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Myth: A Classic Example

July 16, 2019

An episode from the lives of Psyche, Eros, and Aphrodite

The purpose of this page is to provide an illustration for our thinking about the nature of mythology, within the context of the urgent necessity to rethink “human nature,” our relationship with our Earthly home, and American culture.  We can wonder, for instance: when did we humans, and recently we Americans, begin telling ourselves stories that featured male superiority and supremacy as highest truths?  Why?  And how can we modify those mythy stories (it’s probably too late, for our immediate predicament, to replace them)?

[I have in mind this context for this particular myth: article “Why Jeffrey Epstein Got Away With Sexually Abusing Girls For So Long,” by Emily Peck (HuffPost) and “Kayleigh McEnany Gets A Brutal Fact-Check On Live TV: ‘How Dare You!’,” by Ed Mazza (HuffPost, same day).  I’m working on a page of commentary.]

Before radio (tv, internet, iphones), people entertained themselves by singing and playing instruments, dancing, and eating and talking together. They talked a lot, about the food they were eating, the day, the coming night, and the next day.  They teased and joked, recited poems, and told historical stories about their family, the people they knew or had known, the land they knew, and lands they had heard of.  These histories included tales of the animal people, too, and of enchanted people, even gods.  

Near the end of a beautiful spring day, as the exhausted sun was dropping into bed, and lengthening shadows brought an evening chill to the air, the family and neighbors gathered around their fire, to entertain each other, to awaken their imaginations, to replenish their sense of who they were, to share advice and wisdom, and to quiet themselves reflectively before sleep. 

This evening, as they remarked the weakening of the light and the colors of what remained of the day around them, the horizon flared with golden clouds, and someone offered, as if in prayer, “Blessed Aphrodite.”  And another, “Blessed be Psyche.”  And an elderly woman, “Well then, bless my soul.”  And another, laughing, “Salut, Eros!”  And there was knowing laughter all around the fire.

Then another voice affirmed, in a tone of intrigue, wonder, and promise of amusement, “Oh yes, as you know, those three often go around together.  They are family.”

“What?” said a young woman.  “How is that?”  (She knew, but she invited the story again.)

“Oh yes,” said a very old voice, from the settling darkness but as if out of the fire itself, “and I can tell you about it.”  Excitement around the fire, as the listeners lean toward her.   

“One summer afternoon, young Eros was cavorting in the air, over there on the other side of the river.  He was a young god, you know.  A good kid, as child gods go, but even as a child he was a problem for the busy and for the appropriate, always looking to amuse himself with his little bow and arrows.  He would shoot an arrow into someone, and whoever it was would desperately fall in love, with the very next god, or human, who came in sight.  It could be so embarrassing.”

“What?  They fell in love at first sight?” said the young woman.  “Do you believe in that?”

“For sure,” said the old storyteller. “And it happens all the time! On this afternoon, as Eros was watching some fauns step timidly out of the woods, just over there where the meadow begins to slope down to the river, he saw a girl, a mortal, sleeping on the soft grass, among the flowers.

He flew right down and sat beside her while she slept.  He smiled to himself, at the thought of placing a tiny arrow into this mortal, and then waking her, so that she fell in love with him (as, of course, he flew away).  But first he leaned down to whisper in her ear, like a wisp of air, ‘My my, but aren’t you pretty?’  As he bent down, the tip of his arrow grazed his leg.   Just a scratch, but that is all it takes to do the trick.

‘Yikes!’  He jumped up, thinking to fly away, because the sight of a god might be too much for a young mortal, especially a god in distress.  But it was too late.  He had fallen in love.  Suddenly he wanted to flee into his immortal power, but he also wanted to see her again.  He wanted to see a lot more of her.  He wanted to be with her a lot.  He wanted to give her things.  He wanted to make her happy, to make her smile and laugh.  He wanted her to feel the same way about him that he felt about her.  He wanted them to be together.  To dance.  But he knew that it was impossible for a god, who was undying, to unite with a mortal, who would learn that she would surely die.

