In the previous post, I gave you one model of how heroines might be similar to, but also different from, heroes. Here is another model for the archetypes of femininity and heroism. It is the story of Psyche.
Right away, the heroine’s very name might get our attention. Psyche is of course what we call mind or (as in the Greek meaning) soul. Clearly, the story of Psyche promises to be about more than intrigue, sex, love, fear and overcoming (although it certainly has all those in plenty). There is something universal and large hiding in the story. Your task is to find it.
Before I tell the story in brief and analyze it, here is the context for newcomers to this blog: This post is part of a series exploring heroes and heroism. The premise is the monomyth theory, according to which all of humanity shares certain archetypes of storytelling that appear again and again in every culture and age. After I featured several male heroes, the question arose: What is female heroism?
This post, like the previous one, is based on a lecture course by Grant Voth, who in turn borrows from research by Meredith Powers and others.
To make the heroic pattern more explicit, I’ll break the story into “chapters” with “titles” taken from some of the archetypes as Joseph Campbell described them. (Here is the list.)
The call to adventure
Psyche is the youngest of three daughters of a king, and the most beautiful woman of her time, so beautiful that she rivals even the goddess Aphrodite.
Aphrodite naturally becomes jealous and wants to punish Psyche. So she tells her son, Eros (known to the Romans as either Cupid, desire, or Amor, love), to shoot one of his little arrows into Psyche so that she might, perversely, fall in love with the nastiest and ugliest creature alive.
When Psyche’s father, the king, asks the Oracle of Apollo about Psyche’s future, he receives a dreadful reply (which I took from here):
On some high crag, O king, set forth the maid,
In all the pomp of funeral robes arrayed.
Hope for no bridegroom born of mortal seed,
But fierce and wild and of the dragon breed.
He swoops all-conquering, born on airy wing,
With fire and sword he makes his harvesting;
Trembles before him Jove, whom the gods do dread,
And quakes the darksome river of the dead.
Psyche’s marriage, in other words, is to be a funeral; love is to be death; and the groom makes even hell tremble!
Psyche and her parents submit to the oracle’s command in sorrow, and Psyche is brought in a funeral procession to the mountain top. But instead of plunging to her death, she is wafted by gentle winds to a valley where she falls asleep.
When she wakes up, she finds herself in a beautiful palace, where voices invite her to dine and bathe. This looks more like paradise than hell.
At night, in total darkness, her groom comes to Psyche’s bed to consummate the marriage. Psyche cannot see him and he leaves before dawn.
This happens night after night. Psyche quite enjoys the love-making, but she has no idea with whom she is making love.
After a while, her two sisters come looking for her. Psyche’s husband, whoever he is, does not want Psyche to see them. When he finally relents, he makes Psyche promise never to let her sisters talk her into trying to find out who he is.
The sisters (also archetypes: picture the step sisters in Cindarella, for instance) arrive and are impressed by the splendor of Psyche’s palace. They themselves are in bad marriages with husbands who are much older and no fun. They envy Psyche.
Psyche makes up a story that her husband is away all day hunting.
The sisters leave. The next time they visit — Psyche is pregnant by now — they try harder to find out who Psyche’s husband might be. Psyche, who has forgotten her previous story, tells them that he is a rich merchant, away on business.
The sisters realize that Psyche is lying. Still envious, they want to spoil her fun. They remind her of the oracle and tell of alleged rumors that her husband is really a terrible serpent who will eat both Psyche and whatever child creature she will bear.
They persuade Psyche, who is suddenly full of doubt and fear, to bring a knife to bed for self-protection and also an oil lamp so that, when her husband falls asleep after love-making, she might shine a light on him and see who he is.
Entering the “belly of the whale” (ie, the danger zone)
The next night, after Psyche and her husband make love and he falls asleep, Psyche lights the oil lamp. This is the first heroic moment: It is an act of choosing knowledge and self-awareness, a daring shedding of light into the dark places of the unconscious, whether the heroine is ready or not.
To Psyche’s great surprise, she beholds not a monster but the most handsome man she can imagine, the god Eros. She immediately falls in love. Wanting to make her love eternal, she deliberately pricks herself on one of his arrows.
