Creation and Destruction

4 Aphrodite


A white-ground red-figure kylix depicting Aphrodite riding a swan. Aphrodite is wearing a long dress and a headdress, and a flower is growing from her hand.
Aphrodite on a swan, red-figure kylix from ca. 460 BCE (British Museum, London).


Birth and Appearance

Aphrodite being born from the sea, relief from 1st century C.E. (Aphrodisias Museum)

There are two origin stories for Aphrodite. In one, she is a Titan, born from the severed genitals of Uranus, the sky, mixed with the water and foam of the sea. In the other, she is an Olympian, daughter of Zeus and the Titan Dione. She was one of the twelve Olympians in the Greek pantheon and her particular timai was in the realms of erotic desire, beauty, and generation.


Hesiod, Theogony (trans. G. Nagy, adapted by T. Mulder)

Greek epic, ca. 700 BCE

The following excerpt, from Hesiod’s Theogony, an epic poem about the birth of the gods and the cosmos written in Greek in the 8th/7th century BCE, describes Aphrodite’s birth from the sea.


Not for no purpose did they slip from his hand; for as many gory drops as jetted forth from there, Earth received them all; and when the years rolled round, [185] she gave birth to stern Furies [Erinyes], and mighty Giants, gleaming in arms, with long spears in hand, and nymphs whom men call Ash-nymphs [Meliai], over the boundless earth. But the genitals, [1] since after first severing them with the steel, he had cast them from the land into the heaving sea, [190] kept drifting for a long time up and down the deep, and all around a white foam kept rising from the immortal flesh; and in it a maiden was nourished; first she drew near divine Cythera, and from there came next to wave-washed Cyprus. Then an awesome, beautiful goddess stepped forth; and beneath her delicate feet the grass grew: [195] gods and men name her Aphrodite, the foam-sprung goddess, and fair-wreathed Cytherea—the first because she was nursed in foam, but Cytherea, because she touched at Cythera; and Cyprus-born, because she was born in wave-dashed Cyprus; [200] and lover of smiles, because she emerged out of the genitals.[2] And Eros accompanied her and fair Desire followed her, when first she was born, and came into the host of the gods. And from the beginning she had this honor and this part she obtained by lot among men and immortal gods, [205] the flirtatious conversation of maidens, their smiles and wiles, their sweet delights, their love, and flattery.


Taken from:


Homeric Hymn 6, “To Aphrodite” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by T. Mulder)

Greek hymn, 7th century BCE

The following short Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, written in Greek in the 7th century BCE, describes her beauty and adornment.


[1] I will sing of stately Aphrodite, gold-crowned and beautiful, whose dominion is the walled cities of all sea-set Cyprus. There the moist breath of the western wind wafted her over the waves of the loud-moaning sea in soft foam, and there the gold-ribboned Hours welcomed her joyously. They clothed her with heavenly garments: on her head they put a fine, well-wrought crown of gold, and in her pierced ears they hung ornaments of orichalc [3] and precious gold, and adorned her with golden necklaces over her soft neck and snow-white breasts, jewels which the gold-ribboned Hours wear themselves whenever they go to their father’s house to join the lovely dances of the gods. And when they had fully decorated her, they brought her to the gods, who welcomed her when they saw her, giving her their hands. Each one of them prayed that he might lead her home to be his wife, so greatly were they amazed at the beauty of violet-crowned Cytherea.

[19] Hail, sweetly-winning, coy-eyed goddess! Grant that I may gain the victory in this contest, and compose my song. And now I will remember you and another song also.


Taken from:

Aphrodite in Action

Affairs with Mortal Men

A relief of Aphrodite seated with a baby Aeneas on her lap, Anchises standing in front of her.
Anchises and Aphrodite with baby Aeneas, relief (Aphrodisias Museum); N.B. The symbols that appear to be backward swastikas were a design element that was popular on ancient Greek artwork. The Nazis appropriated the symbol and flipped it around.

Aphrodite was known for her many sexual affairs with gods and mortal men. Her most constant consort was the god Ares, but she also had famous trysts with two mortals:  Anchises, a Trojan shepherd and the father of Aeneas; and Adonis, the most beautiful mortal man who ever lived.


Homeric Hymn 5, “To Aphrodite” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by T. Mulder)

Greek hymn, 7th century BCE

There are three Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite. The longest of these, Hymn 5, tells of her tryst with the Trojan shepherd, Anchises, and the birth of her demigod son, the Trojan/Roman hero, Aeneas.


[1] Muse, tell me the deeds of golden Aphrodite the Cyprian, who stirs up sweet passion in the gods and subdues the tribes of mortal men and birds that fly in air and all the many creatures that the dry land rears, and all the sea: all these love the deeds of rich-crowned Cytherea.

[7] Yet there are three hearts that she cannot bend nor ensnare. First is the daughter of Zeus who holds the aegis, bright-eyed Athena; for she has no pleasure in the deeds of golden Aphrodite, but delights in wars and in the work of Ares, in strifes and battles and in preparing famous crafts. She first taught earthly craftsmen to make chariots of war and cars variously wrought with bronze, and she, too, teaches tender maidens in the house and puts knowledge of goodly arts in each one’s mind. Nor does laughter-loving Aphrodite ever tame in love Artemis, the huntress with shafts of gold; for she loves archery and the slaying of wild beasts in the mountains, the lyre also and dancing and thrilling cries and shady woods and the cities of upright men. Nor yet does the pure maiden Hestia love Aphrodite’s works. She was the first-born child of wily Cronus and youngest too, by will of Zeus who holds the aegis, – a queenly maid whom both Poseidon and Apollo sought to wed. But she was wholly unwilling, and stubbornly refused; and touching the head of father Zeus who holds the aegis, she, that fair goddess, swore a great oath which has in truth been fulfilled, that she would be a maiden all her days. So Zeus the Father gave her a high honour instead of marriage, and she has her place in the midst of the house and has the richest portion. In all the temples of the gods she has a share of honour, and among all mortal men she is chief of the goddesses.

