A CERTAIN king and queen had three daughters. The
charms of the two elder were more than common, but the beauty of the youngest
was so wonderful that the poverty of language is unable to express its
due praise. The fame of her beauty was so great that strangers from neighboring
countries came in crowds to enjoy the sight, and looked on her with amazement,
paying her that homage which is due only to Venus herself. In fact Venus
found her altars deserted, while men turned their devotion to this young
virgin. As she passed along, the people sang her praises, and strewed
her way with chaplets and flowers.
This perversion of homage due only to the immortal powers
to the exaltation of a mortal gave great offence to the real Venus.
Shaking her ambrosial locks with indignation, she exclaimed, "Am
I then to be eclipsed in my honors by a mortal girl? In vain then
did that royal shepherd, whose judgment was approved by Jove
himself, give me the palm of beauty over my illustrious rivals,
Pallas and Juno. But she shall not so quietly usurp my honors. I
will give her cause to repent of so unlawful a beauty."
Thereupon she calls her winged son Cupid, mischievous
enough in his own nature, and rouses and provokes him yet more by her
complaints. She points out Psyche to him and says, "My dear son,
punish that contumacious beauty; give thy mother a revenge as sweet as
her injuries are great; infuse into the bosom of that haughty girl a passion
for some low, mean, unworthy being, so that she may reap a mortification
as great as her present exultation and triumph."
Cupid prepared to obey the commands of his mother. There
are two fountains in Venus's garden, one of sweet waters, the other of
bitter. Cupid filled two amber vases, one from each fountain, and suspending
them from the top of his quiver, hastened to the
chamber of Psyche, whom he found asleep. He shed a few drops from the
bitter fountain over her lips, though the sight of her almost moved him
to pity; then touched her side with the point of his arrow. At the touch
she awoke, and opened eyes upon Cupid (himself invisible), which so startled
him that in his confusion he wounded himself with his own arrow. Heedless
of his wound, his whole thought now was to repair the mischief he had
done, and he poured the balmy drops of joy over all her silken ringlets.
Psyche, henceforth frowned upon by Venus, derived no benefit
from all her charms. True, all eyes were cast eagerly upon her, and
every mouth spoke her praises; but neither king, royal youth, nor
plebeian presented himself to demand her in marriage. Her two
elder sisters of moderate charms had now long been married to two royal
princes; but Psyche, in her lonely apartment, deplored her solitude, sick
of that beauty which, while it procured abundance of flattery, had failed
to awaken love.
Her parents, afraid that they had unwittingly incurred
of the gods, consulted the oracle of Apollo, and received this
answer: "The virgin is destined for the bride of no mortal lover.
Her future husband awaits her on the top of the mountain. He is a
monster whom neither gods nor men can resist."
This dreadful decree of the oracle filled all the people
dismay, and her parents abandoned themselves to grief. But Psyche said,
"Why, my dear parents, do you now lament me? You should rather have
grieved when the people showered upon me undeserved honors, and with one
voice called me a Venus. I now perceive that I am a victim to that name.
I submit. Lead me to that rock to which my unhappy fate has destined me."
Accordingly, all things being prepared, the royal maid took her place
in the procession, which more resembled a funeral than a nuptial pomp,
and with her parents, amid the lamentations of the people, ascended the
mountain, on the summit of which they left her alone, and with sorrowful
hearts returned home.
While Psyche stood on the ridge of the mountain, panting
with fear and with eyes full of tears, the gentle Zephyr raised her from
the earth and bore her with an easy motion into a flowery dale. By
degrees her mind became composed, and she laid herself down on the grassy
bank to sleep. When she awoke refreshed with sleep, she looked round and
beheld near by a pleasant grove of tall and stately trees. She entered
it, and in the midst discovered a
fountain, sending forth clear and crystal waters, and fast by, a
magnificent palace whose august front impressed the spectator that it
was not the work of mortal hands, but the happy retreat of some god. Drawn
by admiration and wonder, she approached the building and ventured to
enter. Every object she met filled her with pleasure and amazement. Golden
pillars supported the vaulted roof, and the walls were enriched with carvings
and paintings representing beasts of the chase and rural scenes, adapted
to delight the eye of the beholder. Proceeding onward, she perceived that
besides the apartments of state there were others filled with all manner
of treasures, and beautiful and precious productions of nature and art.
