Throughout all of Greek Mythology, very rarely were women given the chance to have the spotlight and shine as heroines; usually all the adventure was given to men like Hercules or Odysseus, with a few very important exceptions. One such heroine fell into the trap of getting noticed by a jealous goddess through no fault of her own, and was tossed into a perilous quest just as adventurous as anything Jason, Perseus or Theseus experienced. The unlikely lady was PSYCHE, a young princess from the island of Sicily, famous throughout the land for her extraordinary beauty. According to the story, she was even more beautiful than Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. And with that lay the problem that gets the whole story moving...
All of her fellow islanders, as well as people from all over the Greek world, used to gather in order to admire her natural-born beauty; Psyche was no demi-goddess and had no special powers or abilities. She was a kind, gentle and Olympian-respecting young woman who just happened to be amazingly beautiful. However, all of the attention that people gave to her was in fact the people ignoring Aphrodite, the Goddess of Beauty, herself...something that you KNOW would not stand with the goddess and which would not end well.
Watching all of Psyche's adoring admirers, Aphrodite grew more and more enraged and brokenhearted at their slight. Being an Olympian, she decided to take back some of her respect and get some revenge on the poor princess. There could be only ONE "most beautiful," and it HAD to be Aphrodite. No mortal, no matter how beautiful, was going to steal her title!
Aphrodite went to her son, the mischievous Erote, Eros, the winged God of Love, to head out, hit the princess with one of his arrows and make Psyche fall in love with the most appalling, ugly and disgusting creature in all the world. Eros was a bit perplexed, but set out to do as his jealous mother asked. In an epic twist, just as Eros was about to let his arrow fly at Psyche, he dropped it and it hit his own foot. His magic worked against him and he suddenly found himself madly and irreversibly in love with Psyche! From that moment on, his main mission in life was to prevent mortals from falling in love with Psyche and to clear the way for him to make his move on the unsuspecting princess.
Because of Eros' fiddling with the powers of love, time passed by without anyone being interested in marrying Psyche. Psyche's parents both began to worry about the future of their daughter, wondering why no man seemed to desire her for his wife. Anxiously, they went to the Oracle at Delphi to seek advice of Apollo.
Apollo, who had been chatting with Eros and who had heard the whole tale of his unquenchable love for Psyche, knew he had to help the lovesick god of love. So, when Psyche's parents begged to be told what to do to fix the situation, Apollo told them (through his oracle) to leave Psyche on a specific mountain where she would meet her future husband.
The king and queen wasted no time. They dressed their daughter in the finest gown possible and had her escorted to the top of the mentioned mountain. They embraced her and then left her there alone, as per Apollo's directions. Psyche sat down on top of the mountain, waiting, lonely and cold, for her supposed husband-to-be to appear. Hours went by. Psyche began to believe that the gods must have been wrong in their decision, but just as her doubts began to set in, the wind began to blow harder...yet warmer.
From out of the sky, Zephyrus, the gentle wind of the West, son of Aeolus, landed and told the startled princess that he would now take her to meet her husband-to-be. He gathered her up, spread his wings and took to the sky, flying high over the land until they arrived at a vast and beautiful palace made of marble and gold. Zephyrus smiled at Psyche and reassured her; all would be well. He then took back to the skies and disappeared, leaving her there, alone. Despite a long search of the palace, Psyche could find no one else living within its walls.
Eventually, exhaustion overtook her and she fell fast asleep on a huge, comfortable bed that seemed to have been made just for her.
Psyche woke up and the palace was dark. Nothing but oil lamps flickered and shadows loomed all around her. There, standing in the doorway was a figure, cloaked in a thick, dark robe, its hood pulled over its head. Psyche couldn't make out the figure's face, but by the way he stood, she know it must be a man. The man spoke: "Greetings, my dear Psyche. I am your husband-to-be. I hope that this palace pleases you..." Psyche nodded, suddenly nervous. "If you are my husband-to-be, can I at least see your face?" she asked him.
"The hooded man shook his head. "Perhaps someday. I cannot show you." Strange. "Why can I not see your face?" she asked him. "Because my face is not one someone as beautiful as you should ever view in its true form." No matter what Psyche did or said, her future husband would not give in. If this was the fate the gods had decided for her, it was going to be a long and lonely life. He would not ever tell her his name!