[33] Aphrodite cannot bend or ensnare the hearts of these three. But of all others there is nothing among the blessed gods or among mortal men that has escaped Aphrodite. Even the heart of Zeus, who delights in thunder, is led astray by her; though he is greatest of all and has the lot of highest majesty, she beguiles even his wise heart whenever she pleases, and mates him with mortal women, unknown to Hera, his sister and his wife, the grandest in beauty among the deathless goddesses – most glorious is she whom wily Cronus with her mother Rhea conceived: and Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, made her his chaste and careful wife.

[45] But upon Aphrodite herself Zeus cast the sweet desire to be joined in love with a mortal man, so that not even she should be innocent of loving a mortal; so that laughter-loving Aphrodite cannot one day softly smile and say mockingly among all the gods that she had joined them in love with mortal women, who bore sons of death to the deathless gods, and had mated the goddesses with mortal men.

[53] And so he put in her heart sweet desire for Anchises who was tending cattle at that time among the steep hills of many-fountained Ida, and who was similar to the immortal gods in his appearance. Therefore, when laughter-loving Aphrodite saw him, she loved him, and desire seized her strongly in her heart. She went to Cyprus, to Paphos, where her precinct is and fragrant altar, and entered into her sweet-smelling temple. There she went in and shut the glittering doors, and there the Graces bathed her with heavenly oil such as blooms upon the bodies of the eternal gods – oil divinely sweet, which she had by her, filled with fragrance. And laughter-loving Aphrodite put on all her rich clothes, and when she had decked herself with gold, she left sweet-smelling Cyprus and went quickly towards Troy, swiftly travelling high up among the clouds. So she came to many-fountained Ida, the mother of wild creatures and went straight to the homestead across the mountains. Behind her came grey wolves, fawning on her, and grim-eyed lions, and bears, and fleet leopards, ravenous for deer: and she was glad in heart to see them, and put desire in their breasts, so that they all mated, two together, around the shadowy valleys.

[75] But she herself came to the neat-built shelters, and she found him left all alone in the homestead – the hero Anchises who was as lovely as the gods. All the others were following the herds over the grassy pastures, and he, left all alone in the homestead, was roaming here and there and playing thrillingly upon the lyre. And Aphrodite, the daughter of Zeus stood before him, being like a pure maiden in height and manner, so that he would not be frightened when he caught a glance of her with his eyes. Now when Anchises saw her, he marked her well and wondered at her manner and height and shining garments. For she was draped in a robe brighter than fire, a splendid robe of gold, enriched with all sorts of needlework, which shimmered like the moon over her tender breasts, a marvel. Also she wore twisted brooches and shining flower earrings; and lovely necklaces were around her soft throat.

[91] And Anchises was seized with love, and said to her: “Greetings, lady, whoever of the blessed ones you are that come to this house, whether Artemis, or Leto, or golden Aphrodite, or high-born Themis, or bright-eyed Athena. Or, maybe, you are one of the Graces come here, who bear the gods company and are called immortal, or else one of those who inhabit this lovely mountain and the springs of rivers and grassy meadows. I will make an altar for you, on a high peak, in place that can be seen from far away, and I will sacrifice rich offerings to you in all seasons. Please feel kindly towards me and grant that I may become an eminent man among the Trojans, and give me strong children in the future. As for my own self, let me live long and happily, seeing the light of the sun, and let me arrive at the threshold of old age, a man prosperous among the people.”

[106] Then Aphrodite the daughter of Zeus answered him: “Anchises, most glorious of all men born on earth, know that I am no goddess: why do you compare me to the deathless ones? No, I am only a mortal, and the mother that bore me was a woman. The famous Otreus is my father, if perhaps you have heard of him, and he reigns over all Phrygia rich in fortresses. I understand you well, because a Trojan nurse brought me up at home: she took me from my dear mother and reared me from when I was a little child. That is why, then, that I know your tongue also. And now the Slayer of Argus with the golden wand has caught me up from the dance of huntress Artemis, her with the golden arrows. For there were many of us, nymphs and marriageable maidens, playing together; and an innumerable company encircled us: from these the Slayer of Argus with the golden wand snatched me away. He carried me over many fields of mortal men and over much land untilled and unpossessed, where savage wild-beasts roam through shady valleys, until I thought never again to touch the life-giving earth with my feet. And he said that I would be called the wedded wife of Anchises, and would bear you splendid children. But when he had told and advised me, he, the strong Slayer of Argus, went back to the tribe of the deathless gods, while I have now come to you: for strong necessity is upon me. But I beg you by Zeus and by your noble parents – for no common folk could get such a son as you – take me now, unmarried and inexperienced in love, and show me to your father and noble mother and to your brothers . I will not be a shameful daughter for them, but a fitting one. In addition, quickly send a messenger to the swift-horsed Phrygians, to tell my father and my grieving mother; and they will send you plenty of gold and woven goods, many splendid gifts; take these as my bride-piece. Do this, and then prepare a sweet marriage that is honourable in the eyes of men and deathless gods.”

[143] When she had so spoken, the goddess put sweet desire in his heart. And Anchises was seized with love, so that he opened his mouth and said: “If you are a mortal and the mother who
bore you was a woman, and the famous Otreus is your father, as you say, and if you have come here by the will of Hermes the immortal Guide, and are to be called my wife always, then neither god nor mortal man will stop me from joining with you in love right now; no, not even if far-shooting Apollo himself should shoot moan-causing arrows from his silver bow. I would willingly go down into the house of Hades, O lady, beautiful as the goddesses, once I had gone up to your bed.”

[155] So speaking, he took her by the hand. And laughter-loving Aphrodite, with face turned away and lovely eyes downcast, crept to the well-spread couch which was already laid with soft coverings for the hero; on it were skins of bears and deep-roaring lions, which he himself had slain in the high mountains. And when they had gone up to the well-made bed, first Anchises took off her bright jewelry of pins and twisted brooches and earrings and necklaces, and undid her girdle and stripped off her bright garments and laid them down upon a silver-studded seat. Then by the will of the gods and destiny he lay with her, a mortal man with an immortal goddess, not clearly knowing what he did.

[168] But, at the time when the herdsmen drive their oxen and fat sheep out fo the flowery pastures, back to the fold, then Aphrodite poured soft sleep over Anchises, but she herself put on her rich garments. And when the bright goddess had fully clothed herself, she stood by the couch, and her head reached to the well-made roof beam; from her cheeks shone unearthly beauty such as belongs to rich-crowned Cytherea. Then she roused him from sleep and opened her mouth and said: “Up, son of Dardanus! — why do you sleep so heavily? — and consider whether I look as I did when first you saw me with your eyes.”

