Cupid and Psyche: A romance of mythical proportions

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Psyché et l'amour (1626–29) by Simon Vouet: Psyche lifts a lamp to view the sleeping Cupid

Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, was widely considered the most beautiful woman in the world, mortal or divine. So, you’d think she would have been pretty confident and secure. On the contrary!

When the goddess caught a glimpse of the overwhelming beauty of the mortal maiden Psyche, she was overcome with jealousy (proof that immortal and all-knowing does not equal perfect and without flaw!). So, she sent her son, Cupid, to find Psyche and punish her.

But a problem arose: Cupid saw the maiden and fell deeply in love with her. He would visit her under the cover of night, and he eventually took her as his bride, forbidding her to never look at him (mortals were never supposed to look at the gods directly). But, her curiosity got the better of her, and she stole a glance of him one night as he lay sleeping. A drop of lamp oil dripped on the god, and he awoke in a fury. To punish Psyche for ignoring his demand, Cupid left her forever, taking their lovely little garden castle with him. She was left standing alone in an empty field with a broken heart.

Psyche traveled to the temple of Venus, looking for her missing husband. Still jealous of the girl as ever, Venus wanted her dead, and assigned her a set of dangerous taskes that grew harder as she fulfilled the one before (talk about the mother in law from hell!). For her final task, Psyche was to take a small chest into the Underworld, not a fun place to be if you are still among the living (or dead, for that matter). She was to steal some of the beauty of Proserpine, the wife of Pluto, and hide it in the chest.

Psyche had been warned not to open the chest. But, her curiosity got the better of her yet again, and she opened it (apparently having learned nothing). It instantly put her into an eternal sleep. Cupid found his spruned love, lying lifeless on the ground. He took the sleep from her body, put it back into the chest, and the maiden awoke. Cupid and Venus forgave her curiousity (she was a mere mortal, after all), and the gods made Psyche a goddess, so that the two gods could be together eternally.

Cupid has come to represent the heart of love, and Psyche the mind and soul.

Sources:

  1. “History of Cupid and St. Valentine’s Day”
  2. Graves, R. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994.
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