Cupid, Psyche and Iron Opanci

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, 1787-1793.
Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, 1787-1793.

After being accused of excessive theatricality, instead of the previously announced themes of Christ’s passion (which I find so dear), I decided to opt for more cheerful themes of sex and love. Unfortunately, it won’t save you from my penchant for schmaltziness, and my writing will include parting as an inseparable component of every great love story. If you disagree with me, I will label you as an incurable romantic and refer to the authorities of William Shakespeare, Jane Austin, the Brontе sisters, Tolstoy, James Cameron and one of the most influential, and to the wider public rather unknown, wordsmith of all times: Apuleius.  Here, I will review the story of Cupid and Psyche, ingeniously incorporated into the Apuleius’s work Metamorphosis, a hellenistic and neoplatonic novel composed in II century CE. About the author himself and his work, I have written a lengthy text, judged by my dearest critic as “tedious and too detailed”; however, those who still might be interested will find it here.

The story known from the IV century B.C., speaks of love between a god and a mortal, curiosity that separated them, the mortal’s experiences and sufferings after the separation, finally to be concluded with their re-uniting.  It is very amusing, so here is the resume.

Cupid, Psyche and Iron Opanci

In the Apuleius’s version, Psyche was the youngest daughter of a king and a queen, whose beauty could not be glorified enough in human language. Words about her beauty spread, and people came from faraway lands to offer her gifts, leaving Venus’s shrines empty. This enraged the goddess of love and beauty so much, that she sent her son Cupid to avenge her, by making the beautiful mortal fall in love with the worst and most miserable man of all, whom Destiny deprived of honour, property and health. In the meantime, poor Psyche waited for her wooers in vain, as no one dared ask for her hand.  Her father decided to consult the famous oracle at Miletus, which told him to prepare her to be wedded to death and leave her to the loathsome wild winged monster, which never spared anyone, at whose sight Jupiter trembles, and even gods are afraid of. The father did as he was told, and Psyche was left alone and in tears on the top of the rock. Soon, the gentle Zephyr’s breath carried her above the abysses to a royal palace garden. There, she would spent her nights visited by her invisible husband who would “hastily leave before the sunrise” and made her promise him she would never ask to see his face (evidently, the concept of marriage hasn’t changed since antiquity). Soon after, Psyche got pregnant. Having heard that her family grieve and miss her dearly, Psyche asked to be allowed to see her sisters. What followed only proved that one’s family’s interference in marriage is a recipe for catastrophe: Sisters saw the luxury in which Psyche lived and stricken with jealousy began to ask questions about her husband. When they realized she had never seen his face, they tricked her into believing that he was a hideous serpent and reminded her of Pythia’s prophesy about the monstrous husband. Driven with fear, Psyche decided to break the promise she gave to her husband: after the “love battle” she would bring the lamp closer to his face and take a look. Instead of a wild animal, she saw the prettiest and cutest being ever the Cupid himself. This made Psyche so happy, that she started, out of curiosity, to touch his bow and darts, and accidentally, pricked her finger with the tip of the arrow, and fell in love with the Amores himself. In the fervor of love, she began kissing him, passionately and voluptuously. Suddenly, the oil from the lamp dropped on his shoulder, waking him up to realization that Psyche broke her promise. The fate of many a woman befell Psyche, too: her lover flew away through the window.  This is when Psyche’s journies began, while Cupid, as a typical man, went straight to his mom’s, and sighed in her chambers. Psyche begged Ceres and Juno for help, but the goddesses were too scared of Venus’s wrath. Realizing that no one would help her, she went straight to her mother-in-law, who ordered her maidens Sadness and Sorrow to whip and torture her (any resemblance to actual persons or events is not accidental). Then Venus gave Psyche four tasks: to sort out various seeds, which she did with the help of ants; to take the golden fleece from wild sheep, which she did with the help of a green reed; to fetch some water from a hill protected by dragons, which she did with the help of Jupiter’s eagle. The final task was to bring a morsel of Proserpina’s beauty. Instructions for this feat venture were given to her by the tower she had previously planned to jump from. Following them, she managed to take the box with Proserpina’s beauty, but failed in accomplishing the task (as the divine cosmetics are too great a challenge for any woman, whatsoever): she herself opened the box, finding in it only an infernal and deadly sleep. Cupid, who could no longer bear to be away from his sweetheart, woke her up. The lovers are in the end saved by Jupiter, who endows Psyche with immortality and takes her to Olympus where they are wedded. Shortly after, Psyche gave birth to their daughter Pleasure.

