When Cupid Met Psyche


I first became interested in this myth, when I wrote my second novel, ‘Camille and the Raising of Eros’ (details on this website). It felt relevant to the story and it is substantially referred to in one of the chapters in the book as well as elsewhere in the text.

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Cupid and Psyche, Antonio Canova, 1808, The Louvre and the Hermitage, St Petersburg.

How does Cupid meet Psyche? In a turn of events, that goes against all her intentions, it is Venus, the mother of Cupid, who instigates the great love affair. And so, we have the three main characters in the myth: Psyche, Cupid, and third, but not least, Venus.


The Aphrodite of Fréjus. The Louvre.

It is a story that completely involves the three of them.

Next in importance are the sisters of Psyche. They have a relatively minor role, yet they add to the cyclones of emotion. There are a few others; mainly mythological creatures, that will move the narrative on when needed.

Cupid is the Roman version of the Greek, love god, Eros; often mischievous and troublesome, as can be the dynamics of love, or, more exactly, of falling in love. It is, indeed, within the latter that with a prick of his arrow, he casts his spells. Chaos can ensue. But in this story, Cupid will receive a taste of his own medicine.

Psyche is a mortal. She is young and beautiful and the daughter of well to do parents, and is very eligible; yet there is no suitor that pleases her. Later on, we can look further into the significance of this young, female, character who has made such an impression that her very name is used to describe the inner world and is translated as ‘The Soul’. It is also the prefix in Freud’s naming of his science of ‘psychoanalysis’.

And then there is Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, and for the Greeks she is Aphrodite. In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, she is, most significantly, the mother of Cupid, yet as artists have suggested throughout the centuries, there is an extra intimacy. There should be no idealisation of Venus. Despite her official title and disposition, she is utterly vicious in her hatred of rivals.

For all three, this is a story of the most powerful and conflicting emotions.

‘The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche’, which is the full and correct tile of the myth, is an extract, part of ‘The Golden Ass’ or the ‘Metamorphosis’, a work by Lucius Apuleius from the Second Century AD, which is the only Roman novel to survive in its complete Latin text. The tale also has a more obscure Greek origin. It is a story within a story and it resides in sections four, five and six of the 'Golden Ass'. It is, though, usually presented in its own right and is by far the best-known part of the total work.

In references and transcripts of the myth, the original Greek names of Eros for Cupid, and Aphrodite for Venus are often used. I tend to prefer those, but since it is Cupid and Psyche according to Apuleius, I will stay with the Roman.

There have been different versions. The one I will be using here is by William Adlington in 1566. It is the first English translation of the Apuleius text and is presented in the English of its time. In most of the quotes I have retained the original wording, which has a particular charm, though I have sometimes adjusted the spelling for greater ease of reading. My own very nice copy was published in 1923 by the Nonesuch Press.

There is also a notable version by William Pater from 1885. Pater, a Victorian aesthete, writer and critic, is credited, along with Théophile Gautier of ‘discovering’ Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ and making it famous to all. This was through a sumptuous and highly imaginative article he wrote in 1869 in the symbolist manner. His treatment of the tale of Cupid and Psyche is also in a typically rich and evocative style.

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The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche. Retold by William Pater, 1885. Published with illustrations by Edmund Dulac, 1951.

A later publication of this in 1951, has illustrations by Edmund Dulac which are in the art deco style and are mainly decorative.

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Edmund Dulac

There is also a notable French version by La Fontaine from 1669. This was published by Les Heures Claires, Paris, in 1955 as a very fine limited edition with a set of beautiful original etchings by Paul-Emile Bécat. These are highly erotic, and skilfully complement the sexuality and sensuality within the story. Very collectable. 

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Paul-Emile Bécat, 1955 drypoint illustration for Les Amours de Psyché et Cupidon, La Fontaine, 1669.

The mighty and amazingly prolific Victorian writer, poet, designer, artist, socialist, William Morris included his own version in an epic poem ‘The Earthly Paradise’ first published in 1868. The tale of Cupid and Psyche has inspired writers and artists throughout the centuries since the Renaissance, perhaps more than any other myth. 

It is a myth, and so has the universal and timeless relevance that would therefore be expected. It is also, though, a story by Apuleius, and so the personnel will have their own distinctive characters as in the mind of the author.

I am going to narrate the story taking note of points which may be of particular psychological interest and attempt to elaborate or perhaps, just ask a question. We can easily accept that the myths as well as their later counterparts, the fairy stories, can stir the emotions and contain meanings that are universal and that touch provocatively upon the collective and the individual unconscious.


