Cupid and Psyche
Updated: Feb 3
"At once the secret was revealed. There lay the gentlest and sweetest of all wild creatures, Cupid himself, the beautiful Love-god, and at sight of him the flame of the lamp spurted joyfully up and the knife turned its edge for shame."
– Lucius Apuleius
It is hard to please the gods, and much easier to offend them. What, was Psyche’s crime? She did not boast, nor curse nor claim anything that might have turned the gods’ eyes upon her.
She was no Arachne – so assured in her own abilities that she would challenge the gods themselves and bring their skittering, eight-legged vengeance down upon herself.
All Psyche did was Be.
If others turned their faces to her soft limbs, the brightness of her jaw, the honey on her cheeks, how could it be Psyche that bore the shame of that? She was as she was made and made no great show of that. If others saw her walking through the streets, struck by her beauty, how could Psyche be to blame? She was only walking. She was not the one who’s thoughts and tongues turned to Venus Libitina, and found the goddess wanting. Psyche did not ask them to compare.
And still they did.
And if the whispers of her beauty and the tales that she outshone the gods themselves reached the heavens, is it Psyche’s fault that Venus overheard? It is not as though the people were not warned. Did Troy herself not fall to Venus and her lust to be crowned fairest of them all? Did Helen and a thousand other women not weep that Venus might have her gold? Did the whispers not stop to think of how the gods so often heard their words?
It was not Psyche’s words – but it was Psyche’s face. And that was enough.
The powerful goddess, adult Venus, mother and wife let jealousy and outrage cloud her heart. She turned her eyes upon this youth with acid on her tongue, and then she turned back once more to call her son.
And Cupid came.
“This youth, this mortal, who dares to try outshine me,” Venus spat, with teeth that grew needle-sharp, and eyes curved like cruelty given shape. “Disgrace her. Have her shame her family’s name. A beauty yes, perhaps, but have her love a beast so hideous, so monstrous, that all who see her know who cursed her with this fate.”
And Cupid, still a youth himself, but glistening with godhood, turned and went. His wings were white as goose-down and fletched the arrows for his bow. The poison of love dripped from their heads to stain the quiver crimson as a breaking heart.
And yet, when Cupid looked upon her face, the youth and beauty, and a flicker, just a moment’s breath of pity pierced his heart. He wavered, hands growing slack upon the arrow in his hands. It slipped! And metal sharp as cutting word sliced deeply through his palm.
And so, it came to pass that Cupid, lovely Cupid, fell in love.
The year’s passed and though admiration dripped from hungry teeth, that glowing awe never grew to love. Poor Psyche it seemed was beautiful, but something to see, not something to touch. At first it did not seem so strange, her sisters – not as fair perhaps but still the line of kings – were older. Of course, they should be first to wed.
But then the years went on and on and Psyche grew from youth to woman true. And still all eyes turned to admire her. And still no eyes turned to covet her.
Finally, though years too late her father grew afraid. He went to Delphi, Chosen of Apollo, women of the smoke and begged to know when his youngest would be wed.
And through the woman’s lips, Apollo, brother to the spurned goddess and uncle to her son said:
“A wedding? A wedding for the child whose beauty claimed to shame the gods? What wedding can there be for someone such as she?” The prophet spat. The smoke had turned her eyes to pus-stained yellow, and her teeth to blackened brown as the god spoke through her once again. “And yet there will be one. A beast shall be her husband, silvered scales and poisoned teeth. And only then, only once the girl is wed will the gods be satisfied.”
He wept. Of course, he did. And though his tears were great and salted as an ocean not one drop stayed his hands. Was marriage to the beast better than no marriage at all? If the worst the gods can do is make you spinster, is that not better than a monstrous wedding? Not, it seems, to them. Weeping, trembling with her fear, Psyche climbed that hill to where her monstrous husband waited. At the very peak, the rolling fields of her homeland stretched below, and she trembled harder to know that she would never see them again.
She watched the sky, and waited for that dreaded serpent to appear, instead the gentle Zephyr’s breeze plucked her from her perch. She did not scream, though it was in fear and not courage that she stayed her tongue. The nothingness that held her, cradled her close and raised her up above the land to lay her down so far away from home.
Her husband was not here.
At least, not that she could see, and though the thought of that only grew her fear, curiosity burned brighter still. For she had been bought to a place that was more beautiful than any she had seen. Flowers filled the clearing, purple, pink and red, and soft as anything her skin had touched. She followed the winding path of them to where glistening gold and marble stretched into a palace twice, no, thrice as large as her father’s own.
She knocked, and no one answered, knocked again and no one came.
