In Search of Cupid and Psyche: Myth and Legend in Children's Literature



The overall presupposition of Neumann’s interpretation is that this story represents a mythical expression of the psychic development of the feminine. This perspective is similar to the Freudian focus on the feminine which shows how the myth symbolizes a woman’s sexual anxieties . . .

Neumann’s interpretation of the Eros [sic] and Psyche myth is influenced by his view of the development of human consciousness which he describes in his major work, The Origins and History of Consciousness. There he traces the stages of human consciousness beginning with the self-contained uroboros (the symbol of the primal dragon that bites its own tail), where there is not yet individual consciousness differentiated from the environment or from the original unconscious matrix. Neumann sees the uroboric state expressed in creation myths, especially the myth of the Great Mother. Aphrodite (Venus) is one of the primary mythical figures representing the Great Mother and she is also at the starting point of the "Eros and Psyche" tale. Neumann sees Aphrodite as a symbol of the seductive inertia of nature and the collective unconscious. She is the original, conservative, maternal source of life and her beauty serves the purpose of fertility.

Neumann contrasts Aphrodite with Psyche who, from the very beginning of the tale, is in conflict with the Great Mother. Aphrodite is jealous of Psyche’s human beauty and the fact that human beings worship her as a goddess, and even Aphrodite’s divine son, Eros, desires her. In one respect Neumann sees Eros as an extension of the Great Mother archetype, since Psyche’s entire story involves a conscious separation not only from the Mother but also from Eros as the Great Mother’s son. For Neumann the whole process of Psyche’s development represents 1) a differentiation of consciousness out of an original unconscious unity and 2) a monumental step in human history where women become responsible for their own decision-making so that their experiences are no longer merely a function of the arbitrary will of the gods or the work of transpersonal forces.

Psyche’s act ends the mythical age in the archetypal world, the age in which the relation between the sexes depended only on the superior power of the gods, who held [sic] men at their mercy. Now begins the age of human love, in which the human psyche consciously takes the fateful decision on itself. And this brings us to the background of our myth, namely the conflict between Psyche, the "new Aphrodite" and Aphrodite as the Great Mother. (Amor and Psyche: The Psychic Development of the Feminine. New York: 1956: p. 146)

Psyche’s act refers to her rebellious act of disobeying Eros’ command that she remain with him in the paradisiacal embrace of darkness and not know his identity. Neumann interprets Eros’ command as an extension of Psyche’s original unconscious state of unity with the Great Mother archetype. With Psyche’s heroic act, suffering, guilt and loneliness enter the world of female consciousness.

According to Neumann, Psyche’s act resembles the heroic male who so frequently in my myth overcome the dragon monster in his quest for conscious development. Neumann sees her existence in the dark paradise of Eros, pleasurable as this is, as a variant of the mythical male hero’s engulfment by the whale, dragon or monster. (Ibid, p. 70) In the traditional night sea journey, the male solar hero kindles a fire in the belly of the whale and cuts himself out of the darkness. Neumann notes that Psyche too uses a light and a knife to perform her parallel tasks. She does not kill the monster, though she is prepared to do exactly that for the sake of greater knowledge. Psyche drives Eros and herself from their paradise of uroboric unconsciousness, but the knowledge she acquires is for the sake of establishing a conscious relationship with him. For Neumann, the fundamental difference between Psyche as a female heroine and the male solar hero is that her deed turns into an act of love. In fact the rest of the story of her development is to overcome through suffering and struggle the separation caused by her deed. This crucial difference prompts Neumann to interpret the Psyche story as a mythical portrait of a woman’s development.

Neumann interprets the "marriage of death" which Aphrodite has arranged for Psyche as a mythical vestige of matriarchal psychology in which marriage is seen from the woman’s perspective as rape of the virgin. He points out that this was a central aspect of feminine mysteries wherein the maiden was ritually sacrificed to a monster or dragon. According to Neumann this viewpoint grows out of the primordial relationship of identity between mother and daughter, and consequently, the approach of the male in marriage is considered to be a painful separation from the mother.

The jealous sisters represent, for Neumann, a man-hating matriarchal stratum in Psyche’s soul. Here there is no hint of the sisters as symbols of sibling rivalry, a theme so prominent in [Fritz] Hoevels’ analysis. Neumann, rather, speaks of them as aspects of Psyche’s shadow (Jung defines the shadow as "the negative side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide together with the insufficiently developed functions and the contents of the personal unconscious"—CW 7, p. 66) which manifest the beginning of a higher form of female consciousness (Amor and Psyche, p. 73). The sisters appear very negative in the story, but from Neumann’s perspective, they contribute to Psyche’s overall development by pushing her to confront Eros. While the sisters do not yet represent a higher consciousness, they are its precursor. Although for the wrong reasons, the sisters raise important objections to the matriarchal situation of Psyche’s blind servitude, which Neumann considers appropriately described as being devoured by a monster. The sisters not only represent aspects of the matriarchy, they push Psyche beyond this state of development.

