T HE fact was, that Jupiter himself had fallen in love with the beautiful new goddess. But she would have nothing to say to him: and so, just out of anger and revenge, he ordered her to marry Vulcan, because he was ugly, deformed, and always black with working at his forges.
Altogether it was an unlucky day when Venus came into the sky. Her beauty turned the heads of the gods, and filled the goddesses with envy and jealousy. But all that mattered nothing to her, for she had a magic zone, or girdle, called "Cestus" in Latin: and whenever she put it on she became so irresistibly charming that everybody forgave her everything. Not only the gods, but men also, became her lovers, her own favorite among them all being Mars, the god of War—a cruel and savage god, very unlike the rest, delighting in battle and slaughter. Then, on earth, she tried her best to make a very handsome young prince named Adōnis fall in love with her. But he—strange to say—cared nothing for her. The only thing he cared for in the world was hunting: he scorned everything else, Venus included. Still, in spite of his scorn for her, she mourned for him miserably when he was killed by a wild boar. She changed him into the flower called Anemone, so that she might still find him upon earth: though some people say her grief was such that Death took pity on her, and allowed him to come to life again for six months at a time every year. This might mean that Adōnis is only another name for the beauty of the earth, which comes to life for the six months of spring and summer, and dies for the six months of autumn and winter. For most of these stories have some sort of meaning.
Venus had a child, named Cupid, which means love. You must often have seen pictures and statues of him—a very beautiful boy, with wings, carrying a bow and arrows. They were magic arrows. For if any man was pricked by one of their points, he fell in love with the first woman he saw: or a woman, in like manner, with the first man. And as Cupid was exceedingly mischievous, and fond of aiming his arrows at people for his own amusement, the wrong women were always falling in love with the wrong men, and the wrong men with the wrong women: and so a great deal of fresh trouble came into the world, as if there had not been enough before, without the mischievous tricks of Cupid. Sometimes he went about blindfolded, shooting his arrows about at random: and then, of course, the confusion was worse than ever. It has been said that the bandage over his eyes means that love is blind to faults. But he does not always wear the bandage: and when he does, I believe it is only when he does not choose to see.
Now in a certain city there lived a king and queen, who had three beautiful daughters. The name of the youngest was Psyche, and she was the most beautiful of all. So beautiful and so charming was she that the people worshiped her as a goddess, instead of Venus. This made Venus very angry indeed, that a mortal girl should receive the honor and worship due to the goddess of Beauty. So, in her jealous wrath, she said to Cupid:—
"Do you see that girl yonder? I order you, as your mother, to make her fall in love with the very meanest of mankind—one so degraded that he cannot find his equal in wretchedness throughout the whole wide world."
Psyche's elder sisters were both married to kings; but she herself was so marvelously beautiful that no mere mortal dared to ask for her in marriage. This distressed the king, her father, greatly: for it was thought dishonorable for a princess not to marry. So he consulted the oracle of Apollo—an "oracle" being a place where a god's voice answered questions. And the voice answered him thus:—
"On a cliff the maiden place:
Deck her as you deck the dead
None that is of mortal race
Shall so fair a maiden wed.
But a being dread and dire,
Feared by earth, by heaven abhorred,
Breathing venom, sword, and fire—
He shall be the lady's lord."
This answer made the king more unhappy than ever at the thought of having to give his favorite daughter to be devoured by some terrible monster. However, the oracle had to be obeyed, and the whole city gave itself up to mourning for many days. Then at last a funeral procession set out to conduct the poor princess to her doom. Her father and mother were distracted with grief, and Psyche alone showed cheerfulness and courage, doing all she could to comfort them, and to make them resigned to the will of heaven.
When the procession reached the highest peak of a neighboring mountain, it returned to the city, and Psyche was left there all alone. There her courage left her, and she threw herself upon the rock all trembling and weeping. But suddenly, in the midst of her distress, she was gently lifted up by the wind, and as gently let down upon the soft turf of a secret valley in the very heart of the hill.
