Eros and Psyche is a popular tale in Greek mythology. Found in the only complete Ancient Roman novel to survive history, this tale is the predecessor to the fairy-tale genre.
“Storytelling is as old as time. So, it’s no surprise that we can see repeated patterns. The tale of Eros and Psyche, originally from Greek mythology, was written down by Apuleius in the 2ndCentury AD. The most common fairy-tales you know – i.e. Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, etc. – are guilty of reproducing many elements from this ancient myth.
In ancient societies, storytelling was a huge part of the culture. It was a time for entertainment, education, and awe. Stories were told around the campfire, in the home, and through theatre. This tradition is even present in today’s society: we tell stories at bedtime, we listen to stories at the cinema, and we read stories in books wherever we take them. The tale of Eros and Psyche was born within these traditions. In Apuleius’ novel, the Metamorphoses, an old woman sits down with a young woman who is worried about marriage and begins to tell her the story of Psyche’s marriage.
Once upon a time, there lived a king in Ancient Greece who had three daughters, the youngest of which was Psyche. Psyche was so famous for her unmatched beauty throughout the kingdom (the way every fairy-tale starts!), that people would travel from afar to come and give gifts. The people began to call Psyche ‘Aphrodite,’ as her beauty competed with even that of the Goddess of Beauty herself. This widespread devotion and attention soon caught Aphrodite’s own attention, and she became envious.
In spiteful retaliation, Aphrodite sent her son, the winged Eros (known as Cupid in Roman translation), to shoot Psyche with his arrows of love, to force her to fall in love with the most miserable and hideous beast known to man. However, upon seeing Psyche, Eros himself fell in love with her and decided that he would marry her.
Snow White by the Grimm Brothers bears similarities here – her evil stepmother, much like Aphrodite, is jealous of her beauty and orders someone to punish her. In Snow White, it is a huntsman, who is meant to kill her in the forest, but upon seeing her beauty, decides to let her go.
Next in the story of Eros and Psyche: An Oracle had informed the King that in retribution for his pride in Psyche’s beauty, she would be claimed by a winged beast. In Greek mythology, people are often punished for hubris, most commonly translated as ‘pride.’ The people of the kingdom mourned for Psyche but obeyed the Oracle and left her, dressed in mourning attire, at the edge of a high cliff. Unbeknownst to them, the winged beast was actually Eros – who was often referred to as such due to his ‘beastly’ manner of making ill-suited couples fall in love for his own entertainment.
Notice here that in Greek mythology, Eros was known as a ‘beast’ and Psyche famed for her ‘beauty’: trace this to the fairy-tale Beauty and the Beast. In Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, 1756, the youngest, most beautiful daughter of a rich merchant is nicknamed “the little Beauty” by the townsfolk.
After Psyche was left on the cliff, Zephyrus, a wind god of Ancient Greece, assisted Eros by whisking Psyche away to Eros’ homeland. On her arrival, Psyche was amazed by the beauty of the valley. Here, she had invisible servants to attend to every wish, a wealth of luxury, and delicious food at whim… but she was alone.
Her new husband Eros visited only at night, as he had commanded Psyche to never set her eyes upon him. Despite not knowing who – or what – her husband was, Eros and Psyche enjoyed life in the valley together. She obeyed her husband’s wishes but often asked Eros if she could invite her sisters to visit. After many appeals, Eros finally relented but warned Psyche that her sisters’ visit could end in her downfall.
Psyche disregarded the warning and entertained her sisters in her new home soon after. But jealousy strikes again! Her sisters are amazed and envious of the lifestyle and happiness of Psyche. They soon start to instill doubt and fear in Psyche, telling her that her husband is a beast that she cannot see, and he is waiting until she has her first child to devour them both! Terrified, Psyche listens to their advice and plots to kill the beast in his sleep.
Here we have the first-born child pattern, which is in classic retellings of Rapunzel. On another point, there is also the fear of being eaten by the Beast in Beauty and the Beast by Le Prince de Beaumont! In Greek mythology, there is a pattern of devouring the firstborn: Kronos, the King Titan, devours his children, and Zeus devours his first wife Metis and her unborn child.
That evening, when Eros and Psyche have retired to bed, Psyche takes an oil lamp and razor, then creeps to his sleeping bedside. What she sees isn’t a monster at all, but the startlingly beautiful Eros, God of Desire and Passion. As she hesitates, a drop of oil falls from the lamp onto Eros’ shoulder. Scorched and in pain, Eros awoke. Above him, he saw Psyche wielding a razor and fire, so he fled.
Psyche catches onto Eros as he begins to fly, apologizing for her mistrust, but he rejects. For her betrayal, Eros vows that she will never see him again. He drops her to the ground and flies away.
In the modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Disney (1992), Belle disobeys the Beast by going into the West Wing of the castle. She then touches the enchanted rose. The Beast discovers her in the act and banishes her from his presence, just like in the story of Eros and Psyche.
Distraught after the dismissal, Psyche attempts to drown herself, but the river spirit pities her and washes her onto the bank. Getting to her feet, Psyche decides to find Eros to win back his love.
