Featured Post

Greek Mythology


A BOOK OF MYTHS
BY JEAN LANG
PSYCHE
(Abridged)
Once upon a time, a king and queen had three beautiful daughters. The first and the second were fair indeed, but the beauty of the youngest was such that all the people of the land worshipped it as a thing sent straight from Olympus. They awaited her outside the royal palace, and when she came, they threw chaplets of roses and violets for her little feet to tread upon, and sang hymns of praise as though she were no mortal maiden but a daughter of the deathless gods.
There were many who said that the beauty of Aphrodite herself was less perfect than the beauty of Psyche, the youngest daughter, and when the godd├ęss found that men were forsaking her altars in order to worship a mortal maiden, great was her wrath against them and against the princess.
In her garden, sitting amongst the flowers and idly watching his mother’ s fair white doves as they preened their snowy feathers in the sun, Aphrodite and angrily poured forth to her son Eros the story of her shame. “You must avenge your mother’s honour. You have the power of making the loves of men. Stab with one of your arrows the heart of this presumptuous maiden, and shame her before all other mortals by making her love a monster from which all others shrink and which all despise.”
This was a game after Eros’s own heart. In the garden of Aphrodite there is a fountain of sweet, another of bitter water, and Eros filled two amber vases, one from each fountain, hung them from his quiver, and went. In her chamber, Psyche lay fast asleep. Eros sprinkled some of the bitter drops upon her lips, and then, with one of his sharpest arrows, pricked her snowy breast. Like a child who half awakes in fear, and looks up with puzzled, wondering eyes, Psyche opened eyes and gazed at Eros. He knew that he was invisible, and yet her gaze made him tremble. He said to himself, ‘Not even my mother is as fair as this princess.’
For a moment her eyelids quivered, and then dropped. Her long dark lashes fell on her pink cheeks, her red mouth smiled happily, and Psyche slept again. Eros gazed upon her perfect loveliness. He wiped away the red drop where his arrow had wounded her, and then stooped and touched her lips with his own. Psyche in her dreams thought that they had been brushed by a butterfly’s wings. Yet in her sleep she moved, and Eros, starting back, pricked himself with one of his arrows. And with that prick, for Eros there passed away all the careless ease of the heart of a boy, and he knew that he loved Psyche with the unquenchable love of a deathless god. Now, with bitter regret, all his desire was to undo the wrong he had done to the one that he loved. Speedily he sprinkled her with the sweet water that brings joy, and when Psyche rose from her couch she was radiant with the beauty that comes from a new, undreamed-of happiness.
From place to place Love (Eros) followed her that day. Eros decided that no one but he should have her. He would get from Father Jove the boon that she should never die, he thought.
Meantime it came to be known all over that Aphrodite had declared herself the enemy of the princess. Therefore, none dared seek her in marriage. Although many a noble youth sighed away his heart for love of her, she remained in her father’ s palace like an exquisite rose whose thorns made people fear to pluck it from the parent stem.
Her sisters married, and her father marvelled why the most beautiful of his three daughters should remain unwed. At length, an embassy was sent by the king to the oracle of Apollo to inquire what might be the will of the dwellers on Olympus concerning his fairest daughter. The ambassadors returned with the message of the oracle: “For bridegroom Psyche shall have a monster that neither man nor god can resist. On the mountain top he awaits her coming. Woe unutterable shall come to the king and to all the dwellers in his land if he dares to resist the unalterable dictum of the deathless gods.”
Only for a little while did the wretched king strive to resist the decrees of fate. In her chamber, Psyche sat sobbing pitifully for the shameful, hideous fate that the gods had dealt her. Psyche faced the horror for the sake of her father and of his people, that she knew she could not avoid. When morning came, her sorrowful handmaids came to deck her in all the bridal magnificence that befitted the most beautiful daughter of a king. There started up the mountain a procession at sight of which the gods themselves must have wept. With bowed heads the king and queen walked before the litter upon which lay their daughter in her marriage veil. Minstrels played wedding hymns.