While her eyes were thus occupied, a voice addressed her,
though she saw no one, uttering these words: "Sovereign lady, all
that you see is yours. We whose voices you hear are your servants and
shall obey all your commands with our utmost care and diligence. Retire,
therefore, to your chamber and repose on your bed of down, and when you
see fit repair to the bath. Supper awaits you in the adjoining alcove
when it pleases you to take your seat there."
Psyche gave ear to the admonitions of her vocal attendants,
after repose and the refreshment of the bath, seated herself in
the alcove, where a table immediately presented itself, without
any visible aid from waiters or servants, and covered with the
greatest delicacies of food and the most nectareous wines. Her
ears too were feasted with music from invisible performers; of
whom one sang, another played on the lute, and all closed in the
wonderful harmony of a full chorus.
She had not yet seen her destined husband. He came only
hours of darkness and fled before the dawn of morning, but his
accents were full of love, and inspired a like passion in her. She
often begged him to stay and let her behold him, but he would not consent.
On the contrary he charged her to make no attempt to see him, for it was
his pleasure, for the best of reasons, to keep
concealed. "Why should you wish to behold me?" he said; "have
you any doubt of my love? have you any wish ungratified? If you saw me,
perhaps you would fear me, perhaps adore me, but all I ask of you is to
love me. I would rather you would love me as an equal than adore me as
This reasoning somewhat quieted Psyche for a time, and
while the novelty lasted she felt quite happy. But at length the thought
of her parents, left in ignorance of her fate, and of her sisters,
precluded from sharing with her the delights of her situation,
preyed on her mind and made her begin to feel her palace as but a
splendid prison. When her husband came one night, she told him her distress,
and at last drew from him an unwilling consent that her sisters should
be brought to see her.
So, calling Zephyr, she acquainted him with her husband's
commands, and he, promptly obedient, soon brought them across the mountain
down to their sister's valley. They embraced her and she returned their
caresses. "Come," said Psyche, "enter with me my house
and refresh yourselves with whatever your sister has to offer." Then
taking their hands she led them into her golden
palace, and committed them to the care of her numerous train of
attendant voices, to refresh them in her baths and at her table,
and to show them all her treasures. The view of these celestial
delights caused envy to enter their bosoms, at seeing their young
sister possessed of such state and splendor, so much exceeding
They asked her numberless questions, among others what
sort of a person her husband was. Psyche replied that he was a beautiful
youth, who generally spent the daytime in hunting upon the
mountains. The sisters, not satisfied with this reply, soon made
her confess that she had never seen him. Then they proceeded to
fill her bosom with dark suspicions. "Call to mind," they said,"the Pythian oracle that declared you destined to marry a direful
and tremendous monster. The inhabitants of this valley say that
your husband is a terrible and monstrous serpent, who nourishes
you for a while with dainties that he may by and by devour you.
Take our advice. Provide yourself with a lamp and a sharp knife;
put them in concealment that your husband may not discover them, and when
he is sound asleep, slip out of bed, bring forth your lamp, and see for
yourself whether what they say is true or not. If it is, hesitate not
to cut off the monster's head, and thereby
recover your liberty."
Psyche resisted these persuasions as well as she could,
did not fail to have their effect on her mind, and when her sisters were
gone, their words and her own curiosity were too strong for her to resist.
