Saturday, September 1, 2012

Cupid and Psyche: Envy

Cupid and Psyche is known in the world of fairy tales as being the earliest known literary predecessor of Beauty and the Beast; however, it has one main theme in common with Snow White which is not often talked about: that of the older woman's envy of the younger woman's beauty.

That could be because tales related to Cupid and Psyche didn't evolve into tales involving sleeping women, as far as I know, but it is jealousy that starts all of the conflict in Cupid and Psyche.

Psyche is so beautiful that people refer to her as the second Venus, causing Venus to become jealous and order her son Cupid to cause her to fall in love with "the poorest, ugliest, and vilest creature alive." An oracle prophesies that she must be left on a mountain for "a winged snake, a monster so fierce that even the gods are afraid of him."

Domenico Corvi
Fortunately for our heroine, Cupid falls in love with her and takes her to be his bride, although as far as the reader knows, she may be married to the snake monster because her husband only comes to her at night, in the dark, and forbids her to ever try and look at him.

But just when things seem to be going well for Psyche-she loves her husband, has all her needs met during the day-her sisters come to visit, and out of their envy (although this time of her situation more than her beauty, but we can pretty much assume her beauty had to do with Cupid's falling in love with her) they decide to pressure her to look on her forbidden husband, inciting his anger. This she does, and because of that Cupid leaves and she is left to suffer and accomplish impossible tasks for Venus. She does this through the help of sympathetic creatures and eventually gets her happy ending.
John William Waterhouse
But the two main sources of conflict were started because of the envy of other women. At one point, as she goes to what she believes is her death by the monstrous husband, she laments, "Now you see the reward for my unusual beauty. Now you see the damage caused by envy. When people honored my beauty and called me the new Venus, you should have cried. Now I see that people have dishonored Venus and that the goddess is behind my suffering." This almost makes it seem like the envy of a beautiful woman is normal, to be expected, and those who are jealous aren't even blamed (the sisters later suffer death, but Venus suffers no more than having to watch Cupid and Psyche live happily ever after). Reminds me of Samantha Brick and her claim that "no one is more reviled than a pretty woman."

And while I don't agree with that statement, it is true that extremely beautiful women have a unique set of issues (not that I claim to know this from experience. I mean I have good self esteem overall but I'm under no delusions). Men might go after them, but only for their looks, and other women do tend to be jealous. Beautiful women also tend to get stereotyped as being less intelligent and more shallow.

Edward Burne-Jones
"Cupid Delivering Psyche"
But, although it was envy that brought on Psyche's suffering, in the end, if it weren't for Venus' jealousy, she never would have met Cupid. I feel like I've read versions where if she had just been patient she would have been allowed to see her husband anyway, but according to Jerry Griswold's translation, there was no such promise, so her giving in to the temptation of seeing Cupid actually brought them to a place where they did not have to hide from Venus, and Psyche was made immortal so the marriage could be legitimate. When we today tend to read this myth I think we get lost in the whole "woman chided for curiosity" issue that bothers us so much but maybe we miss the point: that our trials in life, though they suck at the time, may end up giving us hope for a better future.


  1. Actually, Psyche was sent by Venus/Aphrodite to fetch a box of beauty from Persephone/Proserpina, she goes and curious, opens the box that Persephone gives her and finds sleep instead of beauty. She falls asleep and is awoken by Cupid when he finds her and wipes the sleep from her eyes. Not quite true love's kiss or the curse of an apple but a sleeping beauty nonetheless.
    Interesting parallels to draw.

    1. It is not her curiosity that gets Psyche to open the box from Persephone but a little bit of vanity. Lets face it, we are guilty of that at one point of another. She sees her reflection; is horrified that she looks less than her best, and because she wants to look beautiful for Cupid, she opens the box and falls into a deep sleep. Cupid finds her and wipes the sleep from her eyes.