With darkness fast approaching and the chill of night-time dancing chill across her skin, she entered. There was no beast inside, nor a no dank and dark cave with bones that crunched beneath her feet as she steeped inside. Instead, bright candlelight took the place of flowers, marking the way through the halls. She saw a kitchen, smelt the warmth of fresh-baked bread and then moved on. She saw a loom and weaving basket carved with wooden roses and then moved on. She saw a bath with tiles with rainbow stones and glistening beneath water steaming hot and clear as glass and then moved on. And then she saw a bedroom.
Her husband was not here, either. But it was late, and she was tired, and though she knew she would not sleep a wink she found herself crawling beneath the covers and letting the soft cloud of the pillow lull her to a doze.
Her husband came that night.
He did not touch her. Never once. Not in all the months that they were wed.
He did not visit with the lights on either. It was always darkest when he came. The lamp she left beside the bed would always flicker and burn out before he came.
Perhaps that was a blessing. Is Psyche’s face had long drawn looks and never love, than maybe in the blindness of the night he would find something else to see in her.
Perhaps he was a beast and yet, his words were human. His voice was gentle, his patience infinite as he asked about her. The things she did, the things she liked, the ones she loved. He answered her in turn, though never spoke much of his past. He was a keen archer. His mother was beautiful. He liked to watch the sunset. His brothers were many, and squabbled often, though he always won their spats.
It was not, perhaps, much to fall in love with. But it was enough. The way he laughed, the way he listened. The flowers he would leave (and it could only be him) on her bedside table. The honey cakes in the kitchen, after he said she missed their taste. He was kind. What is not to love in kindness? And he did not see her face. So, he could not love her for it. He could only love her for the person that she was.
Perhaps that was how it might have ended, and Psyche spent the rest of her days married to a loving ghost and never saw his face. But she had never spent so long without her sisters. The thought of their mourning grew to much for her to bare. She begged, invisible tears on invisible cheeks, but real grief in her voice. And her husband did not hesitate.
It must be said – their joy to see their sister well and thriving, was real. Their shrieks and laughs of happiness flooded the clearing, and they stood taller than they had in months, as Altas took the sky once more from their shoulders.
But…perhaps the sand had always been there. Perhaps the years of overshone by their sister’s looks had grown it too a pearl. Or perhaps, it was merely that she was quite so happy, the gold, the jewels that many wonders that lay in her home. Either way, jealousy turned their happiness to rot.
“Maybe,” the Eldest said, as cunning turned her eyes to slits, “your husband is yet a beast. Have you ever seen his face?”
Psyche must admit that she had not.
“And the Oracle did say,” the Middle continued, “scales and wicked teeth. And have you ever known the Delphi to be wrong?”
And Psyche must admit that she had not.
“We speak only for your safety,” Eldest begged, taking Psyche in her lying hands.
Middle dashed a tear from her cheek, “We would wish nothing to do you harm.”
And what did they suggest?
“He visits you at night, you have said?”
“And the lamp is always dark when he appears?”
“Then take a flint –”
“— and your sharpest knife –”
“—and when your husband is sleeping, light the lamp.”
“Well, if he’s just a man, then you will know.”
“And if he is a monster, use the knife,” Eldest, or perhaps the Middle, said. “If he is a monster, save yourself, and take his life.”
Psyche, love burning in her heart, could not help the flicker of that flame. They were, it must be said, speaking the truth. Can you love what you have never seen? Perhaps he was a monster. Perhaps this was some scheme. Perhaps, just perhaps, he did not love her at all – at least no more than any man loved a decent meal.
When she found the knife, convenient to hand, and saw the lamp, still waiting on her nightstand, she did not think that she would use them. She merely thought… well it was better to have and not need, than need and not have.
And then he came, as he always did, laughter giddy on his tongue, delight to have bought another thing she yearned for, to her feet. The flicker in her heart stayed itself, and for the first time, the very first, she reached for him.
He pulled away.
Left nothing but the ghost of warmth against her skin and turned to sleep.
She did not, though she listened in the darkness, sickness churning in her gut at what she thought that she must do.
Her hands shook so much it took four times to finally light the flame. And she turned, she felt her lungs stutter in her chest.
They say monsters can be beautiful too, and if that is the case then truly there was none more monstrous than he.
Wings, swan or dove or stork or something more, pale as paper, whiter than the moon. Nestled in their down there lay a man. His face was soft marble, cut and stripped until the beauty of it shone. His lips gentle, throat strong, smooth lines and sharp angles softened by the gentleness of sleep. The knife – how could she ever have touched the knife – dropped from her hands and laded harsh upon the floor.
Her husband, surely not a mortal man, stirred from his rest.
The lamp went out.
Insp. The Legend of Cupid and Psyche