Psyche was so beautiful that she became famous – to the whole world – and people flocked to see her and there was excited talk of a new Venus. When the real Venus came to hear of this, she was very displeased. Even her temples were being neglected and defaced. We straight away have an inkling of the sensitivity of this goddess and the degree of her pride. Her response to the perceived insult will be without limit. As the self-psychologist, Heinz Kohut, aptly observed, the reaction to insult, to the narcissistic wound, is so often the wish for revenge and this is the story’s first passionate emotion. In this Venus is utterly consumed.

There is a familiar theme in this from fairy stories, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty for instance, in which the older woman, often a queen or a stepmother, who has had her own time as the most beautiful, descends into murderous resentment towards a young usurper. It reflects dynamics that can exist in any mother daughter relationship. The equivalent is there for fathers and sons as the son begins to challenge the father’s power, but that resides in other myths.

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Cupid and Psyche, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, 1878. Private Collection.

Venus now calls upon her son, Cupid, to be the instrument of her revenge. He is to fire one of his magic arrows at Psyche, just as she is viewing – (Quote):

“The most miserablist creature living, the most poor, the most crooked, and the most vile, that there may be none found in all the world of like wretchedness”.

Everything is in extremes in this story, there is no stooping to half measures. A prick of Cupid’s arrow will leave Psyche helplessly in love with this vilest of creatures. Such is the revenge of Venus.

Here we see Cupid creeping up on Psyche to fulfil his mother’s wishes. However, he is to fail magnificently in his task. By mistake he pricks himself with his arrow, just as he is viewing Psyche, and so, becomes smitten. Desire is the next passionate emotion.

Psyche is so beautiful that people only gaze at her in awe and her parents can find no suitor for her. In desperation, her father consults the oracle of Apollo who tells him that his daughter is going to marry a dreadful serpent with wings - which may have been the case if Cupid had not been so careless. This is, in fact, misinformation, but the father believes it and returns to the family with the terrible news. They can only prepare for the ghastly wedding.

Psyche reproaches them, saying more or less, “Well what did you expect – I was being compared to the goddess.” (Quote):

“Now you see the reward of my excellent beauty: now you perceive, but too late, the plague of envy. When the people did honour me, and call me the new Venus then you should have wept, then you should have sorrowed as though I had been dead….”

So now there is the next passionate emotion of the story – ‘the plague of envy’. There will be much more of that.

The marriage was to take place on a rock on a high hill, but there was no terrible creature as Cupid had failed in his task.

Instead, the gentle winds of Zephyr blow Psyche away from the cliff and softly land her into a beautiful woodland glade.

There is already a quality of Psyche that is becoming evident: her innocence. Things just happen to her. There is no sign of her actually wanting to challenge Venus. And this lack of agency, this helpless passivity continues throughout the story. But is this apparent innocence all that it seems?  Consciously she is so, but is there much more of which she is unconscious. For instance, envy and rivalry are not only the negative emotions of the mother. The daughter can also play her part in the aggressive and combative side of the relationship.

Psyche rises from resting in the glade and decides to take a stroll. She walks through a beautiful wood and comes upon a magnificent castle which “gave light as if it were the sun”.


‘The Enchanted Castle’, Claude Lorrain, 1664, National Gallery, London.

This is Claude’s ‘The Enchanted Castle of 1664, with Psyche sitting outside.

She enters. Inside, she is in complete luxury. The surroundings are utterly beautiful and mysterious invisible servants supply her with everything she could possibly want. Having bathed and eaten, she lays down to sleep, though as she is alone there, she cannot escape a nagging fear for her virginity. And sure enough, during the night (Quote):

“Her unknown husband came and lay with her: and after that he had made perfect consummation of the marriage, he rose in the morning before day, and departed.”


Francois-Edward Picot, L’Amour at Psyché, 1817. The Louvre.

So, she has not seen him, only felt him. Interestingly in the story, Cupid, for he is the night visitor, and Psyche, are now referred to as husband and wife as if the sexual consummation is the criterion for marriage. In fact, their official marriage is far in the future and will be hard to win.

Here is a puzzling point, though it must surely be significant as it is so important to the story. There is a male lover who must not be seen, or in line with this theme, must not be named. It is elsewhere: in Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin’ opera, Ilse, Lohengrin’s betrothed, is forbidden to ask him his name. The fact that through doubt, she eventually does, brings disaster and the same will happen to Cupid and Psyche. Why must he remain anonymous and unknown?

The nights continue in which Psyche is visited by her mysterious lover and always in complete darkness so that she cannot see him. But he speaks, and he tells her how much he loves her. Yet he issues a warning. She must beware of her sisters and not allow them to come close as they could give him “great sorrow”, and “to thy self utter destruction”.