Every night, the faceless man visited Psyche in her room and recited love poetry to her, talked to her about her life, her family, her dreams. He kissed her gently and held her throughout the nights, all without ever revealing his face. For weeks this went on, and despite the fact that she did not know the face of her lover, she found herself falling in love with him. Yet, despite all of his tenderness, she was still very lonely. Her husband-to-be would stay throughout the night and then leave in the morning, leaving her alone in the vast palace.
Her nameless husband asked her one evening if there was anything she desired during the long and lonely days, and there was one thing she truly desired. To see her two sisters once again. "I will have them brought here to visit you for a single day." Psyche was delighted to hear the news, and sure enough, the very next morning, Zephyrus arrived with her two younger sisters, who immediately embraced Psyche.
Naturally, they wanted to know all about Psyche's new love, to which she told them the details. "he never let's you see his face and won't tell you his name?" they asked? This was an odd situation; one the sisters found very disturbing. "He must be a monster of some kind for him not to show his face. Perhaps he plans on luring you to trust him and then plans on killing you!" The sisters talked throughout the day and by the time Zephyrus had returned to take the women back, they had convinced her that something was very wrong with the situation she found herself in.
That night, Psyche decided, she would find out who here husband was once and for all, and if he did bear her any ill will, she would be ready for it.
That night, her hooded husband-to-be arrived as always, and after an evening of singing to her, talking about her day with her sisters and cuddling, the two headed off to bed. Except Psyche did not go to sleep. She waited until the man next to her was asleep and went to get one of the wax candles that gave some small light to the large room that was her bedroom. From a shelf, she took a long knife she had found in her explorations of the palace, and held it behind her back. Slowly, carefully, she tip-toed over to her bed, where her hooded "husband" slept, his chest rising and falling regularly. Shining the candlelight on to him and with one finger, she began to lift his hood from his face. What she saw in front of her was breathtaking...this man was no 'man" at all! He was no other than Eros, the most lovable and beautiful of all gods! Shocked, she forgot to hold the candle straight and a small blob of hot wax fell onto Eros' chest, waking him instantly.
Eros shot up out of bed and in anger and pain, shouted furiously at Psyche: "Why could you not wait? I promised you everything, but needed you to wait. Your suspicion has killed our love as a mortal should never see the face of a god. After that, it is impossible for us to stay together..." Saying this, Eros quickly took flight and disappeared into the night...
Sobbing and full of despair, Psyche started aimlessly wandering around the countryside, searching for Eros everywhere. Desperate, she prayed to Aphrodite to assist her in her search. Even though Aphrodite was not overly fond of Psyche, she came before her, as this was a solid request in her department; true love.
Psyche discovered from the goddess that Eros had returned to his mother, who locked him away for awhile after the whole "falling-in-love-with-a-mortal" disaster. Psyche pleaded with Aphrodite to let her see him, but the simmering red-haired goddess, still smarting from the original issue of jealousy, decided that the young girl was going to have to work for it to prove her love for Eros.
So, Aphrodite demanded several near-impossible tasks of Psyche, to prove herself worthy of her son's love before she would consider allowing the two to be together. Naturally, struck with love, Psyche agreed and prepared herself the best she could.
In the first task, Aphrodite takes Psyche to a huge room in her palace that is full off huge amounts of barley, millet, poppy seeds, lentils, and beans lying around in large mixed mounds. The task at hand? Psyche had to sort them all into like piles by morning. An impossible task to be sure!
But, just as Psyche was beginning to give up hope, she was given assistance by a group of helpful ants who, in their large swarm, helped her sort the grains into piles before daylight. At dawn, Aphrodite walked into the room amazed (and a little bit miffed, as she was sure the mortal Psyche would have no chance at all of overcoming the task!) Naturally, Aphrodite has an even harder task in mind for the second contest.
The next task requires Psyche to retrieve a small piece of wool from the fleece of a shining golden sheep. This doesn't seem too bad until Psyche finds out that these are no ordinary sheep; they are Helios' Rams of the Sun! Huge rams that will fritter-fry any mortal who comes near them! Not only that, but the brutish rams are trampling around all over the meadow.
Psyche realizes that if even if she goes out and tries to grab some fleece from the rams as they're charging and hitting each other and running up and down the field, she's going to get ground up into pieces under the hooves of the beasts...much less get flame-broiled when she gets close to them, which she's not too keen on having happen. So, she goes down to the nearby river to try and think up a solution to the problem.
