Psyche, The Goddess of Feminine Spiritual Growth
by Karin Bolstad 2016
Every Goddess, Saint or Heroine has an energy or special message that connects to something within; and just for, US. I refer to this as an "activating force": which is what energies does a Goddess, Heroine, or Saint have for awakening the dormant or blossoming mirror energies within ourselves. We then can use these forces both for personal growth, as well as to make the world a better place! I read in a book once the our purpose in our lives is to "make heaven on Earth" - rather than focusing on how to GET to heaven. Use the Archetypal "activating force" of the Greek Goddess Psyche for FEMININE SPIRITUAL and PSYCHOLOGICAL GROWTH and TRANSFORMATION from innocent young woman to mature Goddess.
Psyche is a strong Icon for:
The Greek Myth of Psyche and Eros was first written down in 160 AD in "The Golden Ass" by Roman Lucius Apuleius. Variations on the Psyche myth are easily recognizable in (three of my very favorite fairy tales!) "Beauty and the Beast", "The White Bear" and "East of the Sun, West of the Moon". The myth also has similarities to the story of the Egyptian Goddess Isis and the resurrection of Osiris.
The Greek name "Psyche" means "breath of life", "soul" or "spirit". It is represented by the image of the butterfly, hence Psyche is often depicted in art with butterfly wings (see the Blue Morpho butterfly wings I added to the piece? The name morpho, meaning "Change", is also an epithet of Aphrodite - who plays a large role in the myth of Psyche). In Greek, Psyche is spelled "ψυχή". The Latin translation is "Anima", and this term was also used by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung to describe the archetype of the inner feminine personality within a man.
So let's get to the FUN part, the STORY!
The Myth of Psyche and Eros
"Psyche was the third of three daughters to a King and a Queen. She was so lovely that people would travel from miles around to worship her beauty, and consequently the shrines of Goddess Aphrodite were neglected (much to her chagrin). In a fit of pique, Aphrodite sent her son Eros to exact her revenge: he was to cause Psyche to fall in love with the most wretched man he could find. Instead, Eros accidently pricked himself with his own love arrow while gazing apon Psyche, and was smitten.
Aphrodite wasn't the only one concerned about Psyche's power over men: Psyche was miserable, and the King himself was worried about this burgeoning cult, and sought advice from the Oracle of Delphi. Unfortunately the Oracle fortold that she was to marry a serpent, and once you ask the Oracle a question you must accept that fate. So, the bereft King took his daughter to the top of a mountain to await her new husband- and consequently, Death. Instead, Zephyr the West Wind came and took her to a beautiful meadow, where she fell asleep.
When she awoke, she found herself at the doors of a palace, which a voice proclaimed was hers to enjoy. That would be Eros, who did not want Psyche to recognize him, because he was embarrassed that he failed his mother so spectacularily. So Eros came to Psyche only in the night, under the cover of darkness, and soon Psyche was pregnant.
Though Psyche was relatively happy, she missed her family. She asked to see her sisters. Eros was not thrilled with this idea, but allowed it only asking she not tell them about him. The sisters, apon seeing how rich she now was, were jealous: and reminded Psyche that the Oracel of Delphi said she was to marry a serpent. They encouraged her to take a lamp and a knife with her that night to see if her husband was in fact a monster, and if so to kill him.
NOPE. Not a monster, just a pissed off Eros with a lantern oil burn, who then left, blaming Psyche for being too curious and ruining the great thing they had going. Off he went to Mama Aphrodite, to confess and lick his wounds. Psyche was left, heartbroken.
Psyche wanted to give up, even attempted to commit suicide by throwing herself in a river - but was saved by the God Pan, who told her to not give up but to go after Eros. Psyche eventually managed to find her way (or is delivered) to Aphrodites' doorstep in order to try to make amends and woo back her man. Aphrodite thought this was an excellent opportunity to torture Psyche for usurping her worshippers and stealing her son. First she called her handmaidens, Anxiety and Grief, to spend quality time with her. After they had their way, Aphrodite tasked Psyche with four challenges to prove herself worthy of Eros.
The first was to sort a room full of a variety of grain. Psyche wept in despair, but luckily for her an Ant took pity and he and his friends sorted all the grain for her.
The second was to gather fleece from a herd of Golden Rams, which were large strong and dangerous. Again, Psyche wanted to give up and throw herself in a nearby river, but a whispering river reed at the edge of the river gave her instructions on how to proceed. It told her to not attempt to retrieve the fleece directly, but to wait until evening and gather it from the blackthorn trees where it had snagged.
The third was to fetch water with a crystal flask from a waterfall guarded by monsters, that was fed by the River Styx . AGAIN, Psyche contemplated throwing herself in the river. But an eagle sent from none other than Zeus came to her aid, and gathered the water for her.
The fourth was to fetch a magical beauty ointment from Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld. Psyche went straight for the edge of a tower, to throw herself off, figuring that was a way to end these tasks and/or get to the underworld, win-win. The tower itself suggested this was not the best plan, and gave her both directions to the underworld and specific instructions on what to do in order to fetch the ointment. Psyche followed the plan perfectly: except when she emerged from the Underworld she pulled a Pandora and opened the box, wanting to be pretty for her man when they were reunited. Instead of beauty magic, it was super deep sleep magic, and she fell where she stood.
At this point, Eros was tired of his mother, healed from his lantern wound, and missing Psyche. He came to her side, wiped the sleep from her eyes, and took her to Zeus. He asked help in order to officially marry Psyche. Zeus gave her ambrosia, which made her into a Goddess, and they wed. Oh, and they had that baby she had been carrying around, and named her Hedore (Pleasure/Joy)."
