Age Of Fable Or Beauties Of Mythology
Author: Bulfinch, Thomas

Chapter XI: Cupid And Psyche.

A certain king and queen had three daughters. The charms of the two
elder were more than common, but the beauty of the youngest was so wonderful
that the poverty of language is unable to express its due praise. The fame of
her beauty was so great that strangers from neighboring countries came in
crowds to enjoy the sight, and looked on her with amazement, paying her that
homage which is due only to Venus herself. In fact Venus found her altars
deserted, while men turned their devotion to this young virgin. As she passed
along, the people sang her praises, and strewed her way with chaplets and

This perversion of homage due only to the immortal powers to the
exaltation of a mortal gave great offence to the real Venus. Shaking her
ambrosial locks with indignation, she exclaimed, "Am I then to be eclipsed in
my honors by a mortal girl? In vain then did that royal shepherd whose
judgment was approved by Jove himself, give me the palm of beauty over my
illustrious rivals, Pallas and Juno. But she shall not so quietly usurp my
honors. I will give her cause to repent of so unlawful a beauty."

Thereupon she calls her winged son Cupid, mischievous enough in his own
nature, and rouses and provokes him yet more by her complaints. She points
out Psyche to him and says, "My dear son, punish that contumacious beauty;
give thy mother a revenge as sweet as her injuries are great; infuse into the
bosom of that haughty girl a passion for some low, mean, unworthy being, so
that she may reap a mortification as great as her present exultation and

Cupid prepared to obey the commands of his mother. There are two
fountains in Venus's garden, one of sweet waters, the other of bitter. Cupid
filled two amber vases, one from each fountain, and suspending them from the
top of his quiver, hastened to the chamber of Psyche, whom he found asleep. He
shed a few drops from the bitter fountain over her lips, though the sight of
her almost moved him to pity; then touched her side with the point of his
arrow. At the touch she awoke, and opened eyes upon Cupid (himself invisible)
which so startled him that in his confusion he wounded himself with his own
arrow. Heedless of his wound his whole thought now was to repair the mischief
he had done, and he poured the balmy drops of joy over all her silken

Psyche, henceforth frowned upon by Venus, derived no benefit from all her
charms. True, all eyes were cast eagerly upon her, and every mouth spoke her
praises; but neither king, royal youth, nor plebeian presented himself to
demand her in marriage. Her two elder sisters of moderate charms had now long
been married to two royal princes; but Psyche, in her lonely apartment,
deplored her solitude, sick of that beauty, which while it procured abundance
of flattery, had failed to awaken love.

Her parents, afraid that they had unwittingly incurred the anger of the
gods, consulted the oracle of Apollo, and received this answer "The virgin is
destined for the bride of no mortal lover. Her future husband awaits her on
the top of the mountain. He is a monster whom neither gods nor men can

This dreadful decree of the oracle filled all the people with dismay, and
her parents abandoned themselves to grief. But Psyche said, "Why, my dear
parents, do you now lament me? You should rather have grieved when the people
showered upon me undeserved honors, and with one voice called me a Venus. I
now perceive that I am a victim to that name. I submit. Lead me to that rock
to which my unhappy fate has destined me." Accordingly, all things being
prepared, the royal maid took her place in the procession, which more
resembled a funeral than a nuptial pomp, and with her parents, amid the
lamentations of the people, ascended the mountain, on the summit of which they
left her alone, and with sorrowful hearts returned home.