There is already the theme of envy supplied by the goddess Venus, but now there is to be the same from mortals. This will be a poisonous rivalry of siblings. Juliet Mitchell in her book ‘Madmen and Medussas’ has claimed most convincingly for the rivalry and ambivalence between siblings to have at least as much family significance as that between child and parent. In fact, she states that the intensity and the lasting effect of sibling relations had been masked by the psychoanalyst’s preoccupation with the Oedipus Complex. And there is no need for a sibling to be even born. The wish to be the only child is always under threat from whoever went before and from whom is yet to come. For the infant and child, the realisation of not being ‘the only one’ can be catastrophic.

Cupid has warned her, but, as always, Psyche is human and fallible. She longs to see her sisters, and perhaps too, she wants to show off, and the castle begins to feel like a place of captivity. Eventually, with much misgiving, Cupid relents. The winds of Zephyr bring her sisters to Psyche and she proudly takes them on a tour of the magnificent, magical castle.

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‘Psyche Showing Her Sisters Her Gifts from Cupid’. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1753 when he was just 21. National Gallery, London.

Fragonard’s 18th century painting of ‘Psyche Showing Her Sisters Her Gifts from Cupid’ is in typical sumptuous style, yet the demon of envy is ominously, swirling above them.

Perhaps one can imagine the welling up of envy as the sisters are shown the beautiful rooms and are told of the magnificence of the mysterious lover, and in the way that envy can accumulate and feed upon itself, there is then the dreadful thought that Psyche must surely have a god as her husband and the most dreaded thought of all – she might even become a goddess! She must surely be the happiest woman in the world!

Cupid again warns Psyche (Quote):

‘…. their purpose is to make and persuade thee to behold my face, which if thou once fortune to see, as I have often told, thou shalt see no more.”

A moment for further reflections on this prohibition of looking, of seeing the face of Cupid. It is an illicit romance, because it is between a god and a mortal. This is not allowed. And it will increase the outrage of Venus, the mother. Good reason for Cupid to keep it secret, even from Psyche.

And the Oedipal superego is very powerful here with the goddess of love becoming a sadistic, superego figure, whilst Psyche increasingly takes up the role of the masochistic victim. Indeed, we do see the development of a sado-masochistic relationship. Psyche will later declare herself as the servant of Venus and be punished again and again and still come back for more, whilst Venus completely indulges her hatred through extreme sadism.

There is a way in which this tale, and perhaps the myths in general, because they are often told with a light touch, scenes described with the minimum of brush strokes, belie the utter intensity of the emotions that are being described.

Psyche is by now pregnant and Cupid pleads with her to save their love and their child by no longer allowing the sisters entry to the castle. He realises their envy and the destructiveness of its intent.

But Psyche, is vulnerable, and in this instance, as is distressingly too often the case with humans – thoughtless and gullible. But then, perhaps, when it comes to family relationships, the dynamics might often seem clearer to an outsider. She invites the sisters again and they make the most of their opportunity and convince her that she must be married to a demon. Why else would he not let her see him? They tell her what to do. She must wait for him to sleep and take a lamp so she can see and then cut off his head.

Psyche is full of conflict and ambivalence, those human conditions that if too great and unresolved will manifest in their distorted forms as neurosis. (Quote):

“Sometimes she would, sometimes she would not, sometimes she is bold, sometimes she feareth, sometime she mistrusteth, sometime she is moved, sometime she hatest the beast, sometime she loveth the husband.”

But she does as her sisters have encouraged and as Cupid sleeps, she raises a lamp to see him and behold, he is magnificent and as she gazes in awe, a drop of oil from the lamp falls upon his right shoulder and he wakes. He declares,

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Giuseppe Maria Crespi  (1665–1747) Amore e Psiche, Cupid and Psyche, 1707-1709, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.


“Oh rash and bold lamp, the vile minestery of love, how darest thou be so bold as to burn the god of all fire? When as he invented thee, to the intent that all lovers might with more joy pass the nights in pleasure."

He flies away, and all is lost. The wonderful castle in which she has been living and loving disappears. She is alone and left lying in a field.

She has looked and the consequence is as foretold. It is another moment to examine the prohibition of Cupid. You must not look – you must not see reality, or else all that is ideal will be destroyed – ambivalence will invade the perfection. The magic castle will crumble, the ideal lover will disappear. For a relationship to succeed it must survive ambivalence. But, for now, with these two, the dream is over, with the perfection and the magic gone, there is only separation. We now have the emotion of despair.

Psyche is at first suicidal and throws herself into a river. But the water takes pity on her and refuses to drown her.

There is then a passage in the story which no longer portrays the helpless innocent Psyche, but instead a ruthless and revengeful one. The sisters, like the two sisters in Cinderella, surely a fairy tale that draws from this myth, have expressed the sometimes, raw and competitive hatred of sibling rivalry. It is something of a relief to find that Psyche is not immune from such feelings herself. And (unlike Cinderella) - she is out for revenge. She seeks her sisters and one after the other tells them that they are the woman whom Cupid really desires to marry. They must therefore go to the mountain and leap off the edge. The wind Zephyr will then catch them and carry them off to Cupid just like it did for her. First one and then the other rushes excitedly to the mountain top and takes the leap only to be shattered on the rocks below.