So, what in the heck does that mean?
or....The Interpretation of the Myth of Psyche and Eros
Two very important symbols within the beginning of this myth are the lantern and the knife, seen in the central image of Psyche in the artwork. Psyche is placed into a situation where she can continue in an unconscious relationship/situation (with a lover that she cannot see), or take a risk to move forward. The lantern provides the illumination to see her situation clearly. She cannot take conscious actions if she cannot see. The knife is the tool she needs in order to "cut through" the situation, draw a boundary, discriminate, or even "cut off" the relationship. This is the reason she is holding these two tools in the Icon: when we are in a situation that needs changing or ending, we need the light of the lantern and the discrimination of the knife.
The aids and the challenges that Aphrodite tasks with Psyche are teaching symbols for anyone going through a time of transformation or process of growth. In the first task with the grain that needs to be sorted, the seeds themselves are symbols for all of her possibilites: and by sorting them, she is taking stock of her current situation, and putting things in order. The Ant symbolizes instinctual knowledge, determination and team work.... working with a group, asking for help, and taking one step and one "seed" at a time. The ant and the seeds are pictured in the top right corner and down the side of the Icon Illustration.
The second task of gathering the fleece deals with confrontation and timing and masculine power versus feminine power. The rams are competitive, large and strong animals that if Psyche attempted to gather their fleece in the light of day, facing them head on, would have failed the task. She could not compete with the strong fierce rams on their terms (masculine power), on their turf. Sometimes challenges we face cannot be taken head on; we need to have patience to recognize when our energy is going to be most effective and productive. In this case she waited until evening, representing a more "intuitive" time, and did not even gather the fleece directly from the rams. She received this wisdom from a green reed: a plant that roots within the water (unconscious) and yet is visible in the air (consciousness) - the reed is also a communicator (used to make pipes) - hence, Psyche is communicating directly with her unconscious, intuitive self. You can view the reeds and ram at the bottom right of the Icon Illustration.
The third task involves gathering the poisonous water from the waterfall of the River Styx with a crystal flask. The River Styx (Greek meaning "hate" and "detestation") was a river in Greek mythology which formed the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. The River is surrounded by monsters and slippery, deadly slopes. The river, as it cycles over the waterfall and down to the Underworld and back up, is a symbol of the energy of life/death, creativity/destruction, and consciousness/unconsciousness. The crystal goblet Psyche must wield in order to gather some of this primordial liquid is a symbol for her own fragile and transparent ego: the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity. When attempting to tap into the forces of creativity, it is too dangerous to get too close or to take it all in. Think of artists who go insane when they spend too much time in their inner world without being grounded in reality. So Psyche, with the aid of the eagle, an animal with a perceptive, keen eye, courage, and an overall view of the situation, narrows in on the goal (one flask of water from the dangerous river) and takes only what she needs. The image of the eagle and the flask are on the bottom left corner of the Icon Illustration.
In the fourth task, it is the tower that comes to her aid. The tower is a symbol for civilization, or the cultural legacy of civilization. Psyche is given instructions based on the wisdom of history, and it is very detailed and comprehensive. She must follow a map to the entrance, and follow very specific rules while within the realm of the Underworld and also in order to get back out. These rules involve what gifts to give and to stay focused on her task and not come to anyone else's aid. This is very important when doing the hard work of becoming self-actualized or changing one's circumstance in a profound way: we must not allow our energy to be dispersed by the needs of others. This does not mean being selfish; rather understanding we have nothing to give if we ourselves do not do the work for ourselves that we need to. Within this final challenge is also the importance of the very destination she goes: the Underworld. Here is our dark night of the soul - the dark night being the realm of the Underworld, and Psyche is the soul. This is the period of our growth where part of us must die in order for the new self to be born. This is also the moment where we may want to give up, and often we must ask for help. Psyche received aid from the wisdom of civilization (the tower) - to me, this symbolizes that part of the human experience is to die and be reborn, and not new to just one individual: so to reference the stories and myths from our history or family story is to gather wisdom to move forward. The image of the tower is on the top left of the Icon Illustration.
Psyche achieves the goal and yet, upon exiting the Underworld, she opens the box that is not meant for her, and falls "unconscious". What does this mean - when she has faced all these challenges to become "conscious" and awaken to ther true self, she still makes a choice that appears to put her back to square one? In my opinion the paths to growth are non-linear, and in fact, never ending. When we reach one level of understanding, it is only one step in a long spiral staircase. Perhaps towards the end of a process it is natural to self sabotage, to fall back into old habits, to want to go back to sleep. Perhaps after going through the first three tasks, the caterpillar self must go into chrysalis form in order to process her lessons, and be reborn. She is awakened by Eros: Love. Love wakes her from her unconscious state. Our soul is awakened by love, and love cannot exist without our soul. And this is the core message of the myth of Psyche and Eros, and the development of our Feminine Spirit/Self.
Psyche Article by Carlos Parada, Greek Mythology Link
Transitions as Liminal and Archetypal Situation, from a lecture by Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D.
She: Understanding Feminine Psychology by Robert Johnson. Harper Perennial, Revised 1989.
Love and the Soul: Psychological Interpretations of the Eros & Psyche Myth by James Gollnick. Wilfrid Laurier Univ Press 1992.
Psyche's Yearning by Gillian Ross. Trafford Publishing 2010.