While Psyche stood on the ridge of the mountain, panting with fear and
with eyes full of tears, the gentle Zephyr raised her from the earth and bore
her with an easy motion into a flowery dale. By degrees her mind became
composed, and she laid herself down on the grassy bank to sleep. When she
awoke refreshed with sleep, she looked round and beheld near by a pleasant
grove of tall and stately trees. She entered it, and in the midst discovered
a fountain, sending forth clear and crystal waters, and fast by, a magnificent
palace whose august front impressed the spectator that it was not the work of
mortal hands, but the happy retreat of some god. Drawn by admiration and
wonder she approached the building and ventured to enter. Every object she met
filled her with pleasure and amazement. Golden pillars supported the vaulted
roof, and the walls were enriched with carvings and paintings representing
beasts of the chase and rural scenes, adapted to delight the eye of the
beholder. Proceeding onward she perceived that besides the apartments of
state there were others filled with all manner of treasures, and beautiful and
precious productions of nature and art.

While her eyes were thus occupied, a voice addressed her, though she saw
no one, uttering these words: "Sovereign lady, all that you see is yours. We
whose voices you hear are your servants and shall obey all your commands with
our utmost care and diligence. Retire therefore to your chamber and repose on
your bed of down, and when you see fit repair to the bath. Supper awaits you
in the adjoining alcove when it pleases you to take your seat there."

Psyche gave ear to the admonitions of her vocal attendants, and after
repose and the refreshment of the bath, seated herself in the alcove, where a
table immediately presented itself, without any visible aid from waiters or
servants, and covered with the greatest delicacies of food and the most
nectareous wines. Her ears too were feasted with music from invisible
performers; of whom one sang, another played on the lute, and all closed in
the wonderful harmony of a full chorus.

She had not yet seen her destined husband. He came only in the hours of
darkness and fled before the dawn of morning, but his accents were full of
love, and inspired a like passion in her. She often begged him to stay and
let her behold him, but he would not consent. On the contrary he charged her
to make no attempt to see him, for it was his pleasure, for the best of
reasons, to keep concealed. "Why should you wish to behold me?" he said "have
you any doubt of my love? have you any wish ungratified? If you saw me,
perhaps you would fear me, perhaps adore me, but all I ask of you is to love
me. I would rather you would love me as an equal than adore me as a god."

This reasoning somewhat quieted Psyche for a time, and while the novelty
lasted she felt quite happy. But at length the thought of her parents, left
in ignorance of her fate, and of her sisters, precluded from sharing with her
the delights of her situation, preyed on her mind and made her begin to feel
her palace as but a splendid prison. When her husband came one night, she
told him her distress, and at last drew from him an unwilling consent that her
sisters should be brought to see her.

So calling Zephyr, she acquainted him with her husband's commands, and
he, promptly obedient, soon brought them across the mountain down to their
sister's valley. They embraced her and she returned their caresses. "Come,"
said Psyche, "enter with me my house and refresh yourselves with whatever your
sister has to offer. Then taking their hands she led them into her golden
palace, and committed them to the care of her numerous train of attendant
voices, to refresh them in her baths and at her table, and to show them all
her treasures. The view of these celestial delights caused envy to enter
their bosoms, at seeing their young sister possessed of such state and
splendor, so much exceeding their own.

They asked her numberless questions, among others what sort of a person
her husband was. Psyche replied that he was a beautiful youth, who generally
spent the daytime in hunting upon the mountains. The sisters, not satisfied
with this reply, soon made her confess that she had never seen him. Then they
proceeded to fill her bosom with dark suspicions. "Call to mind," they said
"the Pythian oracle that declared you destined to marry a direful and
tremendous monster. The inhabitants of this valley say that your husband is a
terrible and monstrous serpent, who nourishes you for a while with dainties
that he may by and by devour you. Take our advice. Provide yourself with a
lamp and a sharp knife; put them in concealment that your husband may not
discover them, and when he is sound asleep, slip out of bed, bring forth your
lamp and see for yourself whether what they say is true or not. If it is,
hesitate not to cut off the monster's head, and thereby recover your liberty."