The story survived through the middle ages, because of the early Christian interpretation that saw it as a soul’s journey of many earthly sufferings to the divine award. Interesting interpretation occurs at the end of V century, when Latin writer Fulgencio in his mythography sees Psyche as a daughter of god and matter and compares her to Adam, who was also expelled due to his curiosity, whereas her two sisters are defined as body and free will. Christian interpretation saved the story from fate of many classical works that fell into oblivion, so it can be found on Christian sarcophagi, and as a feature on fresco decoration in catacombs. Renaissance brings the theme back to arts. The first known illustration is found on a treasure chest made in 1444 for the wedding of Pierre de Medici.  The Renaissance rapresentations of the theme are abundant: I will mention only 12 lost Giorgione’s canvases dedicated to Psyche’s wanderings, Raphael’s two frescos in Villa Farnese that depict Psyche’s introduction to Olympus, and the series of 23 scenes painted by Raphael’s pupil Giulio Romano in Palazzo del Te. When it comes to motifs of Cupid and Psyche in visual arts, first work that usually comes to mind is that of Antonio Canova, displayed in the Louvre: the neoclassic sculpture presents the moment of lovers’ reunion, when Cupid wakes up his dear from the infernal sleep.

It is interesting how we can trace the motifs of the story in oral traditions of many European peoples; even Disney did his screen adaptation in 1991 (it is Beauty and the Beast, if you haven’t figured it out yet). Vuk Stefanović Karadžić recorded two versions of the story, which were published in 1853 in Vienna, as part of the publication Serbian Folk Tales. In both versions, the story begins with an old lady, who implores God to make her pregnant, even if she carried a snake in her belly. God answers her prayers, the snake eventually grows up, it gets married and his wife also gets pregnant. In both versions, the daughter-in-law, just like Psyche, breaks the promise by discovering that her unnatural husband takes off his skin by night and takes up the form of a beautiful man. In both versions the mother- and daughter-in law plot to keep him in his manly shape by burning the slough, and while in the first version the women succeed and they all live happily ever after, in the second one the husband gets enraged and reprimands the woman; he tells her he will leave, and that she will go on looking for him until she tears the opanci made of iron (peasant shoes in Serbia) and breaks an iron stick as she does so, and that she will deliver no child until he lays a hand on her belly again. Poor Serbian Psyche carried the child for three years before she embarked on the search for her husband, and when she finally found him, he was already wallowing in bigamy. In spite of that, the story has a happy ending, as the woman bribes the new wife so she lets her lie with their husband; he then lays his hand on her pregnant belly and eventually goes back to her first wife, as nothing had happened – happy ending the Serbian way. Vuk’s works are indeed the greatest of Serbian classics.  

Possibly the most interesting contemporary view of Cupid and Psyche is offered by Alberto Savinio Italian writer, painter, musician, scenographer, dramaturgist and Giorgio de Chirico’s brother in his story Our Soul. Savinio places Psyche as an object in a Greek museum of wax figures, where she is found by the protagonists: a soldier and his lover, local doctor and the museum’s director. Savinio adds Psyche’s “sad realities” to the depiction of Psyche, shortly after giving a detailed explanation on why a shoe is the mirror of the soul (I paraphrase: Beware of too polished shoes; They are the sign of selfishness, cruelty, desire to exploit those who are weaker, especially women). Psyche has a pelican’s beak, and that is not by accident. In his novel La famiglia Mastinu (1948) Savinio says that Egyptians, who are far more sensitive about the secretive part of their beings, made difference between ka, as in doubleness (equivalent to Persian fravaši and Nordic fylgji), and khu, as in soul in the bird’s shape. Psyche’s sisters are described with duck’s and ostrich’s beaks, with remark that they were not ugly, but also not as beautiful as Apuleius described them. In Savinio’s version, Cupid asks for Psyche’s hand by a letter in which he informs her parents that he, the most powerful man in the Universe, the root of all life and master of all people, wants to make their daughter his wife, given that the agreement securing his invisibility and anonymity is respected. Intercourse with her invisible husband Psyche describes as a successful operation, perceiving her husband as a surgeon.  The culmination of the story is when Psyche is supposed to reveal the appearance of her invisible husband: her narration is interrupted by a listener reiterating the Apuleius’s description of sleeping Cupid, to what Psyche exclaims: Lies! Propaganda!, and depicts her revelation as the ugliest, stupidest, most bestial and ludicrous creature the world has ever seen, a phallic being with wings… who eventually leaves her a true modern marriage romance. Savinio in his story deals with a detailed demythologization and demystification of Psyche, in line with his and our time.  

I still find Vuk’s version with iron opanci my personal favourite. 

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, 1787-1793.

Alberto Savinio, “Psyche” and “Cupid”, lithography, 1944.

List of consulted literature:

Alberto Savinio, La nostra anima/ Il signor Münster, Adelphi edizioni, Milano, 1981.

Apuleio, Le Metamorfosi o L’Asino d’oro, a cura di Alessandro Fo, Einaudi,Torino, 2015.

Claudio Moreschini, Il mito di Amore e Psiche in Apuleio, M. D’Auria Editore, 1999.

Leonard Barkan- The Beholders tale: Ancient sculpture, Renaissance narratives, Representations vol. 44, jesen 1993., str. 133-166.

Luisa Vertova, Cupid and Psyche in Ranaissance painting before Raphael, u Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 42, 1979.

Frederick Hartt- Gonzaga symbols in the Palazzo del Te, u Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 13, 3-4, 1950.

Vuk Stefanović Karadzić, Srpske narodne pripovetke, priredio M. Maticki, Laguna,Beograd, 2017. 

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