In Search of Cupid and Psyche: Myth and Legend in Children's Literature
THE Oracle prophecies that Psyche must marry "a dire mischief, viperous and fierce, / Who flies through aether and with fire a sword/ Tires and debilitates all things that are" (117). Prepared for the worst, Psyche surrenders herself to her fate, only to find that, although cloaking himself in darkness and secrecy, her husband behaves tenderly, and desires to make her happy. However, the persistent interference of her jealous sisters and Psyche’s own susceptibility arouse suspicions about his true nature. Psyche only resolves this question to her satisfaction (and to her grief) when she breaks her oath and spies upon him. (see images of cupid and psyche, Bartolozzi, Duranti, etc.).
As if the story were debating itself, engaging in dialectic on the issue of Cupid’s true nature, Cupid is presented in staunchly irreconcilable images. Psyche’s sisters describe him as a "savage wild beast" (131), a "snake" (131), and warn Psyche that he will "eat you alive" (131). Venus, too, describes her own son in particularly unpleasant, unmotherly, terms: apprised of his sojourn with Psyche, she irately scolds him as "lecherous little beast," (139), "a scamp" (139), "a debauched, detestable, brat" (139)--even a "matricidal wretch" (140)! Of course, like Psyche’s sisters, Venus is not specifically engaged in objective analysis: she simply wants to vent her jealous fury. But before the reader can discount her accusations on the grounds that they intend to make a theatrical effect, they must assume that Venus possesses, and may be indeed be speaking from, first-hand knowledge. Her identification of Cupid’s nature, however distorted by her rage or theatricality or love of malicious gossip, must be weighed more carefully. Repeating the sisters’ description of Cupid as "a beast," Venus endows this term with validity. What kind of a Beast is Cupid, that is the question—both for the reader and for Psyche.
In contrast to Venus’s choleric caricature, Juno and Ceres describe Cupid as "a boy" (141) and "a young man" (141), and Venus’s "own son" (141). We must consider that their more moderate descriptions are intended to demonstrate Apuleius’s charm as a story-teller, as well as his wit and urbanity: in the persons of Ceres and Juno he evidently wishes to amuse a 2nd century Roman audience by mimicking the way-of-the-world banter of savvy matrons, and lead his audience away from the cruder more elemental aspects of the story—though only to emphasize Cupid’s beastliness from a different direction: "The Goddesses," writes Apuleius, "were not quite honest in their defense of Cupid: they were afraid of his arrows and thought it wiser to speak well of him even when he was not about" (141).
Psyche’s own accounts of Cupid possess an intriguing inconsistency. While they are together in bed, she ardently protests to him that she loves him as much as she loves "her own soul" (123), and calls him her "honey" (123), her "own husband" (123), and "soul of my soul." (123); however, after she has conferred with her sisters, she asserts that she has "every reason to suppose . . . that [Cupid] must be some sort of monster" (131-132). Ironically, his warning that Psyche must not gaze upon him now comes to appear to her as convincing proof of Cupid’s monstrousness.
Cupid’s monstrousness or beastliness thus appears to be a universal perception—one common to every character in the story, except for Cupid, himself, and consonant with the unimpeachable oracle. What of the readers’judgment? Knowing what we know, what are we to make of Cupid’s willingness to allow Psyche to remain uninformed, in darkness as it were, of who he is? Why not simply confront her with his Olympian stature? Why must he be so unfathomable, so ambiguous? Is this beastliness then, and is it simply the way and the right of gods, or the way and the right, and the light, of love—or is the answer to both questions, Yes.
And if the "poisonous" and the beastly are inextricably combined with transcendent beauty, the soul of one's soul--if, as Pan says, "Cupid, [is] the greatest of us gods," as well as "a thoroughly spoilt young fellow," (p. 120), can we presume that Apuleius has anticipated what Nicholas of Cusa, the great fifteenth century philospher termed, in struggling with a conception of God, a coincidentia oppositorum-- the conjunction of contradictory elements and a transcendence of their opposition? Furthermore, if black is white and white is black, how IS a poor girl to choose!? The reader would seem to be as unable to resolve Cupid's true nature as Psyche is unable to look upon him, until . . .
Psyche’s discovery of Cupid’s true identity—his "divine beauty"—(133) occasions one of the story’s most delightful and sensuous descriptions. The god has "golden hair, washed in nectar . . . so bright that the flame of the lamp winked in the radiant light reflected from it," a "white neck and flushed cheeks," "soft wings of the purest white," with a body "smooth and beautiful (134). If Cupid is a monster, his monstrousness is not manifest in his looks. Physically, he resembles, say, Leonardo DeCaprio—only handsomer! And blond. Cupid’s paradoxical nature resonates in Psyche’s description of the opposing sensations she experiences, pain and pleasure, when, with overt erotic symbolism, Psyche finds she must examine "her husband’s sacred weapons" (134). She lifts an arrow from its quiver and touches "the point with the tip of her thumb to try its sharpness; but her hand was trembling and she pressed too hard. The skin was pierced and out came a drop or two of blood" (134). With this loss of blood—an image obviously suggestive of sacrifice and hymeneal penetration—Psyche "accidentally fell in love with Love" (134). The redundancy of Apuleius's phrase reminds us of the fundamentally reflective and self-referential dimensions of Psyche's experience. We must keep in mind that the Cupid's sweetness and goodness is just as dependent upon Psyche's subjective, and imaginative, impressions, as his beastliness. In an objective sense, what Psyche sees in the glow of her lamp is no more real than what she feels in the darkness; and the love she feels for love, is unmistakably Psyche's surrender to the imaginative constructions of her own sensuous and inspired intelligence—though no less real because of that. (Later in the semester we will see how "beauty" and "beast" are equally unstable terms and depend upon the understandings of the reader—whether the reader of the story or the reader within the story—to resolve.)
Never mind that, by this point of the story (ouch, no pun intended), Psyche has already surrendered her virginity to Cupid, and professed deep love for him; the apparent sequential events in a myth must be understood to be asequential and reflexive—just as the apparently coterminous images in icons must be understood to be sequential and reflexive. This moment of falling in love is the mythical moment at which, upon Cupid’s "weapon," Psyche surrenders her maidenhead and her love: this is the moment Eliade defines as in illo tempore. And, paradoxically, it is this moment that precipitates Psyche’s misery—her loss, her desolation and her quest. Clearly, however "honey" sweet, Cupid is dangerous. BUT, it is equally true, however dangerous, or "beastly," he is, Cupid is also irresistible—at least to "Psyche."