The Goddess Psyche – an archetypal story of the search for love and soul…

‘Psyche’ means ‘breath, soul, mind’; and the Goddess Psyche gives her name to psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, and psychic. Her myth is the feminine counterpart to the Labours of Hercules; and is a wisdom story about the awakening of consciousness. Her symbol is the butterfly, and she is sometimes depicted with butterfly wings.There is great depth in this apparently simple tale of the Ancient Greek Gods, and their dysfunctional family relationships. The story of Psyche is one of the stories in Apuleius’s ‘The Golden Ass’ written in 123 CE [1]. This is a collection of stories within the story, similar in construction to the Canterbury Tales. ‘Psyche’ is based on a much older myth, and it is one of the European root myths. We recognise it today in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and many psychotherapists have pointed out the parallels between the themes in Psyche, and the life and death of Princess Diana.

The Story of Psyche Apuleius starts the story of Psyche and Eros in the traditional way:

‘Once upon a time a king and queen had three very beautiful daughters, but much the most beautiful was the youngest, Psyche’ [2]

The story is long and detailed, and so this is, of necessity, a shortened version. Psyche had two older sisters, who were jealous of her beauty; despite the fact that they had each married kings. Indeed Psyche’s amazing beauty was such that it was hard to find her a suitor, and she faced the prospect of ‘a marriage with Death’, a sacrificial suicide. People had started to worship her, in preference to the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite (Roman name Venus).  This made Aphrodite jealous and angry; and Aphrodite determined to put a stop to the new rival. She sent her son Eros (Roman name Cupid) to humiliate Psyche by making her fall in love with someone ugly. Eros, however, fell in love with Psyche himself, and he wafted her away to his Palace in Paradise:

‘A breeze came and lifted her off the ground and carried her to a valley beneath where she found herself laid upon a bed of flowery grass. After sleeping for a while, she rose and walked beside a stream into the depths of the wood, and she came upon a palace so radiant with gold and gems and precious woods that she knew it was a god’s.’ [3]
This is similar territory to the Garden of Eden, or to Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom. Paradise is recognised as the realm of the gods, and humans can only live there while they maintain a state of blissful dreaminess. There are no challenges and every delightful wish is fulfilled without effort.
Curiosity and the Thirst for Consciousness, Psyche’s sisters came to visit her in Paradise. They were jealous, and urged her to ignore the rule that she was not to look at the face of her lover, or know his identity. When she discovered that he was Eros, her mother-in-law, Aphrodite, was able to evict her from Paradise, and Psyche was returned to Earth. Her innocence was lost, and curiosity and the thirst for consciousness took over. She was pregnant, and the clock was ticking. Her journey of self-discovery had begun.  In common with many wisdom journeys, there were Torments and Trials, and these challenges provided the structure for Psyche’s growth and ultimate triumph.

The Three Torments – Custom, Anxiety and Sadness Aphrodite sent her slaves named Custom, Anxiety and Sadness, to torment Psyche. Although not the most dramatic of torturers, Custom, Anxiety and Sadness are depressingly familiar and persistent. Sadness will torment anyone who lives in the past, sucking the life force out of the present, and taking the colour out of life. Custom dominates the present whenever there is opportunity, setting an external pattern to live by, which may not be in tune with the soul, so that the growth of individuality is distorted by rigidity. Anxiety casts a cloud over the future, spreading fear and repressing spontaneity. Psyche had to learn to live with zen-like clarity in the present; to value her own shape and destiny; and to live without fear. On her journey of self-discovery she had to forge her own identity, and honour her life-force, creativity, and the light of her Soul.  The Four Trials Aphrodite then set Psyche four trials. In each trial Psyche was asked to develop an aspect of her personality, and assert it in a feminine style. This distinguishes her story from those of the Greek heroes. In Psyche’s story there were no displays of physical strength, and no linear progression from start to finish. Her journey was circular, non-confrontational, and alchemical. She was pregnant, and would give birth to a daughter, and perhaps symbolically, to herself at the end of the trials.

Sorting Seeds
The first trial was to sort a heap of seeds before daybreak. Psyche’s reaction was not her former impetuosity, but to sit still and wait. Ants arrived to help her and the task was achieved. Ants are creatures of the Earth. Seed sorting is a boring, repetitive task, which can be approached as an intuitive exercise. Psyche was being asked to ground her intuition, and to ‘trust the ants’ – that process whereby the Universe offers help in unexpected ways when we are confronted by a seemingly impossible task. The ants represented a feminine rhythm, that the best work may be realised by small actions. Little by little great things are achieved, each cell change contributing its part to the cycle of life and transformation.

