Eros And Psyches

Giuliana Porzio

Keywords: Athenian philosophy, Antonian period, cultural context, anxieties, autobiographical, customs, tastes, tapestries, ecstasy, fluctuating signifiers, knowledge, patriarchal marriage, spiritual articulation, Humanism, subjectivization.

Summary: Lucius, a highborn man, is turned into an ass and stolen by brigands. He goes through a series of misadventures and, being an ass, cannot talk to, but only listen to those he meets. Among several tales he is most attracted to the story of Cupid and Psyches, offspring of archaic divinities and themselves mythical figures, who embrace in a love scene helped by darkness, which becomes the signifier of a transformation. The story lets us into the tones of the love romance and in the imaginary and symbolic world of the artistic, sexual and cultural changes of the century in question.

Climbing the great main staircase of the Royal Palace of Naples which leads to the restored tapestries in the Room of Hercules is rather like entering the story that inspired them: Apuleius's second century version of the tale of Cupid and Psyche, which towards the end of the 18th century became a favorite theme of Neapolitan court painters and artists. The tapestries, as well as the marbles, the statues and the various objects that decorate the room all remind one of the myth, as it is told in books V and VI of the "Metamorphoseon", more commonly known as "The Golden Ass".
Attracted by Athenian philosophy of the Antonian period, Apuleius added various elements to his tales, in particular regarding literature and religion, which came partly from his travels and partly from the cultural context he knew (he was born in Madauros and lived in Carthage).(1)
Thus the writer presented the glories, but also the anxieties of the century of the Antonian emperors, as expressed by the personalities and particular qualities of his characters.
The myth of Psyche is told within the wider context of "The Golden Ass", a tale that was a little risqué for its time, even lascivious in parts. Although it was certainly autobiographical(2) as well as critically satirical about some of the typical figures of the culture of the time (wizards are portrayed as asses), it was probably also intended to illustrate the spread of new customs and tastes, including sexual ones, to the Roman world.
The protagonist of "The Golden Ass" takes us through the houses, palaces, courtyards and public squares of the cities of ancient Thrace. A man from a respectable family, Lucius, is turned into an ass and is used as a beast of burden by brigands. He suffers several vicissitudes and misadventures, all the time forced to understand with a human awareness everything he witnesses and endures in the shape of an ass.
He listens to strange tales and find himself involved in various absurd and amusing events. At the end of the book, the goddess Isis, whose praises the author sings, turns him back into a human being.
In book V a woman begins to tell the fabulous story of Cupid and Psyche, who marry without the consent or knowledge of Cupid's mother, the goddess Venus. The most famous episodes of this love-story, by which Cupid intended to free the beautiful young girl from the prophecy that she would marry a man of humble condition, include Psyche's arrival at the splendid royal palace, her mysterious sexual union with Cupid in the dark, and her holding an oil lamp over her lover and revealing his features.
Let us now examine the tapestries and link their narrative to the two books from the Metamorphosis: in the first tapestry, "Psyche's Toilette(3)", the imagery effectively portrays the description in book V:

Psyche, being sweetly couched amongst the soft and tender herbs, as on a bed of sweet and fragrant flowers, and having qualified the troubles and thoughts of her restless mind, was now well reposed. When she had refreshed herself sufficiently with sleep, she rose with a more quiet and pacified mind, and fortuned to espy a pleasant wood filled with great and mighty trees. She espied likewise a running river as clear as crystal.
In the midst of the wood, well-nigh at the fall of the river, was a princely edifice, wrought and built, not by the art or hand of man, but by the mighty power of God...(4)"

Other details of the palace emerge from the pages of the tale:

the coffered ceiling above was of cedar and ivory, propped and undermined with pillars of gold... and divers sorts of beasts were graven and carved, that seemed to greet those that entered in.(5) "

Psyche continues, walking upon a floor of gems and pearls, and in amazement she observes that

"by reason of the precious stones and inestimable treasure there, the palace glittered and shone in such sort that the chambers, porches and doors gave such light that it would have made no difference if the sun had denied its own.(6)"

The young girl is contemplating these marvels in ecstasy when she hears a disembodied voice ask:

"Why do you marvel, madam, at such great riches? Behold, all that you see is at your commandment. Therefore, go you into the chamber and repose upon the bed, and desire what bath you will have, and we whose voices you hear will be your servants, ready to minister to you according to your desire. In the meantime, royal meats and dainty dishes shall be prepared for you(7)."

