Psyche wandered day and night in search of her husband. One day she looked up and saw a magnificent temple at the top of a mountain. "Perhaps my love, my lord, lives there," she thought and made her way to the door. She entered and found heaps of corn and sheaves of wheat and barley carelessly scattered about. Psyche understood then that this was a temple to Demeter. The confusion offended her piety. She organized the offerings and put each thing in its place. While she was sweeping the floor the goddess herself appeared.
“I know who you are dear Psyche and I’m sorry for what has befallen you” Demeter said. “But Aphrodite is my kinswoman so I cannot help you. This matter is between you and that fair goddess. Here is my advice-- go to her voluntarily and offer yourself up with modesty and beg her forgiveness. This is your only hope to be united with your husband again.”
Psyche took Demeter’s advice. She knew the encounter could be fatal and as she walked she pondered what to say and how best to appease the goddess. When she arrived at the temple Aphrodite was there, fuming with anger. “Do you finally remember Aphrodite,” she raged, “the source of all that is fair and beautiful? Or have you come to visit your poor, wounded husband? You are so ill favored and disagreeable that the only way you can merit your lover must be by dint of industry and diligence. I will make trial of your housewifery."
Aphrodite ordered Psyche to be led to the temple storehouse, to a huge mound of various seeds---wheat, barley, millet, vetches, beans, and lentils--- food for her pigeons. "Take and separate all these grains,” the goddess ordered, “putting all of the same kind in a pile by themselves, and see that you get it done before evening." Then she left, closing the door behind her.
Psyche looked at the mound dumbfounded. She sat stupid and silent, without moving a finger to the inextricable heap. Despair filled her heart and she begin to weep.
But then a little ant appeared, a child of the earth. He felt compassion for Psyche as did his mates. The whole troop approached the heap and with the utmost diligence taking grain by grain, they separated the pile, sorting each kind. When it was all done, they vanished out of sight.
Aphrodite returned at twilight. When she saw that the task was done, she exclaimed, "This is no work of yours. You’ve had help from him whom to your own and his misfortune you have enticed. But I’m not done with you.”
The next morning Aphrodite called Psyche to her and said, "I have another task you for, miserable creature. There in that grove which stretches alongside the river is a flock of sheep with fleece of shining gold. They have no shepherd. Go and fetch me a sample of that precious wool gathered from every one of their fleeces."
Psyche obediently went to the riverside, prepared to do her best to execute the command. Once again her heart was full of despair. But a humble and friendly reed whistled to her and offered some advice. “ Those are solar-powered rams” the reed said,” and under the influence of the sun they will tear you to pieces or gore you and trample you under their sharp hooves. Wait until the late afternoon when they rest in the shade. Then you may safely cross over and collect the wool that has caught in the brambles without disturbing them.”
Psyche took the advice of the reed and safely gathered armfuls of the golden fleece for Aphrodite. But when the goddess saw that she had completed this second task, she was not happy. “I know that you had help, “she said, “and I am not satisfied yet that you have any capacity to make yourself useful. But no mind, I have another task for you. Take this crystal flask and go to the top of that rocky mountain where the deep, cold waters pour forth from the rocks and bring me back just a little. Mind the sharp stones, and the dragons who guard the banks, and don’t spill a drop on your way back.”
This task was even more difficult than the first two. Once again her heart was full of despair and tears filled her eyes. Psyche went to the base of the deadly stream. As she was standing there an eagle flew overhead. It was the eagle of Zeus, who knew of her plight. It swooped down and took the flask from her hands and with powerful strokes of its mighty wings it flew to the tops, past the dragons, and dipped the crystal flask into the water. In moments the deed was done and Psyche returned to the angry Aphrodite with the water she had requested.
"You can accomplish nothing alone,” said the goddess, “But that I do require. I have another task for you. Here, take this box and find your way to Hades, to the land of mists and shades. Give this box to Persephone and say, 'My mistress Aphrodite desires you to send her a little of your beauty, for in tending her sick son she has lost some of her own.' Be quick with this errand, for I must paint myself with this beauty to appear at the circle of the gods and goddesses this evening."
Now Psyche knew that she was doomed. All was lost. She climbed to the top of a nearby tower determined to throw herself off and thus to descend to Hades the shortest way possible. But as she stood trembling on the ledge, a voice from the tower said to her, "If you do this you will certainly end up in Hades, but without a way to return. Listen to me. I know a better way." Then the voice told her about a certain cave where she could find the long road down. It told her about Charon the ferryman and Cereberus the three-headed dog who guards the banks of the River Styx. “Take two coins and two cakes, “said the voice,” and you can pay each of these on the way in-- and on the way out again.” But the voice added, "You will see pitiful creatures and great mysteries in the Underworld but you must not stop to listen or give aid. Harden your heart. When you reach the throne of Persephone she will offer you a banquet meal and a soft couch upon which to rest. Accept nothing but a crust of bread and sit on the ground. When you have the box you must come back straight away and do not open it."
Psyche listened carefully to the voice of the tower. She climbed down, collected her coins and her cakes, and found the cave. Her journey to Hades progressed just as the tower predicted. When she was crossing the River Styx a drowning old man begged her for pity but she did not make a move on his behalf. While on the road she met a pathetic old man anxiously typing and untying a piece of black and white cord who tried to gain her attention. But she did not give it. Three mysterious old women sat weaving near Persephone’s gates but she ignored them too. She refused the offered seat and meal. At last she had the box full of beauty and began the long journey back to the surface.
Psyche was so relieved and happy when she was once more into the light of day. She has been down to the underworld and back up again! She allowed herself, at last, to recall her fair husband and imagine that she might see him once again. He was a fair and glorious god and she loved him so deeply.
Yes, he was god. And she was a mere mortal. He had fallen in love with her because she was beautiful but after all of her wandering she was a tired, pregnant woman who hadn’t spared a moment to wash her hair or tend her clothes. She must look awful. She must do something to be sure to please her husband and you know, she has this box, this box that contains the beauty of the goddess… Psyche carefully opened the box. A mist rose from the emptiness and put her into a deathlike sleep. She fell down motionless in the middle of the road.
Eros had recovered from his wound and was looking for his dear wife. He longed for his beloved Psyche and flew to the spot where she lay. He saw the box and the sleep that enveloped her, gathered it up and returned it to the box. With a slight prink from one of his arrows she was awake. “Wait here,” he said, ‘and I will take care of the rest.”
Eros flew to Mount Olympus and called upon Zeus, who decided that the lovers should be allowed to stay together. Aphrodite was persuaded--she is the goddess of Love after all-- and Hermes was sent to retrieve Psyche. There on Mt Olympus, Zeus handed her a cup of ambrosia and said, "Drink this, Psyche, and be immortal. These nuptials shall be perpetual."
Thus Psyche became at last united with Eros. In due time their daughter was born. They named her Pleasure.
(The black and white painting Psyche in the Underworld by Paul Alfred de Curzon).