In order to understand the positive meaning and function of the sisters, Neumann advises the reader to disregard the way they are presented in Apuleius’ story as Jealously plotting against Psyche. The sisters represent an underlying largely unconscious strength that appears to contradict Psyche’s softness and conscious willingness to remain in the dark paradise of sensuality. . . .

, , , In traditional Jungian thought the total psyche of both men and women is conceived of as a relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind. Jung has posited that the unconscious of each man and woman is personified by symbols or figures of the opposite sex, so a man’s unconscious is personified by female figures, while a woman’s unconscious is personified by male figures. The classical statement of Neumann’s unusual view is found in The Origins and History of Consciousness:

But one thing, paradoxical though it may seem, can be established at once as a basic law: even in woman, consciousness has a masculine character [italics added by Gollnick]. The correlation "consciousness—light—day" and "unconsciousness—dark—night" holds true regardless of sex and is not altered by the fact that the spirit-instinct polarity is organized on a different basis in men and women. Consciousness, as such, is masculine and even in women, just as the unconscious is feminine in men. (The Origins, p. 42)

From this perspective Neumann interprets Psyche’s development as a growth toward the masculine, by which he means consciousness. . . .


… Eros is difficult to understand in relation to the psychological dynamics described in Jungian thought. On the one hand he is an aspect of or an extension of Aphrodite. This connection is underscored when he is portrayed as the son who is still under his mother’s domain and who returns to her when he is wounded by the oil of Psyche’s lamp. The sensuous kiss Aphrodite gives Eros also highlights this incestuous bond between them and shows their close alliance in psychological roles. When Neumann speaks of Eros as a god, the son of Aphrodite, he represents him as a person apart from Psyche. At other times Neumann speaks of Eros as relatedness—a quality Jung used to characterize female consciousness. Neumann writes: "It is characteristic of the ‘labors of Psyche’ that the component of relatedness, that is, the Eros-component, is increasingly accompanied by a masculine spiritual element, which is at first unconscious but gradually develops into a conscious attitude" (Amor and Psyche, p. 108). In this case Eros is considered as part of Psyche, . . .. as a content of Psyche’s unconscious. But he then makes reference to the Psyche-Eros constellation" as the archetype of the relation between man and woman" . . .. In the latter description Neumann returns to the idea of both Eros and Psyche as elements in the collective unconscious and their relationship therein as a personification of the state of the unconscious where polar opposites are not yet differentiated, the condition also symbolized by the Great Mother and the Aphrodite-Eros constellation. From the Jungian perspective all of these symbols might be mixed in a "contamination of unconscious contents" where various symbols of the unconscious merge and it is no longer possible to distinguish clearly between the various contents (Jung defines the contamination of unconscious contents in this way. "The displacement and overlapping of images are as great in alchemy as in mythology and folklore. As these archetypal images are produced directly by the unconscious, it is not surprising that they exhibit its contamination of content to a very high degree. The best instances of this interconnection of everything with everything else can be found in dreams, which are very much nearer to the unconscious even than myths" (CW 14, p. 293). Neumann sees Psyche as originally bound to Eros in a paradise of uroboric unconsciousness, and when she sees Eros in the light, this original unconscious tie is dissolved. For Neumann this change represents a shift from the principle of fascinating attraction and the fertility of the species to a genuine love principle of personal development and encounter. For Neumann the link between individuation and love as encounter is one of the central psychological insights of the myth: "With Psyche, then, there appears a new love principle, in which the encounter between feminine and masculine is revealed as the basis of individuation" (Amor and Psyche, p. 90). Individuation is accomplished through a conscious encounter with the unconscious, which is symbolized by contrasexual symbols: the male achieves individuation by confronting his unconscious, personified as a feminine anima and the female meets her unconscious personified by male figures. This process is usually understood intrapsychically, but it is generally influenced by encounters with persons of the opposite sex in the external world. In this view, a loving encounter is often the occasion for an intensification of the individuation process. [Italics mine MJ]

From this traditional Jungian perspective Eros can be seen as either Psyche’s inner masculine side or as a figure who transcends (is outside of) her own mind—either as a person in the external world or as a god in a transcendent reality . . .