Psyche resisted these persuasions as well as she could, but they did not
fail to have their effect on her mind, and when her sisters were gone, their
words and her own curiosity were too strong for her to resist. So she
prepared her lamp and a sharp knife, and hid them out of sight of her husband.
When he had fallen into his first sleep, she silently rose and uncovering her
lamp beheld not a hideous monster, but the most beautiful and charming of the
gods, with his golden ringlets wandering over his snowy neck and crimson
cheek, with two dewy wings on his shoulders, whiter than snow, and with
shining feathers like the tender blossoms of spring. As she leaned the lamp
over to have a nearer view of his face a drop of burning oil fell on the
shoulder of the god, startled with which he opened his eyes and fixed them
full upon her; then, without saying one word, he spread his white wings and
flew out of the window. Psyche, in vain endeavoring to follow him, fell from
the window to the ground. Cupid, beholding her as she lay in the dust,
stopped his flight for an instant and said, "O foolish Psyche, is it thus you
repay my love? After having disobeyed my mother's commands and made you my
wife, will you think me a monster and cut off my head? But go; return to your
sisters, whose advice you seem to think preferable to mine. I inflict no
other punishment on you than to leave you for ever. Love cannot dwell with
suspicion." So saying he fled away leaving poor Psyche prostrate on the
ground, filling the place with mournful lamentations.

When she had recovered some degree of composure she looked around her,
but the palace and gardens had vanished, and she found herself in the open
field not far from the city where her sisters dwelt. She repaired thither and
told them the whole story of her misfortunes, at which, pretending to grieve,
those spiteful creatures inwardly rejoiced; "for now," said they, "he will
perhaps choose one of us." With this idea, without saying a word of her
intentions, each of them rose early the next morning and ascended the
mountain, and having reached the top, called upon Zephyr to receive her and
bear her to his lord; then leaping up, and not being sustained by Zephyr, fell
down the precipice and was dashed to pieces.

Psyche meanwhile wandered day and night, without food or repose, in
search of her husband. Casting her eyes on a lofty mountain having on its
brow a magnificent temple, she sighed and said to herself, "Perhaps my love,
my lord, inhabits there," and directed her steps thither.

She had no sooner entered than she saw heaps of corn, some in loose ears
and some in sheaves, with mingled ears of barley. Scattered about lay sickles
and rakes, and all the instruments of harvest, without order, as if thrown
carelessly out of the weary reapers' hands in the sultry hours of the day.

This unseemly confusion the pious Psyche put an end to, by separating and
sorting every thing to its proper place and kind, believing that she ought to
neglect none of the gods, but endeavor by her piety to engage them all in her
behalf. The holy Ceres, whose temple it was, finding her so religiously
employed, thus spoke to her: "O Psyche, truly worthy of our pity, though I
cannot shield you from the frowns of Venus, yet I can teach you how best to
allay her displeasure. Go then and voluntarily surrender yourself to your
lady and sovereign, and try by modesty and submission to win her forgiveness,
and perhaps her favor will restore you the husband you have lost."

Psyche obeyed the commands of Ceres and took her way to the temple of
Venus, endeavoring to fortify her mind and ruminating on what she should say
and how best propitiate the angry goddess, feeling that the issue was doubtful
and perhaps fatal.

Venus received her with angry countenance. "Most undutiful and faithless
of servants," said she, "do you at last remember that you really have a
mistress? Or have you rather come to see your sick husband, yet laid up of
the wound given him by his loving wife? You are so ill-favored and
disagreeable that the only way you can merit your lover must be by dint of
industry and diligence. I will make trial of your housewifery." Then she
ordered Psyche to be led to the storehouse of her temple, where was laid up a
great quantity of wheat, barley, millet, vetches, beans, and lentils prepared
for food for her pigeons, and said, "Take and separate all these grains,
putting all of the same kind in a parcel by themselves, and see that you get
it done before evening." Then Venus departed and left her to her task.

But Psyche, in a perfect consternation at the enormous work, sat stupid
and silent, without moving a finger to the inextricable heap.