[180] So she spoke. And he awoke in a moment and obeyed her. But when he saw the neck and lovely eyes of Aphrodite, he was afraid and turned his eyes aside the other way, hiding his beautiful face with his cloak. Then he uttered winged words and entreated her: “As soon as I saw you with my eyes, goddess, I knew that you were divine; but you did not tell me the truth. Yet by Zeus who holds the aegis I beg you, do not leave me to lead a feeble life among men, but have pity on me; for he who lies with a deathless goddess is not a strong man afterwards.”

[191] Then Aphrodite the daughter of Zeus answered him: “Anchises, most glorious of mortal men, take courage and do not be too fearful in your heart. You do not need to fear any harm from me nor from the other blessed ones, for you are dear to the gods: and you will have a dear son who will reign among the Trojans, and children’s children after him, springing up continually. His name will be Aeneas, because I felt terrible grief at at falling into the bed of mortal man: yet these humans [demi-gods] are always the most similar to gods of all mortal men in beauty and in stature.

[202] “In truth, wise Zeus carried off golden-haired Ganymedes because of his beauty, to be among the Deathless Ones and pour drinks for the gods in the house of Zeus – a wonder to see – honoured by all the immortals as he draws the red nectar from the golden bowl. But grief that could not be soothed filled the heart of Tros; for he did not know from where the heaven-sent whirlwind had caught up his dear son, so that he mourned him always, unceasingly, until Zeus pitied him and gave him high-stepping horses such as carry the immortals as recompense for his son. These he gave him as a gift. And at the command of Zeus, the Guide, the Slayer of Argus, told him [pb_glossary id="5105"]Tros[/pb_glossary] everything, and how his son would be deathless and unageing, just like the gods. So when Tros heard these tidings from Zeus, he no longer kept mourning but rejoiced in his heart and rode joyfully with his storm-footed horses.

[218] “So also golden-throned Eos snatched away Tithonus, who was of your race and like the deathless gods. And she went to ask the dark-clouded Son of Cronus to make him deathless and to give him eternal life; and Zeus bowed his head to her prayer and fulfilled her desire. But queenly Eos was too simple: she did not think to ask for eternal youth for him and to scrape away deadly old age. So while he enjoyed the sweet flower of life he lived rapturously with golden-throned Eos, the early-born, by the streams of Ocean, at the ends of the earth; but when the first grey hairs began to ripple from his lovely head and noble chin, queenly Eos kept away from his bed, though she cherished him in her house and nourished him with food and ambrosia and gave him rich clothing. But when wretched old age pressed fully upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best plan: she laid him in a room and closed the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no longer has any strength at all, such as he once had in his supple limbs.

[239] “I would not have you be deathless among the deathless gods and live continually in this way. Yet if you could live on such as now you are in appearance, and be called my husband, sorrow would not surround my noble heart. But, as it is, harsh old age will soon enfold you – ruthless age which comes someday to every man, deadly, wearying, dreaded even by the gods.

[247] “And now because of you I will have great shame among the deathless gods from now on, continually. For until now they feared my songs and the wiles by which, sooner or later, I paired all the immortals with mortal women, making them all subject to my will. But now my mouth will no longer have this power among the gods; for my madness has been very great, my miserable and dreadful madness, and I went out of my mind, I  who have now conceived a child underneath my girdle, mating with a mortal man. As for the child, as soon as he sees the light of the sun, the deep-breasted mountain Nymphs who inhabit this great and holy mountain will raise him. They are neither mortals nor immortals: indeed, they live for a long time, eating heavenly food and dancing the lovely dance among the immortals, and with them the Sileni and the sharp-eyed Slayer of Argus mate in the depths of pleasant caves; but at their birth pines or high-topped oaks spring up with them upon the fruitful earth, beautiful, flourishing trees, towering high on the lofty mountains (and men call them holy places of the immortals, and never cut them down with the axe); but when the fate of death is near at hand, first those lovely trees wither where they stand, and the bark shrivels away on them, and the twigs fall down, and at last the life of the Nymph and of the tree leave the light of the sun together. These Nymphs will keep my son with them and rear him, and as soon as he has reached lovely boyhood, the goddesses will bring him here to you and show you your child. But, so that I may tell you all that I have in mind, I will come here again around the fifth year and bring you my son. When you see him – a child to delight the eyes – you will rejoice in looking at him; for he will be godlike: then bring him at once to windy Ilium. And if any mortal man ask you who birthed your dear son, remember to tell him this: say he is the offspring of one of the flower-like Nymphs who inhabit this forest-covered hill. But if you tell all and foolishly boast that you lay with rich-crowned Aphrodite, Zeus will smite you in his anger with a smoking thunderbolt. Now I have told you everything. Be careful: do not speak my name, but respect the anger of the gods.” When the goddess had so spoken, she soared up to windy heaven.

[292] Hail, goddess, queen of well-built Cyprus! With you have I begun; now I will turn to another hymn.


Taken from:

Bion, “Lament for Adonis”

In a Greek poem from the 2nd century CE, the poet Bion imagines the devastating aftermath of the death of Adonis, another of Aphrodites’ mortal lovers. Here, the goddess weeps over his beautiful, young body as he lies bleeding from a fatal goring of his thigh, inflicted by the tusk of a wild boar that he had been hunting.


Bion, “Lament for Adonis” (trans. Ryan Johnson)

Greek erotic poem, ca. 100 BCE

I wail for Adonis: “Beautiful  Adonis is dead.”

“Beautiful Adonis has perished,” the Erotes wail in return.

Sleep no more, Aphrodite, in your purple sheets. Wake up to your sorrows, put on a dark robe and beat your breasts[4] and tell everyone,

“Beautiful Adonis is dead.”

I wail for Adonis; the Erotes wail in return.

Beautiful Adonis lies in the hills, his thigh pierced by a tusk. White pierced by white, and it grieves Aphrodite– the gentle passing of his breath. And his dark blood trickles down over his snow-white flesh, and beneath his brows his eyes began to deaden. The redness flees his lips: And upon them dies as well the kiss which Aphrodite will never have again. The kiss of the dead is now pleasing enough to Aphrodite, but Adonis does not know that she has kissed him as he lays dying.