To some extent, Neumann attempts to explain this ambiguity by what he calls "secondary personalization." By this term he means that psychological contents which are primarily transpersonal and originally appeared in transpersonal form (as deities) are eventually taken to be personal (The Origins, p. xxiii-xxiv). In other words, psychological contents which were originally projected onto the gods are now experienced as aspects of the human psyche. Neumann considers this a normal process of development and not dangerous so long as the psyche itself is regarded as a "numinous world of transpersonal happenings." Here Neumann brings the realm of the gods into the human mind but not in such a way as to remove the divine aura from these highly charged contents.

Neumann maintains that secondary personalization sheds light, not only on the formation of myths and fairy tales, but also on the course of personal development. Secondary personalization causes the child to project onto the parents much material which is really transpersonal and has nothing to do with the actual parents, allowing the child to deal with that material in a concrete way" (The Origins, p. 190). It may also be very surprising to parents to find themselves perceived by their child as divine or demonic characters. This constitutes a kind of reduction of archetypal material to personal material.

Neumann sees this process as parallel to the historical development of ego consciousness out of humanity’s originally unconscious state. This is part of the progressive assimilation of unconscious contents that builds up the personality and helps separate the individual from the collective—a process that occurs in the development of both the human race and the individual human being. Neumann sees secondary personalization at work in the development of human history in what he calls the "psychization" of the world (Ibid, p. 338). In this process of "psychization" we are dealing, not only with the reduction of the deep layers of the psyche to personal elements in myths and fairy tales, but also with the potential reduction of transcendent religious phenomena to forces within the psyche. . . .

Gradually the processes which Neumann sees as essentially psychological are increasingly translated into stories where the deep archetypal dynamics become hidden in the stories of myths, fairy tales and the early romances. This is why we are likely to miss the psychological dimension of these stories and why Neumann advises us not to be side-tracked by the secondary personalizations involved in the specific details of the intrigues of Eros, the sisters, Aphrodite and Psyche . . ..


When it comes to interpreting the seemingly strange tasks Psyche must perform, Neumann sees the details as crucial to deciphering the meaning of the story. . . . First, Psyche must sort out a seemingly impossible mixture of grains. Neumann says the mound of seeds symbolizes an "uroboric mixture of the masculine," i.e., masculine promiscuity, and the ants who assist her represent chthonian powers associated with the vegetative nervous system:

Psyche counters Aphrodite’s promiscuity with an instinctual ordering principle. While Aphrodite holds fast to the fertility of the swamp stage (using [J.] Bachofen’s category), which is also represented by Eros in the form of a dragon, a phallic serpent-monster, Psyche possesses within her an unconscious principle which enables her to select, sift, correlate, and evaluate, and so find her way amid the confusion of the masculine. In opposition to the matriarchal position of Aphrodite, for whom the masculine is anonymous . . . Psyche, even in her first labor, has reached the stage of selectivity.

(Amor and Psyche, p. 95-96)


This corresponds to Neumann’s view that Psyche’s story represents a development toward consciousness well beyond the unconscious, matriarchal, state symbolized by Aphrodite as the Great Mother.

In the second task Psyche must gather wool from dangerous sheep. Neumann sees the rams as the destructive power of the masculine, "the negative masculine death principle as experienced by the matriarchate and the reed which aids Psyche as the feminine vegetative wisdom of growth (Ibid, p. 99). For Neumann, the feminine wisdom is to wait, to avoid confronting the rams (the masculine) directly. Just as with the first task, Neumann sees the fulfillment of this second task as the product of a fruitful contact between masculine and feminine. This interpretation is in accord with the Jungian theory that individuation depends on the integration of masculine and feminine in the human psyche.

Neumann sees Psyche’s third task as a quest for the water of life. Psyche has to catch some of this water which defies containment. Neumann understands this task as a summary of Psyche’s overall work: she is the vessel of individuation which is to give specific form to the eternally moving energy of life to encompass this overwhelming power without being shattered by it. Neumann interprets the eagle who comes to Psyche’s aid as a symbol of the masculine spirit which moves Psyche even further toward the masculine-feminine integration characterizing individuation: "The eagle holding the vessel profoundly symbolizes the already male-female spirituality of Psyche, who in one act ‘receives’ like a woman, that is, gathers like a vessel and conceives, but at the same time apprehends and knows like a man" (Ibid, p. 105) Neumann maintains that each of the first three tasks contributes to Psyche’s growth in consciousness by incorporating aspects of the "masculine."

Neumann reminds us that in myths and fairy tales there are usually three tasks, but in this case there is also a fourth. The number four is frequently a symbol of wholeness, and Neumann sees this as the meaning of the last task, where Psyche must journey to the underworld, a journey which represents a direct struggle with the feminine principle embodies in the deadly alliance of Aphrodite-Persephone. Neumann understands the tower which counsels Psyche on how to carry out this perilous journey as both feminine (as a fortress) and masculine (as a phallic symbol). The tower, a structure erected by human beings, represents the collective human culture, which furnishes wisdom and instruction as a means to survive the underworld journey.

