The story goes that there once lived a beautiful young girl, one of three sisters, who was named Psyche. This young girl was so beautiful and so happy that she caught the jealous attention of Aphrodite, goddess of love, who was afraid Psyche was just a little too happy and too beautiful.
Aphrodite called on her son, named Eros, to put a spell on Psyche. Now, as you know, Eros always carried a quiver of arrows. His arrows were tipped with a potion that caused its victims to fall instantly and hopelessly in love with the first person she or he saw. Eros did use other potions, delivered without arrows, however, and on this particular day he mixed two others—one for Psyche according to his mother’s instructions and another for another mission. Then off Eros went to visit Psyche.
Eros found Psyche sleeping and sprinkled one of the potions on her, a potion which would make all potential spouses loath her. After administering this potion, as Eros turned to leave Psyche’s bedroom, one of his arrows slipped from its quiver and struck Psyche, startling her awake. Psyche, upon seeing the beautiful god Eros, and having suffered the sting of his potion-tipped arrow, fell instantly in love with him.
Eros was so flustered about what had happened that, in his rush to grab his arrow, he pricked himself on it, also falling victim to the potion: he fell instantly, hopelessly in love with Psyche.
Feeling guilty about having followed his mother’s orders, Eros anointed Psyche with the other potion he carried, one that granted immortality.
Sure enough, no one would marry Psyche, and, in desperation, she consulted an oracle who said that no mortal would ever marry her. Aphrodite clearly was holding a grudge, said the oracle. Yet there was one hope—a mysterious creature who lived at the top of the tallest mountain. He would marry Psyche.
And so Psyche climbed the mountain. And what did she find there but a magnificent palace. And she felt a presence there, and it said, “My dear Psyche, I will love you forever. But I will only come to you in the darkness, and you must never, ever look upon my face.”
(As you might suspect, the mysterious voice belonged to the great god Eros.)
Psyche and her mysterious lover lived very happily for a time in the beautiful palace on the mountain. But one day Psyche invited her two sisters to come visit her. When they saw the beautiful palace and when they saw how radiant and happy their sister was, instead of sharing her joy, the sisters felt jealousy. And they taunted her: “You mean you’ve never SEEN this mystery man? What if he’s a MONSTER? You don’t want to be living with a monster, do you? I’ll bet he has some pretty disturbing plans in mind for you!”
Well, Psyche grew quite concerned, and consulted her sisters on the best course of action. “Put a lamp by the bedside,” they counseled, “and when he is fast asleep, light the lamp and take a look to see just what he is.”
That night Psyche followed the advice of her sisters. When her lover was fast asleep, she lit the lamp and looked into his face—and what should she see but the most beautiful of the gods, Eros himself. But at that moment Eros started awake, and seeing what Psyche had done, he dashed for the window and flew away.
And just as suddenly, the palace … disappeared.
“Psyche” means “breath” or “animating force” in Greek, and came to designate the term that in English we call “soul” (a word derived from Old English and etymologically tied to the word for “sea.” It appears that when Christian missionaries began talking about the psyche in extreme Northern Europe, people there translated it as “sawol,” because they believed the dead lived on in the sea.)
But back to the story of Psyche.
Psyche was devastated at the loss of Eros. So, she prayed at the temple of Aphrodite and said she would do anything, anything, to get Aphrodite to forgive her. And so Aphrodite assigned Psyche three tasks.
The first was separating a barn full of grain: barley from wheat, rye from oats. Aphrodite knew Psyche could not accomplish the task, and Psyche despaired, but Eros intervened and sent ants to do the work.
Aphrodite was furious and assigned Psyche another task—bringing back a handful of the Golden Fleece. The sheep with fleeces of gold were not like normal sheep—they were very violent, and Psyche was afraid, but the shepherd of the sheep had pity on Psyche and advised her to wait until the sheep slept in the noon day sun. And this worked.
Aphrodite was even more furious and assigned a truly impossible task: bring back a cup of water from the River Styx, the great river of death. Psyche walked to the river. Peering out across the violent water, she despaired. But an eagle saw her and had pity and took the cup and flew high up to a water fall and filled the cup, bringing it back to Psyche.
Aphrodite was really, really furious now, because she knew that Psyche could not have done these tasks alone. “You have completed your tasks, and all is forgiven,” Aphrodite said. “You will need some makeup for the wedding, when you marry my son. Go to Persephone, wife of Hades, and ask for some.”
Psyche, despite her terror, trudged deep into Hades. There, a surprised Persephone, remembering her own daughter, handed Psyche a box. “Here, child,” she said, “take this box. But whatever you do … do not look inside until you have reached the upper world.”
Psyche trudged back toward the world through the depths of Hades, but as she walked, with each step, her curiosity grew stronger. Finally, she could resist no more. Psyche opened the box.
Inside was only darkness. And Psyche slipped into the deep sleep of death.
Eros saw what had happened and rushed to his mother. “You must, you must save by poor Psyche,” Eros said. “And if you don’t, I will never go to earth again; I will never shoot another of my arrows. And the human race will never feel passion and no more children will be born and soon there will be no one to worship you, mother.”
Aphrodite could see that Eros meant business. So, exasperated, she sent for a cup of Ambrosia, drink of the immortals, and sent the cup to Psyche. Thus it was that Psyche became not only immortal, but also godlike. And mighty Zeus united the couple in marriage there and then. And Eros and Psyche lived in bliss. And they had a daughter they named Voluptua, which is English, means pleasure.
And so it is that the human essence, the soul, the psyche, is immortal, despite the jealousy of the gods, because we have love…