Apuleius spares no detail in the account of their demise. (Quote):

“…for all the members and parts of her body were torn among the rocks, whereby she was made a prey unto the birds and wild beasts as she worthily deserved.”

It is a terrible revenge. Psyche then goes looking for Cupid.

In the meantime, Venus is about to find out what has happened. She has heard that the reputations of herself and her son Cupid are at an all-time low and that this is because of a liaison that Cupid has had. “With whom?” asks Venus. “Is it a nymph, a goddess, a muse, or of the mystery of the Graces?”

The answer is - none of these. It is Psyche!

The rage of Venus is without limit. Not only is this the young mortal upstart to her beauty, but she has also now married her son. Her need for revenge is fuelled by the next passionate emotion of the story - jealousy.

So now, for a moment, to consider not Cupid and Psyche, but Cupid and Venus.

My view is that this is a relationship between mother and son with a powerfully incestuous component, and as such will be so hard to emerge from. Such factors that are heavily under repression and subject to a major taboo of society, can be expressed with abandon in the myths. The paradox is that the divinities of classical mythology express the most primitive human wishes and drives - sexual and aggressive.  And the extremely erotic, intimacy between Cupid and Psyche has been accepted imagery for artists throughout the centuries.


Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, about 1545, Agnolo Bronzino. National Gallery London.

This painting in the National Gallery is an unabashed example. It is ‘Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time’ by Bronzino from around 1545. An allegorical painting, but we can forget about the ‘time’ and the ‘folly’ elements in the present context and focus upon Venus and Cupid. The body of Cupid is divided by the right shoulder and breast of Venus. The top half, with the face, is of a boy, probably a teenager. It is a sweet and beautiful face. Then there is the divide, and below that as we look, there are the buttocks and legs. The physicality of this latter part is manifest; these are the powerful haunches of a young man. The image allows the sexuality to be displayed along with the more acceptable face of the child, though even the kiss of the child has a considerable sensuality. But the division required by taboo and the defences against incestuous wishes is described whilst both the qualities of innocence and sexuality are contained within the painting.

The emphasis in this myth tends to be on the libidinal, and the aggressions that can be consequent to sexual rivalries and frustrations. It would seem to be particularly relevant to the psychoanalytic id, ego and superego. In this, the attachment between Venus and Cupid, is due to the prevalence of the libidinal and incestuous, and not by the anxieties of dependency.

It is also the case that artists through the ages have never been able to agree on the age of Cupid. Is he a youth, a young man, or even an infant?

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Gothe Venus and Cupid statue, details unknown.

He is all of these, and the erotic component remains in each age in the same way that the libidinal current flows throughout life, beginning with the lips upon the breast. Cupid is always the god of love and his mother the goddess.

The infant can have a passionate orally libidinal relation to the mother’s breast. Then they are the child and the latency period sets in with the superego of the outside world holding sway over the instinctual drives, before adolescence revives desire and requires a boyfriend or girlfriend of a similar age. But giving up the original love interest can be a struggle, especially with such a powerful maternal influence. It is so in the battle between Venus and Cupid.

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Venus and Cupid, Evelyn de Morgan, 1878, De Morgan Collection.

Can he move on and can she let him move on, find someone else, even a mortal, as apart from the moments of falling in love, no one will match the divinity of the primary parental object. Yet one cannot be ruled by a goddess for ever.

Cupid is trying to separate, but he is on dangerous ground and so must remain hidden. His mortal lover was told not to look and see who he really is. His separation remains unrealised.

And what of the incestuous feelings of a mother to her son? Any acting out of this is something rarely heard of in society. Maybe sometimes there is a female teacher’s liaison with a male pupil and this will cause condemnation, perhaps outrage, and lead to punishment but there is little sign of these occurring in the media. The erotic maternal components become substantially sublimated, more successfully it would seem than the paternal towards a daughter.

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Venus Chides Cupid, 1695-1697, Luca Giordano. The Royal Collection Trust, Hampton Court.

But the myths can resist such sublimations. Here the rage of Venus towards Cupid is that of a spurned lover, and her expressions of revenge clearly betray the erotic element as she especially takes aim at his sexuality. The threats are all symbolic of castration. She will take away his phallic bows and arrows and give them to a servant instead. She will quench his fire and cut off his golden locks and clip his wings – which, she declares - she gave him in the first place! Then - ‘When she had spoken these words she departed in a great rage out of her chamber.’

One of the main themes in the story is of transformation, of maturing, getting older and wiser, moving through stages of development and it is so for all the three main characters.