From out of the river reeds along with side of the river, she hears a girl's voice, the voice of a river nymph, a naiad, telling her "Psyche, you don't have to go out there and do it that way. Those rams are energized by the sun! Wait until the sun goes down in the evening and then you can go pick pieces of fleece that they have scraped off against the bushes and trees.
Gather enough of it for your use and fulfill the task." Psyche did as the river nymph told her and waited until nightfall. The rams were asleep in the field and she crept up to the bushes to snag a goody amount of golden wool. BAM! Just like that, Aphrodite's 2nd task is completed, much to the love goddess' disbelief.
This time, Aphrodite knew that she'd have to make the final task near-impossible if she wanted to save face. In this one, Psyche was instructed to travel to the banks of the River Styx, which divides the living from the Underworld in Hades. She must fill a crystal bottle with the water of the spring that feeds the Styx.
Again, this doesn't sound TOO bad, even if it is deep underground in one of the nastiest, most vile places a person could go. However, the big problem that Psyche comes to realize once she gets to the shores of the River Styx is that there are huge, vicious snake-like dragons on either side of the river, lunging at her when she gets too close, hissing a warning, "Stay away! Stay away!" Not only that, but the water itself is hissing!
Psyche is again at a loss. Luckily, just as she's about to give up hope, one of Zeus' eagles appears and agrees to swoop down with the bottle and gather some of the water up for her. Graciously thanking Zeus' pet, she climbs back out into the daylight to give the bottle to Aphrodite, who herself is becoming fairly interested in the contest so far. She wouldn't have thought Psyche had it in her, even with help. Yet, she had to, with her honor as a goddess on the line, try and offer up one final, impossible task; something Psyche would never be able to return from.
For her very last task, Aphrodite commands that Psyche must go back into the underworld, cross the Styx this time, find King Hades and Queen Persephone, and fill an empty box with beauty ointment from Persephone's personal stash (if she can convince Persephone to do it!). That being done, she has to convince Hades to let her return to the land of the living and return the box to Aphrodite.
This one is the hardest of all, because now Psyche must brave the horrors of the underworld, get past the guardian Cerberus and then negotiate with gods and goddesses that usually never give in, especially when a mortal is asking. But love knows no boundaries. Keeping Eros in her mind and heart, Psyche once again descends into the underworld a second time.
Upon reaching the River Styx, Psyche was at first denied crossing because she did not have the customary gold coin to give to Charon, the ferryman who took dead souls on across and into Hades. Psyche did the only thing she could think to do; she told Charon her story from front to finish. So moved was the gaunt, pale and creepy boatman that he offered to take her, just this once, across the river for free.
It pays to have charm and to be powered by the force of love when trying to convince a tough customer like Charon!
After bidding Charon a huge thank you and good day (maybe she threw in a hug and kiss for the old guy, just for luck), Psyche walked steadily nearer to the gates of the underworld, and in the dark shadows surround the gates, she could see three huge, red, gleaming, slitted eyes staring out at her.
From the darkness came a deep gravelly growl, and she knew she had reached her next obstacle; Cerberus, Hades' underworld-dwelling, three-headed guard dog. Yet Psyche was not afraid of the monstrous pet as she walked toward it. Knowing that Cerberus would be an obstacle, she had planned ahead, and had baked several small delicious cakes.
Knowing the pathway to any dog's heart is the lure of food, she lay the cakes before the beast and it cautiously lumbered from its hiding spot, lowering its head to sniff at this unexpected gift, all the while still staring at her with suspicious red eyes. Within seconds, the cakes had vanished and Cerberus' three heads slobbered with delight! The beast lay down along the side of the path and even allowed Psyche to pet it as she passed by. Another obstacle had been conquered! The only thing left to do was to find the Palace of Hades, past the gates and through the Fields of Asphodel.
Once through the immense, black, iron-wrought gates of Hades' kingdom, Psyche entered the dreary, gloomy and quiet Fields of Asphodel, where the great majority of the dead go to wander aimlessly forever as shades (ghosts). As she passed through the still silence of the fields, she saw hundreds of ghosts, all once people with hopes and dreams and love. None of them gave her any sign that they noticed that she was there. For hours she walked on until in the distance, she began to see the outlines of a huge, menacing, blackened fortress rising out of the ground, shrouded in mist and smoke, with bright torches lit at different points around its many ledges and windows. This, at last, was Hades' palace!