While she sat despairing Cupid stirred up the little ant, a native of the
fields, to take compassion on her. The leader of the ant hill, followed by
whole hosts of his six-legged subjects, approached the heap, and with the
utmost diligence taking grain by grain, they separated the pile, sorting each
kind to its parcel; and when it was all done, they vanished out of sight in a

Venus at the approach of twilight returned from the banquet of the gods,
breathing odors and crowned with roses. Seeing the task done she exclaimed,
"This is no work of yours, wicked one, but his, whom to your own and his
misfortune you have enticed." So saying, she threw her a piece of black bread
for her supper and went away.

Next morning Venus ordered Psyche to be called and said to her, "Behold
yonder grove which stretches along the margin of the water. There you will
find sheep feeding without a shepherd, with golden-shining fleeces on their
backs. Go, fetch me a sample of that precious wool gathered from every one of
their fleeces."

Psyche obediently went to the river side, prepared to do her best to
execute the command. But the river god inspired the reeds with harmonious
murmurs, which seemed to say, "O maiden, severely tried, tempt not the
dangerous flood, nor venture among the formidable rams on the other side, for
as long as they are under the influence of the rising sun, they burn with a
cruel rage to destroy mortals with their sharp horns or rude teeth. But when
the noontide sun has driven the cattle to the shade, and the serene spirit of
the flood has lulled them to rest, you may then cross in safety, and you will
find the woolly gold sticking to the bushes and the trunks of the trees."

Thus the compassionate river god gave Psyche instructions how to
accomplish her task, and by observing his directions she soon returned to
Venus with her arms full of the golden fleece; but she received not the
approbation of her implacable mistress, who said, "I know very well it is by
none of your own doings that you have succeeded in this task, and I am not
satisfied yet that you have any capacity to make yourself useful. But I have
another task for you. Here, take this box, and go your way to the infernal
shades, and give this box to Proserpine and say, "My mistress Venus desires
you to send her a little of your beauty, for in tending her sick son she has
lost some of her own. Be not too long on your errand, for I must paint myself
with it to appear at the circle of the gods and goddesses this evening."

Psyche was now satisfied that her destruction was at hand, being obliged
to go with her own feet directly down to Erebus. Wherefore, to make no delay
of what was not to be avoided, she goes to the top of a high tower to
precipitate herself headlong, thus to descend the shortest way to the shades
below. But a voice from the tower said to her, "Why, poor unlucky girl, dost
thou design to put an end to thy days in so dreadful a manner? And what
cowardice makes thee sink under this last danger who hast been so miraculously
supported in all thy former?" Then the voice told her how by a certain cave
she might reach the realms of Pluto, and how to avoid all the dangers of the
road, to pass by Cerberus, the three-headed dog, and prevail on Charon, the
ferryman, to take her across the black river and bring her back again. But
the voice added, "When Proserpine has given you the box, filled with her
beauty, of all things this is chiefly to be observed by you, that you never
once open or look into the box nor allow your curiosity to pry into the
treasure of the beauty of the goddesses."

Psyche encouraged by this advice obeyed it in all things, and taking heed
to her ways travelled safely to the kingdom of Pluto. She was admitted to the
palace of Proserpine, and without accepting the delicate seat or delicious
banquet that was offered her, but contented with coarse bread for her food,
she delivered her message from Venus. Presently the box was returned to her,
shut and filled with the precious commodity. Then she returned the way she
came, and glad was she to come out once more into the light of day.

But having got so far successfully through her dangerous task a longing
desire seized her to examine the contents of the box. "What," said she,
"shall I, the carrier of this divine beauty, not take the least bit to put on
my cheeks to appear to more advantage in the eyes of my beloved husband!" So
she carefully opened the box, but found nothing there of any beauty at all,
but an infernal and truly Stygian sleep, which being thus set free from its
prison, took possession of her, and she fell down in the midst of the road, a
sleepy corpse without sense of motion.