It is Venus who is the most vocally transparent and her furious threats towards a younger rival betray her fear of change, of getting older. Cupid’s removal of his erotic attachment to her and substituting Psyche is another brutal evidence of change. She no longer rules carte blanche in the world of love. Her words give evidence as she chides Cupid. (Quote):

“Thou presumes and thinkest, thou trifling boy, thou varlet, and without all reverence, that thou art most worthy and excellent, and that I am not able by reason of my age to have another son, which If I should have, thou shouldest well understand, that I would bear a more worthier than thou.”


“…thou contemnest me as a widow.”

Venus bumps into two fellow gods, Juno and Ceres and they ask her whatever could have possibly happened to put her in such a rage and they try to sooth her with rational thoughts. Has she forgotten that Cupid is a young man, no longer a child, and as a young man must seek and find love, “And will you reproach your own art and delights in him?”

But Venus is still so angry that she can only hear the advice as taunts.

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‘Amor Vincit Omnia’, (Eros Triumphant), 1601-1602, Caravaggio, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

But in losing control of her son is she also feeling deprived of an element of her own masculinity? Cupid, this free-living phallic youth, who has perhaps been invested with her own sense of maleness, as if he is her own appendage. She has embraced and personified all the attributes of motherhood and femininity, whilst enjoying and identifying with the penetrative, phallic adventures of her son.

And it is a developmental struggle for Cupid as well. Before, he was the free agent, the mischief maker, with no responsibilities and amusing himself as he caused others to fall in love with all its consequences. Perhaps, generally behaving in the character of a florid male hysteric, causing chaos, spreading out his own mischief, leaving others with the responsibility of emotions that he will not personally contain, provoking jealousy that he denies in himself. Now love has happened to him and there is also to be a child, he will become a father. So, the enchanted castle of wish fulfilment will vanish for him too; he will need to build something more substantial.

He can no longer remain invisible to a lover, protecting himself from the fears of being seen and of truly relating.

It is relevant here that many artists’ depictions imagine Cupid as an adolescent, or young man. A time when the libidinal attachment to the parents gives way to the attractions of love objects of a similar age. It involves a rejection of the parents and Cupid has done this in spectacular fashion. And at this stage of the story, he disappears from the narrative. It transpires that the drop of oil that spilled from the lamp upon his shoulder has had a disproportionate affect. He has been seriously injured and needs time to recover. So, does his temporary absence mark a period in which he is processing change? When he re-emerges it is with a new and distinct purpose and a clear and open defiance of his mother. And is it the case that his instructions to Psyche to not look at him and to not know his true identity expressed his own previous lack of one?


‘The Legend of Cupid and Psyche’, Angelica Kauffman, (1741-1807). (A founding member of the RA and described as “The most cultivated woman in Europe”)

And for Psyche the trials of transformation will be trials indeed. For her, too, it is the struggle to differentiate from the maternal figure. She and Venus have an identification. They have been likened to each other in their female beauty, merged together in the public’s mind. And she must also free herself from a vicious maternal superego. Venus will put her through the most tortuous trials. She does not expect Psyche to survive; she wants her dead and, in the meantime, will extract as much sadistic pleasure as she can. The trials in the story are extended metaphors for the destructive nature of a relentlessly cruel superego (conscience), of a struggle for survival between figures and elements within the inner world. In this, Psyche will be helpless and passive in her resistance. She does not yet have a strong enough ego.

Should development be too easy anyway? Does there need to be a struggle? Maternal envy can certainly exist, but perhaps the daughter has to locate it, even to imagine it so that development can be energised through a contest. And there may be the added factor of her own envy towards her mother, let alone the jealousy of the oedipal phase. But in the fairy stories the maternal figure is often cast as the villain, disguised as a witch or wicked stepmother who hates the blossoming of a girl into womanhood. Of course, this may also be hiding the girl’s own wish to resist the physical development and to cling on to childhood, as can be seen in cases of anorexia.

Since Cupid and Psyche are considered symbolically married through their sexual consummation, Venus has actually become the wicked step-mother. Of course, in the fairy stories the good mother is often retained as the fairy godmother. There is no fairy godmother in this story.  Yet Psyche has kind friends, elements of mother nature who pity her and wish to help. Without these she would surely have perished.

So, to the trials of Psyche. She goes wondering, trying to stay clear of Venus but also searching for her lost love. The stylistic lightness of story-telling in the myths can belie the severity of the emotions and states of mind that are described. Psyche has descended into a deep depression to the point of suicide. She attempts it and would have perished if it were not for those elements of nature that refused her death. We have seen previously, that a river into which she cast herself refused to drown her. She is in the utmost despair. But a period of depression can be the deep state within which change struggles to occur. Sigmund Freud set the pattern, as he descended into his self-analysis, and out of his depression psychoanalysis was born. Change can be painful and hard won.

