Summary: Chapter I — Cupid and Psyche

Hamilton draws this story from the Latin writer Apuleius, who, like Ovid, was interested in creating beautiful, entertaining tales—a style that could not be further from Hesiod’s pious, fearsome creation stories. Appealing to the Roman aesthetic sense, Apuleius’s protagonist is Psyche, a princess so beautiful that men begin to worship her instead of Venus (the Latin name for Aphrodite). Insulted, Venus sends her son, Cupid (Latin name for Eros), to make Psyche fall in love with the ugliest creature in the world. Cupid, however, falls in love with her himself and magically prevents anyone else from doing so. Apollo convinces Psyche’s father to leave her at the top of a hill to be wed to a monster. However, Zephyr, the West Wind, carries the waiting Psyche to a majestic palace where she bathes and feasts royally, attended by mysterious voices. At night, she feels a man next to her who introduces himself as her husband.

For a while, a pattern develops where Psyche remains alone during the day and then at night sleeps with a husband she never sees. She at last convinces the mysterious man to allow her sisters to visit her, even though he warns her it will end in tragedy. Psyche’s sisters, jealous of her palace, conspire to ruin her marriage. Knowing she has never seen her husband, they slyly plant the idea in her head that he is a horrendous monster. Plagued by doubt, Psyche decides she must see what he looks like and, if he is a monster, stab him through his heart. That night, she lights a lamp and sees that her husband is the unbelievably beautiful Cupid. Psyche’s hands tremble, spilling hot oil from the lamp and burning the god, revealing her deception. Cupid flees the house and runs to Venus to heal his wound.

Crushed, Psyche goes to Venus’s home to see Cupid. Venus, enraged that Psyche has once again defied her, forces her to perform four seemingly impossible tasks. First, she must sort an enormous mound of seeds in one evening, but ants come to her aid and she succeeds. Second, she must fetch the golden wool of a flock of vicious wild sheep, but a reed by the riverbank tells her where to find wool that the sheep had snagged on thorns. Third, she must fill a flask with water from a treacherous waterfall of the river Styx, but an eagle swoops down and fills it for her. Finally, Psyche must journey to the underworld and convince Proserpine (Latin Persephone) to place some of her beauty in a box, but a tower on the way speaks to her and tells her how to easily complete the task.

On the way back from this final task, Psyche’s curiosity makes her peek into the box to see what Proserpine’s beauty looks like. The box appears empty, but a deep sleep overcomes her. Finally healed, Cupid rushes to her, and he then convinces Jupiter (Latin Zeus) to make her an immortal, which at last persuades Venus to accept her.

Summary: Chapter II — Eight Brief Tales of Lovers

Pyramus and Thisbe

Not all tales of love end so happily, as we see in Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. The two lovers reside in Babylon, but their parents hate each other and forbid their marriage. Talking through a crack in the wall of the building their families share, they eventually decide to elope, agreeing to meet outside the city walls at a well-known mulberry tree. Thisbe gets there first but flees when she sees a lioness, intending to come back later. But she drops her cloak, and Pyramus, finding it bloody and torn by the lion, thinks she has been killed by the lion. Pyramus kills himself, covering the white berries of the mulberry tree with blood. Returning to find him dead, Thisbe then kills herself with his sword. The berries of the mulberry tree have forever stayed red to commemorate the tragic end of their love story.

Orpheus and Eurydice

The next tale introduces Orpheus, the son of one of the Muses and the greatest mortal musician. Orpheus’s music moves any human, god, animal, or object that hears it. His wife Eurydice is killed by a snake, and his music enables him to safely make the perilous journey to the underworld and convince Pluto (Hades) to let Eurydice return to the world of the living. The one catch to Eurydice’s return is that she must walk behind Orpheus on the way back to earth; if he turns to look at her, she must return to Hades forever. Overcome with desire and doubt, Orpheus turns around too soon. Having lost Eurydice, he wanders aimlessly and gets ripped to shreds by Maenads.

Ceyx and Alcyone

Ceyx is a king of Thessaly, and Alcyone is his loving wife. He sets out on a long journey, and his wife prays to the gods, particularly Juno, to protect him. Ceyx’s ship unfortunately has already been wrecked in a storm, but Juno, pitying Alcyone, sends her a dream in which Ceyx tells what befell him. Alcyone wakes and rushes to the seashore, finding his body borne in on the tide. The gods transform her into a bird and also resurrect Ceyx as a bird, out of respect for their love. These two fly together eternally, and the phrase “halcyon days” comes from Alcyone, referring to the seven days a year when she calms the seas in order to lay her eggs on its smooth surface.