If we introduce some psychoanalytical observations to this fairy tale atmosphere, we are tempted to stress the emergence, in this context of amazement and fluctuating signifiers, of voices alien to the subject described, but nonetheless at her service and speaking directly to her.
We have almost reached - and indeed the very name Psyche urges us to look beyond the surface of the fairy tale setting --"the limits of knowledge(8)"-- in a literary game of decorative images full of interior suggestions in which there is something that breaks with convention and questions ideas about femininity¸ something that has been under the gaze of generations of readers over the centuries.
Neumann points out that "this is an ancient fairy tale of love, filled with symbolic events which allude to the process of formation of a feminine soul and the relationship between those involved in a marriage of love which is in conflict with a conventional patriarchal marriage"(9).
This young girl's escape and her encounter with Cupid metaphorically express the need for the female mind to renew itself, something that characterizes any era marked by progress. At the time of the Antonian emperors the magnificence of the Empire was described as the product of cultural exchange and trade. According to the Greek orator Aristides the superiority of the Roman Empire lay in its perfection and vastness such that the whole world was like a city-state, in which the emperor protected the weak and ruled over the free, not the enslaved(10).
If we examine this period of the past in order to gain a better idea of our own, we find metaphorically, both in art and literature, the idea of the woman occupying a new position in mental, spiritual and social existence, often expressed alongside the accepted, traditional themes and imagery. Psyche embodies this significant passage in which the transformation of the subject is experienced almost as a delirious experience: a woman loses herself in a hallucinatory buzzing of voices to meet a lover who has betrayed Olympus. Enjoyment and knowledge merge in a signifying game, while the logic of a paradigm of inclusion in the field of the Other is still respected: the human girl is subjected to the divine and the divine includes the human.
This is the right moment to interrupt the story and raise some questions about the female subject in question, who seems to be looking for new forms of meaning while being enriched by them:

"Then Psyche perceived the felicity of divine providence, and according to the invitation of the incorporeal voices she first reposed upon the bed, and then refreshed her body in the baths.
This done, she saw the table garnished with meats and a chair to sit down upon. When Psyche had sat down, all sorts of divine meats and wines were brought in, not by any body, but as it were with a wind, for she saw no person before her, but only heard voices on every side. After all was brought to the table, one came in and sung invisibly, another played on the harp, but she saw no man. The harmony of the instruments did so greatly fill her ears, that though there were no manner of person, yet she seemed to be in the midst of a multitude of people(11)."

When this banquet, which takes place in the midst of a chorus of "people" singing for her, is over, Psyche falls asleep. In the depths of the night a stranger lies down beside her. He only makes the slightest noise and, unseen, makes love to her.

"And thus she passed a great many hours and, as often happens, the novelty of these things by continual custom, did increase her pleasure, while the sound of unknown voices was a comfort to her in her solitude (12)."

