Psyche (mythology)

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Goddess of the soul
Psyche Abandoned by Pietro Tenerani
SymbolButterfly wings
Personal information
ParentsUnnamed king and queen[1]
Siblings(sisters) Aglaura and Cidippe[citation needed]

Psyche (/ˈsk/;[2] Greek: Ψυχή, romanizedPsykhḗ Ancient Greek: [psyːkʰɛ̌ː]; Greek pronunciation: [psiˈçi]) is the Greek goddess of the soul and often represented as a beautiful woman with butterfly wings.[3] The name Psyche means "soul" in Greek[4] and was commonly referred to as such in Roman mythology as well, though direct translation is Anima (Latin word for "soul").[5] She was born a mortal woman eventually granted immortality, with beauty that rivaled even Aphrodite, goddess of love.[6] Psyche is known from the novel called The Golden Ass, also known as Metamorphoses, written by the Roman philosopher and orator Apuleius in the 2nd century. In the myth, she was given multiple trials in order to be with her beloved, Eros, also known as Cupid, god of physical love and desire and son of Aphrodite.[6] The cultural influences of Psyche's story can be depicted in art dating back to the 4th century BCE.

The Golden Ass[edit]

The Golden Ass, written in Latin, is fully survived and written in the 2nd century CE by Apuleius.[6] The novel consists of eleven books, mainly surrounding a man named Lucius. Lucius, dabbling in magic, attempts to turn into a bird but after the spell goes wrong, turns himself into a donkey and goes on a journey where he eventually is restored back to human form with the help of the goddess Isis.[7] Along the way, he hears many stories, including tales about Socrates and the endeavors of a group of bandits. The biggest, most notable story Lucius hears on his journey is about Psyche and Cupid’s love story, spanning books 4-6.[8]


Early life[edit]

Psyche with butterfly wings mounted on a camel, at the Louvre

In an unnamed kingdom, a king and queen had three beautiful daughters. The youngest, Psyche, possessed beauty that surpassed that of her sisters which resulted in those around her, including priests, comparing her to Aphrodite (referred to as Venus in The Golden Ass).[9] Many went to the extent of saying that she was even fairer than the goddess herself. In other iterations, she is not compared to Aphrodite but mistaken for her.[10]

Psyche's beauty attracted people from all over distant lands to give gifts and offerings.[11] When Aphrodite's temples were neglected as a result, the goddess was outraged a mortal was being worshiped over her. As Psyche's punishment, Aphrodite sent her son, Eros, to make the girl fall in love with a vile and hideous monster, as he had the ability to make anyone fall in love with the strike of his arrows.[12] Eros did as he was asked by approaching Psyche as she slept and touching her with one of his arrows. Psyche awoke, and although she did not see him because he was invisible, Eros accidentally wounded himself with his own arrow and fell in love with her.[8]

Meanwhile, both of her elder sisters were jealous of her beauty. Still, they eventually went on to marry kings[13] and left to be with their husbands. Although everyone kept admiring Psyche's beauty, it became apparent that she couldn't find a suitor because they were happy to just worship her instead of ask her hand in marriage.[14] The king and queen, deeply disturbed by this, decided to consult the Oracle of Delphi, also known as Pythia[6] at the Temple of Apollo for answers. Apollo, speaking through the Oracle, said "Despair, king. Your daughter will marry a beast even the gods fear. Dress her in funeral clothes and take her to the tallest rock spire in the kingdom. There, she shall meet her doom."[9] The king returned heartbroken, but obeyed the god's orders.

Marriage to Eros[edit]

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss by Antonio Canova
The Abduction of Psyche by Émile Signol

After the king consulted the Oracle, Psyche was taken to the rock spire and abandoned to her fate. She waited for the beast, but it did not come. In some retellings, Eros is there, only invisible.[14] Zephyrus, the Greek lord of west wind, carried her away from the rock and moved her to a place where she fell into a deep sleep. When she awoke again, she found herself in a palace made of gems and gold.[8]

An invisible voice told Psyche to make herself at home and that everything belonged to her. She took a bath and ate a big feast, all while an invisible lyre played beautiful music to entertain her. It was then that Psyche learned that the invisible person was her new husband. He visited only at night, forbidding her to look upon his face or learn his name, saying that it was better for her to love him as an equal than to see him as something godly.[15]

Psyche's first weeks within the palace were filled with pleasures, and although she feared him at first, she eventually came to fall in love with the invisible man. During the day, however, she became lonely, only looking forward to nighttime when her husband would visit. Eventually she asked to see her sisters who, in her absence, had assumed her death and had been in mourning. Eros eventually gave her permission to invite her family to the palace, instructing Zephyrus to carry the sisters to the palace where they would be reunited.

