Happy Valentine’s Day! Let’s celebrate this day of love by revisiting one of the best love stories in Greek mythology — Eros & Psyche.
Eros & Psyche: Love, passion, and myth
The story of Eros & Psyche is one of the best love stories in all of Greek mythology. Eros, son of Aphrodite, was the personification of intense love and desire. He was depicted throwing arrows to people in order to hit their heart and make them fall in love. Some know Eros under his Roman name, Cupid. Psyche, a beautiful maiden, personifies the human soul. In fact, she is the symbol of the soul purified by passions and misfortunes and who is, going forward, prepared to enjoy eternal happiness. Her name means “soul” in Greek.
In the story of Eros & Psyche, we see the perseverance of a man even when he is possessed by passion, and the effort of a woman to overcome many obstacles in order to achieve the happiness of love.
Let’s learn more about these legendary lovers.
The beautiful and captivating Psyche
Once there was a king who had three wonderful daughters. Psyche, the youngest, was much more beautiful than her two sisters. In fact, she looked like a goddess among mere mortals. News of this beautiful and captivating young girl spread throughout the kingdom. Men came to the palace in droves, simply to admire her, and even to worship her. When people saw her, they’d comment that “not even Aphrodite herself could compete” with the loveliness of Psyche.
As more people got to know Psyche, the less they’d remember Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. The temples of Aphrodite were abandoned. The goddess’ altars were covered with cold ashes. Sculptors no longer carved statues for her. All the honors reserved for the goddess, now went to the simple, mortal girl. Aphrodite could not accept this situation and called her son, Eros, for assistance. In her distress, she commanded him to help her.
“Use your power. Make this little shameless girl fall in love with the vilest and most despicable creature that has ever walked on Earth.”
Eros agreed to help his mother. However, the moment he set eyes on Psyche, he, himself was captivated. He felt his own heart pierced by one of his arrows. Now he wanted her for himself. There was no way he could make that charming maiden fall in love with a horrible creature. He couldn’t tell his mother, either, as Eros did not want to deal with her wrath.
Psyche was the most beautiful girl on Earth, but she was sad and lonely — always admired, but never really loved. It seemed no one would fall in love with her — men were happy just to admire her. They’d watch her, but marry other girls. Her two sisters, though definitely less attractive, had held two lavish weddings, each with a king. No man wanted Psyche as his wife, and this caused great anxiety and distress to her parents.
Her father went to visit the Oracle of Delphi. There he asked Apollo for advice in order to find a husband for Psyche. The god’s prophecy was not good. Apollo decreed Psyche would don a black dress, be brought to the summit of a mountain, and remain there alone. He revealed that a husband was assigned to her — a winged serpent, more terrible and more powerful than the gods themselves.
Psyche’s family and friends fell into despair. She prepared for her ascent on the hill as if she were to face her death. Her cries rocked her family to the core. As they ascended to the summit, they felt as though they were indeed delivering her to her tomb. Powerless, they departed, leaving the radiant, yet helpless, Psyche to await her fate. They locked themselves in the palace and mourned her.
Psyche waited on the hill in the dark. Shaking and crying in the quiet night, she felt a slight breeze. It was the fresh wind of Zephyr, the mildest of the winds. Suddenly, she rose into the air, and was taken over the rocky hill, to a soft meadow full of flowers. Zephyr did his best to make her forget her pain, and put her to sleep. She was awakened by the sound of a clear stream. When she opened her eyes, she saw a castle so magnificent, it must belong to a god. She stared at its gold columns, silver walls, and floors of inlaid precious stones. It was quiet. The castle appeared to be uninhabited. Psyche approached cautiously to appreciate its splendors. As she approached the threshhold, she heard a noise and became suspicious. There was no one in sight, but she clearly heard these words:
“The house is for you. Come in and do not be afraid. Take a bath, and then we will honor you with a grand banquet.”
Never had a bath been so refreshing, or a meal so delicious. During dinner, she heard soft music, like a harp accompanying a choir of angels. She couldn’t see where the music was coming from. She sat alone with only the voices for company. But somehow she knew her husband would come at night. And so it was. When she felt he was close to her and heard his voice whispering sweetly in her ear, her fears disappeared. Without even seeing him, she was certain that he was not a monster but the loving husband she had always wished for.
Family reunion gone bad
In the days that followed, Psyche experienced great joy. She still could not see her husband, and this saddened her. Alone all day long, boredom filled her heart. Suddenly, she began missing her family desperately. Surely they were mourning for her, when in reality, she was alive and happy. She didn’t want her family to suffer, so that night, she asked her mysterious husband to grant her a favor. She wanted her sisters to come to the palace and see that she was fine, as it would be a comfort for her old parents. At first, her husband refused but when Psyche grew sadder still, he agreed.
“OK, I will allow your sisters to come up here, but I am warning you, do not let them influence you. If they do, you will destroy our relationship and there will be suffering.”
The following day, carried by the wind, her sisters arrived. They cried tears of joy, and were thrilled to see each other. The sisters were amazed by all the magnificent treasures. During dinner, they heard the most beautiful music and drank the most delicious of wines.
Envy flourished in their hearts, as well as an irresistible curiosity to meet their mysterious brother-in-law, the owner of such magnificence. They barraged Psyche with questions about her husband. They implored her to reveal who he was, as well as his occupation. Psyche replied that he was a young hunter. The sisters didn’t believe her. Could a simple hunter be so rich? Surely he must be a prince or even a god. The two sisters knew that compared to Psyche, they had little wealth and happiness. Consumed by jealousy, they hatched a plan to hurt their sister. As they were leaving, the evil women told Psyche that her husband must be the awful snake that the Oracle of Delphi had prophesied — that’s why she’d never seen him. They continued to taunt her.