For the Greeks, Psyche is also the name for the soul and for the butterfly. It can be beautiful and will fly freely, yet first it must be transformed; from caterpillar to chrysalis, then to emerge resplendent. Psyche is trapped in the chrysalis of her own lack of consciousness and may never emerge.

For Bruno Bettleheim, in his book Freud and Man’s Soul, the aim is to demonstrate that Freud did care about the soul and that his researches into the instinctual elements and the psychological agencies should not undermine that. Yet for Freud, and surely within the psychoanalytic tradition, the ‘Psyche’ contains just those elements: id, ego, superego, life instinct (eros) and death instinct and it is their interaction within the psyche that is the seat of observation, and it is their consequent co-habitation that will be the achievement of maturity.

Psyche attempts help from two goddesses, Ceres and Juno. They would like to help but – sorry, Venus was so upset they could not possibly risk offending her.

Despite her wanderings, Psyche is inexorably drawn to the home of her persecutor. Venus has become such a powerful figure that all she can do is go to her and submit; just as a powerful superego can have such dominance in an internal world.

She is brought into the house by a servant.

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Psyche Before the Throne of Venus, Henrietta Rae (1859-1928), 1894. Privately owned.

The cruel threats and insults begin, (Quote):

“Thou art now in the gulf of hell, and shalt abide the pain and punishment of thy great contumacy.”  She is pulled into the house of Venus by her hair.

Apuleius describes the scene (Quote):

‘When Venus spied her, she began to laugh, and as angry persons accustome to do, she shaked her head, and scratched her right ear.’ End of quote. Strange characteristics of anger that must have been lost over the centuries!

Venus hands Psyche over to her maidens Sorrow and Sadness who “piteously scurged her with rods and whips”. The scene is completely one of sado-masochism.

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‘Psyche at the Throne of Venus’, Edward Mathew Hale, 1883. Russell-Cotes Museum and Gallery, Bournemouth.

Yet we see no evidence of sexual pleasure in this for Psyche. What is it that compels her to submit to pain and punishment? Certainly ‘Sorrow’ and ‘Sadness’ can be components of depression and its assault upon the self. But can there be other factors? What can make a person suffer the ongoing punitive purpose of a severe superego (conscience)? Freud tackled this in his article on ‘Moral Masochism’ in which the masochism, rather than an acted out or fantasised sexual act, becomes unconscious and part of character.

One of his most powerful descriptions is a paragraph in the 'Moral Masochism' writing. (Quote):

‘….masochism creates a temptation to perform ‘sinful’ actions which must then be expiated by the reproaches of the sadistic conscience….or by chastisement from the great parental power of Destiny. In order to provoke punishment from this last representative of the parents, the masochist must act against his (or her) own interests, must ruin the prospects that open out to (them) in the real world and must, perhaps, destroy (their) own real existence.’

Apuleius continues with Venus’ furious protest, “….that in the then flourishing time of all my age” she is going to be turned into a grandmother - especially with Psyche as the mother! Raging that the child will be a bastard anyway, since no parents condoned her marriage, she then (Quote):

 ‘….leaped upon the face of poor Psyche and (tearing her apparel) took her by the hair, and dashed her head upon the ground’.

Venus then sets Psyche a series of impossible tasks. For considerations of length, I will just concentrate on the last of these, the fourth. It is the crucial one and one that goes well until the final disastrous moment when again Psyche falls prey to her own human fallibility. For the previous three tasks, which should all be impossible to surmount, she is helped by the elements or by creatures, since nature, as the symbolic loving, maternal figure, repeatedly has a soft spot for Psyche. For Venus these successes can only cause increasing incredulity and fury.

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‘Proserpine’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874. Tate Britain.

For the final task Venus sends Psyche to hell. She must descend to the realm of Proserpina and collect as much beauty as Venus will need for a day, since she has lost some of that due to the sickness of her son. A sickness that has led to the disappearance of Cupid and which was caused by the unfortunate drop of oil upon his right shoulder.

Rossetti’s is the most famous painting of Proserpina.

It seems the very end for Psyche, and again she sees suicide as the only option, the product of her despair, though also the quickest and easiest way to descend to hell. But still there is the presence of a good and protective parental imago. If we consider the story of the trials to represent the dire struggles that occur in the inner world of Psyche, indeed, within her psyche, then these helping and indeed loving elements must surely represent the good internal figure that resists the savagely persecutory one. Yet, for Psyche it is almost alien, she is so much under the sway of her superego.

It may be that a person deeply suffering, almost completely loses the good. Perhaps, as well, in their life, there has just been too little of it. In such a case it will need another person or agency to represent and maintain the good, to try to be the life giver and to offer a place of safety. With someone severely depressed or self-destructive the offer may seem to be unaccepted, even flatly refused. Psyche, though, does pay heed to her helpers.