Life could be beautiful!  But in the end. . .yes, there would be an end. There could be no future for them. And so, with such a commitment, he would grow mortal.

But he was young, a young god, and he thought he could make it work.

As she began to wake up, he whispered to her that he must leave, but that she would have a grand home, with woods and fields, vast fields of flowers, many servants, and a view of the sea.  

She woke as if hearing a voice that whispered, ‘My my, but aren’t you pretty,’ and then ‘everything you see is yours. I love you, madly!  I will return to you in the dark of night, every night, and do all that I can to make us happy, but you must never see my face. Never.’

And this was so.  She woke to all that he had promised.  Then she spent her days strolling among the bees and butterflies, sipping lavendar tea with milk and honey, or napping beneath a tree, dreaming of the night to come.

At night she felt such peacefulness, in the darkness with ‘him.’  He was so loving, and gentle in every way.  And for a time she was very happy, all the days, and all the nights.

But with time came problems.  For one, she never saw her family.  And in fact, she was isolated.  She began to feel lonely.  When she mentioned it to her husband he was very understanding. He suggested that her sisters come to live with her.  And indeed with their company her days improved.

The second problem, however, was more delicate.  Naturally, as the months passed, she felt more and more unsure of something.  Why wasn’t she allowed to see her gentle, loving friend?  Would it always be that way?  Was there something wrong?  Was it something to fear?

And then, a third problem.  Her sisters, jealous and mean-spirited, insinuated whenever they could that perhaps this ‘lover’ was some kind of monster. She was being tricked.  He might even have a blue beard.”  A shudder went round the fire.  “Psyche’s heart began to tremble.  She had to know, one way or the other.  But what could she do?

One night, after Eros had fallen asleep, Psyche slipped quietly from their bed and out through the bedroom door.  Soon she returned with a small, lighted candle.  It gave just enough light to see with, up close.  She went to the bed and leaned over her sleeping lover, to see his face.

He was so beautiful.  He was sleeping so peacefully that he was smiling. And he was so obviously innocent. She adored him.  

And what was more, she recognized who he was. The god, Eros.  The son of the most beautiful goddess of all, Aphrodite!  Psyche felt so fortunate.  

But before she could blow out the candle, a drop of hot wax fell upon his cheek!  He woke with a start and a cry, ‘But no!  My friend!  My love!  What have you done?’ And he flew from the room, out into the night.

Psyche fell to the floor, where she cried herself asleep.”

There was soft stirring of bodies around the fire, and someone added some wood.  But everyone was quiet.  The children felt confused, worried, and expectant.

“She dreamed deeply of wandering, lost, through a vast woods, but then of stepping out of the darkness into a moonlit meadow. She could hear the waters of a creek.  Ah yes.  When she awoke, with the early morning light, she felt resolved to repair her error.  Surely it was understandable.  She would apologize, and she would make amends.  

Before breakfast, she sent her sisters packing for home.  Then she set off for the temple of Aphrodite, to beseech the Great Goddess herself to pardon her. She would assure her that she loved her son madly and would never do him any harm.  She would declare that she wished to marry Eros; and she would beg the goddess to assure her son that he had her blessing, and that his marriage to Psyche could be one of happiness.”

There was some thoughtful discussion around the fire, and someone comforted a baby while someone played a gentle melody on a flute.  Then the story continued.

“At the temple, when the goddess had received the girl and heard her story and entreaty, she knew well that if her son returned to Psyche, the two would want to marry.  She nodded, as if to signal that she understood, and that she did not doubt this girl’s sincerity.  But she was thinking, ‘I doubt that this is possible. It simply wouldn’t work.  Such a thing isn’t done.’  Perhaps she was thinking that a simple mortal and a god could not be happy together. Perhaps she was thinking that her son had acted impulsively and inappropriately.  Perhaps she wanted to avoid scandal.  Perhaps she was jealous.  Perhaps for all of these reasons, she replied, ‘Dear child, I see that you are very attractive, and probably you are entirely innocent; but, you can understand, I’m sure, that before a simple mortal, can marry a god, she must show that she is worthy of him and of his status.’

