Saturday, June 23, 2018

Eros and Psyche

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The world's ancient myths convey profound truths for our lives in today's world, if we can learn how to hear their message. 

One of the most important truths they dramatize is the reality of a Higher Self to whom we always have access and with whom we can and should become more connected and integrated during this incarnate life -- but whose assistance we often neglect or ignore because of doubt and self-defeating behavior.

Over and over, the ancient myths of the world depict sets of twins or pairings: Castor and Pollux, Arjuna and Krishna, Enkidu and Gilgamesh, Thomas and Jesus, and many others. I am convinced that these myths are not describing two separate entities but rather that in most cases are describing the relationship between our ordinary, doubting, "lower" self and our divine or semi-divine Higher Self.

One of the most moving depictions of this relationship is the myth known as Eros and Psyche (or Cupid and Psyche). To my knowledge, this myth is only preserved in its entirety in a version written down by the second century writer Apuleius in his delightful (and deeply esoteric) text known as The Golden Tale of the Ass (usually referred to simply as The Golden Ass), which was also originally known as the Metamorphoses (the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, not to be confused with the Metamorphoses of Ovid, who lived almost two hundred years before Apuleius, in the first century BC). This text (and some aspects of the story of Eros and Psyche) formed the basis of the discussion in this previous post, which also contains links to a public-domain 1924 translation of the entire Metamorphoses of Apuleius (including a facing-page copy of the original Latin text).

If you have never read the original version of the story of Eros and Psyche, you may want to stop reading now and treat yourself to the account in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius. He is a masterful writer, and any summary simply does not do it justice. I personally prefer the 1960 translation by Jack Lindsay, which belongs in everyone's library who is interested in the ancient myths. The tale of Eros and Psyche begins in the middle of Book Four of the eleven books of the Golden Ass, and is another example of a "story within a story" in the text of Apuleius. Book Four (or "Book the Fourth") begins on page 88 of the 1960 Lindsay edition linked above, and the account of the myth of Eros and Psyche begins on page 105 of that same edition. I would highly recommend pausing now and taking a long leisurely read of that ancient sacred myth.


Now that you've had the opportunity to read through the Lindsay translation of the myth of Eros and Psyche -- what's that? You still haven't read the account as preserved by Apuleius for yourself? Please, put down this blog (it can wait) and treat yourself to the ancient text using the links above (and again, the Lindsay translation of 1960 is, in my opinion, far more readable than the online 1924 version).

Returning again

Now that you've had the opportunity to read through the myth itself, in the one form in which it has survived from antiquity (although other references and depictions in ancient artwork show us that the myth itself was known long before Apuleius wrote it down in the version we have in his Metamorphoses), we can explore some of the profound truths embodied in that exquisite ancient account.