At length they reached the rocky place where they knew they must leave the victim bride, and her father dared not meet her eyes as he turned his head to go. Yet Psyche watched the procession wending its way downhill. No more tears had she to shed, and it seemed to her that what she saw was not a wedding throng, but an assembly of broken-hearted people who went back to their homes with heavy feet after burying one that they loved.
She saw no sign of the monster who was to be her bridegroom, yet at every little sound her heart grew sick with horror, and when the night wind swept through the craggy peaks and its moans were echoed. Yet, had Psyche known it, the wind was her friend.
For Eros had used Zephyrus as his trusty messenger and sent him to the mountain top to find his bride. With all the gentleness of a loving nurse to a tired little child, Zephyrus lifted Psyche, and sped with her to the golden palace of Eros.
Psyche slept, and when she awoke, her eyes looked round to find the barren rocks, the utter forsakenness, the coming of an unnameable horror. But, she saw only fair groves with trees bedecked with fruit and blossom, fragrant meadows, flowers whose beauty made her eyes grow glad. From the trees birds sang sweeter songs than any she had heard before. There was a noble palace, golden fronted, and with arcades of stainless marble. Almost holding her breath, she walked forward to the open golden doors. It is a trap, she thought. She heard a mysterious voice, “Fear not. Doubt not. No evil shall come to you—only the bliss of loving and of being loved.”
Psyche lost her fear and entered the golden doors. She found inside all beautiful and perfect things for which she had ever longed. She found a banquet ready spread for her, with all the dainties she liked best; as she ate, music rejoiced her ears. Psyche knew that, monster or not, she was beloved by one who had thought for her every thought, and who desired only her desire.
Night came at last, and when all was dark and still, Eros softly entered the palace that was his own. He found Psyche lying with violet eyes, trembling before something that brought her dread. His voice was as the voice of spring when it breathes on the sleeping earth; he knew each note in Love’ s music. Love loved, and Psyche listened, and soon she knew that her lover was Love himself.
Psyche had a time of perfect happiness. All through the day she roamed in her Love’s dominion. All through the night he stayed by her, and satisfied all the longing of her heart. Eros left her at dawn. When she begged him to stay, he answered, “I am with you only while I keep my visage hidden; if you see my face, I must forsake you. Gods link Love with Faith. Love withdraws himself from the full gaze of knowledge.”
Psyche grew more in love with Love. Yet, ever and again, she recalled those sorrowful days when her father and mother had broken their hearts over her martyrdom, and her sisters had looked askance at her as at one whose punishment must assuredly have come from her own misdoing. At length she asked Eros to permit her sisters come to see for them selves her happiness. Most unwillingly Eros granted her request but warned that from their visit no good could come. Zephyrus was sent to bring the two sisters.
When the two sisters came, they were bewildered with the beauty and the magnificence of it all. Beside this, their own possessions were paltry trifles indeed. Envy grew in their hearts. They had always been jealous of their younger sister, and now that they found her, whom all the world believed to have been slain by a horrible monster, more beautiful than ever, decked with rare jewels, radiant in her happiness, and queen of a palace fit for the gods, their envy soon turned to hatred, and they sought how best to wreak their malice upon the joyous creature who loaded them with priceless gifts.
They asked Psyche where her lord was and why he was away when they were visiting, whether he was fair or dark, young or old. Psyche was bewildered and answered in frightened words that contradicted one another. The wicked sisters knew that her husband must indeed be one of the deathless gods. They said to her, “Don’t you think to escape the evil fate the gods meted out for you? Your husband is none other than the monster of which the oracle spoke. It would mean too great horror for you to see the loathsome thing. That is why it hides from you during the day.”
Trembling, Psyche listened. Drop by drop the poisonous words passed into her soul. She had thought him king of all living things— worthy to rule over gods as well as men. She was so sure that his body was worthy sheath for the heart she knew so well. She had pictured him beautiful as Eros, son of Aphrodite—young and fair, with crisp, golden locks— a husband to glory in—a lover to adore. And now she knew, with shame and dread, that he who had won her love between the twilight and the dawn was a thing to shame her, a monster to be shunned of men.
