We have come to use the words “comedy” and “tragedy” very differently than the Greeks, which is who we get those two words from.
For the Greeks, a comedy was any narrative that started darkly – pain, suffering, death, grief – and ended happily – joy, love, marriage, reconciliation, even birth.
A tragedy, on the other hand, ran the opposite direction – from bliss to sorrow, from peace to strife.
Given that definition, the tale of Cupid and Psyche is a comedy.
The visual narrative can be found in Greek art dating back to the 4th century B.C.E.; however, we have no extant literary sources until the 2nd century C.E., where it appears as a central chapter in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. In the same way that his fellow Roman, Ovid, retold (and reinterpreted) Greek myths, this is as close to the source material as we can get.
Cast of Major Character:
Cupid (Latin)/ Eros (Greek): The God of Desire, the son of the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite. This winged deity, often depicted as a a cherubic angel, is held in contempt by some early commentators as being a home wrecker, for inciting intense, misdirected passion. He posseses two types of arrows; one kind causes passionate desire, the other causes intense revulsion.
Eros is the root of the word erotic.
Psyche (Greek)/Anima (Latin): a mortal woman whose beauty rivaled that of Aphrodite herself, making the Goddess jealous.
Psyche and Anima translate to the English word “soul”.
Psyche is the root of the words psychology and psychiatry, while Anima can be found in words like animal, animate and animation.
Aphrodite (Greek)/Venus (Latin): Goddess of Beauty and Desire, she, like most of the Greek pantheon exhibits all-too-human traits. While the original cause of the Trojan War can be traced back to Eris, Goddess of Discord, Aphrodite’s ego plays a central part by making Helen swoon for Paris.
Aphrodite’s name lies behind the word aphrodisiac. Her seduction by the God Hermes resulted in a child named Hermaphroditus. As an adult, he was fused with a female water nymph who had fallen in love him, giving rise to the word Hermaphrodite.
Hedone: Technically not a major character, she is still the comedic apex of the story. Meaning pleasure, her name gave rise to the word hedonism.
Psyche’s parents: Her parents are the rulers of an unnamed city. Her father’s actions, as a result of advice from the Oracle of Delphi, set the plot in motion.
The Oracle of Delphi: Oracles were female priestesses of the God Apollo, God of Light, a multifaceted God whose many attribute include the power of prophecy. While there were many Oracles (also called Sybils) from different cities/temple complexes (see the Cumaean Sybil, for example), the most mythologically (and historically) important was the Oracle at Delphi.
Psyche’s sisters: Psyche’s two elder sisters were not as pretty as Psyche, and resented her for it. Their jealousy would be their own undoing. Some folklorists have noted certain parallels with the sisters in Cinderella (there are other similarities as well).
Zephyr: Spirit of the West wind, who can transport people to Cupid’s sacred grove and palatial home.
Coming soon, part 2: The Union of Cupid and Psyche: the Banishment and the Villa