So she prepared her lamp and a sharp knife, and hid them out of sight
of her husband. When he had fallen into his first sleep, she silently
rose and uncovering her lamp beheld not a hideous monster, but the most
beautiful and charming of the gods, with his golden ringlets wandering
over his snowy neck and crimson cheek, with two dewy wings on his shoulders,
whiter than snow, and with shining feathers like the tender blossoms of
spring. As she leaned the lamp over to have a nearer view of his face
a drop of burning oil fell on the shoulder of the god, startled with which
he opened his eyes and fixed them full upon her; then, without saying
one word, he spread his white wings and flew out of the window. Psyche,
in vain endeavoring to follow him, fell from the window to the ground.
Cupid, beholding her as she lay in the dust, stopped his flight for an
instant and said, "O foolish Psyche, is it thus you repay my love?
After having disobeyed my mother's commands and made you my wife, will
you think me a monster and cut off my head? But go; return to your sisters,
whose advice you seem to think preferable to mine. I inflict no other
punishment on you than to leave you forever. Love cannot dwell with suspicion."
So saying, he fled away, leaving poor Psyche prostrate on the ground,
filling the place with mournful lamentations.
When she had recovered some degree of composure she looked
around her, but the palace and gardens had vanished, and she found herself
in the open field not far from the city where her sisters dwelt. She repaired
thither and told them the whole story of her misfortunes, at which, pretending
to grieve, those spiteful
creatures inwardly rejoiced. "For now," said they, "he
will perhaps choose one of us." With this idea, without saying a
of her intentions, each of them rose early the next morning and
ascended the mountains, and having reached the top, called upon
Zephyr to receive her and bear her to his lord; then leaping up,
and not being sustained by Zephyr, fell down the precipice and was dashed
Psyche meanwhile wandered day and night, without food
or repose, in search of her husband. Casting her eyes on a lofty mountain
having on its brow a magnificent temple, she sighed and said to herself,
"Perhaps my love, my lord, inhabits there," and directed her
She had no sooner entered than she saw heaps of corn,
loose ears and some in sheaves, with mingled ears of barley.
Scattered about, lay sickles and rakes, and all the instruments of
harvest, without order, as if thrown carelessly out of the weary
reapers' hands in the sultry hours of the day.
This unseemly confusion the pious Psyche put an end to,
separating and sorting everything to its proper place and kind,
believing that she ought to neglect none of the gods, but endeavor by
her piety to engage them all in her behalf. The holy Ceres, whose temple
it was, finding her so religiously employed, thus spoke to her: "O
Psyche, truly worthy of our pity, though I cannot shield you from the
frowns of Venus, yet I can teach you how best to allay her displeasure.
Go, then, and voluntarily surrender yourself to your lady and sovereign,
and try by modesty and submission to win her forgiveness, and perhaps
her favor will restore you the husband you have lost."
Psyche obeyed the commands of Ceres and took her way to
the temple of Venus, endeavoring to fortify her mind and ruminating on
what she should say and how best propitiate the angry goddess, feeling
that the issue was doubtful and perhaps fatal.
Venus received her with angry countenance. "Most
faithless of servants," said she, "do you at last remember that
you really have a mistress? Or have you rather come to see your
sick husband, yet laid up of the wound given him by his loving
wife? You are so ill-favored and disagreeable that the only way
you can merit your lover must be by dint of industry and
diligence. I will make trial of your housewifery." Then she
ordered Psyche to be led to the storehouse of her temple, where
was laid up a great quantity of wheat, barley, millet, vetches,
beans, and lentils prepared for food for her pigeons, and said,
"Take and separate all these grains, putting all of the same kind
in a parcel by themselves, and see that you get it done before
evening." Then Venus departed and left her to her task.
But Psyche, in a perfect consternation at the enormous
stupid and silent, without moving a finger to the inextricable
While she sat despairing, Cupid stirred up the little
ant, a native of the fields, to take compassion on her. The leader of
the ant hill, followed by whole hosts of his six-legged subjects, approached
the heap, and with the utmost diligence, taking grain by grain, they separated
the pile, sorting each kind to its parcel; and when it was all done, they
vanished out of sight in a moment.