Pygmalion and Galatea

Pygmalion, a sculptor, hates women and finds comfort only in his art. One day he makes a statue of a woman so beautiful that he falls in love with it. Intrigued by this new kind of love, Venus rewards him by bringing the statue to life. Pygmalion names her Galatea. Their son, Paphos, lends his name to Venus’s favorite city.

Baucis and Philemon

The love of Baucis and Philemon is also rewarded by the gods. One day, Jupiter and Mercury (Latin Hermes) descend to earth in disguise in order to test the hospitality of the people of Phrygia. No one is kind to them except an old couple, Baucis and Philemon, who are very poor. Revealing themselves, Jupiter and Mercury drown the rest of Phrygia’s wicked inhabitants in a flood and offer Baucis and Philemon any wish they desire. Modest and content, Baucis and Philemon merely ask never to live apart from one another. The two thus live to a very old age, when the gods transform them into two trees—a linden and an oak—growing out of a single trunk.

Endymion and Daphne

Though they are not lovers to each other, Endymion and Daphne each have an important relation to an immortal. Endymion is a handsome young shepherd loved by Selene, the Moon, who casts a magic sleep over him so that she can visit him whenever she wants. She is always sad, however, as he can never return her love. Daphne is a beautiful, headstrong huntress-nymph whom Apollo loves. She runs away from him but he pursues her all the way to the waters of her father, the river god Peneus. Appealing for instant help, Daphne finds her arms hardening and twisting—her father turns her into a laurel tree. Apollo proclaims that the laurel will forever be his sacred tree, and, since that time, its leaves signify music, songsn and triumphs.

Alpheus and Arethusa

Arethusa is another huntress who disdains marriage and is also pursued by a god—the river god Alpheus. When he is about to overtake her, she appeals to Artemis for help. Changed into a spring of water, Arethusa plunges deep into the earth. Alpheus changes himself into a river, and their waters mingle, forming a connection between the river Alpheus in Greece and Arethusa’s spring in Sicily.

Analysis: Chapters I–II

The different styles of Hamilton’s sources are apparent in these chapters. Except for the story of Endymion—which, written by the Greek Theocritus, does indeed stand out as unique—these tales all come from Latin writers, primarily Ovid. We must remember that the earliest Greek myths date from about 1000 b.c. and Hesiod’s creation stories from about 700 b.c. At this time, Greece was a violent, unstable set of city-states. Its authors faced a virtual literary void, as no one had gone before to explain the incomprehensible mysteries of life. The world of the Latin writers were very different, as many characterize the Roman world as an even more secure, luxurious, and ordered world than our own today. Rome was the largest empire known to man, and wealth and luxury abounded to the point of decadence. Light, gaudy tales of lovers were in demand, since the Romans preferred pretty accompaniments to aristocratic banquets rather than dread epics of the beginning of the world or humbling accounts of man’s modest origins.

These stories must be read in the context of such a cultural moment. Though details of Roman life are not the subject at hand, they are important to making sense of the themes of these myths and evaluating their place in the larger realm of classical mythology. Clearly, the force of love—an important force in Hesiod’s account of the creation—is given further weight here. Cupid, burnt by Psyche’s oil, cries out, “Love cannot live where there is no trust.” True love is always rewarded, even if it meets a tragic end: Pyramus and Thisbe are forever remembered by the red mulberries, and the Muses celebrate Orpheus by burying him at the foot of Mount Olympus.

The place of women in these stories deserves some scrutiny. The myths reflect the patriarchal structure of classical civilization in a variety of ways. Though, to us, Psyche’s desire to see her husband’s face is wholly understandable, she is punished nonetheless. Daphne and Arethusa, who despise marriage for the loss of independence it entails, are pursued against their will. As we have seen in the story of Pandora, classical society saw women as inferior to men and an inherent cause of evil. Nonetheless, there are numerous powerful goddesses in the Greek pantheon: Hera, who often outwits and punishes Zeus; the strong and independent Athena and Artemis; the revered Demeter; and the Fates—perhaps the most powerful beings of all—are all female, complicating the myths’ patriarchal tone.

Another major virtue that makes up the myths’ moral guidance is obedience. Psyche’s troubles stem from her disobedience of Cupid, just as Daphne’s and Arethusa’s stem from their resistance of divine lovers. Considering the gods’ occasional impulsiveness and irrationality, we may question why the Greeks felt that obedience to such capricious will was so important. Perhaps this sense of divine power and purpose gave the Greeks a sense of security, a sense that the world was less chaotic. Indeed, despite their shortcomings, the gods generally do reward the good and punish the evil, thus making sense of right and wrong. Obedience to the gods not only indicates acceptance of the world as it is, but also acceptance of the moral code of the society, critically important in a fiercely democratic culture.