, however, Psyche is overcome by a bold curiosity, and can’t resist opening the box in the hope of enhancing her own beauty. She finds nothing inside but an “infernal and Stygian sleep,” which sends her into a deep and unmoving torpor. (This, finally, is the chthonic moment where the ego will be laid to rest, one hopes – and the personality merged. Trust me, after all that work, you’re going to appreciate the nap – this whole process can take YEARS.)
Meanwhile, Cupid’s wound has healed into a scar, and he escapes his mother’s house by flying out a window. When he finds Psyche, he draws the sleep from her face and replaces it in the box, then pricks her with an arrow that does no harm. He lifts her into the air, and takes her to present the box to Venus.
He then takes his case to Jupiter, who gives his consent in return for Cupid’s future help whenever a choice maiden catches his eye. Jupiter has Mercury convene an assembly of the gods in the theater of heaven, where he makes a public statement of approval, warns Venus to back off, and gives Psyche ambrosia, the drink of immortality, so the couple can be united in marriage as equals. Their union, he says, will redeem Cupid from his history of provoking adultery and sordid liaisons. Jupiter’s word is solemnized with a wedding banquet.
With its happy marriage and resolution of conflicts, the tale ends in the manner of classic comedy or Greek romances such as Daphnis and Chloe. The child born to the couple will be Voluptas (Greek Hedone), “Pleasure.” (Yeah – that would be PRANA – the destruction of Ego and the merging of the shadow and the higher self, along with the marrying of male and female principles in an act of divine love – in most cases a sexual act, but it’s not necessarily always so, to create a moment of godhood, a moment of wholeness, releases Prana.)