Greek mythology is filled with epic stories of both mortals and gods. There is a story of one Greek goddess, however, that follows a journey through both states.
Psyche was the Greek and later Roman goddess of the human soul. In artistic representations, she was most commonly depicted as a beautiful woman with butterfly wings (the Greek word psyche meant both “soul” and “butterfly”).
But she did not begin as a goddess. According to the tale of Psyche and Eros, Psyche began as a mortal woman who ascended to godhood after much suffering in pursuit of her beloved.
Sources about Psyche: A Fortunate Novel
The story of Psyche and Eros is referenced in art as early as the 4th Century BCE. However, the full story of the myth survives mainly due to a Roman novel from the 2nd Century AD, Apuleius’ Metamorphosis, or The Golden Ass.
This novel – the story of a man transformed into a donkey and wandering in search of a cure – includes a number of other myths, notably the story of Eros and Psyche, which occupies three of the novel’s eleven books. While it was said to be adapted from an earlier Greek work by someone called Lucius of Patrae, no trace of that work (or the author) has survived.
The Mortal Psyche
Psyche was born a mortal princess, the youngest child of a Greek king and queen, who – like the city they ruled – are never identified by name. She was the third of three daughters, and while her two elder sisters were beautiful in their own right, the youngest daughter was lovelier by far.
Indeed, Psyche was said to be more beautiful than the Greek goddess Aphrodite herself, and in some versions of the story she was even mistaken for the goddess on occasion. Psyche’s beauty was so distracting it was said that Aphrodite’s temple stood empty as the people gathered to adore the beautiful young princess instead.
As can be imagined, the goddess of beauty took this to be an unforgivable slight. Enraged, she intended to punish this mortal for outshining an Olympian goddess.
Aphrodite’s son, Eros, was the Greek god of desire (and counterpart to the Roman god Cupid), who compelled gods and mortals alike to fall in love by pricking them with his arrows. Summoning her son, Aphrodite now commanded him to make Psyche fall in love with the most vile and hideous suitor that could be found.
The Unapproachable Princess
But ironically, there were no suitors, hideous or otherwise, competing for Psyche’s hand. Her beauty, as it turned out, was a double-edged sword.
Psyche’s sisters, while still deeply jealous of their younger sister’s charms, had no trouble getting married off to other kings. Princess Psyche, on the other hand, was so heavenly in her aspect that while all men worshiped and adored her, that same exquisite beauty was so intimidating that none dared to approach her with an offer of marriage.
The Accidental Love Between Psyche and Eros
Eros, nonetheless, entered Psyche’s bedchamber with one of his arrows, meaning to use it on Psyche, priming her heart to love the most hideous creature he could find. But things would not go according to his mother’s plan.
In some accounts, the god merely slipped as he entered the bedchamber and stuck himself with his own arrow. More commonly, however, he saw the sleeping princess and was as caught by her beauty as any mortal man.
Eros couldn’t resist touching the sleeping Psyche, which caused the girl to wake suddenly. Though she could not see the invisible god, her movement jostled him, and the arrow intended for her pierced him instead. Caught in his own trap, Eros fell deeply in love with Psyche.
The Marriage of Psyche
Neither Psyche nor her parents knew of this, of course, and in mounting desperation to find a husband for his youngest daughter, the king consulted the Oracle of Delphi. The answer he got was no comfort – Apollo, speaking through the Oracle, told Psyche’s father that his daughter would marry a monster feared by even the gods.
He was told to dress Psyche in funeral clothes and take her to the tallest rock spire in his kingdom, where she would be left for her monstrous suitor. Heartbroken, Psyche’s father nonetheless obeyed the gods’ will, took Psyche to the tallest peak as ordered, and left her to her fate.
Help from a Divine Wind
Now into the story comes one of the Anemoi, or wind gods. One of these gods represented each of the four cardinal points – Eurus (god of the East wind), Notus (god of the South wind), Boreas (god of the North wind, whose sons Calais and Zetes were among the Argonauts), and Zephyrus (god of the West Wind).
As Psyche waited alone on the mountain, Zephyrus came to the girl and lifted her gently on his breezes, carrying her away to Eros’ hidden grove. As he set her down, Psyche fell into a deep sleep until morning, and upon waking she found herself before a grand palace with silver walls and golden columns.
The Phantom Husband
When she entered, Eros hid and spoke to her as a disembodied voice which welcomed her and told Psyche that all within was hers. She was led to a feast and a ready bath and entertained with music from an invisible lyre. Psyche was still fearful of the monster the Oracle had predicted, but the kindness of her invisible host – which she now understood to be her new husband, caused her dread to abate.
Each night, when the palace was shrouded in darkness, her unseen spouse would come to her, always leaving before sunrise. Whenever Psyche asked to see his face, he always refused, and commanded her never to look at him. Better she love him as an equal, he said, than see him as something more than mortal.
In time, the new bride’s fear ebbed away completely, she fell in love with her phantom husband and soon found herself with child. But though she now looked forward eagerly to his nightly visits, her curiosity never faded.