I wail for Adonis; the Erotes wail in return.

Cruel, cruel wound that lies in Adonis’ thigh! But even crueler the wound which lies in the heart of Aphrodite. Friendly dogs howl around the young man and the mountain nymphs cry in lament. But Aphrodite, loosening her locks of hair as she roams about the woods is mourning with unbraided hair and without sandals. And the brambles scratch her as she goes and draw sacred blood. She wails as she hurries through the long valley. She cries aloud for her Assyrian lover[5] and calls for the young man. Meanwhile the dark blood flowed around his navel and his breast took on the red that came from his thighs, while Adonis’ chest that was formerly snow-white began to turn purple.

“Alas for Aphrodite!” the Erotes wail in return.

[A boar] killed the fair man, and it destroyed as well his holy figure. His figure was attractive to Aphrodite, when Adonis was alive, but his beauty is dying away with Adonis. “Alas for Aphrodite!”

All the hills say, and the oaks: “Alas for Adonis!”

And the rivers cry the sorrows of Aphrodite. And the springs in the hills shed tears for Adonis. The flowers become red from grief, and [the island of] Cythera over every foothill, over every grove sings a pitiable lament: “Alas for Aphrodite, beautiful Adonis is dead!”

And Echo cries back: “Beautiful Adonis is dead!”

Who would not have cried in lament over the dire tale of Aphrodite’s love? Thus she saw, thus she observed the irrepressible wound of Adonis. Thus she saw the crimson blood about his thigh as it wasted away, and raising her hands she began to wail plaintively: “Stay, Adonis! Stay unlucky Adonis, so that I may meet with you for the last time; so that I may embrace you and mingle my lips with yours. Awaken, little Adonis, and kiss me again for the last time, kiss me for so long as the kiss has been alive, until you give up your breath into my mouth and your spirit flows into my heart, and I draw out your sweet spell of love, and I drink up your love, and I will keep that kiss safe, since Adonis himself gave it, since you flee me, miserable that I am, you flee to the great House of Hades and you are going to Acheron, near the hateful and cruel king. But I, wretched as I am, live and am a goddess and cannot pursue you. O Persephone, take my husband! For you yourself are much stronger than me, and all that is good flows down to you. But as for me, I am all without luck, and I have unceasing sorrow, and I cry for my Adonis, who is dying, and I am seized with fear for you. You are dying, O thrice-desired one, and my desire flew like a dream, but Aphrodite is a widow, and the Erotes are destitute in her estate. Your embroidered garment is lost as well. O darling, why did you go hunting?Had you, beautiful as you are, gone mad that you wrestled with a beast?”

Thus Aphrodite lamented; The Erotes wail in return, “Alas for Aphrodite, beautiful Adonis is dead!”

Aphrodite pours out as many tears as Adonis pours out his blood, and it all becomes flowers upon the earth. The blood brings forth roses and the tears anemones.

I wail for Adonis, beautiful Adonis is dead.

Weep no more for your husband in the woods, Aphrodite. A lonely bed of leaves is no good for Adonis. Let Aphrodite bring Adonis, even though he is dead, to his marriage-bed. Indeed even his corpse is beautiful, a beautiful corpse, as though he were asleep. Lay him down in the soft sheets in which he used to sleep, upon the couch of solid gold on which he would pass the night with you in sacred sleep. It longs for Adonis, stiff as he is. Cast on him wreaths and flowers. Let them all [die] with him. Since he has died let all the flowers die too! Sprinkle him with Syrian unguents, sprinkle him with perfumes! Let all perfumes come to an end, your perfume Adonis is perished! Graceful Adonis lies in purple wrappings, [6] and the lamenting Erotes groan aloud all around him, having shorn their locks for Adonis. One casts arrows upon him, another a bow, another still a feather, and another a quiver.

One loosens Adonis’ sandal, others fetch water in a golden basin, still another washes his thighs, and another behind him fans Adonis with his wings.

“Alas for Aphrodite!” the Erotes wail in return.

The god Hymen has put out every torch upon the doorposts and he has scattered the wedding wreath. No longer does Hymen sing his song, but sings along, “Alas!” and “Adonis!” more than there ever was of the wedding song.

The graces bewail the son of Kinyras, “Beautiful Adonis is dead!” crying among one another. They sharply cry “Alas!” much more than the Paean. Even the Fates call out “Adonis! Adonis!” And sing an incantation for him, but he does not give heed to them. Indeed it is not that there is no will, but that Kore will not set him free. Cease your weeping for today, Aphrodite, stop beating your breasts. It will be necessary for you to lament again, to weep again in another year.

A Woman’s Aphrodite

In one of the rare pieces of writing by a woman that survives from Greco-Roman antiquity, the poet Sappho, writing in Greek in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, addresses a plea to Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love.


Sappho, “Ode to Aphrodite” (trans. A.S. Kline, adapted by T. Mulder)

Greek lyrical poem, ca. 600 BCE

Glittering-minded deathless Aphrodite,

I beg you, Zeus’s daughter, weaver of snares,

Don’t shatter my heart with fierce

Pain, goddess,

But come now, if ever before

You heard my voice, far off, and listened,

And left your father’s golden house,

And came,

Yoking your chariot. Lovely the swift

Sparrows that brought you over black earth

A whirring of wings through mid-air

Down the sky.

They came. And you, sacred one,

Smiling with deathless face, asking

What now, while I suffer: why now

I cry out to you, again:

What now I desire above all in my

Mad heart. Whom now, shall I persuade

To admit you again to her love,

Sappho, who wrongs you now?

If she runs now she’ll follow later,

If she refuses gifts she’ll give them.

If she loves not, now, she’ll soon

Love against her will.

Come to me now, then, free me

From aching care, and win me

All my heart longs to win. You,

Be my friend.


Taken from:

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved.