“What, then, shall I do?” piteously she asked of her sisters.
They said, “Provide yourself with a lamp and a knife sharp enough to slay the man or monster. When he sleeps soundly, look upon him in all his horror. Then, swiftly slay him.”
Psyche made answer, “I love him so! I love him so!”
Her sisters turned upon her with furious scorn and said, “Shameless one! Only by slaying the monster can you hope to regain your place amongst the daughters of men.”
They left her, carrying with them their royal gifts.
While she awaited the coming of her lord, Psyche crouched with her head in her hands, with knife and lamp. Eros came back to her in a happy frame of mind and did not note her silence. He wanted only to hold her safely in his arms. She lay passive and still, until sleep overcame him. Then, very gently she withdrew herself from his embrace, and brought the lamp to the couch. Her arm trembled as she held it aloft. When the yellow light fell upon Eros, she gazed steadily. She saw him perfect in beauty and she gazed upon his beauty. Then he turned in his sleep, and smiled, and stretched out his arms to find the one of his love. Psyche started, and, starting, shook the lamp; from it a drop of burning oil fell on the white shoulder of Eros. At once he awoke, and with piteous, pitying eyes looked in those of Psyche. When he spoke, his words were like daggers that pierced deep into her soul. He told her all that had been, all that might have been. Had she only had faith and patience to wait, an immortal life should have been hers. He bid her farewell and left her alone in despair.
When day came at last, she felt she could no longer endure to stay in the palace where everything spoke to her of the in finite tenderness of a lost love. Weary and chill, she wandered away until she stood on the bank of a swift-flowing river. “I have lost my Love,” she moaned. “What is Life to me any longer? Come to me then, 0 Death.”
So then she sprang into the wan water, hoping that very swiftly it might bear her grief-worn soul down to the shades. But the river bore her up and carried her to its shallows in a fair meadow where Pan himself sat on the bank and merrily dabbled his feet in the flowing water. When Psyche, shamed and wet, looked at him with sad eyes, the god spoke to her gently and chid her for her folly. She was too young and much too fair to try to end her life so rudely, he said. The river gods would never be so unkind as to drive so beautiful a maiden in rough haste down to the Cocytus valley.
Psyche, knowing that in truth the gods had spared her to endure more sorrow, looked in his face with a very piteous gaze, and wandered on. Her feet had led her near the place where her two sisters dwelt.
She wanted to tell them of her plight and thought that they would feel sorrow. But, they saw gladly the stricken form of Psyche and drove her from their palace doors.
When Psyche had gone, the elder sister stood when Zephyrus bore Psyche to the palace of Eros. She felt certain that she would now be chosen in the place of Psyche. She held out her arms, and calling aloud to Zephyrus she sprang from the high cliff on which she stood, into space. The ravens feasted on her shattered body that night. The younger sister also tried in vain and perished.
For many a weary day and night, Psyche wandered from temple to temple until at length in Cyprus she came to the place where Aphrodite herself had her dwelling. Psyche sought the presence of the goddess who was her enemy, and humbly begged her to take her life away. With flaming scorn and anger Aphrodite received her. She said, “O thou fool, I will not let you die. But you shalt be my slave  and slog under me.”
Psyche had a time of torturing misery. In uncountable quantity and mingled in inextricable and bewildering confusion, there lay in the granary of the goddess grains of barley and of wheat, peas and millet, poppy and coriander seed. To sort out each kind and lay them in heaps was the task allotted for one day. Psyche could sort out by nightfall only a few very tiny piles. At night she saw unending processions of ants. They swiftly did for Psyche what she herself had failed to do. The grains were all piled up in high heaps, and the sad heart of Psyche knew not only thankful relief, but had a thrill of gladness.
“Eros sent them to me. Even yet his love for me is not dead,” she thought. What she thought was true.
Amazed and angry, Aphrodite looked at the task she had deemed impossible, well and swiftly performed. She said to her new slave, “On the other side of that glittering stream, my golden-fleeced sheep crop the sweet flowers of the meadow. Today you must cross the river and bring me back by evening a sample of wool pulled from each one of their shining fleeces.”