Once inside, Psyche walked the long stone hallway into the throne room of King Hades and Queen Persephone, and they watched her with grim expressions on their faces, as if they had known she was coming. "What brings you here, girl, a mortal, to the land of the dead?" Hades' rumbled from atop his throne of bones. Again, Psyche could do nothing else but be honest. She told the King and Queen her entire story, passion and remorse filling her words as she told them about her quest to win her love back. Hades' was unmoved. "Why should I help you? What reason have you given me to assist you in your quest?"
It was Queen Persephone, daughter of Demeter, who spoke up next, in a voice full of passion, "Husband! Can you not see she is in love? Recall how passionate you were when you sought me out and made me your bride? This is no different! Let us give her what she needs, with our blessings!" Hades wasn't going to argue with his beautiful wife, who would undoubtedly never let him live it down if he didn't give in, and so the King and Queen of the Underworld agreed to help Psyche. Persephone collected her beauty cream from her chambers and put it into the box that Aphrodite had given her. "Do NOT open this box, young mortal," Persephone warned her.
"Take it straight to Aphrodite and do not stop to think about it!" With a huge smile and a heartfelt thanks, Psyche bowed before Hades and his wife, and took her leave. Under their protection, she was allowed to leave the Underworld without any bodily harm or significant problems. (they actually did her a solid, as usually no mortal was allowed to leave the Underworld once they had entered. Hades must have been in a decent mood that day! Either that or Persephone's tone meant she'd let him have it later if he didn't...)
Climbing out of the craggy cave that had led to the Underworld, Psyche ran on ahead, her heart full of joy and excitement. She had passed the tests of Aphrodite and would be allowed to see her love! She had only to reach the spot that Aphrodite had agreed on meeting her at. Along the way, Psyche decided to take a quick pitstop at the local stream and rest for a few minutes...and that is where her oh-so-human emotion of curiosity dug in. What was the ointment inside the box she carried? What did it do? Naturally, being human, Psyche opened the box.
That turned out to be a big mistake because as soon as she did, Hypnos, the God of Sleep appeared and cast Psyche into a deep, unbreakable sleep. This was the final trap that had been set to test Psyche and she had failed. Her mortal human emotions got the better of her and now, so close to the end, she had utterly failed. Psyche lay there beside the river, an empty box lying next to her, deep within the world of dreams and magic, her face peaceful as she slept...
Meanwhile, Eros, after a sound verbal thrashing by his mother, had been let go once again to do his job of connecting mortals to love through his expert marksmanship. Once out, Eros (still madly in love with Psyche) discovered what his mom had done while he was locked away, and went desperately searching for the poor girl. For several days, he journeyed through the air trying to catch some sign of Psyche, but to no avail. Finally, he spotted her by the riverside, sleeping, unmoving.
Nothing he did (even as a god!) could wake her up. His eyes full of tears, and with all the love he himself could muster, he bent down and kissed her on her red lips.
Her eyes sprang open, the spell destroyed by that one kiss, and she looked up into the face of her beloved Eros! They embraced for a long, long while, repeating that kiss over and over, until finally he scooped her up and flew like the winds of Aeolus himself, top speed, for Mount Olympus.
Up through the clouds they flew, Greece becoming smaller and smaller until finally, there before them was the palace of the Olympians, sparkling in the sunlight like some unimaginable treasure.
Upon arrival, Eros led Psyche to the throne room of the gods, where Zeus and the other Olympians (Aphrodite included) were surprised to see them. Eros proclaimed his love for the beautiful girl and begged Zeus' permission for him to marry her. Eros' speech was so full of emotion that even Aphrodite shed a tear or two and realized that this was something meant to be.
Zeus smiled through his massive white beard and nodded, saying "Yes, dear Eros. I have been watching this whole situation from here. Both you and your beautiful woman have been through much. So...Yes! You shall be wed to this mortal! And as a wedding gift to you, I have decided to give her one final gift." Zeus looked over to Psyche and told her "Psyche, from this day on I grant you eternal life so that you and your beloved can remain together forever. You are no longer a simple princess, but are now granted the title of Goddess of the Soul!!!"
Every god and goddess in attendance went berserk with good cheer, chanting the new couple's names. Dionysus cracked out the wine, Zeus ordered up a keg of mead and Hera made certain that a huge wedding feast was prepared. Aphrodite embraced her new daughter-in-law and begged forgiveness, which of course Psyche gave freely, a big brilliant smile on her face. That day, with the Olympians in attending, Eros and Psyche were wed, to be happily together for eternity. The two became husband and wife, and for ONCE, a tale of the gods and mortals wound up with a very happy ending!
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