When they arrived, her sisters gazed upon their sister’s good fortune, and became jealous. They began to ask questions about Psyche’s husband, with the intent to trick her. At first Psyche lied about who her husband was, claiming he was a hunter. With more prodding, Psyche finally admitted she had never seen her husband’s face and didn’t know his name. In anger and jealousy, they convince her that her husband is a monster and that she must see for herself who exactly her husband is.[14]

Psyche was eventually swayed by her sisters' words and looked upon Eros while he was sleeping, sneaking into his room with an oil lamp and a knife. As Psyche shone the light on her husband's face, a small drop of hot oil fell onto his shoulder, awakening him and burning him. Betrayed by his wife's actions, Eros took off in flight to be attended to by his mother, due to his burns from the oil lamp. As he disappeared, so did the palace, and Psyche found herself in a field near where her sisters lived. Distraught, Psyche told her sisters of what happened and they pretended to be saddened for her. Instead, the sisters were plotting to convince Eros to take one of them to be his wife. The two traveled to the peak and jumped, thinking Zephyrus would catch them and take them to the palace as he did the last time. Zephyrus, however, was nowhere to be found, and the two sisters fell and died.[16] Upset and lost, Psyche wandered and searched for her lover. Demeter, goddess of agriculture, pitied the girl and told her to go to Aphrodite and beg for forgiveness.

Psyche's Trials[edit]

Sorting grain[edit]

Hermes and Psyche in the Palais Garnier at Paris. Above Psyche's head is a butterfly. Their names are in Greek, ΨΥΧΗ (Psyche) and ΕΡΜΗΣ (Hermes).

While Aphrodite had been tending to her son’s injuries, she had learned about the secret marriage between Psyche and her son. When the girl came and begged for forgiveness, the angry goddess had Psyche whipped and tortured. Afterwards, she was given barrels of grains, barley, wheat, beans, and poppy seeds[15] mixed together to sort through and was ordered to have them sorted by evening. Psyche broke down in despair, but an ant witnessed the exchange and took pity on the girl, instructing his colony to help sort the grain. Aphrodite, surprised and enraged to see that the task had been completed, gave Psyche a new task.[8]

Golden fleece[edit]

This time, she was ordered to approach a pack of rams known for being violent and shear their golden fleece to bring back to the goddess. Rather than be killed by these rams, Psyche planned on drowning herself in the river near the pack. As she prepared to do so, the river god Potamoi spoke and said, "Psyche, tried by much suffering, do not pollute my holy waters with your pitiable death."[8] He then instructed her to wait until the rams calmed when the weather was cooler,[15] for the animals would be less likely to attack her. Psyche listened to the river god and waited until it got cooler before she was able to safely shear the fleece off the backs of the rams.[8]

The River Styx[edit]

Once that task had been completed, Aphrodite gave Psyche her third task: gather the black waters from the River Styx in a crystal cup the goddess had given her. Arriving near the river, Psyche once again began to despair, for getting to the river itself meant climbing up a treacherous cliff and risking her life. This time, it was Zeus who took pity on the girl and sent his eagle to retrieve the water for her in the crystal cup, thus successfully completing the third task.[15]

A sample of beauty[edit]

Psyche and Persephone, relief by Hermann Heidel.

For her fourth and final task, Psyche was given a golden box and ordered to travel to the Underworld to retrieve a bit of beauty possessed by Persephone, goddess of spring, queen of the Underworld. Psyche, believing this last task was impossible, once again decided to take her own life. She climbed a tall tower and prepared to jump, but the tower spoke and instructed Psyche to go to the border of Sparta where she can find a passageway to the Underworld.[15] Upon arriving, Psyche was surprised to find that Persephone willingly filled the box with her beauty. However, on her way back to give Aphrodite the box, curiosity once again overcame her and she opened it. Instead of finding a sample of beauty, she found a cloud of darkness that put her in a deep sleep.[6]

The marriage of Psyche and Eros[edit]