She has first climbed a tower to throw herself from its summit. But the tower has a voice and speaks to her. (Quote):

“Know thou that of thy spirit be once separated from thy body, thou shalt surely go to hell, but never to return again, wherefore harken to me….”.

The guidance from the tower is detailed and intricate. She must take (Quote):

“….two sops sodden in the flower of barley and honey in thy hands, and two halfe pence in thy mouth.”

She will pass a lame ass carrying wood, driven by a lame man. He will ask her to pick up wood that has spilled. But she must not.

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‘Psyche in the Underworld’, Eugene-Ernest Hillemacher, 1865. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Then she will come to the river of Hell, where Charon the ferryman will want his payment and will take a halfpence from her mouth.

An old man will be swimming in the river “holding up his deadly hands….” And will want her to take him into her boat, but she must have “….no regard for his piteous cry.”

There will be old women spinning. She must not help them. And she must be sure not to drop one of her sops or she will never return to the world.

The refusal to give help to anyone seems unkind and selfish, yet it is conveying an important lesson. When on the developmental journey, there will be times when there is no excess of energy to be expended on the needs of others. Contentious perhaps, but often prescribed.

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Cerberus, from Canto 6 of Danté’s Inferno. Gustave Doré.

Then she must encounter the dog Cerberus with three heads who (Quote):

“lieth day and night before the gate of Proserpina, and keepeth the house of Pluto with great diligence.”

To this ferocious guard-dog she must cast one of the sops.

The above is Gustave Doré's engraving of Cerberus for Danté’s Inferno.

And then, at last, if she survives these great dangers, Proserpina, Queen of Hades, will receive Psyche and offer her fine food and drink, but still there are prohibitions: she must only have brown bread, and must only ask for that amount of beauty that Venus has requested. Then after dining with Proserpina, she will take away a box containing the beauty. She will encounter the terrible three headed dog again but will fend it off with the remaining sop, and she still has a halfpenny to pay her way with Charon, the ferryman.

All Psyche did as directed and all went superbly well, until the one instruction of the tower that she resists.

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‘Psyche Opening the Golden Box’,  John William Waterhouse, 1903. Private Collection.


“….above all things have a regard that thou look not in the box, neither be not too curious about the treasure of the divine beauty.”

Psyche, of course, as we know, is full of the most human fallibilities and not immune to vanity – though neither are the gods, yet for them fallibility hardly applies; they revel in their impulses. But the impulse for Psyche spells disaster; she just wanted to have a bit of that beauty from the box, and to look really nice for Cupid, but she pays the price. (Quote):

“….she was ravished with great desire, saying, am I not a fool, that knowing that I carry here the divine beauty, will not take a little thereof to garnish my face, to please my love withal.”

It was so easy to convince herself, yet indeed, it was so foolish. Nothing was in the box, only “….an infernal and deadly sleep”, which invades and overcomes her. She falls asleep and is, as a corpse.

It is the tipping point of the story. The element that underlies a racy story line is one of extreme suffering, hopelessness, helplessness and suicidal depression. When and how can it possibly end? But Psyche has made the journey into the depths; she has gone down to hell, symbolically descended into the dark wilds of the unconscious and met the Queen of Death. She has confronted the most destructive internal elements. An old unrealised self will die, a new experience of herself can live, and she must surely now be transformed as she emerges back into the world.

So why must she seem to fail at the last moment and fall into a sleep that may last forever? One reason is so she can be saved by Cupid. He has been almost forgotten by the story; lying low in his illness and recuperating from his injury, an injury which, I believe, was also due to the loss of one whom he loved but to whom he could not show himself. In the meantime, the focus has become just Psyche by herself, trying to survive, often not even wanting to. Now, the one will become two and a real marriage can occur.

But this element of deep sleep is also found elsewhere as a period prior to great personal change. It is there in the stories of Snow White and The Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) by the brothers Grimm. In the latter the sleep is of a hundred years. It allows change to occur. In sleep the normal ego functions and controls are suspended. In this sense, sleep liberates, it allows elements lying fallow in the unconscious to be accessed, as can happen in a dream. Perhaps in sleep, troubles can even be resolved. Sleep is good.


‘Cupid and Psyche’, Anthony van Dyke, 1638-1641. Royal Collection, Kensington Palace.

Cupid has got his wings back, symbolically too, and he escapes from the chamber in which he has been trapped. He will now completely defy his mother’s wishes as he cannot bear to be parted from Psyche any more. He flies to where she lies prostrate and he awakes her. (Quote):

'He wiped away the sleep from her face, and put it again in the box, and awakened her with one of the tips of his arrows.'

And often, in art, it is by a kiss.

Of all the many paintings and sculptures depicting the myth of Cupid and Psyche, this part of the story is the one that is most imagined and portrayed. And none so exquisitely as this.

