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Fairytale Friday: Psyche, The Ultimate Fairytale Princess

July 5th, 2013

While editing Black Apples, I constantly stumble upon topics that deserve their own blog post – and tonight I was supposed to write about the perils of marriage, as found in Beauty and the Beast, The Frog Prince and Bluebeard (I’ll write that one too), but then I got sidetracked by Pysche… While rereading the story (first written down in Metamorphoses (aka. The Golden Ass) by Apuleius, 2nd century AD ) I suddenly realized (again) just how much “our” princesses owe to this Greek lady – and how much of her story that has survived, transformed and melded with other – more famous – stories…

Sava Hentia: Psyche Parasita de Amor

First of all there is the royal blood, and then there is the beauty: Princess Psyche is so beautiful, no one wants to marry her – and also: an oracle predicts that she will marry a monstrous serpent and her child will be a hideous thing: “a dragon-like creature who harasses the world with fire and iron” (the daughter she eventually has by Eros is Voluptas /Hedone, meaning “physical pleasure”, or “bliss”…). In response her parents create a wedding for her with funeral rites, and leave her on a mountain top to die.

Enter our prince: where other princesses must make due with “Charming” or “Philip”, Psyche’s prince is Eros – desire itself – sent by his mother, Aphrodite, to thwart this lowly human who challenges her place with her obnoxious, mortal beauty. He, of course, falls in love with her, and whisks her away to a magical place with a beautiful house and a bedroom for two. Her new husband, however, can not show her who he is, so he only visits her at night, and forbids her to look upon him.

Edward Byrne Jones: Psyche’s Wedding

Here comes the jealous sisters: Eros permits the sisters to visit Psyche (now pregnant), and they are not at all pleased that she has done so well. They recall the old predictions and convinces Psyche that her husband is really a vicious, coiling serpent that will kill both her and her child. They urge her to light a lamp and reveal his hideousness the next time he visits. Armed with the lamp and dagger to kill the beast, Psyche does as her sisters suggests – only to find the beautiful Eros lying by her side. Unfortunately she makes a noise and wakes him up – forcing him to flee (he does after all not have his mother’s permission in this endeavour).

This is a story we know well from various animal groom fairytales. The story of Psyche was written down in Latin in the 2nd century AD, but existed before that as a Greek myth. Iona and Peter Opie writes: “… when looked at folkloristically the suspicion becomes a near-certainty that in the original tale the girl did marry a snake-shaped monster”, making Psyche an early Beauty and Eros an early Beast. Here in Scandinavia we know the story from White Bear King Valemon (East of the Sun, West of the Moon), where the prince is a bear by day and a handsome prince by night. His unfortunate bride spills wax on him when she is to sneak a peek – and like Eros he is forced to flee (in this story a witch has taken Aphrodite’s place).

William Adolphe Bouguereau: The Ravishment of Psyche

This is an almost Bluebeardian-theme of curiosity vs. enlightenment, trust and violation there of, and Psyche has often been compared to Eve for her fatal lack of  obedience; the breaking of rules unleashes chaos and trials that could have been avoided if only she had done what she was told (and kept away from the snake…). But then again, the trials are almost always worth it: Valemon’s girl breaks the white bear’s curse, Bluebeard’s wife keeps her head and Psyche becomes a goddess. I think that, in Psyches case, the story reads better as the story of a human than a story of a woman: she glimpses the divine (Eros), something that is hidden from her (humanity). Afterwards she yearns so for that which she has seen, that she chooses to go on a quest to regain it. Psyche suffers all – including death and rebirth – to evolve and gain her prize of immortality.

Fracois Gerard:  Cupid and Psyche

Back to the story: Psyche seeks out Aphrodite and begs for her mercy. The goddess takes on the role as the evil queen (and mother in law) and mocks Psyche for having entered a sham marriage. She has her handmaidens “Worry” and “Sadness” whip her and torment her in every way possible ( love can indeed be cruel). It is a part of the story that Psyche in her days as young princess was called “the second coming of Aphrodite” and was rumored to be the goddess’s own child, something that can irk any love goddess, I suppose… This punishment of the younger (prettier) rival is something we know well from other stories, especially from Snow White.

Aphrodite gives Psyche various tasks she must fulfill in order to get her prince back (he is currently ill and is being nursed back to health at his mother’s house), two of these tasks are particularly interesting: in the first one Aphrodite throws before Psyche a great mass of mixed wheat, barley, poppy seed, chickpeas, lentils, and beans, demanding that she sort them into separate heaps by dawn. This is Cinderella’s task! There are even little helpers, but they are not mice – but ants, who helps her sort through the mess. Aphrodite is furious when she comes home and sees that the job is done, she throws Psyche a piece of dry crust to eat and stomps off.

Seignac Guillaume: The Awakening of Psyche

The other interesting thing happens after the third and hardest task, where Psyche must visit the underworld in order to fetch some of Persephone’s beauty. Psyche manages the task but is (again) tempted by her need to know and opens the box to have a look: and falls into a deathlike slumber. She remains thus until Eros finds her, and revives her – with a kiss…

Canova: Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss

It’s impossible to tell when and how Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and even Beauty and Beast gained these traits from Psyche’s story – and the influence varies in the different versions of the respective tales, but it’s certainly there. Just as certain as the happily ever after…

The story of Eros and Psyche concludes with her drinking ambrosia, the divine drink that grants immortality, so she can be with her prince forever. There is a huge wedding feast and everybody is happy.

As a role model Psyche does quite well:  she becomes the hero of the story, the mover of the plot, she doesn’t remain the victim on the mountain top but takes action when required (as any adult woman should). Read as a love story, it is nice to see how Eros and Psyche both must do they share to resolve their difficult situation – it’s not just the prince who has to fight his way through the brambles.

Psyche’s name means “butterfly”, which is why she often is pictured with butterfly wings on her back. But the same word is also – probably due to the butterfly’s transformative qualities – used to describe the human soul (or “breath of life”). She is a butterfly herself, going through different stages: from maid to lover and mother – then she visits the underworld and falls into a deathlike sleep, before she’s granted immortality and goes on to live among the gods. “The great quest” and the subsequent transformation, is where fairytales and myths merges: it is equally important in both. In the fairytales though, it’s rarely as “outspoken” as in Psyche’s story, where the idea of spiritual awakening/development (the merging of human “soul” and divinity) seems to be the central issue. Maybe, if we read about “our” princesses with Psyche in mind, we might discover some new, exciting layers in the stories… And Psyche’s passion and determination certainly leaves some of her younger incarnations somewhat lacking in comparison…

Blackeri: Eros and Psyche

More:

Visions of Whimsy: The Story of Eros and Psyche
Iona and Peter Opie: The Classic Fairy Tales
Wikipedia: Eros and Psyche
Terri Windling: Married to Magic: Animal Brides and Bridegrooms in Folklore and Fantasy 

C.S. Lewis: Till We Have Faces

 

 Camilla Bruce 2013

One Response to “Fairytale Friday: Psyche, The Ultimate Fairytale Princess”

  1. Kate Dircksen says:

    I’m executing research on snakes, are you aware the largest snake?

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