Thursday, May 29, 2008


Please settle in for a nice long post. It's been awhile since I've blogged and I've got a story to tell. It's an old Greek myth, but I've just discovered it and feel like I've invented it myself.

I've just returned from two weeks in the Greek islands, where the beaches are lovely,

the ferry boats and Orthodox churches appear everywhere you look,

the food and wine are delicious,

and the feral cats are always hungry.

While traveling, I read nothing but a tattered and yellowing copy of a book that was assigned reading in my freshman English class during high school. Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Ugh. That's how I felt about the required text when I was fourteen. Nothing but boring gods and monsters.

But in Greece, it was a whole other thing. I couldn't get enough of the Titans and the Twelve Great Olympians. They were so human and imperfect, just like me, and I loved the way Edith Hamilton told their stories.

"That is the miracle of Greek mythology--a humanized world, men freed from the paralyzing fear of an omnipotent unknown," writes Miss Hamilton, who looks to be a very strict and severe school mistress, judging from her picture on the book jacket, but who in truth and in secret except as revealed in her writing was more likely a lushly sensual woman. "The exact spot where Aphrodite was born of the foam could be visited by any ancient tourist; it was just offshore from the island of Cythera. The winged steed Pegasus, after skimming the air all day, went every night to a comfortable stable in Corinth."

Of all the Greek myths, my favorite is the one about Cupid and Psyche because Psyche is a bad girl who seeks redemption through love.

Psyche was a princess, the daughter of a king who had three daughters. Psyche was the most beautiful of the three, so beautiful that mortals worshiped her. Her beauty and fame made her sisters hate her and Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, angry. "Her temples were neglected; her altars foul with cold ashes; her favorite towns deserted and falling in ruins," Miss Hamilton writes.
Edith Hamilton, Bryn Mawr College Archives

Aphrodite sought her revenge through her son Cupid, a winged youth whose arrows of love caused no end of trouble for the people they wounded. "Destroy Psyche," Aphrodite told Cupid. "Make her fall madly in love with the vilest and ugliest of creatures."

But before he could shoot his arrow into Psyche, her beauty so awed Cupid that it was as if he had pierced his own heart with the dart of love. Saying nothing to his mother, Cupid devised a plan that would make Psyche his own. He cast a spell so that no man would fall in love with her, and nor would she fall in love with any man. And so she stayed alone, worshiped from afar by many, as her sisters made good marriages to kings.

Psyche's worried father asked the oracle of Apollo, the God of Truth, why there was no love for Psyche, and the oracle replied that she must be placed atop a rocky hill, to await a fearful winged serpent who would become her husband. This her father did, because the oracle had spoken, and Psyche was abandoned to her fate. Alone and frightened, she waited and cried, until a sweet and mild wind carried her to a grassy and fragrant meadow, where Psyche slept deeply, and when she awoke found herself in a stately mansion, which looked something like this:
Mountaintop monastery, island of Folegandros

She was still alone, yet sweet voices greeted Psyche, telling her that the house was for her, and she must enter without fear and bathe herself and sit at a banquet made entirely for her. She enjoyed herself, luxuriating in sensual pleasure, knowing somehow that at night her husband would come.

And this is what happened. Psyche lay in her bed in the dark and was joined by her husband, unseen, but she felt no fear. Rather, it was ecstasy. "She knew without seeing him that here was no monster or shape of terror, but the lover and husband she had longed and waited for," Miss Hamilton writes. Every day for many days Psyche was alone in her mansion, and every night for many nights she was with her beloved and unseen husband.

But one terrible day, her husband warned Psyche that her two sisters were coming and meant her harm. "You must not let them see you or you will bring great sorrow upon me and ruin to yourself," he told her, warning her also that she must never try to see him because one look at his face would separate them forever. "If you saw me, perhaps you would fear me, perhaps adore me, but all I ask of you is to love me. I would rather you would love me as an equal than adore me as a god."

Psyche's sisters arrived at the mansion, and she welcomed them because she had seen no body in such a long time, but the two women looked jealously on everything that was their sister's, and they filled her head with their spiteful talk. "Why can't you see your husband? Surely if he loved you, he would let you see him in the full light of day. But no, your husband is no man. We know for a fact that he is the evil winged serpent that Apollo's oracle spoke of."

"The Awakening of Psyche," Guillaume Seignac (1870-1924)

Crying and confused, Psyche asked what she should do, and her sisters told her to get a lamp and a sharp knife and stab her husband through the heart that very night as he slept. Then they left, pleased with themselves for having caused their youngest sister such misery.

All day long Psyche's thoughts were at war with each other, and when evening came she was still filled with uncertainty. There was only one thing she was sure of: tonight, she would see her husband's face.

"When at last he lay sleeping quietly, she summoned all her courage and lit the lamp," Miss Hamilton writes. "She tiptoed to the bed and holding the light high above her she gazed at what lay there. Oh, the relief and the rapture that filled her heart. No monster was revealed, but the sweetest and fairest of all creatures, at whose sight the very lamp seemed to shine brighter."

In her shame and excitement, Psyche fell on her knees and upset the lamp. Hot oil spilled onto her husband's shoulder, both wounding and waking him. Seeing the light, he knew his dear wife's faithlessness, and he jumped out of bed and ran out into the night. Psyche chased after him but by then Cupid had sprouted wings and flown off into the night. All she could hear was his voice, calling: "Love cannot live where there is no trust."

Psyche despaired and wandered the earth as she tried desperately to find Cupid and win him back. She went to his mother, and Aphrodite cruelly set impossible tasks for her, which Psyche accomplished only because the gods favored her. Finally, Aphrodite gave her a box to carry down into the underworld so that Persephone could fill it with some beauty, which the Goddess of Love said she had lost by worrying so much about her injured son.
"Psyche in the Underworld," Paul Alfred de Curzon, 1820-1895

Persephone did as asked and filled the box. And once again, Psyche's curiosity got the better of her and she felt that she must see what was inside it as she carried it out of the underworld. Psyche, too, hoped to retrieve some of the beauty she had lost from caring about Cupid.

Psyche opened the box, and though there was nothing there, she fell into a deep languor that carried her into a deadly sleep. But all was not lost, because this was a myth with a happy ending. At the very moment Psyche opened the lid of the box, Cupid revealed himself to her, and thus all was well. Cupid, the God of Love, and Psyche, who is the Soul, lived happily ever after.

In the way of all Greek myths when a human is brought to live forever among the gods on Mount Olympus, Psyche became an immortal and was never heard from again. She is at home now, cooking, cleaning and having Cupid's babies.
"Cupid and Psyche," Jacques Louis David (1748-1825)


Anonymous said...

Another brilliant post! I fondly remember Edith Hamilton from high school. I wake up every morning looking at the spine of a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology!

Rob K said...

Fabulous post--you link the modern and ancient worlds so effortlessly.

It's been years since I even thought about Edith Hamilton's book. Thanks for posting this.

Eastcoastdweller said...

What a great blog, and this is a great post! You've chosen a unique lens through which to view history and culture.

I love Hamilton-- she was in a class of her own.

There is something truly authentic about being able to enjoy a book in its own milieu ... imagine reading James Joyce on a rainy Irish night by the light of a peat fire in the fireplace, or Tolstoy after a dinner of borscht and peasant bread while the Russian winter howls outside.

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