"Breath, Soul." That is, "breath" or "the soul," occurs in the later times of antiquity, as a personification of the human soul, and Apuleius relates about her the following beautiful allegoric story.
Psyche was the youngest of the three daughters of some king, and excited by her beauty the jealousy and envy of Venus (Aphrodite). In order to avenge herself, the goddess ordered Amor (Eros) to inspire Psyche with a love for the most contemptible of all men: but Amor was so stricken with her beauty that he himself fell in love with her. He accordingly conveyed her to some charming place, where he, unseen and unknown, visited her every night, and left her as soon as the day began to dawn.
Psyche might have continued to have enjoyed without interruption this state of happiness, if she had attended to the advice of her beloved, never to give way to her curiosity, or to inquire who he was. But her jealous sisters made her believe that in the darkness of night she was embracing some hideous monster, and accordingly once, while Amor was asleep, she approached him with a lamp, and, to her amazement, she beheld the most handsome and lovely of the gods. In her excitement of joy and fear, a drop of hot oil fell from her lamp upon his shoulder. This awoke Amor, who censured her for her mistrust, and escaped.
Psyche's peace was now gone all at once, and after having attempted in vain to throw herself into a river, she wandered about from temple to temple, inquiring after her beloved, and at length came to the palace of Venus. There her real sufferings began, for Venus retained her, treated her as a slave, and imposed upon her the hardest and most humiliating labors. Psyche would have perished under the weight of her sufferings, had not Amor, who still loved her in secret, invisibly comforted and assisted her in her labors. With his aid she at last succeeded in overcoming the jealousy and hatred of Venus; she became immortal, and was united with him for ever.
It is not difficult to recognize in this lovely story the idea of which it is merely the mythical embodiment, for Psyche is evidently the human soul, which is purified by passions and misfortunes, and is thus prepared for the enjoyment of true and pure happiness.
The tale is related in Cupid and Psyche, an episode in the Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass) by the Latin prose writer Apuleius (ca. 125-ca. 180 CE). It is an allegory that represents the progress of the soul to perfection. A poem by Mrs. Tighe has the same topic. Molière wrote a drama called Psyche, and the tale of Cupid and Psyche appears in Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean.
On older Greek vases Psyche is represented in the form of a bird with a human head, sometimes with a beard. Later she appears as a rooster, butterfly, or as a maiden with the wings of a butterfly, along with Amor in the different situations described in the allegoric story. Well-known is the group of Amor and Psyche (third century BCE) at the Museo Capitolino in Rome. In later times, the painting by Raphael in the Farnesani at Rome and the sculptures of Canova and Thorwaldsen.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Apuleius. Metamorphoses iv, 28 ff.
- Hirt, A. (1805). Bilderbuch für Mythologie p. 222, Tafel. 32.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.