But as she does so, a drop of oil falls from her lamp and wakes Eros. Eros must now tell his story.
He tells Psyche how his mother, Aphrodite, issued her cruel order, how he came to execute the command, and how he, upon seeing her, fell in love with Psyche, deciding to take her as his own wife.
But he thereby subverted his mother’s wishes, which is very, very dangerous. And now the truth is known. Devastated, Eros abandons Psyche.
Eros returns to his mother and confesses all to her. (Archetypes are a Jungian thing, but the Freudians among you might have fun analyzing the relationship between Eros and Aphrodite.)
Aphrodite is livid. She wants revenge. She wants to punish “that whore”, Psyche.
Initiation and trials
Psyche at first tries to kill herself, then decides, like the hero(ine) she is now becoming, to rise to the challenge and seek out her enemy, Aphrodite, in order either to placate her or to die in the attempt.
What Psyche wants, of course, is her husband. (As the soul forever wants to be reunited with love?) Psyche is thus on a love quest.
Aphrodite, however, wants to humiliate Psyche, to make her fail by giving her seemingly impossible tasks. (These seem to be very close analogs to the labors of Hercules, so if there ever was any doubt, we are definitely in a hero story.)
Psyche must, for instance:
- sort a pile of mixed seeds (= the Augean stables? Certainly reminds me of Cindarella again!), which she does with the help of ants;
- fetch wool from a lethal sheep (Hercules’ Nemean lion?), which she does with the help of a reed growing by the river;
- fill a vial of water from a spring that is guarded by dragons and runs into Styx (Hercules’ Hydra?), which she does with the help of Zeus’ eagle; and
- go to the underworld, Hades, to bring back in a box a bit of Persephone’s immortal beauty, which she does with the help of a tower that tells her how to get to Hades and back.
She is now in exalted company indeed. Hercules, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas, Orpheus — only the greatest heroes get to go to Hades and back, to die and be reborn in a more aware state, to cross the ultimate boundary in both directions.
She’s been warned not to open Persephone’s box. But (compare Orpheus) curiosity overcomes her, and she does open it. She falls into a deep coma and seems dead (≈Sleeping Beauty?).
Her lover and husband, Eros, finds her and pricks her with an arrow. This wakes Psyche. Eros now pleads with Zeus to let them be reunited.
Zeus sympathizes. He gives Psyche ambrosia, thus making her immortal (as he also made Hercules immortal).
The return and the boon
Psyche has now become one of the family, as it were. She has been accepted. Aphrodite, too, must embrace her as part of the family. And thus, there is finally the proper wedding and a feast.
Psyche soon gives birth. The baby is Voluptas, either joy or pleasure.
The harmony of the new, or newly reunited, family and the gift of joy and pleasure is Psyche’s boon, her gift to mankind. She has thus completed her heroic quest, quite as a male hero might have done.
The feminine twist
But we might observe two subtle differences between Psyche’s apotheosis and those of the male heroes we have been comparing her to:
1) Psyche has not killed anybody! It was not expected of her, not a prerequisite of her heroism.
The only two people in the story who die are her sisters (and they kill themselves, after coming to the mountain top again, greedy to revisit their sister’s palace, then plunging down, only to discover that this time no gentle wind wants to catch them).
2) The goal of Psyche’s quest was not individual triumph but family reunion and group harmony.
A Freudian might see this entire tale as a “family romance”, as the story of a young woman coming of age and overcoming her repression about sex and intimacy until her mate is no longer bestial and loathsome but lovable and desirable.
But the monomyth theory, which dates back to Jung and regards archetypes as “collective dreams”, sees in Psyche’s story universals:
- the human journey toward self-awareness,
- our yearning to unify sex and love, body and soul, individual and family,
- our striving for harmony.
Viewed this way, Psyche plays the same heroic role that Arjuna plays in the Bhagavad Gita (recall that Arjuna really stands for the noble part of our own soul, in battle with our sordid instincts).
Finally, Psyche is clearly a very powerful archetype. Variants of her seem to appear in countless stories through the ages. I leave you with the familiar image of just one: Beauty and the Beast.