The demand for love finds its dialectical way in this darkness, which is the context of the encounter between the two, and the context in which lack of being, which accompanies any entrance into the symbolic, that is to say into the grasping of signifiers, is imaginatively expressed in the story. The question about its significance is suspended between the models of abstract, aesthetic or even sacred love and earthly love, even though the latter is desired and experienced spiritually. The classic signifier of ethereal love marries a new signifier, that of the woman in love.
This would seem to be a move away from Classicism, the upholder of the old gods, and an entry into what could be defined as a "Roman Humanism"(13), involving the decline of pagan religiosity and an opening up to new themes and ideas, both religious and artistic: the crisis of conscience in this era of imperial splendor is also expressed in the way the Other is questioned about his/her own feelings. Apuleius bears witness to the process of surrender of the Roman civilization to the pervasiveness of the Eastern Hellenistic spirit, as if a "type of humanity" were making headway; one that conservative circles saw as "incomparably inferior and doomed to lower the level of the Italic and Western world(14)". This period sees the end of the ideal of an arrogant and lustful, beauty, untouched by suffering apart from in aesthetic competitions. It sees, instead, the affirmation of the myth of a girl whose name suggests a type of beauty which consists of other attractions. Psyche and Cupid's love-story, full of unexpected nuances, implies symbolic elements referring to a new discourse on sexuality, as a romance of the subject.
The tapestries in Naples well reveal this atmosphere, both sophisticated and realistic, to us. Psyche is wearing a dress with two crossed bands that reveal her bare breast, while Cupid shows his amazement rather than standing classically motionless. He seems to be trapped in his own game of seduction and "Beauty" thus acquires depth and spirituality: qualities, one might say, of resonance. By getting lost on a cliff-edge Psyche loses some of her certainties and, as if enchanted by the void; this disturbing precipice of lack of being, she finds herself being accompanied by slave-girls (an element which could feature in both a psychiatric treatise or a medieval courtly romance) towards the darkness of loving union with the Other.
Psyche's demand for love forces us to fluctuate between her particular enjoyment (the voices, her ecstasy and passivity in receiving the joys of the external world) and the universal theme of the "lovers' discourse".
Initially the girl's entrance into the royal palace gives us the taste of "something outside discourse", since her enjoyment struggles to find a name for itself. Yet this unique enjoyment also has some emblematic aspects: in her passivity, in the way the woman loses herself, there is the feeling of her being "not-whole", which, rather than clashing with the phallic order, seems to exist beyond it. The voices that she hears are a form of delirium; a schizophrenia without anxiety that points at a profound transformation. The female subject's discontent suggests the need for new emotions and free access into a universal discourse of new signifiers for womankind.
This means that if the female subject takes on these signifiers she has to subject herself to the law of castration(15), namely, to the phallic order. Lacan, in dealing with the issue of woman, shows that something else is involved in this problem: not just the mother and the symbolic function of the father, but also an enjoyment that is not allowed by the law of castration. "This something that is unmarked by the phallic function fills the gap left by the symbolic, by silence and language"(16). The story of Psyche expresses the female suffering of having to make herself subjective/a subject through the function of speech, that implies a universal, though incomplete, representation.
The story of Psyche continues with her sisters' search for her. After her elderly parents find out that she has disappeared her sisters

"came with great dolor and sorrow to comfort and speak with their parents(17)."

Cupid, lying next to his bride and still not revealing his features, warns her of imminent danger:

"For know that your sisters, thinking that you are dead, are greatly troubled, and have come to the cliff you know of(18) by following your footsteps. If you should hear their lamentations, beware that you in no wise either make answer or look towards them(19)."

By weeping and begging, Psyche manages to persuade her husband to let her speak to her sisters, but she has to promise never to tell them what he looks like:

"lest by such an impious curiosity you deprive yourself permanently of so great and worthy estate and of my embraces(20)."

A second tapestry(21), depicting "Psyche and her sisters in Cupid's palace", illustrates the latter observing the magnificence of the building in amazement and, with spellbound gestures, admiring the fortune their sister has acquired.

"...and when they had filled themselves with divine delicacies and such a profusion of celestial wealth, they conceived great envy deep within their hearts...(22)"

Back home the two, filled with rage, contrive a

"most wicked act of deceit and mortal trap against the innocent creature(23)."

