Once upon a time there lived a king who had three daughters. The two elder girls were very fair, and many were their suitors, but the youngest was so beautiful that it was whispered in the city that the goddess Aphrodite was not her equal in loveliness, and as she walked through the streets men touched their foreheads, and bowed low to the ground, as if Aphrodite herself had passed by.
Now it was not long since the shepherd Paris had given the goddess the golden apple, in token that neither on the earth nor even on Olympus was a woman to be found as fair as she. And when she heard of the honours paid to Psyche, she rose up in her wrath and sent a winged messenger for Cupid, her son.
‘Come with me,’ she said, when Cupid appeared before her, ‘I have somewhat to show you’; and without further speech the two flew through the air together, till they reached the palace where Psyche was sleeping.
‘That is the maiden to whom men pay the homage due to me alone,’ she whispered, while her grey eyes darted gleams like fire. ‘I have brought you hither that you may avenge me by pricking her with an arrow that will fill her heart with love for one of the basest of mortals. And now I must depart in haste, for Oceanos awaits me.’
Aphrodite vanished, but Cupid remained where he was, gazing on the sleeping maiden and confessing in his heart that those who paid her the honours due to his mother were not much to blame.
‘Never will I do you such wrong,’ he murmured, ‘as to mate you with some base wretch, who has no thought beyond the wine-cup. From me and my darts you are safe. But am I safe from yours?’ Then, fearing to stay any longer, lest his mother should wax wroth with him, he also took his way to the palace of Oceanos.
If Aphrodite had not been a goddess, and had known a little more about the hearts of men, she might not have envied Psyche so bitterly; for, though all men bowed down before her and worshipped her beauty, each felt that she was too far above him to woo for his bride. So that, while her sisters had homes and children of their own, Psyche remained unasked and unsought in her father’s palace.
At length the king grew frightened as months and years slipped by, and Psyche was past the age when Greek maidens left the hearth where they had grown into girlhood. He summoned some wise men to give him counsel, but they shook their heads, and bade him consult the oracle of his fathers. It was a three days’ journey to his shrine, and then no man knew when the oracle would speak, so the king took with him sheep and oxen, and skins of wine for himself and his followers.
Ten days later he returned to the city with bowed head and white face. The queen, with anxious heart, had been watching his arrival from the roof of the palace, and awaited him at the door of the women’s apartments.
‘What has happened?’ she said, as she greeted him; but he drew her on one side, where none might hear them.
‘The oracle has spoken,’ answered he, ‘and decrees that Psyche shall be left upon a barren rock till a hideous monster shall come and devour her. And it is for this that men have paid her honours which were the portion only of the gods! Far better had she been born with the hair of Medusa and the hump of Hephæstos.’
At these dreadful tidings the queen and her maidens broke into weeping, and when the news spread through the city no sounds but those of wailing were heard. Only the voice of Psyche was silent among them. She moved about as one that was sleeping, and indeed she felt as if the boat, with its grim ferryman, had already borne her across the Styx. So the days passed on, and one evening a white-clad priest arrived from the shrine to bid the king tarry no longer.
That night a sad procession left the gates of the city, and in the midst was Psyche, clad in garments of black, and led by her father, while her mother followed weeping behind. Singers wailed out a dirge, which was scarcely heard above the sobs of the mourners, and the torches burned dimly and soon went out.
The sun was rising when they reached the bare rock on top of a high mountain where the oracle had directed that Psyche should be left to perish. She made no sign when her father and mother took her in their arms for the last time, and, though they cried bitterly, she never shed a tear. What was the use? It was the will of the gods, and so it had to be!
Not daring to look back, the king and queen took their way home to their desolate palace, and Psyche leaned against the rock trembling with fear lest every moment the monster should appear in sight. She was very tired, for the road to the mountain had been long and stony, and she was likewise exhausted by her grief, so that slowly a deep sleep crept over her, and for a while her sorrows were forgotten.
While she thus slumbered, Cupid, unknown to herself, had been watching over her, and at his bidding Zephyr approached and played round her garments and among her hair. Then, lifting her gently up, he carried her down the mountain side, and laid her upon a bed of lilies in the valley.
While she slept, pleasant dreams floated through her mind, and her terrors and grief were forgotten. She awoke feeling happy, though she could not have told why, for she was in a strange place and alone. In the distance, through some trees, the spray of a fountain glimmered white, and she rose and walked slowly towards it. By the fountain was a palace, finer by far than the one in which Psyche had lived, for that was built of stone, while this was all of ivory and gold. Vast it was, and full of precious things, as Psyche saw for herself when, filled with wonder mixed with a little fear, she stepped across the threshold.
