Botticelli’s Venus is inordinately beautiful. The very soul of beauty. Rising from the waters on her half-shell, her loveliness affects all who gaze upon her. His interpretation of the goddess makes it hard to reckon with her dark side, though. The Greco-Roman Pantheon is made up of archetypes that have affected art, literature, and our thinking for centuries. Yet, it only takes one reading of the Aeneid, the Odyssey, or the Iliad, to realize how ill-tempered and vindictive these gods and goddesses were. Iconic, yet grossly flawed, they are the most human of all gods and goddesses in that their deficits are not hidden from their worshippers. Today, they strike us as outrageously un-godlike because our concept of The Divine has so changed. Even the horrors of the Old Testament do not compare with the ruthless meddling of the Pantheon.
In Botticelli’s masterpiece, I see a very different goddess than she who was so archly cruel to Psyche, an innocent mortal. Psyche’s only sin was to possess the great beauty, which made Venus insanely jealous and, through no fault of her own, Psyche was unjustly targeted by Venus. The ancients gods and goddesses suffered all the vices and pretensions of humans, writ large. These myths are rife with symbolism, archetypes, and Psyche, herself, is the symbol of the human soul, often portrayed with butterfly wings. When we, ourselves, are in presence of uncommon beauty, it takes our breath away. It’s one thing to see images in print or on the screen. But, experiencing such beauty in person can be jolting and it is a fact that people of incomparable beauty often have a very hard time in real life. Women are not loved for themselves, but for their looks. Men are expected to be someone they’re not. They are both subject to jealousy and envy from people who are ego-involved, who can’t appreciate beauty for what it is and leave it at that. This, too, was the fate of poor Psyche. Envious of the young woman’s beauty, Venus devised a horrid scheme, which took years to play out. She dispatched her son, Cupid, the God of Desire, sending him on a mission of treachery, though he was loath to comply. Ruefully, Cupid, hastened to the bedside of the sleeping Psyche, wearing his bow and quiver, filled with golden arrows. Venus intended
that Cupid shoot Psyche with an arrow, thereby sealing her fate. Cupid’s magical arrow would make Psyche susceptible; she would instantly fall in love with whomever or whatever her sight first beheld. Venus plan: after being struck by Cupid’s arrow, the young woman would espy a horrid creature, instantly falling in love. It would spell the ruination of the Psyche’s life. However, Psyche’s uncommon beauty gave Cupid pause. Slowly, he leaned over her to study her more closely, but Psyche suddenly awoke and Cupid, startled, jerked back and scratched himself with his own arrow, falling irrevocably in love with her. Upon hearing this news, Venus, enraged, curses Psyche, preventing her from ever finding a mate. But, Cupid cannot bear his mother’s vengeance, he loves Psyche, so he sets down his arrows, withdrawing his godly role while the curse is in place. His action has profound results: nothing reproduces, man or animal. The fruitfulness of the earth halted, the Earth is in decline. Mortals frantically blame Venus and demand she repeal the curse. Because conditions become so desperate, she accedes to her son’s demand on the condition that he first replenish the Earth. In a whirlwind of activity, he hastily complies. Meanwhile, no one will marry Psyche, even though her beauty remains unparalleled among mortals. Bereft, her parents consult the Oracle, who tells them to leave their daughter alone on a mountain
top, saying her incomparable beauty means she is meant for the gods alone. Panicking, they comply. Psyche is there, alone on a mountain, when the West Wind, Zephyrus, blows by, spiriting her to his abode. Her life changes. By day, she is ministered to by unseen servants and, by night, she is held by her beloved, Cupid. Because he will allow no light, she does not know it is him. It’s a miserable life, so Zephyrus finally allows Psyche’s sisters to stay with her during daytime hours. They, too, are jealous of her and immediately start scheming. They tell her she’s pregnant, that she must learn the identity of her lover. Psyche, acting in secret, learns that it is Cupid, but only after accidentally scraping herself with an arrow, thereby falling in love with him. Cupid, realizing he has been found out, hastens away. Psyche, too, leaves…heartbroken. Then, through their own misadventure, both sisters die. After this, searching high and low for Cupid, Psyche is bereaved. Other immortals become involved;
both Ceres and Juno tell Psyche she must appeal directly to Venus, who caused the whole mess to begin with. So, Venus puts Psyche to the test. Not unlike Ulysses, the young woman must surmount hurdle after hurdle. Psyche separates grain, claims the golden wool, enters the Underworld on a mission. Again victim of Venus’ machinations and her own curiosity, Psyche’s actions finally cause her to fall into a wakeless sleep. Cupid, having forgiven Psyche, flies to her aid, wakens her and casts off Venus’ enchantment. Tired and desperate, he begs Jupiter for help. Convening a full council of Gods and Goddesses, Jupiter decrees that Cupid and Psyche will marry. Psyche is brought to Mt. Olympus, where she drinks ambrosia, which gives her immortality. In the end, Psyche and Venus forgive each other…in word, but not necessarily in spirit. So often, stories of this proportion are tragedies, but this enduring myth is not one of them. The story of Cupid and Psyche pulls at our heartstrings, illustrates passions gone awry, and stymied love that is, in the end, found, reconciled and celebrated.