Cupid, Psyche and Lewis

Well, okay, so C. S. Lewis isn’t really part of that story. He just retold it. A couple of days ago, in the course of this study, I pulled out my copy of Till We Have Faces and started to reread it. It’s been years since I’d read it, if not decades, and mostly what I remembered of it was that I found it kind of confusing. I didn’t really know what was going on. This time that was much better. But then I’d just read Cupid and Psyche, which helps a lot.

Now why am I even going into that whole thing? Because Cupid and Psyche, a story written by the second-century Latin writer Apuleius, is the earliest prototype of the “Beauty and the Beast” type of tale. C&P is the story of a king who has three daughters, the youngest of which, Psyche, is extremely beautiful (sound familiar already?). The goddess Venus gets ticked off at her – purely jealous spite on her part because humans are saying Psyche is Venus walking the earth – and sends her son Cupid out to kill the girl. Meanwhile, Psyche’s father is told that she needs to be sacrificed to the gods, exposed on a mountain peak, so that’s what they do. But Cupid has by now developed a heavy crush on Psyche, pretty as she is (no, pardon me, stunningly beautiful as she is), and he gets the wind god Zephyr to carry her off the mountain to a secret palace, staffed by invisible servants (!). Psyche is a bit freaked out, but enjoys the luxuries of the palace, including some unseen musicians serenading her (hidden speakers in the walls is my guess – oh, wait, it’s a couple millennia too early for high-tech equipment). Come nightfall, IAMQUE ADERAT IGNOBILIS MARITUS ET TORUM INSCENDERAT ET UXOREM SIBI PSYCHEM FECERAT – oh, sorry, “there entered her unknown husband, mounted the bed and made her his wife” and then takes off again before daybreak (V.4.3). (Translation by one E. J. Kenney, of the University of Cambridge, from 1990. No, I can’t read the Latin myself; I barely recognize some of the words. But it amuses me to have the Latin text to look at next to the English.) So here’s the first big difference between Psyche and Beauty: Psyche never lays eyes on her husband (just hands), while Beauty won’t let him into her bed because she knows he’s ugly as sin. Okay, so after a while of this, Psyche’s sisters set out to look for her. Cupid, being of the divine persuasion, knows they’re on their way, and also has a strong hunch they’re bad news. He tells Psyche to stay away from them, but she starts whining and crying and threatening suicide (really!), until he reluctantly agrees to let her see them, knowing full well that their marriage is going to be in deep doodoo because of these chicks. Sure enough, once the sisters figure out that Psyche is not only not dead, but lives in the lap of luxury with a husband she loves (even though she’s never seen him), they get incredibly jealous and plot her downfall. Unfortunately, Psyche, being the gullible type, makes it easy for them. It doesn’t take much on their part to talk her into a belief that this husband of hers is actually a hideous monster, and for her own safety she needs to kill him. (The thing that gets me about this is that it specifically says that “by her hands and ears, though not by her eyes, his presence was completely felt” V.5.1 – in other words, she’s been feeling up this guy every night for weeks, and hasn’t figure out that what she’s got under her hands is a normal guy with wings, not some kind of serpent-like monster? She’s just a bit dense.) So in spite of Cupid’s stern prohibition, she smuggles a lamp into the bedroom and takes a look at him when he’s asleep, killer knife at the ready. Of course, once she sees how drop-dead gorgeous he is, wings and all, she repents of her silliness, but it’s too late: a drop of hot lamp oil lands on his shoulder and burns him badly. He wakes up, just a little upset, and tells her that’s it, now that she’s seen him he has to leave. Psyche is heartbroken. She leaves the palace, and begins wandering the earth in search of her husband. Interestingly enough, one of the first things she does in her wanderings is to go punish her sisters for getting her into this: first she finds one, then to the other, and tells them that the god kicked her out for what she did, and wants to marry the sister instead. Both sisters fall for it, run up the mountain, and end up falling off the mountain top to their death. Anyway, now Venus enters the picture again. Cupid has gone home to mama, and is quite ill with the burn that he got. Venus, for her part, is absolutely furious at her son’s betrayal of her, and has Psyche brought to her so she can take it out on the girl (because, you know, it’s all Psyche’s fault that she’s beautiful and Cupid fell for her). Venus is rather beastly to Psyche, hitting her and punching her (even though she’s pregnant!), and finally sets her some impossible tasks which are meant to kill her. But Psyche gets assistance from magical helpers – some ants, for example, help her sort out a big pile of grains – and completes all the tasks Venus gave her. Cupid has finally recovered from his burn, and is fed up enough with mama’s antics that he goes to the Big Guy Himself, Jupiter, enlisting his aid in getting his wife back. Jupiter obliges, tells Venus to lay off Psyche, and makes the girl immortal by means of a serving of ambrosia (the beverage, not that cool-whip-and-marshmallow concoction). They have a big wedding feast with a dance number by Venus, and eventually Psyche gives birth to a daughter, “whom we call Pleasure”. They live happily ever after (literally), the end.