Aphrodite in the Iliad

The belly of a black-figure amphora depicting Aphrodite at Aeneas' side as warriors with swords and shields press in from either side.
Aphrodite rescuing her son Aeneas on in battle at Troy, black-figure amphora from ca. 480 B.C.E. (Martin Von Wagner Museum)

Aphrodite, as the architect of Paris’ abduction of Helen (see chapter 26), fights on the side of the Trojans in the Trojan war. At one point she famously enters the battle fray with her consort, Ares, and is wounded by the Greek hero, Diomedes. She also protects and tends to her son Aeneas, who is fighting on the Trojan side.

Cupid and Psyche

We see a quite different side of Venus/Aphrodite in The Golden Ass, a Roman novel from the 2nd century CE. Here, in a story embedded within the main story, Venus is jealous and vengeful. She envies the attention given to the mortal woman Psyche for her beauty, which people say is comparable to Venus’ own beauty. And she grows especially incensed when her own son, Cupid (Eros in Greek), falls in love with Psyche.


Apuleius, The Golden Ass, Books 4-6 (The Tale of Cupid and Psyche) (trans. A.S. Kline, adapted by P. Rogak)

Roman novel, 2nd century CE

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault, assault, suicide (5.25-28), physical abuse (6.9-10)]
The Golden Ass, also called The Metamorphoses, is a Roman novel by Apuleius, written in the 2nd century CE. It tells the story of Lucius, a young man, who, in his curiosity about magic, is accidentally transformed into an ass. He has many adventures and misadventures, including being stolen by a company of thieves, and being sold to a castrated priest of the goddess Cybele. At the end of the novel, Lucius is initiated into the cult of the goddess Isis. At one point in his adventures, he encounters a tricky old woman, who relates the story of Cupid and Psyche. The story covers three out of the novel’s eleven total books.


[Book 4: 28-31 ] In a certain city there lived a king and queen, who had three daughters of surpassing beauty. Though the elder two were extremely pleasing, still it was thought they were only worthy of mortal praise; but the youngest girl’s looks were so delightful, so dazzling, no human speech in its poverty could celebrate them, or even rise to adequate description. Crowds of eager citizens and visitors alike, drawn by tales of this peerless vision, stood dumbfounded, marvelling at her exceptional loveliness, pressing thumb and forefinger together and touching them to their lips, and bowing their heads towards her in pious prayer as if she were truly the goddess Venus. Soon the news spread through neighbouring cities, and the lands beyond its borders, that the goddess herself, born from the blue depths of the sea, emerging in spray from the foaming waves, was now gracing the earth in various places, appearing in many a mortal gathering or, if not that, then earth not ocean had given rise to a new creation, a new celestial emanation, another Venus, and as yet a virgin flower.

Day by day rumour gathered pace, and the fame of her beauty spread through the nearby islands, the mainland, and all but a few of the provinces. People journeyed from far countries, and sailed the deep sea in swelling throngs, to witness the sight of the age. Venus’s shrines in Paphos, Cnidos, and even Cythera itself were no longer their destinations. Her rites were neglected, her temples abandoned, her cushions were trodden underfoot, the ceremonies uncelebrated, the statues un-garlanded, the altars cold with forsaken ashes. The girl it was, that people worshipped, seeking to propitiate the goddess’ great power in a human face. When she walked out of a morning, they would invoke transcendent Venus in feast and sacrifice. And as she passed through the streets, crowds would shower her with garlands and flowers.

This extravagant bestowal of the honours due to heaven on a mere mortal girl roused Venus herself to violent anger. She shook her head impatiently, and uttered these words of indignation to herself with a groan: “Behold me, the primal mother of all that is, the source of the elements, the whole world’s bountiful Venus, driven to divide my imperial honours with a lowly human! Is my name, established in heaven, to be traduced by earthly pollution? Am I to suffer the vagaries of vicarious reverence, a share in the worship of my divinity? Is a girl, destined to die, to tread the earth in my likeness? Was it nothing that Paris, that shepherd, whose just and honest verdict was approved by almighty Jove, preferred me for my matchless beauty to those other two great goddesses? But she’ll reap no joy from usurping my honours, whatever she may be: I’ll soon make her regret that illicit beauty of hers.”

And she swiftly summoned Cupid, that son of hers, a winged and headstrong boy, who with his wicked ways and contempt for public order, armed with his torch and his bow and arrows, goes running around at night in other people’s houses, ruining marriages everywhere, committing such shameful acts with impunity, and doing not an ounce of good.

Venus, with her words, rousing his natural impudence and wildness to new heights, led him to the city and showed him Psyche in person – such was the girl’s name – and told the tale of her rival’s loveliness, moaning and groaning in indignation. “I beg you,” she said, “by the bond of maternal love, by you arrows’ sweet wounds, by the honeyed licking of your flames, revenge your mother fully; exact harsh punishment from defiant beauty. One act of yours, pursued with a will, would accomplish all: let the girl be seized by violent, burning passion for the most wretched of men, one to whom Fortune has denied rank, wealth, even health, one so insignificant there is none on earth equal to him in misery.”

With this she kissed her son long and tenderly with parted lips then, seeking the nearest strand of tide-swept shore, stepped on rose-tinted feet over the trembling crests of the foaming waves, and stood once more on the crystal surface of the deep. The ocean instantly obeyed her wishes, as if commanded in advance. The Nereids were there, singing a choral song; Portunus, the god of harbours, with his sea-green beard; Salacia, Neptune’s wife, her lap alive with fish; and Palaemon the dolphins’ little charioteer. Troops of Tritons too leapt here and there in the water. One blew softly on a melodious conch; another with a silk parasol shielded her from the sun’s hostile blaze; another held a mirror to his mistress’ eyes; while yet more swam harnessed in pairs to her chariot. Such was the throng escorting Venus as she moved out to sea.

[32 -33] Psyche, for all her conspicuous beauty, reaped no profit from her charms. Gazed at by all, praised by all, no one, neither prince nor commoner, wishing to marry her, sought her hand. They admired her divine beauty of course, but as we admire a perfectly finished statue. Her two elder sisters, whose plainer looks had never been trumpeted through the world, were soon engaged to royal suitors and so made excellent marriages, but Psyche was left at home, a virgin, single, weeping in lonely solitude, ill in body and sore at heart, hating that beauty of form the world found so pleasing.

