The Union of Cupid and Psyche, part 3/4: the Trials of Psyche

In part one, we saw the cast of characters: primarily, they are Cupid, Psyche, and Cupid’s jealous mother, the Goddess of Desire, Aphrodite.

When we left Psyche in part 2, she was in a peculiar place: the villa of an unknown lover, pregnant with his child.

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Psyche longed for home; Cupid knew this, and eventually granted her wish, in his own way. He allowed Zephyr, the West Wind, to bring her sisters to visit her.

Unfortunately, her sisters were envious of her palatial accommodations, not to mention her fine jewelry (see image below). Instead of supporting her, they brought up the Oracle’s premonition:

She had been fated to marry a monster, perhaps one that would devour her and her baby.

They insinuated that she should at least catch a glimmer of her lover; and while they made their appeal sound as if it came from a place of concern, truth be told, they wished only sorrow open their beautiful sibling.

Unfortunately, Psyche was trusting to a fault, and took her sisters’ counsel.

psyche_3
Psyche Showing Her Jewelry to Her Sisters, Marry-Joseph Blondel, 1815–16.

What’s a girl to do?

Armed with a dagger, and carrying a lamp, she decided to discover the identity of her mysterious lover…

What she saw was the most resplendent, beautiful being her eyes had ever spied upon.

In her surprise, she inadvertently pricked herself with one of Cupid’s arrows (which he really needs to learn to store away more carefully).

Overcome by passion, she attempted to pounce upon him, and forget that she was carrying an oil lamp…

In that process, she spilled oil on the sleeping God.

Shocked awake, burnt from the oil lamp, he fled; spreading his wings, he flew out of the nearest window.

What’s a girl to do?

In this case, she followed, in a mad, love-crazed frenzy…

cupid_psyche_3
Cupid and Psyche, Giuseppe Naria Crespi (Spagnolo), 1707-1709

Wandering with blind-lust, Psyche came across Pan, the God of the Wilderness – apt enough given her infatuation. After acknowledging the God, she began her quest.

Her journey took her across the paths of both of her sisters. Both believed that they, too, were worthy of the love of Cupid…and if Zephyr was the key to that love…

Well, there is a reason it’s called a leap of faith.

Unfortunately for them, Zephyr, of the West Wind, was having none of it.

Both of Psyche’s sisters threw themselves off the rocky crag.

Bother of her sisters fell to their deaths on the rocks below…

*

Psyche wandered on…

She went to the temple of Demeter, mother of Persephone.  The temple was in disarray, and Psyche reordered it.

Demeter was pleased, and came to visit the troubled girl, but could not act on her behalf against another Goddess.

She went to the temple of Hera, Queen of the Olympians.  The temple was in disarray, and Psyche reordered it.

Hera was pleased, and came to visit the troubled girl, but could not act on her behalf against another Goddess.

Psyche got the message: it was time to go to the temple of her beloved’s mother, the Temple of Aphrodite.

*

Aphrodite is a spiteful Goddess (though they all tend to be).

She gave Psyche over to her two handmaidens:

Worry and Sadness.

They whipped her and tortured her.

Aphrodite was just beginning. To continue Psyche’s humiliation she ripped off her clothes, bashed her head into the ground, and essentially slut-shamed her for bearing an illegitimate child.

Leaving a sobbing, bloodied Psyche, Aphrodite then issued her first trial:

She threw a mixture of wheat, barley, poppy-seeds, chickpeas, lentils and beans, and commanded the beaten girl to sort them into separate piles by dawn; Aphrodite then left to go to a wedding feast.

The whole time, the Ant King had been watching Aphrodite torture Psyche, and took pity on her. He brought forth his armies of ants, who sorted through the heap, divvying everything up as per the Goddesses’ instructions.

When Aphrodite returned at dawn from the wedding feast, quite drunk, she was not amused. She tossed Psyche a crust of bread, and cursed her for injuring her beloved son.

*

Aphrodite issued a second task: across the river was an angry, violent sheep with Golden Fleece. Psyche was ordered to gather the sheep’s wool…

For the second time, Psyche contemplated suicide; however, just as the Ant King had taken pity on her, so did a Reed in the river. In an act of mercy, the Reed gathered the wool caught on the brush in the river, and presented it to Psyche.

*

psyche_3_2
Psyche’s Second Task, Giulio Romano, 1526-1528, from the Palazzo del Tè.

Having completed the first two tasks, Aphrodite issued a third trial:

She gave her a crystal vase, and ordered the young girl to gather the black waters that originate at the source of the rivers Styx and Cocytus (“lamentation“), two of the five rivers that surround Hades, the Greek Underworld (the others are Phlegethon, Acheron and Lethe).

In other words, Aphrodite sent Psyche to the entrance to Hell.

The source of the rivers were guarded by dragons, and once again, Psyche fell into despair.

However, this time it was Zeus himself who took pity on her. He sent in his eagles, who fended off the dragons, and recovered the waters to appease Aphrodite.

master_of_the_die
Venus ordering Psyche to take water from a fountain guarded by dragons, Master of the Die, (Italian, active Rome, ca. 1530–60), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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So what could Aphrodite probably do to torment Psyche further?

She’d been whipped, degraded, humiliated and defiled. She’d been given three impossible tasks, saved only by the mercy of the Ants, the Reeds, and the King of the Gods himself.

What could Aphrodite possibly do to torment Psyche at this point?

She could send her into Hades itself.

Stay tuned for the fourth and final installment:

The Union of Cupid and Psyche, part 4/4: Psyche in Hell, and the Wedding of Cupid and Psyche

 

 

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