The Sisters’ Visit
While her nights were now happy, the days spent alone in the palace were not. Feeling lonely, Psyche pressed her husband to allow a visit from her sisters, if only to show them that she was happy and well. Her husband eventually agreed, repeating his condition that – no matter what they might say to her, she was still never to look upon him.
Psyche promised she would not, so Eros bid Zephyrus the West Wind to go to the sisters and deliver them to the palace, just as he had Psyche, and the siblings had what seemed to be a happy reunion. Psyche told them about her new life and showed them about her palace.
But the tour stirred no small amount of jealousy in her sisters. While they were married off to foreign kings and lived as little more than accessories to their husbands, Psyche seemed to have found a truer happiness and more luxurious life than anything either of them could boast.
Digging for some flaw in their sister’s new life, they began asking about her husband – the prophesied monster – who was of course nowhere to be seen. Psyche at first said only that he was away hunting, and that he was no monster, but actually young and handsome. But after much cajoling by her sisters, she had to confess that she had never actually seen her husband’s face and – though she loved him nonetheless – had no idea what he looked like.
The jealous sisters then reminded her of the Oracle’s prophecy and speculated that her husband was indeed some terrible beast that would inevitably devour her. They recommended that she keep an oil lamp and blade by her bedside. The next time her husband slept beside her in the dark, they said, she should light the lamp and look upon him – and if he was the hideous monster the Oracle had prophesied, she should kill him and be free.
Persuaded by her sisters, Psyche prepared to put their plan into action after they left. When her husband next came to her, she waited until he was asleep and lit the oil lamp. Leaning over her husband, she was shocked to see his true identity – not a beast, but the god Eros himself.
Unfortunately, she leaned so closely over him that hot oil fell from the lamp and landed upon the god’s shoulder. The burning pain woke Eros, and – seeing that his wife had now looked upon his face in defiance of his wishes – he immediately took flight and left her without a word.
Psyche at first tried to follow but found herself suddenly in an empty field near the homes of her sisters. The grove and palace that she had shared with Eros had vanished.
Trials of the Abandoned Bride
Psyche went to her sisters, telling them that she had done as they had suggested only to discover that her secretive husband was no monster, but the god of desire himself. The sisters put on faces of sorrow and commiseration for her benefit, but secretly they were pleased to see Psyche stripped of the life they had coveted.
Indeed, as soon as their younger sibling departed, Psyche’s sisters made excuses to their husbands and went swiftly to the peak themselves. Calling out to Eros to take them as brides instead, they leapt from the peak expecting to be carried to the palace by Zephyrus as she had. Unfortunately for them, Zephyrus had no instruction – nor desire – to do so, and the sisters fell to their deaths on the rocks below.
Searching for Eros
Psyche, meanwhile, wandered far and wide in search of her lost love. If she could just find him, she thought, she could beg his forgiveness and the two of them could be together again.
But the oil from the lamp had burned Eros badly. Still wounded, he had fled to his mother when he left Psyche. Aphrodite, while nursing her son back to health, now learned for the first time of Eros’ love for Psyche and their secret marriage, and her rage at the mortal that outshined her grew even stronger.
As Psyche tirelessly searched for her husband, the agriculture goddess Demeter took pity on her. The goddess advised Psyche to go to Aphrodite and offer her service in exchange for forgiveness. When the girl went to Aphrodite, however, the goddess had her beaten and humiliated.
And to punish her further, Aphrodite set her four seemingly impossible tasks to complete. Only by finishing them all could Psyche earn forgiveness and any hope of being reunited with her husband.
Sorting the Grains
The goddess gave Psyche her first task immediately. Dumping a pile of barley, wheat, beans, and poppy seeds on the floor, Aphrodite commanded her to sort them all by nightfall, then left the girl alone in her despair.
Faced with this insurmountable challenge, poor Psyche could do nothing but sit sobbing before the pile of grains. However, a train of ants passing by took pity on the girl and set to work sorting out the grains themselves. When Aphrodite returned, she was shocked to see the different grains all sorted into neat piles.
Collecting Fleece from the Violent Rams
Enraged at her completion of the first task, Aphrodite gave Psyche her next one the following morning. Across a nearby river grazed a herd of rams with golden fleece, violently aggressive creatures with sharp horns who were notorious for killing those that approached them. Psyche was to retrieve a tuft of their golden fleece and return it to the goddess.
Psyche went to the river but – seeing the deadly rams on the other side – had planned to take her own life by drowning herself rather than be gored to death by them. Before she could throw herself into the river, however, the Potamoi, or god of the river, spoke to her through the rustling reeds, begging her not to.
READ MORE: Water Gods and Goddesses
Rather, the god said, she should simply be patient. While the rams were aggressive during the heat of the day, the cooler afternoon would calm them, and Psyche could venture into the grove they wandered without drawing their ire. Among the brush of the grove, the Potamoi said, she could forage stray tufts of fleece that would satisfy Aphrodite.