Neumann also believes that the strength Psyche has accumulated by carrying out the first three tasks enables her to face the most difficult task of all—a direct battle with death or the underworld. Neumann’s view is that the first three tasks represent a confrontation with the negative masculine principle manifested as "masculine" promiscuity" (seeds), "the deadly masculine" (rams), and the "uncontainable masculine" (stream of life). In each case Psyche must overcome the negative "masculine" potential. According to Neumann this is a dramatic way of expressing the dangers encountered as the female attempts to incorporate masculine dimensions of the psyche.

Neumann interprets the beauty ointment which Psyche must fetch from the underworld as the eternal youth of death, the "barren frigid beauty of mere maidenhood, without love for a man, as exacted by the matriarchate" ( Ibid, p. 188 ). He sees in this deathlike sleep the pull of narcissism which would regress Psyche from the woman who loved Eros back to the maiden lost in the narcissistic love of herself. (Bettelheim also calls attention to the narcissistic state symbolized by Psyche alone in Eros’ magical palace, see The Uses of Enchantment, p. 292.) According to Neumann, the only saving grace in Psyche’s act is the intention to make herself pleasing to Eros. The key here is that Psyche places her desire for beauty in the service of devotion to her beloved and for no one else. This intent rescues Psyche’s preoccupation with beauty from the anonymous realm of Aphrodite’s fertility and narcissism and connects her to her own feminine centre. Neumann, like Jung, sees the essence of the feminine in personal relatedness, so for him, Psyche’s spiritual development is only fulfilled in her individual love encounter with Eros, not in the successful completion of tasks, which would seem to be the prerogative of a male hero. Thus, paradoxically, it is through her failure to complete her task that she finds success in that she demonstrates her willingness to sacrifice even her life for her beloved.

. . . Not only does Psyche save herself through love but she also redeems Eros by making him human. Neumann’s interpretation appears to derive from his understanding of integrating transpersonal contents of the unconscious, where integration means humanizing such transpersonal contents as Eros and Aphrodite by bringing them into conscious relationship to the ego. This process alters the unconscious itself: "The tale of Psyche ends with the deification of the human Psyche. Correspondingly, the divine Aphrodite becomes human, and so likewise Eros, who through suffering prepares the way for union with the human Psyche" (Amor and Psyche, p. 92). In terms of Neumann’s schema, this means that the realm of the feminine has been transformed. The female psyche is no longer dominated by an impersonal fertility principle, symbolized by the old Aphrodite-Eros combination, and is now able to direct itself to individual love as personal encounter. From this perspective, Eros (as erotic love) must be saved from the transpersonal sphere of the Great Mother and ushered into the sphere of human love. . . .


For Neumann the birth of Psyche’s daughter at the end of the story has great significance. The daughter, named Voluptas (meaning ‘Pleasure’ or ‘Joy’), represents "birth of the divine child," which in Jungian terms is the Self, the "divine" fruit of the individuation process. The myth itself is not explicit as to whether the child of Psyche and Eros is divine, since its divinity was dependent upon the condition that Psyche keep the secret of Eros’ identity and in the tale itself it is doubtful whether Psyche does keep the secret. Nevertheless, Neumann interprets her as the divine joy of mystical union and, together with the Eros-Psyche archetype, a perfect expression of the result of individuation.

The archetype of Psyche united with Eros, taken together with the child Joy, strikes us as one of the highest forms that the symbol of the coniunctio has taken in the West. It is a youthful form of Shiva united with his Shakti. The hermaphrodite of alchemy is a later but lesser form of this image, because, as Jung has pointed out, it represents a monstrosity, contrasting sharply with the divine par, Eros and Psyche.

(Ibid, p. 144-145)

The hermaphrodite of alchemy is Hermes, who symbolizes the synthesis of opposites, at once both male and female, young and old. In this regard Neumann places his interpretation of the tale in the context of Jung’s own search for symbol systems which represent historical antecedents to analytical psychology.

Neumann’s interpretation can be seen as a creative commentary on a myth which evokes the main outlines of the individuation process described by Jung and, as such, continues to be valued by many depth psychologists. . . .

NOTE: This excerpt from Love and the Soul: Psychological Interpretations of The Eros & Psyche Myth, by James Gollnick (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1992) is for the use of Professor Joseph's class, "In Search of Cupid and Psyche:Myth and Legend in Children's Literature," and is not to be duplicated.

Chapter One: "Cupid and Psyche"

Course Outline


Bruno Bettelheim

J. Schroeder