‘This palace is as large as a city,’ the maiden said aloud, as she passed from room to room without coming to an end of the marvels; ‘but how strange to find that there is no one here to enjoy these treasures, or to guard them!’ She started, as out of the silence a voice answered her:
‘The palace with all it contains is yours, lady. Therefore, bathe yourself, if you will, or rest your limbs upon silken cushions, till the feast is prepared, and we your handmaids clothe you in fine raiment. You have only to command, and we obey you.’
By this time all fear had departed from Psyche, and with gladness she bathed herself and slept. When she opened her eyes she beheld in front of her a table covered with dishes of every kind, and with wines of purple and amber hues. As before, she could see no one, though she heard the sound of voices, and when she had finished, and lay back on her cushions, unseen fingers struck a lyre, and sang the songs that she loved.
So the hours flew by, and the sun was sinking, when suddenly a veil of golden tissue was placed on her head, and at the same time a voice that she had not heard spoke thus:
‘Dip your hands in this sacred water’; and Psyche obeyed, and, as her fingers sank into the basin she felt a light touch, as if other fingers were there also.
‘Break this cake and eat half,’ said the voice again; and Psyche did so, and she saw that the rest of the cake vanished bit by bit, as if someone else were eating it also.
‘Now you are my wife, Psyche,’ whispered the voice softly; ‘but take heed to what I say, if you would not bring ruin on yourself, and cause me to leave you for ever. Your sisters, I well know, will soon seek you out, for they think they love you, though their love is of the kind that quickly turns to hate. Even now they are with your parents weeping over your fate, but a few days hence they will go to the rock, hoping to gather tidings of your last moments. It may chance that at last they may wander to this enchanted place, but as you value your happiness and your life do not answer their questions, or lift your eyes towards them.’
Psyche promised she would do her unseen husband’s bidding, and the weeks slipped swiftly by, but one morning she felt suddenly lonely and broke into wailing that she might never look on her sisters’ faces again, or even tell them that she was alive. All the long bright hours she sat in her palace weeping, and when darkness fell, and she heard her husband’s voice, she put out her arms and drew him to her.
‘What is it?’ he asked gently, and she felt soft fingers stroking her hair.
Then Psyche poured out all her woe. How could she be happy, even in this lovely place, when her sisters were grieving for her loss? If she might only see them once, if she might only tell them that she was safe, then she would ask for nothing more. If not — why, it was a pity the monster had not devoured her.
There was a silence after Psyche had poured forth her entreaties, and then the bridegroom spoke, but his voice seemed somehow changed from what it had been before.
‘You shall do as you wish,’ he said, ‘though I fear that ill will come of it. Send for your sisters if you please, and give them anything that the palace contains. But once again let me beseech you to answer nothing to their questions, or we shall be parted for ever.’
‘Never, never, shall that be,’ cried Psyche, embracing her husband with delight. And, whoever and whatever you may be, I would not give you up, even for the god Cupid. I will tell them nothing, but bid, I pray you, Zephyr, your servant, to carry them hither to-morrow, as he carried me.’
Next morning Zephyr found the two sisters seated on the rock, tearing their hair and beating their breasts with sorrow. ‘Psyche! Psyche,’ they cried, and the mountains echoed ‘Psyche! Psyche,’ but no other sound answered them. Suddenly they felt themselves gently lifted from the earth, and wafted through the air to the door of the palace, where stood Psyche herself.
‘Psyche! Psyche!’ they cried again, but this time with joy and wonder, and for a while they forgot everything else in the world. Then Psyche bade them tell her of her father and mother, and how the days had passed since she had left them, and she pictured to herself their gladness when they heard how different had been her fate from that which the oracle had foretold.
After her sisters had made known to her everything they had to tell, Psyche invited them to see the palace, and, calling to the voices, ordered them to prepare baths with sweet-smelling spices, and to set forth a banquet for her guests. At these tokens of riches and splendour, envy began to arise in their hearts, and curiosity also. They looked at each other, and the glances of their eyes promised no good to Psyche.
‘But where is your husband?’ asked the eldest. ‘Are we not to see him also?’
‘Yes,’ said the other, ‘you have not even told us what he is like, and our mother will assuredly wish to know that.’
Their questions recalled to Psyche’s mind the danger against which she had been warned, and she answered hastily:
‘Oh, he is young and very handsome — the handsomest man in all the world, I think. But he spends much of his time in hunting, and has now gone far into the mountains to chase the boar. It was thus that, feeling myself lonely, I sent a messenger for you. And now, come and choose what you will out of the treasure-chamber, for the hour of your departure draws nigh!’