So, the girl waited until the day grew cooler and the rams settled. Moving stealthily, she crossed the river and snuck through the grove collecting tufts caught on brush and branches, and then returned to Aphrodite.
Bringing Water from the Styx
Her next impossible task was to climb a high peak nearby, where a stream bubbled up black water that tumbled down into a hidden valley to feed the marshes from which the river Styx flowed. From this peak, the girl would retrieve water from the spring in a crystal cup given to her by the goddess.
Psyche hurried on her way, eager to either complete the task or end her suffering by leaping from the summit. But as she neared the mountain, she saw that reaching the top meant a treacherous climb up a towering rock that offered few handholds.
The black spring of the Styx issued from a vertical cleft in this rock, and the waters tumbled down a narrow crevice into the inaccessible valley in the Underworld where the marsh lay. Psyche saw that she would never be able to make her way anywhere near the waters, let alone to the spring itself.
Once again, the girl gave in to despair, and once again help came in her darkest moment. This time, Zeus himself took pity on the girl, and sent his eagle to carry the cup to the spring and retrieve water for Psyche to take back to Aphrodite.
Retrieving Beauty from the Underworld
With three of the tasks completed successfully, Aphrodite had one only one final task left to give – so she made it one that Psyche could surely never accomplish. Handing the girl a small golden box, she told her that she must travel to the Underworld and see Persephone.
READ MORE: Gods of Death and the Underworld
Psyche was to ask Persephone for a small sample of her beauty. She was then to bring Persephone’s beauty back to Aphrodite in the small box, as the goddess had been devoting all her effort to tending to Eros and needed rejuvenation. Under no circumstances was she to open the box herself.
Hearing this task, Psyche wept. She could not imagine this was anything but doom for her. Leaving the goddess, Psyche wandered until she came across a tall tower and climbed to the top intending to leap from the top to send herself to the Underworld.
But the tower itself intervened, telling her not to jump. Rather, she could travel to the border of nearby Sparta, where she would find one of the passageways that led straight to Hades’ palace in the Underworld. By this route, she could journey to find Persephone and still return to the land of the living.
Psyche followed this advice, traveling to Hades’ palace and finding Persephone. To her surprise, the goddess readily accepted her request and, out of Psyche’s sight, filled the box for her and sent her on her way back to Aphrodite.
Unfortunate Curiosity, Again
But, as before, Psyche was a victim of her curiosity. On the way back to Aphrodite, she could not resist peeking in the golden box to see what Persephone had given her.
When she lifted the lid, however, she saw not beauty, but a black cloud – the deathly sleep of the Underworld – which immediately poured out onto her. Psyche fell to the ground and lay motionless, as lifeless as any corpse in its grave.
By this time, Eros had finally recovered from his wound. His mother had kept him shut away, both to aid in his healing and to prevent him from encountering Psyche. But now whole, the god slipped free of his mother’s chambers and flew to his beloved.
Finding her covered in the black essence of death, Eros hurriedly wiped it away from her and restored it to the box. Then he gently woke her with a prick from his arrow, telling her to hurry back to finish her errand while he set about a plan of his own.
Eros flew to Olympus, threw himself before the Zeus’ throne, and beseeched the god to intercede on behalf of Psyche and himself. Zeus agreed – on the condition that Eros would lend his assistance whenever a beautiful mortal woman caught his eye in the future – and dispatched Hermes to call an assembly of the other gods and bring Psyche to Olympus.
Mortal no More
The Greek gods dutifully gathered for Zeus’ assembly, with Eros and Psyche in attendance. The King of Olympus then extracted a promise from Aphrodite that she would do no further harm to Psyche.
READ MORE: The Twelve Olympian Gods and Goddesses
But he didn’t stop there. Zeus also offered Psyche a cup of the legendary food of the gods, ambrosia. A single sip instantly granted immortality and elevated the girl to godhood, where she assumed her role as goddess of the soul.
Eros and Psyche were then married before all the Greek gods. The child they had conceived when Psyche was a mortal in Eros’ palace was born not long after – their daughter, Hedone, the goddess of pleasure (called Voluptas in Roman mythology).
The Cultural Legacy of Eros and Psyche
Despite the fact that few written versions of their story have survived (indeed, there is little outside of Apuleius which gives the whole story of the myth), the pair have been popular fixtures in art from the beginning. Psyche and Eros appear in terracotta figures, on pottery, and in mosaics throughout ancient Greece and Rome.
And that popularity has never waned. Their story has inspired artworks throughout the centuries, including a painting of the feast of the gods by Raphael in 1517, Antonio Canova’s marble statue of the lovers in 1787, and William Morris’ poem The Earthly Paradise from 1868 (which includes a retelling of Apuleius’ version).
Despite its limited written record in Greek mythology, it clearly had a substantial cultural presence in the centuries before Metamorphosis, and little wonder. It is a story not only of the tenacity of love, but also the growth of the soul through tribulation on the path to true and pure happiness. Like the butterfly for whom she is named, Psyche’s tale is one of transformation, rebirth, and the triumph of love over all.