Since you've now enjoyed the original, it won't spoil the story to sketch out the main outlines of the myth itself below (although the embellishments and descriptions in the Apuleius version bring it to life much more vividly than this brief summary can do):
  • Psyche, the youngest of three daughters of a certain king, is such a paragon of beauty and virtue that the people make gestures of reverence when they see her (appropriate to the reverence rendered unto a god or goddess), and her fame spread first to the neighboring regions and cities, and then around the whole world -- bringing people from near and far just to catch a glimpse of her marvelous beauty. 
  • The honor given to this mortal young woman angers the goddess Venus, or Aphrodite, who is of course the very source of the gifts enjoyed by Psyche, and she gives orders to her son Cupid, or Eros, to cause Psyche to fall hopelessly in love with the most vile object he can find, in order to punish her.
  • Meanwhile, no suitor dares to woo Psyche, so beyond mortal reach does she appear, while her two older sisters soon find suitors and marry. Her father consults the oracle of Apollo to find out what is the matter, and is told that no mortal shall wed Psyche but rather a terrible winged serpent: they must dress the girl in funeral garments and take her to the top of a high cliff, and leave her there to her fate, as ordained by the gods.
  • The whole kingdom mourns, but they must obey the oracle, and so they lead a sorrowful procession by night to the appointed lonely outcropping, where they leave Psyche -- but after they depart, she is gently lifted up by Zephyrus, the gentle west wind, and deposited in a delightful valley far away, where she finds her way to a beautiful but seemingly empty castle.
  • There, she is attended by invisible attendants, and spoken to by bodiless voices -- and at night she is visited by an unseen lover, who warns her that she must never try to see who he is, but who will be her loving husband if she will have him. She agrees to this arrangement and becomes almost completely happy -- but misses her family and especially her sisters, fearing that they will be miserable because they believe Psyche to be dead or suffering some horrible fate.
  • Psyche requests that her unseen husband dispatch Zephyrus to bring her sisters for a visit. He promises to do so, but warns Psyche that they may become jealous and also curious, and try to turn her against him.
  • When her sisters visit, this scenario foreseen by the invisible husband plays out just as he said it would. The sisters, consumed with jealousy at the happiness of Psyche and the descriptions of her loving, if unseen, companion insinuate that the reason he never shows himself to her is that he must be some kind of horrible monster -- most likely the writhing, winged serpent that had been described by the oracle.
  • After they depart, Psyche cannot shake the doubts that they have introduced into her mind -- much as she tries to dispel them. Over the successive nights, the doubts become more and more insistent -- until one night, after she and her unseen lover have gone to bed and she is sure that he is asleep, she gets out of bed and retrieves an oil lamp in order to finally see who he is. She lights the lamp . . . and is amazed to see the handsome god Eros himself, asleep in their bed, his down-covered wings folded behind him as he slumbers.
  • A drop of oil from the lamp, however, falls upon the sleeping god -- and he awakens, immediately realizing that Psyche has given in to her doubts. He tells her that he had disobeyed the orders of his mother, the goddess Venus, because of his love for Psyche -- but that all is now lost . . . and he departs.
  • Psyche is forlorn and miserable. She cannot forgive herself for listening to her sisters and doubting the one who had been such a kind and loving partner. She wanders the earth looking for Eros, but cannot find him, and after begging for help from various goddesses who tell her that Venus is angry with her and they therefore cannot help her, decides to present herself to the goddess of Love herself and throw herself upon the mercy of the goddess.
  • Venus gives Psyche various impossible tasks, and the girl is assisted in each case in a manner similar to accounts found in familiar folktales such as those collected by the brothers Grimm in northern Europe. Finally, the goddess sends Psyche to the Underworld, to obtain from Persephone (or Proserpine, in Latin) a certain secret substance in a box and bring it back to Venus. 
  • This dangerous journey Psyche accomplishes, having been advised beforehand by supernatural means (a friendly tower, in fact, speaks to her and tells her what she will find on the journey, and how to overcome each pitfall). Having successfully obtained the mystery box, Psyche begins her return journey to deliver it to Venus.
  • However, before she reaches her destination, but having returned from the Underworld to the light of day, Psyche grows curious as to what might be the contents of the mysterious box. Thinking it must be some beauty supplement, which could perhaps enhance her appearance all the more, and maybe even be enough to bring Eros back to her, Psyche opens the box . . . and is overcome by death-like sleep, which is what the box actually contains.
  • And there Psyche would have slept forever, had not Eros at this time -- recovering from the burn he had received from the lamp -- stretched forth his wings again and soared into the heavens, from which vantage point he spied Psyche lying senseless beside the open box and immediately perceives what has taken place.
  • Eros flies to Psyche's side and, wiping the death-like sleep from her face and returning it safely to the box, revives her with a kiss. The two are eventually married in a divine marriage, attended by all the gods and blessed at last by the goddess Venus as well.
This ancient myth is not only full of drama and plot-twists, but also serves to convey profound truths with applications for our own lives -- if we understand how to listen to what it is trying to tell us.

I am convinced that, in common with the world's other ancient myths, scriptures, and sacred stories, it is not intended to be understood literally -- but rather, as Alvin Boyd Kuhn told us in a passage which I have quoted many times before, it is actually about "the mystery of human life" because "the one actor in every portrayal, in every scene, is the human soul." 

The story is not about a beautiful young woman who lived thousands of years ago -- the story is actually about each and every one of us. As Alvin Boyd Kuhn says in the same quotation, speaking about the stories in the Bible but with words equally applicable to other ancient myths from cultures around the world: "The Bible is the drama of our history here and now; and it is not apprehended in its full force and applicability until every reader discerns himself [or herself] to be the central figure in it!"

As such, we should understand that we are intended to see ourselves as Psyche in this story -- and to realize that we are kept from connecting with the divine power represented by Psyche's unseen companion by our doubts and self-sabotaging behaviors, just as we observe in the dramatic events of the myth.

The myth also demonstrates to us the way that the words of others can likewise sow seeds of doubt and keep us from the union with our True and Higher Self, if we let them.