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‘Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss’, Antonio Canova, 1787-1793. First version. The Louvre, Paris.

‘Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss’ by Antonio Canova.

So, love conquers all. But is that too sentimental? Not when recalling that this was always about the marriage of Cupid and Psyche and how love might triumph over hatred and how it can transform. So ‘love’ is our final passionate emotion. The two protagonists have certainly had to survive hatred and have felt it themselves; they have journeyed through it. Now they can have their moment. And it is a moment that more than any other has attracted the imagination of artists. The awakening of Psyche by Cupid.

And this reviving kiss of Cupid. It is a triumph of love and love is a life-giver. One of Freud’s most contentious theories was that of a death instinct and that the origins of aggression were to be found in a deflection of it outwards towards external objects. The psychoanalyst,Melanie Klein, used it in her theory as the root of aggression, but many other theorists, including Donald Winnicott, have discarded or objected to it, feeling it to be unnecessary for a theoretical view of the genesis of aggression. I rather like it though as a concept.

For Freud it exists in all organic matter with a purpose to eventually reduce that matter to its original inorganic state, that of death, and the theory, most pertinently, includes humans. Eros, the Greek name for Cupid, was used by Freud to describe an instinct of life, the libido, the life instinct, which within the psyche will interact with the death instinct and mitigate against its destructive power.

Psyche lost Eros (Cupid) and became overwhelmed by a death instinct which fuelled the destructive sadism of her own superego (conscience), personified by and embodied by Venus. Psyche even descends into the kingdom of death, but is able to locate her own need to live, enough to re-surface, and be in a place where Cupid (Eros) the representative of the life instinct can reunite with her - with a kiss. And perhaps it is aways through such interaction, with another, that the life force, Eros, can be regained and equilibrium can be restored within the Psyche.

Psyche is awake again and the couple are re-united, but Venus remains a terrible threat. Cupid in his fear of reprisals decides to appeal to another power. It may have been wiser to do this much earlier. This story of mother and son, and mother and symbolic daughter, has throughout had the conspicuous absence of a father and perhaps if he had been there to mediate as ‘the third’ to mother and daughter and to mother and son, the destructive envy and jealousy would have been more contained. Jupiter, the king of the gods is now the one that Cupid flies to and makes his appeal and he is described as, indeed, the father.

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‘Jupiter and Cupid’,  free copy drawing after a fresco by the Studio of Raphael, 1518-1519. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

But first Cupid has to undergo a good ticking off for being a misbehaving, rascally and unruly ‘son’. Really, a very difficult adolescent. But after listing all of Cupid’s misdemeanours, Jupiter decides to forgive and to help him. (Quote):

“….so that thou canst be aware of spiteful and envious persons”.

In the story, jealousy and envy have matched love and desire in their intensity and have revealed themselves to harbour the most extreme aims, even to the point of death, as it can be for all in the depths of the deeply repressed unconscious.

The father, Jupiter, in this story, can provide the containment, but also the rule of law, of the protective superego, rather than the destructive one, and represent the structures in society that can maintain civilisation in the midst of its wild passions and its discontents.

He summons a council of the gods and speaks. (Quote):

“You all know this young man Cupid whom I have nourished with mine own hands, whose raging flames of his first youth, I thought best to bridle and restrain. It suffices that he is defamed in every place for his adulterous living, wherefore all occasion ought to be taken away by mean of marriage.”

So, all is well for Cupid to continue his marriage to Psyche and it is now blessed by Jupiter. It is official.

Jupiter then confronts Venus, who in the story, is described as his daughter, and tells her to let the marriage be and to desist from her enmity. Given all that has gone before, she accedes surprisingly easily, but this is a story of transformation for all three of its characters, and we must assume that Venus, having fully experienced her jealousy and envy can now come out the other side.

She has become wiser and can accept the new adult life that is beginning for her son and his wife, and also value a new period in her own life. The separation and differentiation from Cupid can take its place and Psyche can have her life too.

There is now a great celebration in heaven, a party for all the gods. Even Venus will attend, and in fact, she even performs a dance. This is now the real ceremony of the marriage, and marriage, which is so much a part of this story, even in its full title, represents here the achievement of personal maturity and successful and creative sublimation. In terms of the instincts and the drives, that have swept the characters along, the rider can now control the horse rather than the other way round.

Burne Jones saw the wedding as this.

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‘The Wedding of Psyche’, Edward Burne Jones, 1895. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium.

Utterly beautiful, but it looks a rather sedate affair. Surely the gods would be more likely to celebrate like this,


‘Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Psyche’, fresco by workshop of Raphael, 1517. Villa Farnesina, Rome.

As per the workshop of Raphael.

Psyche is now invited to join the gods, to have immortality, and some time later her child is born. Psyche and Cupid have a daughter and she is named ‘Pleasure’.