“Because he knows that if you see him, you will be disgusted in his sight and leave him forever. Oh, poor Psyche, how can you sleep with such a horrible creature?”
Psyche couldn’t get these thoughts out of her head. Her sisters must be right. Why else would he not come to her in the daytime? Why else was she not allowed to see him? What is his secret? Why didn’t she know anything about his life? For days, Psyche was troubled with these thoughts. He must be hiding something horrible; that’s why he doesn’t want to be seen in the day. She was determined to discover the truth.
“Tonight, when he falls into a deep sleep, I’ll light a candle to see him. If he is a snake, I’ll kill him. Otherwise, I will douse the flame and go happily to sleep.”
Undaunted, that night, when her husband fell asleep peacefully, she lit a candle and went to him. On her tip-toes, she approached the bed. She saw him, and felt a huge sense relief. The light did not reveal a monster, but rather the most handsome of men.
Ashamed by her madness and her little confidence, Psyche fell down on her knees and thanked the gods. But while he was leaning on him, a drop of oil fell from the candle onto his back. He awoke in pain and saw the light. He looked in her eyes and, facing Psyche’s betrayal, left their bedroom without uttering a single word. Psyche ran after her husband. It was dark and she could not see him. She could only hear his heartbroken voice:
“Love cannot live without trust.”
Those were his last words before flying into the dark sky.
“The god of love! He was my husband and I did not trust him.”
She wept for days. She decided to do anything she could to win back his trust. She’d look everywhere for him and prove her love.
Prove your love
Not knowing what else to do, Psyche went to the temple of Aphrodite and prayed to the goddess. She beseeched Aphrodite to intercede, and persuade her son to take her back. Aphrodite had not, of course, overcome her jealousy for Psyche and still wanted her revenge. She told the young girl that she needed to be completely sure that Psyche was the appropriate wife for her son. Therefore, Psyche had to prove herself. If she could accomplish several tasks, Aphrodite would help her. Otherwise, Eros would be lost to her forever. Psyche agreed and Aphrodite led her on a hill.
There the goddess showed Psyche a dune of different small seeds of wheat, poppies, millets, and more. Then came the directive:
“Separate these seeds by this afternoon. If you do not, I will never let you see Eros again”
Aphrodite vanished. But how could Psyche do this? How could she separate all these tiny seeds? Psyche wept uncontrollably. That moment, a colony of ants passed by and saw her in despair.
“Come, feel mercy for this poor girl and let us help her.”
These expert seed-sorters responded to this appeal and worked hard, separating the seeds. From the big original dune, they formed several smaller dunes, separated by type. Aphrodite saw this and became angry at Psyche who hadn’t finished her work. Aphrodite ordered Psyche to sleep on the ground. The girl didn’t receive any food, either. The goddess had hoped that the impact of the tedious and arduous work would adversely affect Psyche’s beauty. Meanwhile, Aphrodite would not let her son to leave his room, where he’d been mourning Psyche’s betrayal.
A dangerous task
The next morning, Aphrodite came up with a new job from Psyche — a most dangerous task.
“Do you see those black waters descending from the hill? That is the River Styx, awful and abhorrent. Fill this bottle with its water.”
Upon reaching the waterfall, Psyche realized that the surrounding rocks were slippery and steep. The waters rushed through so abruptly that only a winged creature could approach. An eagle had been flying above the river when it saw Psyche, and felt sorry for her. With it’s beak, the eagle seized the bottle from her, filled it with some black water, and returned it to her.
Aphrodite accepted her with a cold smile.
“Someone helped you, otherwise you would not have been able to perform this task by yourself. I’m going to give you one more chance to prove you that you are as determined as you claim to be.”
A visit to Persephone
She gave a box to Psyche to take to the Underworld. There, she was to ask Persephone, queen of the Dead, to drain a little of her beauty into the box. Obediently, Psyche took the path leading to Hades. When she entered the gates and took the boat to the other bank where the dead departed. There she gave money to Charos the boatman to help her find her way through the dark to the palace of Persephone. At the palace. Psyche asked Persephone to place a drop of her beauty in the box. Persephone was glad to serve Aphrodite. Psyche took the box and returned cheerfully to Earth. When she gave Aphrodite the box, the goddess became extremely angry. She admonished Psyche, and decreed that Psyche would forever remain her servant.
Love conquers all
Now the rest of the gods who were watching this wrongdoing, decided to take action. Hermes, the messenger god, was dispatched to reveal to Eros all the misfortunes of his wife. Eros was touched, and this healed the wound of betrayal. He left his room and found Psyche exhausted in his mother’s garden. He forgave her. Eros & Psyche reconciled.
From that moment on, Eros & Psyche lived happily together in their lovely palace, which was always full of roses and other flowers. Psyche persuaded Eros to forgive his mother for the suffering she caused. As a wedding gift, Zeus made Psyche immortal and allowed her to taste ambrosia, the drink of the gods. With Eros & Psyche living in the sky, Aphrodite was finally happy — men on earth had forgotten all about Psyche, and once again worshipped the true goddess of beauty.
We hope you enjoyed the story of Eros & Psyche. May you know great love in your life.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
‘Eros & Psyche’ was adapted from an article originally published on Greeka.com. Used by permission.