Additionally, the events dramatized in the story of Psyche reveal to us the respect that we should have for the powers described in the myths as the gods and goddesses. We are not to "invert" the proper relationship between us and them (an inversion we see demonstrated at the beginning of the story, when the people give Psyche the honor and reverence which is proper to give to Venus herself). And there are certain pitfalls we must avoid falling into, as demonstrated by Psyche's perilous journey to the Underworld -- certain ways we must act which we might only learn by listening to the supernatural voices contained in the myths themselves.

I am convinced that the myth of Eros and Psyche has many layers of profound meaning -- but that one of these layers concerns the importance of connecting to, and living in harmony with, our Higher Self. The union of Eros and Psyche represents this integration -- and it is something to which we all can and should aspire. 

Like Psyche, we find ourselves wandering through this "lower realm" in search of that union. The voyage to the Underworld, in fact, does not actually represent a visit to a realm we go to after we die, but rather represents our condition in this incarnate life, enmeshed with a physical body in an apparently  material universe. We temporarily lose our connection with the divine realm of spirit -- and even when we have realized a connection with it we are repeatedly losing it again, just as Psyche does in the story.

Indeed, when we come down into this material realm, we are in danger of falling asleep to the real nature of who we are and what we should be doing. We can remain in that senseless sleep forever, if we are not careful of the choices we make while we are here. However, our divine Higher Self, like Eros in the story, soars above and is searching for us, in order to revive us. In this way, Eros plays a role very similar to Horus of ancient Egypt (whose name, in fact, may be related: Eros - Horus). Horus revives the god Osiris from his own death-like sleep.

The reunion of Eros and Psyche thus teaches similar lessons to that dramatized in the story of Doubting Thomas, discussed at length in this previous post. Note that in that story Thomas, like Psyche, is initially wracked by doubt and thus estranged from the risen Lord. The same could also be said for Arjuna at the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, before he is "revived" by the divine Krishna, who will act as his guide and charioteer throughout the Battle of Kurukshetra -- which itself represents this incarnate life, according to my analysis. 

How do we become integrated with our Higher Self? I'm convinced that the ancient myths are given in order to tell us that answer -- and that consulting them regularly is an important part of the journey towards the union that Psyche eventually enjoys.

But in addition to that -- which neither I nor anyone else can do for you but which each of us must do ourselves -- I would suggest that certain practices and disciplines can help us to be less prone to self-sabotage through our doubts and the insinuations of those around us whose advice may not necessarily be particularly good for us. 

Note that "doubts" or at least "prudence" are not necessarily bad -- in fact, they can be essential to preventing us from running into disaster (even Psyche had to listen to wise counsel to successfully negotiate the voyage to the Underworld). However, as we see in the story of Eros and Psyche, as well as the episode with Doubting Thomas, if our doubts take over and "rule us," and we listen to them to the exclusion of listening to the voice of our divine guide, then once again the proper order will be inverted, which can lead to disaster as well. 

Certain practices, it seems, can help us to "put our doubts in their place" by helping us to listen to our own intuition and acting on it without doubt interceding. Various sports, for example, can encourage and reward acting without listening to our own doubts (if you spend time debating yourself before taking a shot at a basket in basketball, or at the goal in soccer or hockey or other similar sports, you will not make very many shots). Arts such as painting or sculpting or calligraphy or playing various musical instruments also demand action without hesitation or self-doubt, and practicing them can enhance our connection to that higher Voice which Psyche heard in the story. And practices such as meditation, martial arts, Yoga, Tantra, Qigong, and many others have been passed down through the centuries -- likely because they, too, are designed to move us towards discovering and becoming integrated with our True Self.

As mentioned in the previous post discussing the story of Eros and Psyche, I am also convinced that the elements and characters of this myth can be seen in the constellations of the night sky -- itself an infinite realm which pictures for us the truths of the Infinite Realm inhabited by the gods, the realm of pure potential, the realm of spirit. Some of the figures in that myth, including Psyche herself, appear to correspond to Sagittarius and surrounding constellations in the region of Sagittarius -- corresponding to the "lowest point" on the annual cycle, appropriate to our "cast down" condition in this incarnate realm, and to that "turning point" where, having reached the lowest point of all, we are "awakened" by the divine power of the rescuing Eros (or Horus). 

It is thus an appropriate story to consider at the time of Summer Solstice, the point in the cycle we have just passed (the June solstice, which is summer in the northern hemisphere, though winter in the southern). The solstices represent elevation of the spirit, and integration with the Higher Self -- and overcoming the doubt which the ancient myths universally depict as holding us back.  

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Sculpture of Psyche revived by the kiss of Love, by Antonio Canova (1757 - 1822).