‘I do understand, and I honor the gods,’ said Psyche.  ‘Please, great Madame and mother, tell me how I can show that I am worthy.  Of your son.’

‘Ah yes,’ replied the goddess, with only an unheard hint of sarcasm.  ‘Obviously.  Well then, maybe I can help.  I have a task for you to perform.  Not far from here, one of my great harvest barns needs a good cleaning.  If you can put all in order, then you can, perhaps, marry my son.  If not, then of course, no.  But this should be easy.  You can do it tonight. Go there now, while there is still sunshine in the forest.  Simply tidy up the floor by putting the spilled grain back into its sacks. At dawn, I will come to inspect. Just so.  At dawn, dear child.’”

Now there was hopeful chatter around the fire, but some knowing advice of caution.

“Immediately Psyche ran to the barn.  She felt confident.  She had always been a neat person, and good at tidying up. She opened the great doors, and saw an enormous pile of grain.  Enormous!  In the corner was a stack of bags.  She sat on the floor to cry.  But she refused to give up.  Still in tears, she began to gather the grains, one by one.”

Eyes around the fire were shining like mirrors.  

“Now, it would not be surprising if, on the floor where Psyche labored there were some ants, who also were there to gather grains.  Psyche was careful not to disturb them, but from time to time a falling tear splashed an ant. After several of those splashes, the ants asked her why a young human would sit crying among the grain. When they heard her story, of course they felt sorry for her.  One said, ‘But, dear miss, this is not an insurmountable problem.’  They called all the ants and all the other bugs of the neighborhood to help.”

You can imagine the clapping by the children.

“And now, with dawn comes the goddess. The barn is clean and tidy as if new.”

Sighs of relief around the fire.

“ ‘How fine,’ said Aphrodite, hiding her surprise.”  Some giggling in the firelight.  “ ‘Bravo for you, my dear.  You have shown yourself to be persistent.  But, perhaps this was an accident, an anomaly.  One must be sure, in cases such as this.  But, not a problem.  I have another task for you, which, if you can complete, will be helpful to me.  Soon there will be a grand ball, for which my weavers have designed for me a lovely dress of gold.  They tell me they are short of thread, however, and need a bit more wool from the Golden Sheep who graze beside the river, not far from here.  If you hurry, you can bring me a handful of wool, before noon.  So off with you. I’ll see you here at noon, dear child.  Oh, but by the way, be careful around those sheep.  They can be peevish. Even vicious.’

Immediately, Psyche ran to the river.  She felt confident.  She had always been good with animals.  But when she arrived, she discovered that these sheep, who had waded into the water among the reeds to drink, were enormous. Really really big!  She sat on the bank and cried so hard that soon, one of her tears fell onto a frog, who was sitting beside her (and who would make, perhaps, someone’s very fine prince—but that is another story). He asked why she cried.  And when he had heard her story, he smiled and said, ‘Dear miss, this is not an insoluble problem.  Soon the sheep will return to the meadow to eat. You will see that as they waded to drink, some of their wool got caught in the bunches of reeds.  You will have your wool, but you will have to wade for it.’ 

And she did.”  Hoorays.

“Precisely at noon, Psyche gave two handfuls of golden wool to the goddess.  “Bravo again,’ said Aphrodite, but she was thinking, ‘Hmmm, this girl is lucky.’ And she said to Psyche, “You have courage.  You are clever, perhaps admirably intelligent.  You have shown that you will make a fine wife for some lucky man.  But to be worthy of my son, a young god, you must show that you are worthy of his mother.  You must demonstrate a suitable depth of character.  A force of character that would permit your movement, with grace as well as charm, among the goddesses of the world.  In their milieu.  One might say, in their hearts as well as in their bosoms.’ ”  

Some groans.  Some sighs.  Some giggles.