The motive of two sisters who, out of jealousy, give Psyche a portrayal of her husband as a monstrous beast and suggest she should murder him, is a colorful version of the motif of the virgin freed from the dragon. This development is described by Neumann-- here in contrast with Lacan--not as an event of linguistic significance, but as the mythological transfiguration of a bio-psychic occurrence(24).
What emerges in the vision of this author with Jungian leanings is "a primary stage, common to male and female development, which sees the predomination of a fusional psychic situation with the mother(25)", which is symbolized by the primitive uroboro, the snake that closes itself in a circle by biting its tail.
"To primitive man the masculine and the feminine have the value of opposite prototypes, so any situation of contrast archetypically manifests itself with a male and a female symbolism... To overcome this stage, the female is grabbed by something unknown and subjugating, experienced as numinous and shapeless: it is a penetrating irruption, represented by a divine phallus, a snake, a horse, thunder, or rain, wind, lightning, the moon and the sun. Unconscious internal forces and transpersonal contents with an energy charge that considerably surpasses the conscious charge of the feminine penetrate the field of personality. The power of the unconscious, penetrating and violent, is perceived as masculine, and the feminine is seduced, ravished, penetrated, dragged along and taken outside itself. The feminine is pushed towards an alienation from itself that favors the development of its conscience; it is forced to develop its masculine side, without which any cultural manifestation is impossible(26)."

Psyche lovingly promises Cupid that she will be devoted to him until death and that she will never reveal their secret. She knows she is carrying his child in her womb and tells him:

"I little esteem to see your visage and figure, little do I therefore regard the night and darkness, for you are my only light(27)."

The crucial point of the fable begins here, and here we find the narrative/inventive elements that emblematically connote the entrance of the feminine into the masculine, into enjoyment or, in Lacanian terms, into the register of phallic signification.
Psyche sees her sisters again and gives them an ambiguous description of her husband's appearance, having them understand that she has married a god. They suggest she should hide a sharp razor in her bed and then get rid of the stranger who sleeps beside her. They describe him as a "venomous serpent" with "loathsome and dangerous private parts(28)" (the dragon of mythology or the monster of Jungian symbolism), in short a horrific being who wants to take advantage of her and hides his countenance from her for this very reason.
They tell her to take a full oil lamp with her and hide it in a small saucepan, securely fastened with a lid, then to shed light on her groom while he is asleep and deliver a fatal blow. Thus the girl prepares herself to commit murder, but as she sheds light on Cupid she is enraptured by his beauty and drops the blade(29),(30.)
With that light Psyche has filled the darkness of lack, "that point of void" around which the unconscious structures itself(31). As the light fills the darkness that the new feminine subject has faced in "becoming a signifier", Psyche marvels at "her husbands weapons". She then

"took one of the arrows out of the quiver, and pricked herself with it, wherewith she was so grievously wounded that the blood followed...(32)".

This arrow symbolizes the phallic aspects of the tale: it is the force of castration striking Psyche, offering her, in the symbolic (in terms of the linguistic order), a signifier which wins her admittance into the sexual discourse; she receives it from the man, from Cupid himself: entry into desire is therefore a dialectical entry. Within Psyche's subjective position a phallic mark is therefore given to her by the act of pricking herself with the arrow. The effect of this significant action is a new subject, a divided woman. "The name kills the Thing" and she is transformed, having taken possession of the signifiers of Love.
Cupid's disobedience to Venus and the girl's desire for a new position, lead both characters to find a new sexual identity. They both turn into something else:

O simple Psyche, consider with yourself how I, little regarding the commandment of my mother, who willed that you should be married to a man of base and miserable condition, did come myself from heaven to love you, and wounded my own body with my own weapons, to have you to be my spouse(33),(34), (35)."

For Cupid too the demand of the Other takes place in an optical game of light and shade, deceit and revelation. Cupid unveils his features, and becomes the subject of his love for his spouse only when he is seen by her, and struck "by his own weapons."
The symbolic structure imposes onto the speaking being a subtractive trait (darkness) with which the signifier impairs the Thing. There is no sexual relationship here: both characters are subject to the magic of darkness, but both are able to experience/live in another kind of magic: the light that love entails.
Cupid is divided, changed by castration, seized by the passivity of falling in love. He revels in something which is feminine, and therefore repressed, which he has been touched and transformed by.


