by Katharine C. Otto
Here’s a myth written by a man.
Venus, Roman goddess of love, sends son Cupid to skewer beautiful, mortal Psyche with one of his famous love arrows, so she will fall in love with some ugly old coot and age quickly. Unfortunately, Cupid botches the job, ends up sticking himself with one of his own arrows, and falls in love with his mother’s rival.
Next, he abuses his immortal power by lying to Psyche and her family. He has the oracle say her destined mate is a monster. She resigns herself to her fate, and her family abandons her on a mountainside.
Cupid marries Psyche and whisks her off to his mountaintop estate, far away from everyone she knows and loves, except him. She isn’t allowed to see his face. He buys her anything she wants, but he is not there for her. He comes home only at night, after she’s asleep, spends the night, and is gone by morning.
She’s unhappy with this arrangement. She communicates she is lonely, so he agrees to bring her sisters up for a visit. They fill her mind full of doubts and remind her of the oracle.
So, Psyche lights a lamp in the middle of the night and looks at him. Shocked by his beauty, her hand falters, and she spills a drop of hot oil on him. He wakes up, is offended by her audacity, and runs home to Mama to have his burn cared for.
“Love cannot live where suspicion lies,” he moans, as he flies out the window, thereby getting the last word. Psyche is expelled from the mountaintop estate and must work for a living.
Venus takes advantage of the marital conflict and sets Psyche to work. She orders her to perform a number of inane tasks, but Psyche, being mortal, knows her limitations and is not afraid to ask for help. Even the ants pity her and help her sort a pile of small seeds, one of the endless meaningless tasks Venus inflicts. Finally, after ten years, Cupid rescues his wife from his mother.
Now, the testosterone-poisoned would have us believe that Psyche did something wrong by looking at her husband. You’re supposed to believe she didn’t trust him enough, so she ended up having to prove her love.
This is a con.
It wasn’t Psyche’s fault Cupid was a bad aim, abducted her under false pretenses, set unreasonable rules for her behavior, and wasn’t there for her except at night and on his terms. A lesser woman would have used that lamp to set fire to his bed.
Psyche knew this was Cupid’s way of saying “I love you,” but she was fed up with the lies, discovered the truth, and paid the consequences. Psyche was ultimately granted immortality too, so she and Cupid can live happily ever after.
Fortunately for her, she gets more freedom. We must suppose she is now allowed to see her husband in broad daylight, perhaps even have breakfast with him, and enjoy his company outside the bedroom. The myth doesn’t say how often Venus comes around, but Psyche’s mother-in-law issues are another story.
The point is that Psyche does the only thing she can do to avoid becoming a bitter old woman. She breaks the rules before they break her. She pays the price to earn fulfillment, happiness, and love. Good thing, too, since the alternative would make for a miserable eternity.
This is good for humanity as well, since the word “psyche” has come to stand for the human soul, the mind, and mental life. It is the basis of the words “psychiatry,” “psychology,” “psychic,” and others.
Psyche did us all a favor by daring to challenge the gods’ authority. She pushed the envelope, and pierced the veil of mortality. Her experience offers promise of light beyond the darkness, for those who have the courage to persist.