In a certain village, there lived a princess named Psyche who was so beautiful that she received worship from her people as a goddess. Angered, the goddess of love Venus commanded her son, Cupid (also Eros, or “Desire”), to punish her by making her fall in love with a hideous creature. However, Cupid himself fell in love with her and took her as his wife, with the condition that Psyche was forbidden to look on his face until they had their first child, when their marriage would be finally realized. Seized with jealousy at her fortuitous betrothal to the god, Psyche’s sisters tempted her to disobedience, provoking her to attempt to kill her unknown husband, out of fear.
When night fell, Psyche, trembling, having forgotten her husband’s warnings and acquiesced to her sisters’ instructions, steeled herself for her crime. Yet as she stared at her husband in bed, light shone clear and her eyes were opened. She realized how naked she was (Gen 3:7) – for she was in the presence of a god. What no eye had seen, what no ear had heard, what no mind had imagined (1Cor 2:9) lay before her. No wonder her desires were stilled in his presence; she was in the presence of Desire himself!
The wisdom of her wise sisters suddenly became as utter foolishness to Psyche (1Cor 1:20). Inflamed with desire for Desire, she reached eagerly for her husband, but knocked over a lamp and roused him with a drop of hot oil. Scalded, Cupid arose. Realizing his secret had been betrayed, he flew swiftly from his wife’s embrace.
“Foolish Psyche,” he cried, “as Venus had commanded me, the wages of your misguided indulgence in praise from humans were to be death as a mortal (Rom 6:23). Instead, I loved you, yet you would seek to disobey and sever my head! You shall be cast from my presence, and my spirit taken away from you (Ps 51:11). As for your sisters, those false teachers, it would be better for them to have a great millstone fastened around their neck and be hurled into the sea (Mt 18:6).” With this, Cupid flew off, leaving Psyche helpless and heartbroken at the loss of her husband.
Soon after, in punishment for tempting Psyche, Cupid misled Psyche’s sisters into believing he was seeking to marry them, in Psyche’s place. Led to a cliff, they took their turn at hurling themselves off, expecting to be caught by Cupid – only to find not the God waiting at a palace but a grisly death upon sharp rocks.
Venus quickly discovered that Psyche was not punished as she had intended. Incensed at her son’s betrayal, she searched throughout the land for Psyche, that Cupid’s illegitimate wife might face the punishment that was prepared for her.
Meanwhile, Psyche wandered through the land, seeking Cupid, who lay in his mother’s chamber groaning from his scorched shoulder. Having tasted the joys of Desire, Psyche yearned to take refuge in him once more (Ps 34:8), but Desire was nowhere to be found. Her soul yearned, even fainted, for the courts of Desire; her heart and flesh cried out for him (Ps 84:2) but to no avail. Despairing of ever finding her true Love on her own, and being refused sanctuary wherever she sought it, Psyche took counsel of her thoughts. Where could she run from Venus? What else could she try by her own strength? She feared the punishment that awaited, but she could no longer do what she needed to on her own. The great unknown was her only alternative; surely, it was the only way.
And so Psyche turned herself in, coming into her Accuser’s presence, abandoning all notions of peace and hope elsewhere. The moment Venus laid eyes on Psyche, she flew into a terrible rage. “So, deign to call on your mother-in-law at last, do you? Trying to stir my sympathies with that swollen belly of yours? No, since your ‘marriage’ of mortal and god took place in some country villa, with nary a witness, without the father’s consent, it was not done within the law, and your child is illegitimate! Dogs will not eat from the children’s table (Mk 7:27) – you and your illegitimate child have no place in our family of the gods!” After flogging Psyche and torturing her, she bestowed upon Psyche a series of impossible tasks, by which she should attempt to work out her salvation and sanctification with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).
Through task after task that was hurled at her, each of increasing difficulty and danger, Psyche survived through the unmerited grace shown to her by on Cupid’s behalf. She worked, though it was not her, but the grace through her husband that was with her (1Cor 15:10). When she was charged with separating a pile of wheat, millet, barley, poppy seeds, chickpeas, lentils, and beans, a squadron of ants came to her aid because she was the wife of Love himself. When she was sent to steal some golden fleece from a flock of savage sheep, she was saved from suicide by a reed, which showed her how to pick stray threads of wool caught in bent branches. When she was commanded to collect the freezing waters of the River Styx from amidst the serpents inhabiting it, she was assisted by Jupiter’s eagle who, remembering his allegiance to Cupid, took pity on Psyche and gathered the water on her behalf. In all of these trials, it was on Cupid’s account that Psyche was sent a helper to assist her in carrying out Venus’ commandments (Jn 14:15-16). Indeed, it was apparent – Venus, in her indignant rage, declared, “This is not your doing, you wretch, but Cupid, who fell in love with you to both your misfortunes, working in you (Gal 2:20).”