Venus at the approach of twilight returned from the banquet
of the gods, breathing odors and crowned with roses. Seeing the task done,
she exclaimed, "This is no work of yours, wicked one, but his, whom
to your own and his misfortune you have enticed." So saying, she
threw her a piece of black bread for her supper and
Next morning Venus ordered Psyche to be called and said
to her,"Behold yonder grove which stretches along the margin of the
water. There you will find sheep feeding without a shepherd, with
golden-shining fleeces on their backs. Go, fetch me a sample of
that precious wool gathered from every one of their fleeces."
Psyche obediently went to the riverside, prepared to do
to execute the command. But the river god inspired the reeds with
harmonious murmurs, which seemed to say, "O maiden, severely
tried, tempt not the dangerous flood, nor venture among the
formidable rams on the other side, for as long as they are under
the influence of the rising sun, they burn with a cruel rage to
destroy mortals with their sharp horns or rude teeth. But when the noontide
sun has driven the cattle to the shade, and the serene spirit of the flood
has lulled them to rest, you may then cross in safety, and you will find
the woolly gold sticking to the bushes and the trunks of the trees."
Thus the compassionate river god gave Psyche instructions
how to accomplish her task, and by observing his directions she soon
returned to Venus with her arms full of the golden fleece; but she
received not the approbation of her implacable mistress, who said, "I
know very well it is by none of your own doings that you have succeeded
in this task, and I am not satisfied yet that you have any capacity to
make yourself useful. But I have another task for you. Here, take this
box and go your way to the infernal shades, and give this box to Proserpine
and say, 'My mistress Venus desires you to send her a little of your beauty,
for in tending her sick son she has lost some of her own.' Be not too
long on your errand, for I must paint myself with it to appear at the
circle of the gods and goddesses this evening."
Psyche was now satisfied that her destruction was at hand,
obliged to go with her own feet directly down to Erebus.
Wherefore, to make no delay of what was not to be avoided, she
goes to the top of a high tower to precipitate herself headlong,
thus to descend the shortest way to the shades below. But a voice from
the tower said to her, "Why, poor unlucky girl, dost thou design
to put an end to thy days in so dreadful a manner? And what cowardice
makes thee sink under this last danger who hast been so miraculously supported
in all thy former?" Then the voice told her how by a certain cave
she might reach the realms of Pluto, and how to avoid all the dangers
of the road, to pass by Cerberus, the three-headed dog, and prevail on
Charon, the ferryman, to take her across the black river and bring her
back again. But the voice added, "When Proserpine has given you the
box filled with her beauty, of all things this is chiefly to be observed
by you, that you never once open or look into the box nor allow your curiosity
to pry into the treasure of the beauty of the goddesses."
Psyche, encouraged by this advice, obeyed it in all things,
taking heed to her ways travelled safely to the kingdom of Pluto.
She was admitted to the palace of Proserpine, and without
accepting the delicate seat or delicious banquet that was offered
her, but contented with coarse bread for her food, she delivered
her message from Venus. Presently the box was returned to her,
shut and filled with the precious commodity. Then she returned the way
she came, and glad was she to come out once more into the light of day.
But having got so far successfully through her dangerous
longing desire seized her to examine the contents of the box."What," said she, "shall I, the carrier of this divine
take the least bit to put on my cheeks to appear to more advantage in
the eyes of my beloved husband!" So she carefully opened the box,
but found nothing there of any beauty at all, but an infernal and truly
Stygian sleep, which being thus set free from its prison, took possession
of her, and she fell down in the midst of the road, a sleepy corpse without
sense or motion.
But Cupid, being now recovered from his wound, and not
able longer to bear the absence of his beloved Psyche, slipping through
the smallest crack of the window of his chamber which happened to be left
open, flew to the spot where Psyche lay, and gathering up the sleep from
her body closed it again in the box, and waked Psyche with a light touch
of one of his arrows. "Again," said he, "hast thou almost
perished by the same curiosity. But now perform exactly the task imposed
on you by my mother, and I will take care of the rest."
