Psyche, in Greek mythology, is the personification of the soul. In ancient Greek art, she was often depicted
as a bird, a human with bird features, or a butterfly. In Greek, psyche
means both "soul" and
"butterfly." In Roman mythology, Psyche is also the lover of Cupid. Their story, that of the Soul and Love,
is one of the most well-known myths in Roman mythology. Art based on this story most frequently portrays
Psyche as a beautiful young woman with butterfly wings.
Psyche, a mortal, was the third daughter of a king and a queen. She was so beautiful that people came from all
over the world to see her. Her beauty was compared to Venus's, and she was seen as the human incarnation of
Venus. Eventually, Psyche became worshipped as the goddess of love, and the real goddess of love, Venus, was
Angry and jealous, Venus ordered her son, Cupid, to shoot Psyche with an arrow and make her fall in love with
the worst human in the world. However, upon seeing Psyche, Cupid fell in love with her (some versions of the
story say on sight because of her beauty, others that he accidentally pricked himself with one of his own
arrows). Needless to say, he didn't carry out his mother's wishes.
Meanwhile, although Psyche was beautiful, she was too beautiful, and no man wanted to marry her. She was
worshipped and idolized, but not loved. Psyche was very lonely and became depressed. Distraught, her
father sought counsel from Apollo's oracle, who had been told what to say by Cupid. The king was horrified
to learn that Psyche was destined to be married to an awful winged monster; she must be taken to the top of
a hill where she would be taken away by her husband-to-be.
Relunctantly, the king complied, and Psyche was taken to the hill. Left alone, she began to cry. Zephyrus,
the west wind, lifted her up and brought her to a new home, which was a beautiful palace. Inside, Psyche
was consoled by a disembodied voice, which told her that the palace was hers. She was treated royally by
invisible servants, who bathed her, gave her a banquet, and played music while she ate.
That evening, in complete darkness, the voice entered her room. It told her not to be afraid since he was
her husband. Psyche believed him, knowing instinctively that he was not a horrible monster. They
consummated their marriage. The next day, he was gone, but he returned to her every night when it was dark,
and left every morning before sunrise.
Sometime later, Psyche, who was alone during the day, began to miss her sisters, who believed her to be
dead. Psyche desperately wanted to see them and pleaded with her husband to permit it. He initially
refused, saying that seeing them would bring misfortune to her, since her sisters were wicked, but Psyche
wept until he gave in.
Psyche's sisters were brought to Psyche's home. Although they were happy at first, as they saw the
wealth and comfort that Psyche lived in, they grew jealous. After leaving, the two plotted to
destroy their sister's happiness.
Eventually, Psyche wanted to see her sisters again. Once more, her husband initially refused, but
gave in. During this second visit, Psyche's sisters put their scheme into action and convinced
Psyche that her husband was really the horrible monster of which the oracle had spoken. He must
be a monster- why else would he never allow Psyche to see him? They advised her to go to her room
after her husband slept; then, by the light of an oil lamp, she must stab him in the heart and cut
off his head.
Although she was at first resistant, Psyche, worried and scared, believed them and agreed to carry
out their plan. However, when the light fell upon her husband, she saw that he was not a monster
but an incredibly beautiful young man. As she watched over him, a drop of oil fell from her lamp
onto his skin, waking him. Cupid realized that she had betrayed him and flew away, but not before
Psyche managed to grab onto his leg. He landed on the ground, explained who he was and why he had
deceived her, then left saying that there was no love where there was no trust. Although she had
no idea where he had gone, Psyche left their home in search of him.
Psyche's sisters learned that Psyche had been married to Cupid. In one version of the story, Psyche
lied to them out of revenge for deceiving her. She told them that because she had betrayed him,
Cupid wanted to leave her and marry one of her sisters. The two women (who were both already wed to
kings) excitedly went to the top of the hill, called to Cupid and Zephyrus to be taken away, and
jumped off. However, Zephyrus did not catch them, and they fell to their deaths.
Cupid returned to his mother, ill. Somehow (either from Cupid himself or through an informant) Venus
learned that he had fallen in love with Psyche. Furious, she punished Cupid.
At the same time, Psyche had been searching all over for Cupid, but to no avail. She was finally met
with Venus- one version of the myth says that, in hopes of finding Cupid and earning favor from Venus,
she decided to offer herself as Venus's servant. In another version of the story, Venus, wanting to
punish Psyche, issued a reward for information about the girl's whereabouts; Psyche was then brought
to Venus by one seeking the reward. Either way, Venus insulted Psyche, and in the latter story, even
tortured the poor girl by leaving her with Anxiety and Grief.
Venus said that Psyche must prove herself, but deliberately gave Psyche four impossible tasks. Each
task was worse than the one before it, and at each, Psyche would have failed (but would probably have
committed suicide instead of returning to Venus), had not someone or something taken pity on her and
kindly intervened, assisting her, saving her, or advising her on what to do. The first task was to
sort an impossibly huge pile of grain; ants did the task for her. The second was to gather golden
wool from the sun god's fierce sheep; reeds neer the river told her how to gather the wool safely.
The third task was to fill a flask with water from the river Styx; an eagle swooped down to fill it
The final task was to go to Hades and request from Proserpina some of her beauty. Psyche believed
the quickest way to do this was to kill herself, so she climbed a tower and was about to jump off,
when the tower spoke to her and told her exactly what to do to gain entrance to Hades and how to
navigate her way through the underworld. Psyche took its advice and eventually met with Proserpina,
who consented, filling Psyche's box with some beauty.
Once out of the Underworld, Psyche, curious and desiring some of Proserpina's beauty so that she
could perhaps win back Cupid, opened the box. However, instead of beauty, a deadly sleep came
out and swept over her. She fell into a death-like state of unconsciousness.
Cupid, meanwhile, had recovered and went in search of Psyche. He found her and woke her. Knowing
that there was no way to be safe from Venus, Cupid went to Jupiter, requesting his help. Jupiter,
thinking that if Cupid were married, he would have less time to cause trouble with his love arrows,
decreed that Cupid would be married to Psyche. Cupid and Psyche were married by Jupiter among all
the gods, and Psyche was given ambrosia, becoming immortal. The two then lived together, and had a
daughter named Voluptas (Pleasure), who was the goddess of sensuality.