But Cupid, being now recovered from his wound, and not able longer to
bear the absence of his beloved Psyche, slipping through the smallest crack of
the window of his chamber which happened to be left open, flew to the spot
where Psyche lay, and gathering up the sleep from her body closed it again in
the box, and waked Psyche with a light touch of one of his arrows. "Again,"
said he, "hast thou almost perished by the same curiosity. But now perform
exactly the task imposed on you by my mother, and I will take care of the

Then Cupid, as swift as lightning penetrating the heights of heaven,
presented himself before Jupiter with his supplication. Jupiter lent a
favoring ear, and pleaded the cause of the lovers so earnestly with Venus that
he won her consent. On this he sent Mercury to bring Psyche up to the
heavenly assembly, and when she arrived, handing her a cup of ambrosia, he
said, "Drink this, Psyche, and be immortal; nor shall Cupid ever break away
from the knot in which he is tied, but these nuptials shall be perpetual."

Thus Psyche became at last united to Cupid, and in due time they had a
daughter born to them whose name was Pleasure.

The fable of Cupid and Psyche is usually considered allegorical. The
Greek name for a butterfly is Psyche, and the same word means the soul. There
is no illustration of the immortality of the soul so striking and beautiful as
the butterfly, bursting on brilliant wings from the tomb in which it has lain,
after a dull, grovelling, caterpillar existence, to flutter in the blaze of
day and feed on the most fragrant and delicate productions of the spring.
Psyche then is the human soul, which is purified by sufferings and
misfortunes, and is thus prepared for the enjoyment of true and pure

In works of art Psyche is represented as a maiden with the wings of a
butterfly, along with Cupid, in the different situations described in the

Milton alludes to the story of Cupid and Psyche in the conclusion of his
Comus: -

"Celestial Cupid, her famed son, advanced,
Holds his dear Psyche sweet entranced,
After her wandering labors long,
Till free consent the gods among
Make her his eternal bride;
And from her fair unspotted side
Two blissful twins are to be born,
Youth and Joy; so Jove hath sworn."

The allegory of the story of Cupid and Psyche is well presented in the
beautiful lines of T.K. Harvey: -

'They wove bright fables in the days of old,
When reason borrowed fancy's painted wings;
When truth's clear river flowed o'er sands of gold,
And told in song its high and mystic things!
And such the sweet and solemn tale of her
The pilgrim-heart, to whom a dream was given,
That led her through the world, - Love's worshipper, -
To seek on earth for him whose home was heaven!

"In the full city, - by the haunted fount, -
Through the dim grotto's tracery of spars, -
'Mid the pine temples, on the moon-lit mount,
Where silence sits to listen to the stars;
In the deep glade where dwells the brooding dove,
The painted valley, and the scented air,
She heard far echoes of the voice of Love,
And found his footsteps' traces every where.

"But never more they met! since doubts and fears,
Those phantom-shapes that haunt and blight the earth,
Had come 'twixt her, a child of sin and tears,
And that bright spirit of immortal birth;
Until her pining soul and weeping eyes
Had learned to seek him only in the skies;
Till wings unto the weary heart were given,
And she became Love's angel bride in heaven!"

The story of Cupid and Psyche first appears in the works of Apuleius, a
writer of the second century of our era. It is therefore of much more recent
date than most of the legends of the Age of Fable. It is this that Keats
alludes to in his Ode to Psyche.

"O latest-born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe's sapphire-regioned star
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heaped with flowers;
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet,
From chain-swung censer teeming;
No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming."

In Moore's Summer Fete a fancy ball is described, in which one of the
characters personated is Psyche.

" - not in dark disguise to-night
Hath our young heroine veiled her light; -
For see, she walks the earth, Love's own.
His wedded bride, by holiest vow
Pledged in Olympus, and made known
To mortals by the type which now
Hangs glittering on her snowy brow,
That butterfly, mysterious trinket,
Which means the soul, (though few would think it)
And sparkling thus on brow so white
Tells us we ve Psyche here to-night."