A Summary and Analysis of the Eros and Psyche Myth

The myth of Eros and Psyche has exercised writers’ and artists’ imaginations for several millennia, but what are the details of the myth? Below, we summarise the story of these unlucky lovers, and provide an analysis of the myth’s meaning and symbolism.

Surprisingly, although the myth is usually referred to as ‘Eros and Psyche’, with the Greek god Eros being namechecked in the title, the first detailed narrative from antiquity involving these lovers was not written until the second century AD, and it was a Roman rather than a Greek author who was responsible for the story.

That Roman author’s book was called the Metamorphoses – no, not Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that great compendium of classical myths retold in poetry, but Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, a prose work also known as The Golden Ass. Although Eros and Psyche had been portrayed in art before Apuleius, he was the one who brought the pair well and truly into the literary world.

Eros and Psyche: plot summary

Psyche is a beautiful woman, one of three sisters, and easily the most beautiful of the three. Indeed, so beautiful was she that no man would marry her, because they all found her beauty too intimidating.

As so often happened in the classical myths, Psyche’s despairing father sought out the advice of the oracle, which told him that he should dress Psyche in wedding attire and then leave her on a rock. A horrific monster would come by and snatch her up, carrying her off.

Sure enough, when her father had placed her upon a rock as commanded by the oracle, Psyche was carried off by something, but it wasn’t a monster: just the wind. She was dropped into the garden of a beautiful golden palace. Going inside, she found invisible servants ready to do her bidding.

When night came, Psyche was aware of a presence next to her in the dark, and knew this was the husband of which the oracle had spoken. She wanted to see the man who had married her, but he forbid it, telling her that if she ever saw him, he would disappear (well, technically he couldn’t ‘disappear’ as he’d never appeared, but you know what we mean).

Psyche was happy with this deal, at least at first. She lived with her husband in the palace, and he allowed her to return home and visit her parents, to reassure them she was alive and well and happily married.

However, Psyche’s sisters, less beautiful than she was, were jealous when they saw how happy and in love their sister was, and decided to ruin things for her. They planted seeds of doubt in Psyche’s mind about who her husband was. After all, she’d never seen him, and was forbidden to do so. They told her she should conceal a lamp in the bedroom when she returned to her husband so she could steal a glimpse of him.

When Psyche returned to her husband, she did just that. As her husband slept beside her, she took the lamp out and lit it, revealing the handsome features of Eros, the man who had married her. But a drop of oil from the lamp dripped onto Eros’ sleeping face, waking him, and he fled from her – just as he had warned he would do.

Psyche has literally lost Love, since Eros represented romantic love itself. She left the palace, since it was no longer her home now love had fled, and she wandered the world, eventually being captured by Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who was jealous of Psyche’s beauty. Aphrodite locked Psyche up and forced her to complete menial tasks for her.

But Eros still loved Psyche, and so he came to her when she slept and woke her with one of his arrows, taking her with him to Zeus. Eros sought Zeus’ permission to marry Psyche, and Zeus agreed to this. Aphrodite and Psyche made things up and everyone lived happily ever after.

Eros and Psyche: analysis

It’s refreshing to find a love story from classical myth which has a happy ending, at least eventually; though of course the moment when Eros flees Psyche is an important one. But what is the meaning of the tale of Eros and Psyche?

The story of Cupid and Psyche appears to harbour some deeper significance: after all, it is about the soul (Psyche) joining with love (Eros) but only on the condition that the soul does not see love face-to-face.

This aspect of the myth has parallels with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, though in that story it is the man who disobeys the divine command (not to look back at his wife Eurydice as they are escaping from the Underworld), turning to look at his wife and thus losing her together. Indeed, as we discuss in our commentary on the Orpheus myth, Orpheus’ motivation is the same as Psyche’s: doubt. Orpheus doubts whether Eurydice really is following him back to the land of the living, so looks back to check; Psyche is made to doubt whether her husband really exists (or at least is the marvellous devoted lover she’s been led to think he is), so holds the lamp up to his face to see him. There are also parallels in later religious and mythical writings, including in the Christian idea of not seeing God face-to-face in this world (only ‘through a glass darkly’).

But why might it be such a bad idea for Psyche, the soul, to know or ‘see’ Eros, love? In both pagan and Christian religion, the soul is immortal, and Martianus Capella, a later prose writer, thought the myth was an allegory for the loss of immortality: in choosing to commit to sexual love (by wanting to see Eros by lamplight), Psyche is drawn into the mortal world and thus gives up immortality. The soul, thereafter, will be destined to leave the mortal human body behind, because the body is governed by Eros (i.e., sexual desire).

But in Christianity, one might have expected the myth of Eros and Psyche (or Cupid and Psyche in some retellings) to take on a similar religious symbolism: i.e., a warning not to give in to bodily desire at the expense of the immortal soul.

What actually happened, though, is that many Christian writers saw the tale as representing the significance of marriage: Eros (or Cupid) and Psyche represent the union between human love and the divine soul. Certainly, despite Cupid’s/Eros’ reputation for adultery elsewhere in classical writing, he does seek out Psyche after he had earlier fled from her, and seeks Zeus’ divine permission to marry her and make her an honest woman. What could be more ‘Christian’ than that?

In paintings, Psyche is often depicted with the wings of a butterfly, since Psyche is the ancient Greek for ‘soul’ and the Greeks believed that the soul took the form of a butterfly when it fled from the body.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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