The sight of gold and precious stones heaped up in the treasure-chamber only made the sisters more jealous than before; but their jealousy did not prevent their carrying off the most splendid necklaces they could find before Psyche summoned Zephyr to bear them unseen back to their own homes.
‘Why has Fortune treated her so differently from us?’ cried the eldest, before they were out of sight of the palace. ‘Why should she have boundless riches, and be married to a man who is young and handsome, and own slaves who fly through the air as if they were birds? Far indeed are the days when she sat in our father’s house, and no suitor came to woo! But, though she was lonely and forlorn enough in the city, here she is treated as if she were a goddess, while I am linked to a husband whose head is bald, and whose back is a hump!’
‘My plight is worse than yours,’ groaned the other sister, ‘for I have to spend my time nursing a man who is always ill and rarely suffers me to leave his side. But do not let us flatter her pride by telling our father and mother of the honours Fate has heaped on her. Rather let us consider how best to humble her and bring her low.’
Meanwhile night had fallen, and Psyche’s husband came to her side.
‘Did you take heed to my warnings,’ asked he, ‘and refuse to answer the questions of your sisters?’
‘Oh yes,’ cried Psyche; ‘I told them nothing that they wished to know. I said that you were young and handsome, and gave me the most beautiful things in the world, but that they could not see you to-day, for you were hunting in the mountains.’
‘So far it is well, then,’ sighed he; ‘but remember that even at this moment they are plotting how they may destroy you, by filling your heart with their own evil curiosity, so that one day you may ask to see my face. But recollect, the moment you do this I vanish for ever.’
‘Ah, you do not trust me,’ sobbed Psyche; ‘yet I have shown you that I can be silent! Let me prove it again by suffering Zephyr to bring my sisters once more, and then never, never will I crave another boon from you.’
For long her husband refused to grant her what she asked, but at last, wearied by her tears and prayers, he told her that this once she might bid Zephyr bring her sisters to her. Eagerly they ran through the garden into the palace, and greeted Psyche with warm embraces and gentle words, while she on her part did everything she could think of to give them pleasure. As before, she bade them choose whatever they most desired, and when they had returned from the treasure-chamber and were eating fruit under the trees by the fountain the elder sister spoke:
‘How it grieves me to see you the victim of such deceit, and how I long to be able to ward off the danger!’
‘What do you mean by such words?’ asked Psyche, turning pale. ‘No one is deceiving me, and no goddess could be happier than I.’
‘Ah! you do not know — I dare not tell you,’ gasped the other in broken accents. ‘Sister, you try; I cannot shape the words.’
‘It is hard, but my duty demands it of me,’ said the second sister. It is — oh, how shall I tell it? — your husband is not such as you think, but a huge serpent whose neck swells with venom, and whose tongue darts poison. The men who work in the fields have watched him swimming across the river as darkness falls, at the moment that he goes to seek you!’
Their groans and sobs, no less than their words, convinced Psyche, who fell straightway into the pit they had digged for her.
‘It is true,’ she said with a trembling voice, ‘that never yet have I beheld my husband’s face, and that many times he has warned me that the moment my eyes light upon him he will abandon me for ever. His words were always sweet and gentle, and his touch hardly resembles the skin of a serpent. It is not easy to believe; but yet, if you know, I pray you, of your love for me, to come to my aid in this deadly peril.’
‘Ah, hapless one, it is for that we are here,’ answered the elder; ‘and this is what you must do. This very night, fill a lamp full of oil, and cover it with a dark cloth, so that not a ray of light can be seen; then take a sharp knife and hide it in your bosom. After the serpent is sound asleep, steal softly across the room, and snatch the cloth from the lamp, so that you may see where to strike home, for if he should wake before you have cut off his head your life will be forfeit.’
Having said this, they both hurriedly embraced their sister, and were wafted home on the wings of Zephyr.
Left alone, Psyche flung herself on the ground, and for many hours lay trying to subdue her misery. At one moment she thought that she could not do it — that her sisters might be wrong after all. But her faith in them was strong, and as night approached she rose up to do their bidding.
So well did she feign happiness that her husband heard no change in her voice as she bade him welcome, and, having travelled far that day, he soon laid himself down on the couch and fell sound asleep. Then Psyche seized the lamp and snatched off the covering, but by its light she saw stretched on the cushions, not a huge and hideous serpent, but the most beautiful of all the gods, Cupid himself.
At this sight her knees knocked together with surprise, and she gave a step backwards, and the lamp, trembling in her hand, let fall a drop of burning oil on Cupid’s shoulder. He sprang to his feet, and with one reproachful look he turned, and would have flown away had not Psyche grasped his leg, and was borne up with him into the air, till at length her strength gave way and she fell to the ground, where for some time she remained unconscious.