By this point in the story, Eros had fully healed from his injury and took flight to find his love. When he found Psyche, he gently awoke her with an arrow and took the box to Aphrodite before going in search of Zeus to plead his case. The god of the sky agreed to help Eros and Psyche in exchange for Eros’ service the next time a beautiful maiden caught his eye and the deal was made. Zeus arranged an assembly, sending Hermes, the messenger god, to gather the gods together. At this assembly, Zeus warned Aphrodite not to ever bring harm to Psyche again before handing the girl the drink of the gods, ambrosia, which granted her immortality. Afterward, Psyche and Eros were married and a big celebration and feast commenced. From then on, Psyche and Eros had a child, Hedone, goddess of pleasure, and Psyche became known as the goddess of the soul.[6]


While the story of Cupid and Psyche, at first glance, seems to be about the connections between love, trials, and the soul, there are still many interpretations. According to the writer Fulgentius, the story could be looked at through a Christian lens in which Psyche is compared to Adam, because both had curiosities that lead them to be banished from paradise.[8] The Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio proposed that the marriage between Psyche and Cupid could be seen as the bond between the soul and God. Thomas Bullfinch wrote that the soul can be compared to a butterfly, in that the soul can be purified through trials and tribulations, just like a butterfly bursting from its cocoon. Other scholars believe it could be seen as an allegory for the soul’s journey for love, while some believe that just like butterflies, the human soul endures pain and change and can still have a happy ending.[6]

References in art and literature[edit]


  • "Love in Color" by Bolu Babalola is a collection of works that features a story about Psyche and Eros.
  • "Till We Have Faces" by C.S. Lewis is not focused on Psyche but instead her sister Orual, giving a different view point of Psyche in myth.
  • "Cupid: A Tale of Love and Desire" by Julius Lester is centered around Cupid in this romantic, light retelling.
  • "The Earthly Paradise" by William Morris is an 1868 poem retelling the story of Psyche and Cupid and other myths.
  • "Ode to Psyche" poem by John Keats in 1819 in which the narrator shares his plans to resurrect Psyche.

Paintings, sculptures, and engravings[edit]

Other references[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The following summary is condensed from the translation of Kenney (Cambridge University Press, 1990), and the revised translation of W. Adlington by S. Gaseless for the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press, 1915), with reference to the accompanying Latin text.
  2. ^ Oxford dictionary
  3. ^ Charles Garnier's Opéra: Architecture and Interior Decor, Gérard Fontaine, 2004, p. 132.
  4. ^ "CPAS Butterfly". Retrieved 2023-04-16.
  5. ^ "English-Latin translation :: soul :: Dictionary". Retrieved 2022-03-31.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "Psyche - Goddess of the Soul • Facts and Information on the God Psyche - Goddess of the Soul". Greek Gods & Goddesses. Retrieved 2023-03-20.
  7. ^ "episode_073_the_golden_ass". Retrieved 2023-04-16.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mark, Harrison W. "Psyche". World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2023-04-16.
  9. ^ a b "The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Golden Asse, by Lucius Apuleius". Retrieved 2022-03-31.
  10. ^ "Madeline Miller - Myths - Myth of the Week: Psyche and Eros". Retrieved 2023-04-16.
  11. ^ "Myth of Eros and Psyche - Greek Myths | Greeka". Greekacom. Retrieved 2023-04-16.
  12. ^ "EROS - Greek God of Love (Roman Cupid, Amor)". Retrieved 2023-04-16.
  13. ^ "Master of the Die | Plate 3: Psyche's two sisters are married to kings, with Psyche standing at left, accompanied by another king, from "The Story of Cupid and Psyche as told by Apuleius"". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 2023-04-16.
  14. ^ a b c "Madeline Miller - Myths - Myth of the Week: Psyche and Eros". Retrieved 2022-03-31.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Lary, Morris H. (2022-09-08). "Psyche: Greek Goddess of the Human Soul | History Cooperative". Retrieved 2023-04-16.
  16. ^ "Psyche in Greek Mythology". Greek Legends and Myths. Retrieved 2023-04-16.


  • Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass, translated from original Latin by Thomas Taylor, London, 1822. Read online at Internet Archive
  • Mark, Harrison W. "Psyche". World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2023-03-03
    • This article contains excerpts from Metamorphoses
  • "Psyche-Goddess of the Soul • Facts and Information on the God Psyche - Goddess of the Soul". Greek Gods & Goddesses. Retrieved 2023-03-03.
    • More information on Psyche's trials.
  • Lary, Morris H. (2022-09-08). "Psyche: Greek Goddess of the Human Soul | History Cooperative". Retrieved 2023-03-03.
    • The cultural influence of Psyche's story.

Further reading[edit]