Meanwhile, Aphrodite is inflamed in anger at both Eros and Psyche: Eros for falling in love with her self-appointed enemy, and Psyche, for having the audacity to injure her son. A servant of Aphrodite dragged Psyche to an audience with the goddess, and Aphrodite proceeds to torment her with whips and the forces of Sadness and Sorrow.
In Greek mythology, Aphrodite’s wrath is infamous. Also, Psyche’s position as the daughter-in-law of Aphrodite reflects the fairy-tale’s common ‘Evil Stepmother’ trope. After this torment, Aphrodite demands that Psyche perform tasks for her in order to compensate for her actions.
The first task is to sort out a huge heap of chickpeas, lentils, poppy seeds, and such into separate piles. Psyche begins the task, but it is arduous and seemingly endless. Soon, the ants in the ground take pity on her and help her to sort the piles quickly. Upon Aphrodite’s return, Aphrodite sees Psyche’s success and accuses her of having help, and so decides that she must perform another task.
For the second task, Psyche must skin the fleece of a golden sheep, but this sheep is violent and man-eating. Luckily, Psyche is advised by a nearby river spirit to wait until the sheep has fallen asleep, and then collect parts of the fleece that have fallen to the ground or have attached to branches that the sheep has brushed on. Taking this advice, Psyche soon assembles a golden fleece. Alas, again, Aphrodite refuses to accept Psyche’s completed task and orders another.
Following on, Aphrodite tells her to fill a jug of water at the top of a mountain, from a dangerous river that flows into the Underworld. Psyche reaches the top of the mountain but finds that the river is guarded by two dragons. Seeing her plight, the Eagle of Zeus decides to help Psyche and fills the jug for her using his flight to dodge the dragons. Psyche returns to Aphrodite with the water, but yet again Aphrodite is angered by her success.
The repeated demand for tasks is present in Rumpelstiltskin by Brothers Grimm. In this tale, the King demands that a young girl turn straw into gold after her father had pridefully bragged about her beauty and skill. To achieve this impossible task, she is assisted by Rumpelstiltskin; the task is then repeated three times, with an increasing level of difficulty.
This time, Aphrodite orders Psyche to travel to the Underworld, a place from where few ever return, to collect a beauty potion from Persephone, Queen of the Underworld and wife of Hades.
Psyche laments this mission and contemplates ending her life, certain that this is an impossible task. But again, an invisible force uplifts her and encourages her to attempt the task. The force also gives her useful advice on how to enter and exit the Underworld safely. Therefore, she is able to visit Persephone and retrieve the beauty potion.
In Cinderella, Cinderella despairs that she cannot go to the ball, but then a fairy godmother appears and gives her a new outfit, uplifting encouragement and the ability to go to the ball. A key point in the fairy godmother’s appearance in Disney’s retelling is that the godmother cannot arrive until Cinderella has given up all hope. Likewise, in this tale of Eros and Psyche, the aid does not appear until Psyche has lost all hope, to the point that she considers ending her own life.
At this point, Psyche finally succumbs to her own ambition. She thinks to herself, that while she has the potion, imbued with the power of a goddess, she can use a little on herself to win back Eros’ love. However, as Psyche opens the box, she finds that inside is not a beauty potion, but a curse of eternal sleep! Psyche falls to the ground in an enchanted slumber.
In retellings of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the protagonists touch things they should not, which then causes a death-like sleep. Sleeping Beauty touches the spinning wheel’s needle and Snow White the poisoned apple. Sleeping Beauty obviously uses the nickname ‘Beauty’, too.
At this time, Eros, who has been trapped in Aphrodite’s chambers, to prevent him from forgiving Psyche, manages to escape. He seeks out Psyche and finds her in a death-like sleep. Grief-stricken, he used his magical arrows imbued with his power, to take away the trance and restore Psyche to consciousness. Eros and Psyche are thus reunited.
The Prince in Sleeping Beauty by Disney is also trapped at one point in his story but by the evil fairy Maleficent. He, too, manages to escape, find the sleeping princess and wake her with the power of love. In Greek mythology, it is not often that there are such happy endings! So, it is a surprise in the narrative that Psyche is saved. Comparably, early fairy-tales, usually around the 18-19th century, often had gruesome details and lots of death. However, interestingly, the more recent adaptations, i.e., by Disney, tend to end the story joyfully.
Reinvigorated with love and the determination to set his marriage right, Eros appeals to the King of the gods, Zeus, to grant his marriage as legitimate, as their original marriage was done in secret. Zeus grants his appeal and demands that all the gods be in attendance for the marriage of Eros and Psyche. Psyche is granted immortality, becoming the Goddess of the Human Soul….and they lived happily ever after.”
BETHANY WILLIAM – Author of this article is a Masters student, currently studying the adaptation of Greek myth in modern literature. She is a graduate of Classics and English (BA), during which she studied Ancient Greek language, classical reception within its own time and throughout history, as well as Greek and Roman history. Apart from her studies, she has an appreciation for art, philosophy, and travel. She may be based in England, but her heart is in Greece.