“ ‘That might be a problem.  But I have a task, a final task, by which you might show me such dignity, and grace.  You must visit Persephone, the great Queen of the Underworld.  It is not far from here.  Tonight, in fact, go there.  Find her intimate chamber.  And there, borrow for me her powder box, the box that holds the powder of her palest beauty.  But you can only accomplish this task if you are not seen.  If you are discovered, you will never be able to return from there.  At dawn, then.  Bring me that box.  Oh, and by the way, do not open it.  Absolutely not!’

This time, Psyche did not cry, even though she did not feel confident.  She had never been afraid of the dark, but she had never been a thief. She had always been simply an honest, mortal girl, who hated the cold.

Nevertheless, at twilight time, dressed all in black, even a veil, as if she were a very young wife in mourning, Psyche began her descent, across the shadows, across the deeper shade within the shadows, across the black obscurity, into the deepest dark of night.

There, a current of chill air flowed to an open door.  Inside the castle, walls guided her fingers along a corridor, to the door of a chamber. When in that chamber, a rich scent, heavy but sweet, led her to the box.  And now, as if she heard a suave perfume, whispering in her head, a voice said, ‘Reach forth, here it is, this is yours.’  She took up the box in her hands and rushed tearfully from the castle and the world beneath the earth.

She stumbled through the stunted garden, past the pomegranate trees.  But as she was passing back across the earthy shadows, that were becoming more distinct with the touch of the approaching dawn, she felt so tired, so heavy.  And the perfume, so heavy, that seeped from within the box, made her head so giddy that she fell to the ground, as to the bottom of the sea.  The box, so beautiful, so mysterious in the rising light, fell open.  The sacred powder flowed out onto her clothes and onto the earth.  The young Psyche fell into a sleep profound, from which no one who was simply a mortal could awaken.  And that is the way the goddess found her, in the dawn.”

“But no!  How?  Why?” murmured the family and friends around the fire.

“But wait, my children.  Happily, as Psyche lay sleeping, Eros, who had awakened before dawn to hunt at the edge of the woods, and who had seen her fall, flew to her side, arriving just as his mother approached, as if with roses in the rising light.  The young god collapsed as if mortally wounded, with a grief that might be eternal.  The mother, seeing her son in tears, lying on the ground beside his beloved Psyche, in whom, for the first time, she recognized a great beauty, a grace quite natural, cried out, also for the very first time, a howl of sadness, a howl, truly, so filled with pain and rage, that it shook Mount Olympus like a blow of a massive fist.”

Silence, like the night air, in the glow of the fire, that was settling into embers.

“Now, naturally,” continued the storyteller, “on the slopes of the mountain, above the temple, all the other gods, who had remained completely awake all night to watch this grand drama (and this grand dame), took pity on these three pitiful wretches.  They lifted up a great, unanimous request to the most grand god, Zeus, himself, the father of Aphrodite, to do something about this disappointment.

Zeus knew, from experience, something of such folly.  But now, seeing for the first time in his life, that there was something more powerful even than his lightning, something larger, something more profound, he transformed, quite gently, the young mortal woman into a goddess, immortal.  And she awoke.”

Such cheers and laughter.  Such relief.  Such approval and gratitude—among the people around the fire and among the gods.  The gods knew that the couple were young, and had many changes yet to go through, like the young people in the fire light.  But all were happy with this dénouement.

“I hardly need tell you the details of their joy, these three,” said the old storyteller.  “But I want to add, that there are some who say, that with her descent into the underworld, Psyche grew more beautiful, perhaps more beautiful than her mother-in-law.  And some say, too, that after that day Aphrodite exhibited a deeper grace. As for Eros, . . .well it’s getting late, and I’ll just assure you that their story never ends.”

Hugging each other, the young people said their goodnights, while parents carried children to their beds.  The old folks thanked the storyteller, then sat back to watch the last of the embers glowing deep into the night.

[Contextual commentary being constructed.]

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