Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Exploring the Myth and Imagery of Psykhe (Psyche)

When studying Greek mythology, it is very important to know that, for the most park, Greek myths are not to be taken literally. They are not “word of God” literal accounts, but often are symbolic, or in some cases, not much more than entertainment. So if we are to study Psykhe’s myth, we should first consider her name, as psykhe is the Greek word for the soul. The word is also used in modern psychology to describe the totality of the human mind, the conscious and unconscious together.

But when we first see Psykhe in her myth, she is only known as an extremely beautiful woman. So beautiful, that people stopped worshiping Aphrodite (Venus), and began to worship Psykhe instead. But Psykhe was only a mortal woman, placed up on a pedestal, and while her sisters were finding love and marriage, the idolized Psykhe could not form such bonds with anyone.

Meanwhile, in the myth, Aphrodite is angry that people are neglecting her worship, and sends her son Eros (Cupid), the god of love and desire, to cause Psykhe to fall in love with an ugly man. However, Eros scratches himself with his own arrow, causing him to fall in love with Psykhe. Since Psykhe is unable to find love, her father consults the oracle of Apollon, who says that Psykhe will marry a horrible monster. Psykhe is dressed in funeral attire for her wedding, and goes to her fate – to meet the unknown, in both marriage and death.

She is swept up by the west wind and brought to a palace. Here she never sees her husband, despite joining with him in the bedroom many times. Psykhe’s sisters are soon allowed to visit her, and seeing the wonderful palace in which she lives, they become jealous and try to convince her to see and kill her husband, who is surely the horrible monster the oracle foresaw. Psykhe, at night, looks upon her husband, and sees none other than Eros. She is so startled by his beauty, she manages to prick herself on one of his arrows, and spills hot oil on Eros, who flies away.

Psykhe then begins to wander the earth, searching for her love. Her sisters, on the other hand, become even more jealous when finding out who Psykhe’s husband was, and both offer themselves to Eros, jumping off a cliff in hopes the west wind would carry them to the palace… but, both fall to their deaths.

In her wanderings, Psykhe first comes across a temple of Demeter (Ceres) that has fallen into disarray. Psykhe, in contrast to the beginning of the story, realizes that the proper worship of the gods should not be allowed to decay, and sets about cleaning the temple. Demeter, however, tells Psykhe that she cannot help her. Psykhe runs into the same problem while serving Hera (Juno), and she realizes that she must go to Aphrodite herself.

Psykhe is sent by Aphrodite to complete a number of seemingly impossible tasks, which she manages to do with the aid of nature and the gods. Aphrodite then sends Psykhe to the underworld to obtain some of Persephone’s (Proserpina’s) beauty. This is similar in symbolism to Psykhe’s earlier wedding, where she was dressed in funeral garb. She enters into the land of the dead, and by escaping, is reborn. Similar myths can be found in many cultures, including Inanna’s descent into the underworld to retrieve her own lost love.

Psykhe passes by many challenges in the underworld, meets with the Queen of the Dead herself, and is given a box to take to Aphrodite. it is not until she is back in the land of the living that she is overwhelmed by curiosity – she has to know what, exactly, it is that Persephone has given to Aphrodite, and if she can use it herself. Remember, this is a human woman who is already said to be more beautiful than Aphrodite. So of course, it doesn’t end well for Psykhe. All the box contains is sleep, and she falls into a complete torpor.

The myth ends with Eros finding Psykhe, and using his powers to wake her. Eros then asks Zeus (Jupiter) for help, and Zeus agrees – with the stipulation that Eros helps Zeus with love when asked to do so. Psykhe is made immortal, and she and Eros are finally given a true wedding, this time as equals.

The whole myth is symbolic of the fall and redemption of the human soul. It is a story of transformation, and this is why in art Psykhe is often shown accompanied by butterflies, or with butterfly wings, as butterflies are also a symbol of transformation.

Beyond that, there are perhaps also some parallels with the mythology of Krishna and Radha, where Radha is seen as the longing and love a human might feel toward the divine. But more than that, Psykhe’s tale is also one of the human soul’s longing for love and union – again, be it with the divine, with those around us, or even in finding completion in ourselves. It is not just a story of two lovers finding each other, but the story of the human soul struggling to become whole onto itself.

In the story, some might see Psykhe’s act of looking on Eros as a stupid mistake. Things were going good for her, why would she listen to her sisters? Well, beyond thinking she was in danger, this is also the true beginning of Psykhe’s transformation. If she had chosen to never do this, she would have stagnated, and never would have grown. It would be like a caterpillar staying in its cocoon, never transforming, never emerging as a butterfly.

Psykhe would have continued meeting with Eros only in the dark, and their union never would have come to conscious light, and Psykhe would not have found lasting happiness and true love. Instead, she shines the light on the unseen, and although at first it seems this was a mistake, in truth in each following task she becomes stronger.

She chooses to search for Eros, she wanders until she discovers the correct path. She meets with Aphrodite who forces her to sort seeds (sort out herself, in a sense), to gather fleece, which she does when she realizes that she should use wisdom over brute strength, and so on. It’s not easy, but the soul is transformed through hard work, not through sitting stagnant.

With each task Psykhe wants to give up, she feels she can’t do these things alone - but of course she doesn’t have to. She succeeds in her tasks with the aid of those around her. However, although she is given instructions on what to do in the underworld, who to avoid, and so on, when she descends into the underworld to meet with the Queen of the Dead, she does so alone, and in the same way, she ascends back into the light on her own. There are some places within us that only we can journey to. And likewise we must know and travel our subconscious, the dark places within and without. If we don’t travel these paths, embrace them, can we ever truly become whole?

And who, on a spiritual journey, has not faced a large setback? No matter how far we might come, it’s always a possibility. Psykhe, free from the underworld, so close to the end of her journey, opens the box. She returns back to sleep, to unseeing, unknowing, unconscious. It is love, desire, that brings her, once again, back to the light.

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