So the wretched girl’s unhappy father, suspecting divine hostility, fearing the gods’ anger, consulted the ancient Miletian oracle of Apollo at Didyma. With prayer and sacrifice he asked the mighty god for a man to marry the unfortunate girl. Apollo, though Greek and Ionian too, favoured the author of this Miletian tale with a reply in Latin:

“High on a mountain crag, decked in her finery,

Lead your daughter, king, to her fatal marriage.

And hope for no child of hers born of a mortal,

But a cruel and savage, serpent-like winged evil,

Flying through the heavens, and threatening all,

Menacing ever soul on earth with fire and sword,

Till Jove himself trembles, the gods are terrified,

And rivers quake and the Stygian shades beside.”

The king, blessed till now, on hearing this utterance of sacred prophecy went slowly home in sadness and told his wife the oracle’s dark saying. They moaned, they wept, they wailed for many a day. But the dire and fatal hour soon approached. The scene was set for the poor girl’s dark wedding. The flames of the wedding torches grew dim with black smoky ash; the tune of Hymen’s flute sounded in plaintive Lydian mode, and the marriage-hymn’s cheerful song fell to a mournful wail. The bride-to-be wiped tears away with her flame-red bridal veil; the whole city grieved at the cruel fate that had struck the afflicted house and public business was interrupted as a fitting show of mourning.

But the need to obey the divine command sent poor Psyche to meet the sentence decreed, the ritual preparations for the fatal marriage were completed in utter sorrow, and the living corpse was led from the house surrounded by all the people. Tearful Psyche walked along, not in wedding procession, but in her own funeral cortege. Her parents saddened and overcome by this great misfortune hesitated to carry out the dreadful deed, but their daughter herself urged them on:

“Why torment a sorrowful old age with endless weeping? Why exhaust your life’s breath, which is my own, with this constant wailing? Why drown in vain tears those faces I love? Why wound my eyes by wounding your own? Why tear your white hair? Why beat the breasts that fed me? Let this be your glorious reward for my famous beauty. Too late you see the blow that falls is dealt by wicked Envy. When nations and countries granted me divine honours, when with one voice they named me as the new Venus, that’s when you should have mourned, and wept, and grieved as if I were dead. I know now, I realise that her name alone destroys me. Lead me now to that cliff the oracle appointed. I go swiftly towards this fortunate marriage, I go swiftly to meet this noble husband of mine. Why delay, why run from the coming of one who’ll be born for the whole world’s ruin?”

With this, the girl fell silent, and went steadfastly on, accompanied by the throng of citizens around her. They came to the steep mountain crag decreed, and placed the girl, as commanded, on its very top, then deserted her, one and all. They left behind the bridal torches, lighted on the way, and now extinguished by their tears, and heads bent low began their journey home, where her unhappy parents, exhausted by this dreadful blow, shut themselves in the darkness of their room, and resigned themselves to endless night.

Meanwhile Psyche, on the topmost summit, frightened, trembling, and in tears, was lifted by a gentle breeze, a softly whispering Zephyr, stirring her dress around her and causing it to billow, its tranquil breath carrying her slowly down the high cliff slopes to the valley below, where it laid her tenderly on a bed of flowering turf.

[Book 5: 1-3] Psyche, pleasantly reclining in that grassy place on a bed of dew-wet grass, free of her mental perturbation, fell peacefully asleep, and when she was sufficiently refreshed by slumber, rose, feeling calm. She saw a grove planted with great, tall trees; she saw a glittering fount of crystal water.

At the very centre of the grove beside the flowing stream was a regal palace, not made by human hands, but built by divine art. You knew from the moment you entered you were viewing the splendid shining residence of a god. There were coffered ceilings, exquisitely carved from ivory and citron-wood supported on golden pillars; the walls were covered with relief-work in silver, wild beasts in savage herds met your gaze as you reached the doorway. They were the work of some eminent master, or a demigod or god perhaps, who with the subtlety of great art had made creatures all of silver. Even the floors were of mosaic, pictures patterned from precious stones cut into tiny tiles. Blessed twice over or more are those who tread on shining jewels and gems! The length and breadth of the rest of the house was equally beyond price, the walls constructed of solid gold gleaming with their own brilliance, so that even without the sun’s rays the house shone like day. The rooms, the colonnades, the very doorposts glowed. And every other feature matched the house in magnificence, so you would have thought, rightly, that this was a heavenly palace made for Jove to use on his visits to the world.

Seduced by the attractions of this lovely place Psyche moved closer and, gaining confidence, dared to cross the threshold. Now her desire to gaze on all these beautiful things led her to examine every object closely. On the far side of the palace she found storerooms made with noble skill, heaped to the roof with mounds of treasure. All that existed was there. And beyond her amazement at the vast quantities of riches, she was especially startled to find not a lock, or bolt or chain to defend this treasure-house of all the world. As she looked around her, in rapturous delight, a bodiless voice spoke to her: “Lady, why are you so surprised at all this vast wealth? All that is here is yours. So retire to your room, and ease your weariness on the bed, and when you wish you can bathe. The voices you may hear are those of your servants, we who wait on you willingly, and when your body is refreshed we will be ready with a feast.”

Psyche felt blessed by divine providence, and obeying the guidance of the disembodied voice, eased her weariness with sleep and then a bath. Nearby she found a semi-circular table, and judging from the dinner setting that it was meant for her, she promptly sat down to wait. Instantly trays loaded with food and cups of nectar appeared, without trace of servants, they were wafted and set before her as though by a breath of air. No one was visible, but words could be heard from somewhere; her waiters were merely voices. And after a sumptuous meal, someone invisible came and sang, and someone played a lyre, invisible too. And there came to her ears the interweaving melodies of some large throng, some invisible choir.

[4-6] When these delights were ended, prompted by the sight of the evening star, Psyche retired to bed. Now, when night was well advanced, gentle whispers sounded in her ears, and all alone she feared for her virgin self, trembling and quivering, frightened most of what she knew nothing of. Her unknown husband had arrived and mounted the bed, and made Psyche his wife, departing swiftly before light fell. The servant-voices waiting in her chamber cared for the new bride no longer virgin. Things transpired thus for many a night, and through constant habit, as nature dictates, her new state accustomed her to its pleasures, and that sound of mysterious whispering consoled her solitude.