Then Cupid, as swift as lightning penetrating the heights
heaven, presented himself before Jupiter with his supplication.
Jupiter lent a favoring ear, and pleaded the cause of the lovers
so earnestly with Venus that he won her consent. On this he sent
Mercury to bring Psyche up to the heavenly assembly, and when she arrived,
handing her a cup of ambrosia, he said, "Drink this,
Psyche, and be immortal; nor shall Cupid ever break away from the knot
in which he is tied, but these nuptials shall be perpetual."
Thus Psyche became at last united to Cupid, and in due
had a daughter born to them whose name was Pleasure.
The fable of Cupid and Psyche is usually considered
The Greek name for a butterfly is Psyche, and the same word means the
soul. There is no illustration of the immortality of the soul so striking
and beautiful as the butterfly, bursting on brilliant wings from the tomb
in which it has lain, after a dull, grovelling, caterpillar existence,
to flutter in the blaze of day and feed on the most fragrant and delicate
productions of the spring. Psyche, then, is the human soul, which is purified
by sufferings and misfortunes, and is thus prepared for the enjoyment
of true and pure happiness.
In works of art Psyche is represented as a maiden with
of a butterfly, along with Cupid, in the different situations
described in the allegory.
Milton alludes to the story of Cupid and Psyche in the
conclusion of his "Comus":
"Celestial Cupid, her famed son, advanced,
Holds his dear Psyche sweet entranced,
After her wandering labors long,
Till free consent the gods among
Make her his eternal bride;
And from her fair unspotted side
Two blissful twins are to be born,
Youth and Joy; so Jove hath sworn."
The allegory of the story of Cupid and Psyche is well
presented in the beautiful lines of T. K. Harvey:
"They wove bright fables in the days of old,
When reason borrowed fancy's painted wings;
When truth's clear river flowed o'er sands of gold,
And told in song its high and mystic things!
And such the sweet and solemn tale of her
The pilgrim heart, to whom a dream was given,
That led her through the world,--Love's worshipper,--
To seek on earth for him whose home was heaven!
"In the full city,--by the haunted fount,--
Through the dim grotto's tracery of spars,--
'Mid the pine temples, on the moonlit mount,
Where silence sits to listen to the stars;
In the deep glade where dwells the brooding dove,
The painted valley, and the scented air,
She heard far echoes of the voice of Love,
And found his footsteps' traces everywhere.
"But nevermore they met since doubts and fears,
Those phantom shapes that haunt and blight the earth,
Had come 'twixt her, a child of sin and tears,
And that bright spirit of immortal birth;
Until her pining soul and weeping eyes
Had learned to seek him only in the skies;
Till wings unto the weary heart were given,
And she became Love's angel bride in heaven!"
The story of Cupid and Psyche first appears in the works
Apuleius, a writer of the second century of our era. It is
therefore of much more recent date than most of the legends of the Age
of Fable. It is this that Keats alludes to in his "Ode to
"O latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe's sapphire-regioned star
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heaped with flowers;
Nor virgin choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet,
From chain-swung censor teeming;
No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming."
In Moore's "Summer Fete" a fancy ball is
described, in which one of the characters personated is Psyche--
"... not in dark disguise to-night
Hath our young heroine veiled her light;--
For see, she walks the earth, Love's own.
His wedded bride, by holiest vow
Pledged in Olympus, and made known
To mortals by the type which now
Hangs glittering on her snowy brow.
That butterfly, mysterious trinket,
Which means the soul, (though few would think it,)
And sparkling thus on brow so white
Tells us we've Psyche here to-night."
Bulfinch, Thomas. "Cupid and Psyche." Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable. Boston: S. W. Tilton &
Amazon.com: Buy the book in paperback.
Guide to Roman and
Greek Names in the above story:
Roman = Greek
Cupid = Eros
Venus = Aphrodite
Jove = Zeus
Pallas = Athena
Juno = Hera
Ceres = Demeter
Proserpine = Persephone
Pluto = Hades
Mercury = Hermes