So, pretty obvious where the parallels to “Beauty and the Beast” are. I find it interesting that Psyche takes revenge on her sisters (which only works because the sisters are selfish bitches); in Villeneuve, the jealous sisters get to live with Beauty at the Beast’s palace, in Beaumont, they’re turned into sentient statues at the palace gates by the good fairy, but Apuleius’ girl does her own punishing. Another major difference between B&B and almost all other “animal bridegroom” stories such as this one, and the Norwegian “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” (which is very similar to “Cupid and Psyche”) is that Beauty never gets the warning, never has that “forbidden thing” she must not do, such as look at her husband. In some B&B versions, he tells her to make sure she comes back in time, or he’ll die, and the sisters trick her into staying too long which almost kills the Beast. But never quite – as soon as she has the dream of him being sick, she runs back to him and the spell is broken. And of course the biggest difference is the interaction between the girl and the man/beast. Psyche is married to Cupid, and just thinks he’s a beast, while Beauty knows he is, and refuses to marry him because of it. “Beauty and the Beast” is a transformation story, while “Cupid and Psyche” and most of the other tales of this type are growing-up and quest stories – if anyone is transformed here, it’s Psyche, not her husband.

Lewis’ adaptation of Cupid and Psyche moves even further away from the “Beauty and the Beast” storyline. In Till We Have Faces, the “beast” aspect of Cupid is almost entirely dropped; the story is told from the perspective of Psyche’s oldest sister, whom he calls Orual, and who does, in fact, deeply love Psyche (which causes its own problems). Lewis’ story is a story of identity, love, and understanding of the supernatural; the one who is transformed is Orual. It’s been an interesting comparison.

“Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss” by Antonio Canova


2 thoughts on “Cupid, Psyche and Lewis

  1. I really love CS Lewis, and I think that book “Til We Have Faces” might be an interesting one to read for my upcoming paper. So I will look into that.

    Also, I think it’s interesting that Venus danced at Psyche and Cupid’s wedding, don’t you? Kinda reminiscent of Snow White’s wicked step mom. Hmmm. Yes, Snow White’s evil queen danced to her death as punishment for her wickedness. But they could just as well lopped her head off to if execution was the goal. But they forced her to dance at the wedding. To vindicate the couple’s love? As an act of public vengeance? To force her to recognize her inferior and powerless position? Just to humiliate her before she died? Interesting. I wonder why Venus danced at the wedding. I don’t know the story, but that part caught my attention.

    I was watching a program on Discovery: Science the other day. It talked about Race and Cultures. They found that in some peoples, when compared to peoples of other race and culture, they are not very competitive in some areas. However, in other areas, some races and cultures cannot compete with them. When all the results are tallied, there is a definite balance, showing that, on average, we are all as human beings pretty much the same in the end. Studying babies, before they have been “corrupted” also yields results that are astonishingly stable across the tests. Babies show a set of innate morals and altruism. They also innately “shun” the “bad person”. Then their cultures get hold of them and they change accordingly. So, from the outset, humans are relatively good-natured, moral, and avoid “badness”–we are all like that as babies, no matter our race or culture. So, in essence, the world teaches us to hate and do bad things.

    It seems that fairy tales, like “Snow White” and “Beauty and the Beast”, are tales that reflect our innate sense of right and wrong, and attempt to put them into stories that are meaningful within their cultures. It’s because the moral of the story is true everywhere. The Native Americans had no contact centuries ago with, say, the Chinese. Yet, and completely unwittingly, the human family has created across cultures, stories with the same moral tales–almost like the human handbook of how to be a good person. I’ve always thought that was very cool, and when I saw that program on television, I thought “that’s why!”

    We are all the same under the skin. 🙂


    • If I’m not mistaken, Lewis makes that point about universal morality in one of his non-fiction books (might be Mere Christianity). Not sure how I feel about it – haven’t really thought about it carefully! The way stories are spread across the globe could also be a case of cultural lore travelling along as people migrate; I think it’s pretty certain, for example, that the American First Nations originally came from Asia across the Bering Straight. Stands to reason they’d bring their stories with them as they went.

      As far as Venus dancing at the wedding, that’s entirely voluntary on her part; in fact, she’s putting on a show. It’s one of the instances of the capriciousness of Greek gods – she’s had her tantrum, Jupiter gave in to her to a point (he made Psyche immortal, so Venus’ son is no longer marrying beneath him), now she’s showing everyone that she’s still the best dancer and collecting the limelight again. The Snow White queen, yes, the dancing was enforced, but the showing up at the wedding was again entirely her own choice. Fairy tale punishments tend to be in keeping with the choices the characters make throughout the story.

      One amusing bit about Venus that I didn’t mention before is how when she’s mad after she first finds out about Cupid & Psyche, two other goddesses, Juno and Ceres, try to talk sense into her: “Hey, look, Cupid isn’t a little boy any more! Haven’t you noticed he’s a young man now?” It doesn’t work, of course; but I just thought it was hilarious how mothers haven’t changed in millennia – they don’t want to hear that their kids have grown up.


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