Meanwhile her father and mother, mourning and grieving ceaselessly, aged greatly. The story had spread far and wide, and her elder sisters learning of all that had occurred, abandoned their own homes, and sorrowing and lamenting, vied with each other in bringing solace to their parents.

One night Psyche’s husband spoke to her, though she could not see him, knowing him nonetheless by touch and hearing.

“Sweetest Psyche,” he said, “my dear wife, cruel Fortune threatens you with deadly danger, which I want you to guard against with utmost care. Your sisters think you dead and, troubled by this, they’ll soon come to the cliff-top. When they do, if you should chance to hear their lament, don’t answer or even look in their direction, or you’ll cause me the bitterest pain and bring utter ruin on yourself.”

Assenting, she promised to behave as her husband wished. But when he had vanished with the darkness, she spent the day weeping and grieving wretchedly, repeating again and again that she was truly dead, caged by the walls of her luxurious prison, bereft of human company and mortal speech, unable to tell her sisters not to mourn for her, and worse unable even to see them. She retired to bed once more, with neither bath nor food nor any drink to restore her, and there she wept profusely. Soon her husband came to join her, earlier than was his wont, and finding her still crying, clasped her in his arms and scolded her.

“Is this what you promised me, dear Psyche? What can I expect or hope from you? Day and night you never stop tormenting yourself even in the midst of our love-making. Well do as you wish, obey your heart’s fatal demands! But remember my dire warning when, too late, you repent.”

But Psyche pleaded with him, threatening to die if he would not agree to her desire to see her sisters, speak with them, and ease her sorrows. So he acceded to his new bride’s prayers, and also said she could give them whatever gold or jewellery she wished. But he warned her, time and again, often with threats, never to yield if her sisters gave her bad advice or urged her to investigate his appearance. Otherwise, through curiosity, her act of sacrilege would hurl her from the heights of good fortune, and she would never enjoy his embraces more.

She gave him thanks and, happier now, cried: “I’d rather die a hundred times than be robbed of your sweet caresses. Whoever you are I love you deeply, and adore you as much as life itself. Not even Cupid could compare to you. But grant me this favour, I beg: let your servant Zephyr waft my sisters here just as he wafted me.” And she began to offer alluring kisses, smother him with caressing words, and wrap him in her entwining limbs, adding to her charms with phrases like: “My honey-sweet, dear husband, your Psyche’s tender soul.” He succumbed reluctantly to the strength and power of her seductive murmurs, promising to agree to everything, and then as daylight drew near vanished from his wife’s embrace.

[7-10] Meanwhile her sisters hurried to the crag where Psyche had been abandoned, and wept their eyes out, beating their breasts, till the cliffs and rocks echoed with the sound of their loud wailing. Then they called their poor sister’s name till Psyche came running from the palace, distraught and trembling, at the sound of their melancholy voices descending the slope.

“Why tear your selves apart with heart-wrenching grief?” she cried. “I who you mourn am here. Cease those sad sounds and dry your cheeks drenched in tears, you can embrace the girl for whom you weep.”

Then she summoned Zephyr, reminding him of her husband’s orders. He obeyed instantly and her sisters were wafted down to her, safely riding the gentlest of breezes. They all delighted in eager embraces and mutual kisses, and the flow of tears that had been stemmed returned at joy’s urging.

“Now enter my home, in happiness,” cried Psyche, “and ease your troubled minds beside me.”

So she showed them the noble treasures of the golden house and called up the throng of attendant voices. They refreshed themselves, luxuriating in a fragrant bath and tasting the delicacies of an out-of-this-world cuisine. And the result was that, overcome by the fine abundance of truly heavenly riches, they began to nurture envy deep in their hearts. They started to question her endlessly, inquisitively, and intensively. Who owned these divine objects? What sort of man was her husband and who on earth was he? But Psyche could not banish the thought of her secret promise and violate her pledge to her husband, so she pretended he was a young and handsome man, with just the hint of a beard on his cheeks, who spent his days hunting over the fields and hillsides. But afraid of revealing something if the talk continued, and so betraying his trust, she heaped gold and jewellery in their hands, called there and then for Zephyr, and placed her sisters in his charge so he might return them.

Once this was done, those delightful sisters were victims of envy’s swelling bile and complained loudly to each other.

“O blind, cruel, iniquitous Fortune,” cried one, “Is it your pleasure that we, daughters with the very same parents, should suffer so different a fate? Are we the elder to live like exiles far from family, bound as slaves to foreign husbands, exiled from home and country, while she the youngest, the last creation of our mother’s exhausted womb acquires such wealth and a god of a husband? Sister, did you see all those fine gems lying around that palace? Did you see those gleaming clothes and sparkling jewels, and all that gold under our feet? Why she’ll not even know how to make use of it! If she keeps that handsome husband of hers, she’ll be the luckiest woman in the world, and perhaps she hopes if their marriage endures and his affection increases her divine husband will make her a goddess too. That’s it, that’s why she behaved and acted as she did! The girl’s already gazing heavenwards, aspiring to deity, with invisible voices serving her, and she giving orders to the breeze. While look at poor me, with a husband older than father, as bald as a pumpkin, and weak as a little child, who makes the house a prison with his bolts and chains!”

The other chipped in: “As for mine, he’s bent and bowed with arthritis, and scarcely ever pays homage to my charms. I’m forever massaging his twisted and frozen fingers, and soiling these delicate hands of mine with his odious fomentations, sordid bandages, and fetid poultices. Instead of playing the role of a normal wife, I’m burdened with playing his doctor. Decide for your self, dear sister, with how much patience and, let me be frank, servility you’ll endure this situation, but speaking for myself I won’t tolerate so delightful a fate descending on so undeserving a girl. Just think of the pride and arrogance she showed us, the haughtiness, the boastfulness of her immoderate display, the reluctance with which she threw us a few little trinkets from her caskets, and then, tired of our presence, quickly ordered us driven out, whistled off, and blown away! If there’s a breath left in me, as I’m a woman, I’ll see her cast down from that pile of gold. And if you feel the sting of her insults too, as you should, let’s devise a workable plan between us. Let’s keep from our parents that she’s alive, and hide these things she gave us: it’s enough that we two have seen all that we now regret seeing, let alone that we should bring glorious news of her to them and the world. There is no glory in unknown riches. She’ll discover we’re her elder sisters, not her servants. Now let’s return to our husbands and our plain but respectable homes, and once we’ve thought carefully about it, let’s return in strength and punish her arrogance.”