It was a very delightful place, and Psyche fell pleasantly asleep. When she woke she saw a grove, with a fountain of water as clear as crystal, and near the fountain was a splendid palace, built of gold, cedar, and ivory, and paved with precious stones. Psyche approached it timidly, and presently found courage to enter. The beauty of the chambers lured her on and on, until at last she was fairly bewildered with admiration. All the wealth and beauty of the world seemed collected in this wonderful palace, and all without a lock or a chain to guard them.
Suddenly, in the midst of her wonder, she heard a musical voice, saying:—
"Lady, wonder not nor fear;
All is thine thou findest here.
On yon couch let slumber bless thee,
hands unseen shall bathe and dress thee,
Bring thee meat and pour thee wine—
Thine are we, and all is thine."
She looked round, but saw nobody. However, she saw the couch, and, being very tired with wandering about the palace and seeing so many wonders, lay down upon it and soon fell asleep. When quite rested, she rose and took a bath, being waited upon by invisible hands. Then she saw dishes of all sorts of dainties, and cups of wine, carried apparently without hands to a table, at which, being by this time exceedingly hungry, she sat down and made a delicious meal, attended by voices for servants. When she had finished eating, another voice sang to an invisible harp, and this performance was followed by a full chorus of such music as is only heard in heaven. And so at last the darkness of night came on.
Then she heard a voice, different from all the rest, whisper close in her ear:—
"I am your husband, Psyche, of whom the oracle foretold. This my palace, with all its delight, is yours, and I shall make you very happy. But you must obey me in two things. You must never see your father or your mother or your sisters again, and you must never seek to see me at all. If you promise this, I swear to you that no harm shall befall your kindred, and that you shall be happy forever."
The whisper was strangely sweet and gentle for a terrible monster's. Indeed, it was so loving and so tender that she forgot even to tremble. It went to her heart, and she could only whisper back:—
"I promise you."
Thenceforth Psyche lived in the palace, every day bringing her fresh surprises and pleasures, the voices keeping her company, and delighting her with their marvelous music. And as soon as it became too dark for her to see him, the lord of the palace, her husband, came to her and stayed with her till nearly daybreak, until at last she forgot everything except how good he was to her, and how much she had learned to love him. It did not even trouble her that she had never seen him, for she thought of nothing but pleasing him and obeying his commands.
But one day Psyche's sisters, having heard of her fate, and having come all the way from their husbands' kingdoms to learn all about it, climbed together to the top of the mountain-peak to see if they could find any traces of her. Finding none, they wept and beat their breasts till the rocks resounded with their cries. Nay, their lamentations reached the palace itself; and Psyche, who loved her sisters, ran, forgetful of her promise, to the foot of the mountain, whence she saw them above mourning for her in an agony of woe.
The sight of their grief was too much for Psyche: it seemed so cruel that her sisters should mourn for her as dead while all the while she was alive and happy. Surely the husband who loved her so much did not mean the promise to prevent her from putting their hearts at ease. So she gave a command, and forthwith the invisible hands lifted her sisters, and carried them down safely into the secret valley.
Imagine their surprise! But imagine it still more when their lost sister, after embracing them, led them into her palace, showed them her treasures, entertained them with invisible concerts, and feasted them sumptuously.
"And the lord, your husband," asked the eldest sister at last, "what manner of man may he be? And does he use you well and make you happy?"
The sudden question took Psyche aback. It seemed so strange to have to answer that she had never seen the face of her husband—that she no more knew what he was like than they. So, to avert their curiosity, she said:—
"He is an excellent husband and makes me very happy indeed—a handsome young man, who has not yet grown a beard: he spends his days in hunting among the mountains, or no doubt you would have seen him. . . . But it is time for us to part, my sisters, or it will be dark before you get home."
So, loading them with jewels and golden ornaments, she embraced them, and, calling the invisible hands, had them conveyed safely back to the top of the mountain.
