“Beauty is a curse,” Psyche thought as she looked over the cliff’s edge where she’d been abandoned by her father. She’d been born with the physical perfection so complete that she was worshipped as a new incarnation of Venus, the goddess of love. But real-life human lovers were too intimidated even to approach her. When her father asked for guidance from the Oracle of Apollo, the god of light, reason, and prophecy.
He was told to abandon his daughter on a rocky crag where she would marry a cruel and savage serpent-like winged evil. Alone on the crag, Psyche felt Zephyr the West Wind gently lifting her into the air. It set her down before a palace. “You are home,” she heard an unseen voice say. “Your husband awaits you in the bedroom, if you dare to meet him.” She was brave enough, Psyche told herself.
The bedroom was so dark that she couldn’t see her husband. But he didn’t feel serpent-like at all. His skin was soft, and his voice and manner were gentle. She asked him who he was, but he told her this was the one question he could never answer. If she loved him, she would not need to know. His visits continued night after night. Before long, Psyche was pregnant. She rejoiced, but was also conflicted.
How could she raise her baby with a man she’d never seen? That night, Psyche approached her sleeping husband holding an oil lamp. What she found was the god Cupid who sent gods and humans lusting after each other with the pinpricks of his arrows. Psyche dropped her lamp, burning Cupid with hot oil. He said he’d been in love with Psyche ever since his jealous mother, Venus, asked him to embarrass the young woman by pricking her with an arrow. But taken with Psyche’s beauty, Cupid used the arrow on himself.
He didn’t believe, however, that gods and humans could love as equals. Now that she knew his true form, their hopes for happiness were dashed, so he flew away. Psyche was left in despair until the unseen voice returned and told her that it was indeed possible for her and Cupid to love each other as equals. Encouraged, she set out to find him. But Venus intercepted Psyche and said she and Cupid could only wed if she completed a series of impossible tasks. First, Psyche was told to sort a huge, messy pile of seeds in a single night.
Just as she was abandoning hope, an ant colony took pity on her and helped with the work. Successfully passing the first trial, Psyche next had to bring Venus the fleece of the golden sheep, who had a reputation for disemboweling stray adventurers, but a river god showed her how to collect the fleece the sheep had snagged on briars, and she succeeded.
Finally, Psyche had to travel to the Underworld and convince Proserpina, queen of the dead, to put a drop of her beauty in a box for Venus. Once again, the unseen voice came to Psyche’s aide. It told her to bring barley cakes for Cerberus, the guard dog to the Underworld and coins to pay the boatman, Charon to ferry her across the river Styx. With her third and final task complete, Psyche returned to the land of the living.
Just outside Venus’s palace, she opened the box of Proserpina’s beauty, hoping to keep some for herself. But the box was filled with sleep, not beauty, and Psyche collapsed in the road. Cupid, now recovered from his wounds, flew to his sleeping bride. He told her he’d been wrong and foolish.
Her fearlessness in the face of the unknown proved that she was more than his equal. Cupid gave Psyche amborsia, the nectar of the gods, making her immortal. Shortly after, Psyche bore their daughter. They named her Pleasure, and she, Cupid, and Psyche, whose name means soul, have been complicating people’s love lives ever since.