Apuleius, Lucius, Aureus Asinus, translated into English by Adlington, W. (1566) The Golden Ass, Public domain:

Apuleius, Lucius, Aureus Asinus, translated into Italian by Annaratore, C. (1998) L'asino d'oro o le metamorfosi (BUR: Milan).

Birley, A. (2000) Marcus Aurelius (London: Routledge).

Cortés, H. (1935) "Algunes Reminescencies de Apuleyo en la literatura Espanola" in Revista di Filologia Espanola XXII, 1935, p. 44 - 53 etc.

Lacan, J. (1991) Le Seminaire, livre XVII (Paris : Seuil).

Mazzotti, M. (1994), ed., Sessualità femminile (Milano: Arcipelago).

Neumann, E. (1953) Zur Psychologie des Weiblichen (Rascher Verlag Zurich)

Porzio, A. (1994) Comment to the tapestries from the panels of the Royal Palace exhibition opened to the public in 1994

Recalcati, M.(1995) L'universale e il singolare (Milano: Marcos y Marcos).

Rostagni,A, ed, (1947) Classici latini (Torino: UTET)


1From Madauros, on the border between Numidia and Geturia, he moved to Carthage, one of the most important cities in the Empire - full of schools, conflict and intrigue - to study grammar and rhetoric.

2 Rostagni (1972) p. 10, note 3: "the autobiographical nature of Apuleius's work, because of its unique colorfulness, has often been considered a distant model for the Spanish and European picaresque novel." See also Cortés (1935) pp. 44 -53 etc.

3 See photo A: P. Duranti, on cardboard, by F. Fischetti: "Psyche'sToilette", tapestry, 1786; Naples, Royal Palace.

4 All translations from Apuleius's "The Golden Ass or the Metamorphoses," are adapted by the translator of this paper from Adlington's translation of 1566 and C. Annarratore's 1981 translation into Italian from the Latin original: "L'asino d'oro o Le Metamorfosi".

5 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.133.

6 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.133.

7 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.134.

8 Lacan (1991)

9 A. Porzio (1994).

10 Birley (1987).

11 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.135

12 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.135

13 Rostagni, p. 46. "At one point, after his Athenian period, we find Apuleius in Rome, center of attraction for all neo-sophists such as himself, who, even if the world was their fatherland, looked for the heart of the world itself in Rome. In this city, if we take into account what he himself confesses at the end of the Metamorphoses, he embarked on a successful career as a lawyer."

14 Rostagni

15 Mazzotti (1994) p. 16.

16 Mazzotti (1994) p. 17.

17 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.135.

18The same cliff Psyche gets lost on before the effects of the charm.

19 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.136.

20 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.137.

21 See photo B: P. Duranti on cardboard by F. Fischetti, "Psyche and her Sisters in Cupid's Palace"; tapestry, 1783, Naples Royal Palace.

22 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.140.

23 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.142.

24 Neumann (1975) p. 22.

25 Neumann (1975) pp.. 7- 24.

26 Neumann (1975) pp.. 7- 24.

27 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.144.

28 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.147.

29 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) pp.149-150.

30 See photo C: P. Duranti on cardboard by F. Fischetti, "Psyche Contemplating the Sleeping Cupid "; detail, Naples Royal Palace.

31 Recalcati (1995), p. 19.

32 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.150.

33 Adlington (1566); Annarratore (1981) p.151.

34 See photo D: P. Duranti on cardboard by F. Fischetti, "Cupid Invokes the Help of Jove for Psyche'sDestiny"; tapestry, Naples, Royal Palace.

35 See photo E: P. Duranti on cardboard by F. Fischetti, "Psyche Frustrated by Loneliness and Sadness According to the Orders of Venus"; tapestry, Naples, Royal Palace.