However, Psyche discovered that even with the help, she was still unable to accomplish all she was charged with. By her works alone, without grace, it was impossible to please Venus (Heb 11:6). In her final trial, she was sent to Hades itself – where mortals went but did not return – to retrieve a box of Persephone’s beauty for Venus. With the help of a speaking turret, she nearly succeeded – just as she nearly succeeded in obeying her husband Cupid. But, just as she succumbed to temptation once, doing what she did not desire and not doing what she did desire (Rom 7:15), she succumbed once again to her human weakness. Tempted by vanity into unsealing the jar of beauty at the very edge of Hades, she was thrown into a deep slumber. In this way, Venus triumphed over Psyche, for though Psyche succeeded in all the tasks, she failed in one point and so became accountable for all of it (Jas 2:10).
By this time, Cupid, in his love, could no longer bear separation from his wife, and yearned to reconcile her and draw her to himself (Col 1:20). Motivated by the love which he had inflicted on himself, he flew to the throne of his grandfather the Almighty Jupiter and, at his right hand, rose to intercede for Psyche (Rom 8:34). Eventually persuaded, Jupiter agreed to unite Cupid and Psyche together in matrimony, and called an assembly of all the heavenly beings to celebrate and rejoice in the restoration of Psyche to Cupid (Lk 15:10).
And he turned to Venus, saying: “Behold, I am making all things new (Rev 21:5). Now my daughter, do not be despondent at Cupid marrying a mortal; do not call unclean what I have made clean (Acts 11:9). I will graft her in among the other immortals as a wild branch, so she can be part of the same olive tree we are in (Rom 11:17).” And he had Mercury bring Psyche to heaven at once. Once there, he handed her a cup of ambrosia as a blessing, saying: “Drink this as participation in our body as a mark of your marriage, because we are all one body through our partaking of this food and cup.” (1Cor 10:16-17). And with that, Psyche became as one of them, part of their communion.
A rich feast soon commenced, greater than any feast Psyche had ever known. In a grove planted with great, tall trees, together yielding twelve kinds of fruit, beside a river which flowed from a fount as clear as crystal (Rev 22:1-2), Psyche took in well-aged wine and rich food full of marrow (Isa 25:6). She realized the joy she once shared with Cupid, now brought to its fullness. And the heavenly beings were glad and rejoiced, giving honor to Cupid and Psyche – for the marriage of Cupid had come, and his wife was finally made ready (Rev 19:7-9) to be with him. The dwelling place of a god had come to be with Psyche, and she was his, and he was hers (Rev 21:3).
I rewrote this myth from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (c. 2nd century CE), seeking to rewrite and re-interpret the ancient tale in biblical language in order to present the Christian messages and undertones that I see in it. I have attempted to be as faithful as I could both to the Bible and to Apuleius’ tale – the vast majority of the text above, including and especially where biblical references are present, is a sentence-by-sentence paraphrasing of the 2013 translation by A.S. Kline. For example, I have reworded the following:
Then he turned to Venus saying: “Now my daughter, don’t be despondent. Don’t fear for your lineage or status, because of his wedding a mortal. I’ll make it a marriage of equals, legitimate, in accord with civil law.”
And he turned to Venus, saying: “Behold, I am making all things new (Rev 21:5). Now my daughter, don’t be despondent at Cupid marrying a mortal; do not call unclean what I have made clean (Acts 11:9). I’ll graft her in among the other immortals as a wild branch among the rest of us, so that she can be part of the same olive tree that we are in (Rom 11:17).”
There are clear Christian parallels in both narratives: between Psyche and humankind, between Cupid and the Christian Savior (i.e. Christ), between Venus and the Accuser (i.e. Satan), between Jupiter and God the Father, etc.. Indeed, we see in her life a retelling of the Christian story of the Fall and Redemption. After tasting the beauty of God, Psyche is misled and tempted to disobedience, whereupon she loses her communion with the only God who can provide her fulfillment. She strives to find reconciliation again through her own efforts, supported and empowered by the Savior whom she had spurned, but through whose strength she is still striving. Eventually, however, she finds herself inadequate, and appears to be doomed. She is then saved only by an act of grace by the Almighty, mediated through the intercession and petition of her Savior.
Nevertheless, because this is less an allegory (where each character consistently is a type of a Christian figure) than an analogy (where each character presents different aspects of Christianity at different times), these parallels are not static and consistent, nor are they perfect representations of Christian doctrine. Notwithstanding, the message arising is clearly one of desire properly focused, and redemption through grace – concepts that are central to Christianity and the Bible. While it does not accurately present theological nuances of atonement and sin and punishment, nor does it explicate how divine intervention in reconciliation functions, it is fascinating that such a consistent Christian message can be found interwoven in the fabric of this classical Greek tale that was published shortly after Christ’s life and death on earth.