Whether the sisters had been honest in their mourning for Psyche I cannot tell: though I think they made more noise about it than people make who really and truly grieve. Anyhow, they were now filled with envy of Psyche's wealth and happiness.
"To think of my being married to a bald, miserly old man," said the eldest sister on their way home, "while that minx has a handsome young husband who squanders untold wealth upon her! And how proud she has grown! Why, she spoke to us as if we were her slaves."
"And to think," said the second sister, "of my being married to a gouty cripple! You may take things patiently, sister, and put up with her airs: but not I. I propose that we hit on some plan to take down her pride."
So they hid the presents that Psyche had given them, redoubled their cries and groans, told their father and mother that Psyche had certainly been devoured, and returned to their own kingdoms for a while. But only for a while. Having arranged a plan, they returned to the top of the mountain: and in such a hurry were they to revisit Psyche that they leapt into the valley and would have come down with broken necks had not a passing breeze, who recognized them as Psyche's sisters, caught them and made their fall easy. Psyche could not help being glad to see them again, for she loved them very dearly, and, in spite of her happiness, hungered for news from home.
After she had entertained them as before:—
"By the way," asked the eldest sister, "the lord, your husband—what manner of man is he? You told us; but I have forgotten."
And so had poor Psyche forgotten what she had told them. So she said, this time:—
"He is a middle-aged man, with a big beard, and a few gray hairs sprinkled here and there. He is a merchant, and travels into distant countries, or no doubt he would have been here to give you welcome."
"Oh, you poor innocent!" said the sister. "As if he could be young and middle-aged, bearded and beardless, a merchant and a hunter! It's plain you've never seen that husband of yours, and no wonder he wouldn't let you. For we have—we, who spend our lives in watching over your interests," she went on, squeezing out a hypocritical tear. "Your husband is an enormous dragon, with many folds and coils, a neck swollen with poison, and huge gaping jaws. Think of the oracle, you poor, dear, deluded girl. He is only feeding you up with delicacies in order to eat you. Well—if you like the prospect, we have done our duty. And when you are eaten up, you won't be able to say we didn't tell you so."
Psyche was aghast with dismay. She trusted her sisters: there was the oracle: and it was certainly mysterious that her husband had never allowed her to look upon him.
"Oh! what shall I do?" she cried.
"Do? Why, there's only one thing to do. We have thought it all out for you. Here is a lamp. Light it and hide it under a piece of tapestry. When the monster sleeps, uncover the lamp, and throw the light full upon him. Then take this knife, which has been well sharpened, and sever his head from his body. Thus the world will be freed from a curse, and you will be saved."
Thereupon they left her. And how shall Psyche's feelings be described? Was it possible she was the wife of a horrible dragon? Promise or no promise, that she must know. So she hid the lighted lamp, as directed. The night came and her husband with it. When he had fallen into a deep sleep, Psyche, with naked feet, crept noiselessly across the floor, drew off the tapestry, and flooded the room with light, and she saw—
A dragon? No—Cupid himself, asleep in all his beauty, with folded wings, and his bow and arrows by his side.
She hung over him in love and wonder. Alas! a drop of oil from the lamp fell upon him, and scalded his shoulder. He woke, cast a look of reproach and sorrow upon poor faithless Psyche, seized his bow and arrows, spread his wings, and flew. She, overwhelmed with penitence for her disobedience and distrust, and desperate at the thought of losing him, clung with both hands to one of his feet, and was thus carried through the window and far away through the night till her strength failed her and she fell fainting to the ground.
When she came to her senses, she found herself on the bank of a river, and, in her despair, threw herself into the stream. But the river took pity on her, and carried her into a bed of reeds, to whom the god Pan was giving a music-lesson. Pan told her how foolish she was to think she could mend matters by killing herself, and advised patience, which was none the worse counsel for being easy to preach and difficult to follow. However, he was very kind, so she thanked him, and wandered out into the world, hoping that she might meet Cupid some day, and beg him to forgive her.