Golden Fleece
Psyche’s second trial was to collect some golden fleece. She was helped by water reeds, whispering advice to her. Rather than confront the aggressive rams, she was told to wait until the end of day and then collect the fleece from bushes and trees where the rams had passed. As water will find its own way downhill, flowing softly around obstacles, so Psyche used assertion, not aggression to complete this trial.

The Flask of Water
Her third trial was to collect a flask of water from a high and dangerous mountain. Her helper was an eagle, the element of Air, who offered to fill the flask for her. With high-flying eagle-eyed perspective, this trial could also be overcome. Psyche took the feminine approach of looking at the long term, seeing the wider design and was now able to think and consider the consequences before taking actions.

Beauty in the Underworld
Her final trial was to bring some of Persephone’s beauty cream back from the hell-fire of the underworld. Her helper here was a speaking tower, the most conscious and man-made of her supporters. She had learned intuition in the first trial; to assert herself in her own style in the second; and in the third she had learned to use the power of thought.  Now she was repeatedly challenged to make choices, and to say ‘no’ to any distractions, however emotive. The story has come full circle. Psyche’s inability to say ‘no’ to her sisters when they urged her to look at her lover, was the start of the journey. Psyche’s trials are a journey through earth, water, air and fire towards individuation.  

Union and reunion
After Psyche had finished her trials, she again lay on the ground to sleep. This was not the blissed-out dreamy sleep of the paradise garden, but a flat-out contact with the earth providing well-earned rest after exhausting labour. She had ceased to be nostalgic for the paradise garden and accepted her destiny. She had come down to earth, got her feet on the ground, and the first reunion is that of the soul with body, living together in conscious harmony. Psyche had achieved this by dialogue and co-operation with the natural world, and hence has earned its help. Without help from this kingdom she could never have passed the Trials. The second reunion is thus between humanity and nature. Eros found her sleeping, and awakened her. He asked for help from Jupiter (opportunity and expansion) and Mercury (communication). Psyche had earned their help by expanding her consciousness and communication on earth, giving her name to these endeavours. Her name means ‘soul’ and this is soul work. She had become fully incarnated, and only now was ready to become immortal. Eros became less flighty, and they married, now as equal, committed, immortals, able to look each other in the eye. The third reunion is of soul (Psyche) with love (Eros). Their child was called Hedone, meaning Pleasure, Joy, Ecstasy – a gentle name that celebrated Psyche’s attainment of consciousness. And, of course, they lived happily ever after.

The story of Psyche and Eros is not as well known as other myths, and indeed Psyche is less familiar to us than Eros. Her trials are not as dramatic as those of the Heroes, but they are equally relevant to us today. As individuals we have to face the challenge of how to leave the illusory paradise garden, and face the mundane nitty-gritty of life. We have to learn to live our own life, and not live through other people. We have to become who we were intended to be, in order to manifest our true self in the world. We all have to face the challenges of custom, anxiety and sadness. Together we also have to face the challenge of our relationships to each other, and how we communicate as equals. Many of us will recognise the characteristics of an alchemical process, where torments and trials lead to the expansion of consciousness and the expression of our soul’s purpose through our life. Individually and collectively we have to find a way to co-operate and work with nature, rather than challenging and overcoming the natural world.
Psyche triumphed by relating and listening to nature, and then responding and making choices. She learned to assert instead of confront; to say ‘no’ as well as ‘yes’, and to honour her Soul’s journey. Her name means ‘breath, soul, mind’; and her story is of the union of Soul with Love, that gives birth to Pleasure. Whether we are psychotherapists or psychics, or we simply appreciate the ‘once upon a time’ Cinderella, her story deserves our attention.

  1. Neumann, Eric, (1956) Amor & Psyche, New Jersey, Princeton
  2. University Press, Bollingen Series
  3. Grant, Michael, (1962) Myths of the Greeks and 
  4. Romans, London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, page 408
  5. Grant, M. (1962), Myths of the Greeks & Romans, London Weidenfeld & Nicholson, page 408
    Further reading:
    Apuleius (1950) The Golden Ass, Edinburgh, Penguin
    Von Franz, Marie-Louise (1980), An Interpretation of Apuleius’ Golden Ass, Dallas, Spring Publications
    Johnson, R, (1977), She, Understanding Feminine Psychology, New York, Perennial Library
    Bolen, J, (1984) Goddesses in Everywoman, USA, Harper Collins
    Shah, Idries, (1991) World Tales, Wiltshire, Redwood Press
    Bettelheim, B, (1991) The Uses of Enchantment, London Penguin
    Pullman, P, (2012) Grimm Tales, London, Penguin Classics
    Judith O’Hagan 2014