When her senses came back, she was so miserable that she sought eternal forgetfulness in a neighbouring stream, but the river, in pity, carried her gently along and placed her on a bank of flowers. Finding that even the river would have none of her, she rose up, and resolved to wander night and day through the world till she should find her husband.
The first spot at which she halted was a temple on the top of a high mountain, where, to her surprise, she saw blades of wheat, ears of barley, sheaves of oats, scythes and ploughs, all scattered about in wild confusion. Never before had she seen such disorder about a temple, and, stooping down, she began to separate one thing from another and to place them in heaps.
While she was busy with this, a voice cried to her from afar:
‘Unhappy girl, my heart bleeds for you! Yet even while you are pursued by the wrath of Aphrodite, you can labour in my service. May you find some day the rest that you deserve! But now, quit this temple, lest you draw down on me the anger of the goddess.’
With despair in her soul, Psyche wandered from one place to another, not knowing and not caring whither her feet might lead her. At length she was tracked and seized by one of Aphrodite’s attendants, who dragged her by the hair into the presence of the goddess herself. Here she was beaten and scourged, both by whips and by cruel words, and, when every kind of suffering had been heaped on her, Aphrodite took a number of bags containing wheat, barley, millet, and many other seeds, and, tumbling them all into one heap, bade her separate and place them each in its own bag by the evening.
Psyche stood staring where Aphrodite had left her, not even trying to begin a task that she knew to be hopeless.
She would certainly be killed, thought she, but, after all, death would be welcome; and she laid her weary body on the floor and sought sleep. At that moment a tiny ant, which had been passing through the storehouse on his way to the fields, and saw her terrible straits, went and fetched all his brothers, and bade them take pity on the damsel, and do the work that had been given to her.
By sunset every grain was sorted and placed in its own bag, but Psyche waited with trembling the return of Aphrodite, as she felt that nothing she could do would content her.
And so it happened, when Aphrodite entered, and thirsting for vengeance, cried with glee, ‘Well, where are my seeds?’ Psyche pointed silently to the row of bags against the wall, each with its mouth open, so that at the first glance it could be seen what kind of seed it contained. The goddess grew white with rage, and screamed loudly, ‘Wretched creature, it is not your hands that have done this! you will not escape my anger so easily’; and, tossing her a piece of bread, went away, locking the door behind her.
Next morning the goddess bade one of her slaves bring Psyche before her.
‘In yonder grove,’ she said, on the banks of a river, feed sheep whose wool is soft as silk and as bright as gold. Before night I shall expect you to return with as much of this wool as will make me a robe. And I do not think that you will find any one to perform your task this time!’
So Psyche went towards the river, which looked so clear and cool that she stepped down to the brink, meaning to lay herself to rest in its waters. But a reed sang to her, and its song said:
‘O Psyche, do my bidding and fear nothing! Hide yourself till evening, for the sheep are driven mad by the heat of the sun, and rush wildly through the bushes and thickets. But when the air grows fresh they sink exhausted to sleep, and you can gather all the wool you want from the branches.’
Then Psyche thanked the reed for its counsel and brought the wool safely back to the goddess; but she was received as before with scornful looks and words, and ordered to go to the top of a lofty mountain and fill a crystal urn from a fountain of black water which spouted from between walls of smooth rock. And Psyche went willingly, thinking that this time surely she must die.
But an eagle which was hovering over this dark and awful place came to her aid, and taking the urn from her he bore it in his beak to the fountain, which was guarded by two horrible dragons. It needed all his strength and skill to pass by them, and indeed it was only when he told them that Aphrodite needed it to give fresh lustre to her beauty that they ceased to snap at him with their long fangs.
Joyfully the eagle bore back the urn to Psyche, who carried it back carefully in her breast. But Aphrodite was still unsatisfied. Again and again she found new errands for Psyche, and hoped that each one might lead her to her death, though every time birds or beasts had pity on her.
If Cupid had only known his mother’s wicked schemes, he would have contrived to stop them and to deliver Psyche. But the wound on his shoulder where the burning oil had fallen took long to heal, and for some time he was in ignorance of all that Psyche was suffering. At last, however, the pain ceased, and his first thought was to visit Psyche, who, nearly fainting with joy at the sound of his voice, poured forth all that had happened since that dreadful night which had destroyed her happiness.
‘Your punishment has been sore,’ said he, ‘and I have no power to save you from the task my mother has set you. But while you fulfil this I will fly to Olympus, and beseech the gods to grant you forgiveness, and, more, a place among the immortals.’
And so the envy and malice of Aphrodite and the wicked sisters were brought to nought, and Psyche left the earth, to sit enthroned on Olympus.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52