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.