Psyche went down to the brink of the river. Even as her white feet splashed into the water, she heard a whisper of warning from the reeds that bowed their heads by the stream, “Beware! O Psyche, stay on the shore and rest until the sheep lie under the shade of the trees in the evening and the murmur of the river has lulled them to sleep. While they sleep, you can gather their wool from the bushes and from the trunks of the trees.”
The heart of Psyche felt a thrill of happiness, because she knew that she was loved and cared for still. When the sun had set, she waded to the further shore and gathered the golden wool. When in the evening she came to the goddess, bearing her shining load, the brow of Aphrodite grew dark. She said, “If you are so skilled in magic I shall give you that is worthy of thy skill.” She laid upon Psyche her fresh commands.
Psyche set out next morning to seek the black stream out of which Aphrodite had commanded her to fill a ewer. Part of its waters flowed into the Styx, part into the Cocytus, and Psyche knew that a hideous death from the loathly creatures that protected the fountain must be the fate of those who risked such an attempt. Once again, there came to her a message of love. Over her head the bird of Jove flew and asked her why she wept, and when he knew, he offered to fill her ewer with the water. He said, “When you come unto you majesty, remember me.” Psyche was gladdened.
When at nightfall, she came with her ewer full of water from the dread stream and gave it to Aphrodite, although she knew that a yet more arduous task was sure to follow, her fear had all passed away.
Aphrodite told her that she must seek that dark valley on the black waters of Cocytus and of the Styx; from Prosperine, she was to ask for the gift of a box of magical ointment, the secret of which was known to the Queen of Darkness alone, and which was able to bring to those who used it, beauty more exquisite than any that the eyes of gods or of men had as yet looked upon. Aphrodite said, “My son was wounded by a faithless slave, and in tending to his wound, my beauty has faded.”
“In helping his mother, I shall help him,” Psyche thought. She took her way along the weary road that leads to that dark place from where no traveller can ever hope to return. But, cold thoughts and dreadful fears came to her. When she came to an old grey tower,  she resolved to throw herself down from it, and end her life. A voice spoke in her ear, “Why do you strive to stay the hope that is not dead?” It told her by what means she might speedily reach Hades and there find means to face with courage the King of Darkness himself and his fair wife, Proserpine. Psyche followed the advice and reached the throne of Proserpine. Proserpine gave her the box of precious ointment that Aphrodite described.  Psyche turned gladly homeward. When she reached the fair light of day, she thought, “This ointment that I carry will bring back a beauty greater than any before. For my beauty, Eros loved me. Now my beauty is worn and well-nigh gone. If I open this box and make use of the ointment,  I should be fair enough to be the bride of Eros whose love is my life.”
She opened the fateful box. But, out of it there came not Beauty, but Sleep. Psyche sank down by the wayside, the prisoner of Sleep.
Eros, who had loved her ever, rose from his bed and went in search of her. By the wayside he found her, fettered by sleep. As Eros looked at her, pity stirred his heart. It did not matter to him whether her body was like a rose in June or as a wind-scourged tree in December. As his lips met hers, Psyche awoke, and heard his soft whisper.
Wings of silver and of gold sprang from the shoulders of Psyche, and, hand in hand with Eros, she winged her way to Olympus. There all the deathless gods were assembled, and Aphrodite no longer looked upon her with darkened brows, but smiled upon her. When a cup was placed into the hand of Psyche, the voice of the great Father and King of Olympus spoke, “Drink now, and have no fear. For, with this draught you shall be born again and live for ever free from care and pain.”
In this way, Psyche, a human soul , attained by bitter suffering to the perfect happiness of purified love. Still we watch the butterfly, which is her emblem, bursting from its ugly tomb in the dark soil, and spreading joyous white and gold-powdered wings in the caressing sunshine, amidst the radiance and the fragrance of the summer flowers. Still, too, we sadly watch her sister, the white moth, heedlessly rushing into pangs thoughtlessly seeking the anguish that brings her a cruel death.

*

Comments