[11-13] This wicked scheme greatly pleased the two wicked sisters. They hid all the costly gifts, and tearing their hair and lacerating their cheeks, as they deserved to do, falsely renewed their lamentations. They soon frightened their parents into reopening the wound of their sorrow also. Then swollen with venom, they hastened home to plan their crime against an innocent sister, even to murder.

Meanwhile her unseen husband, on his nightly visit, warned Psyche once more: “See how much danger you’re in. Fortune is plotting at a distance, but soon, unless you take firm precautions, she’ll be attacking you face to face. Those treacherous she-wolves[7] are working hard to execute some evil act against you, by tempting you to examine my features. But do so and, as I’ve told you, you’ll never see me again. So if those foul harpies armed with their noxious thoughts return, as I know they will, you must hold no conversation with them. And if in your true innocence and tender-heartedness you can’t bear that, then at least, if they speak of me, don’t listen, or if you must don’t answer. You see our family will increase, and your womb, a child’s, must bear another child, who if you keep our secret silently will be divine, though if you profane it, mortal.”

Psyche blossomed with joy at the news, hailing the solace of a divine child, exulting in the glory of the one to be born, and rejoicing in the name of mother. She counted the swelling days, and the vanishing months, and as a beginner knowing nothing of the burden she bore was amazed at the growth of her seething womb from a tiny pinprick.

But those foul and pestilential Furies, her sisters, breathing viperous venom, were sailing towards her with impious speed. Now for a second time her husband warned Psyche in passing: “The fatal day, the final peril, the malice of your sex and hostile blood have taken arms against you, struck camp, prepared for battle, and sounded the attack. Those wicked sisters of yours with drawn swords are at your throat. What disaster threatens, sweet Psyche! Take pity on yourself and me. With resolution and restraint you can free your home and husband, yourself, and our child from the imminent danger that threatens. Don’t look at or listen to those evil women, who with their murderous hostility, their disregard of the bonds of blood, you should not call sisters, as they lean from the cliff-top like Sirens and make the rocks echo with that fatal singing.”

Her answer almost lost in tearful sobbing, Psyche replied: “Once before you asked for proof of my loyalty and discretion, now too you will find me just as resolute. Give your servant Zephyr his orders one more: let him perform his task, and if I am not to see your sacred face, grant me at least a glimpse of my sisters. By those cinnamon-perfumed locks that adorn your head, by those softly rounded cheeks like my own, by your breast so warm, so wonderfully aflame; as I hope to find your looks in my unborn child’s, at least, I beg you, yield to the loving prayers of a yearning suppliant and allow me the pleasure of sisterly embraces. Fill your dedicated and devoted Psyche’s spirit with joy once more. I’ll ask no more regarding your appearance. Clasping you in my arms, not even the darkness of the night can hurt me now, my light.”

Bewitched by her words and her sweet caresses, her husband wiped away her tears with his hair and gave her his agreement, vanishing swiftly before the light of the new-born day.

[14-21] Wedded together in conspiracy, her sisters, landing at the nearest harbour, and not even troubling to visit their parents, now hurried to the cliff, and with wild recklessness, not waiting for the attendant breeze, flung themselves into the air. Zephyr, mindful of his master’s orders, caught them reluctantly in the folds of his ethereal robes, and set them gently on the ground. Without a moment’s hesitation they marched into the palace side by side and with false affection embraced their victim, flattering her, masking the depths of their secret treachery with pleasing smiles.

“Dear Psyche,” they said, “no longer the little girl you once were, a mother now, think what a fine thing for us that burden of yours will prove! With what joy you’ll fill our whole house! O how lucky we will be, to share in the care for that golden child! If it takes after its father as it ought, it will be a perfect little cupid.”

With such simulated expressions of feeling they gradually influenced their sister’s mind. Once eased of their travel weariness by rest, and refreshed by vaporous warm baths, they feasted well on fine rich foods and sweetmeats. She ordered a lyre to play, it sounded; flutes to pipe, they trilled; choirs to perform, and voices swelled. Those sounds with no visible musicians caressed the listeners’ souls with the sweetest of melodies. But the wickedness of those vile women was not lessened at all by those honeyed modulations. They turned the conversation according to their deceitful scheming casually towards her husband: what kind of a man he was, what his birth and background. In her thoughtless innocence Psyche forgot her earlier inventions, and composed a fresh fiction. She claimed he came from the neighbouring province, a merchant responsible for extensive trade, middle-aged, with a dash of grey in his hair. Without prolonging the conversation, she heaped lavish gifts on them once again, and sent them back by their airy vehicle.

Once conveyed aloft on Zephyr’s tranquil breath, they returned home talking spitefully: “Well sister, what do you say to that foolish girl’s monstrous lies? First he’s a young man with a new growth of beard, now he’s middle-aged with a streak of grey in his hair. Who can change so suddenly from one age to another? The answer my sister, is that she’s making the whole thing up or has no idea what her husband looks like. In either case, and we must soon separate her from for her riches. If she’s truly ignorant of what he looks like, she must have married a god, and it’s a divine child that womb of hers is carrying. Well if she becomes the mother of a deity, and let’s hope not, I’ll tie the noose and hang myself. Meanwhile, back to our parents, and weave the threads of guile to match the pattern of our scheming.”

They greeted their parents haughtily, but irritated thus, they spent a troubled and a wakeful night. Early in the morning the wretched pair, hastened to the cliff and, with the help of the breeze as usual, swooped downwards angrily. Rubbing their eyelids to squeeze out a tear, they greeted the girl with cunning: “There you sit, feeling blessed and happy, in ignorance of your dire misfortune, careless of your danger; while we’ve been awake all night, unsleeping in our concern for your problems, sadly tormented by your impending disaster. We know the truth now, you see, and sharing of course in your ills and troubles we cannot hide it from you: what sleeps beside you, shrouded by the darkness, is a monstrous serpent, a slippery knot of coils, its blood-filled gaping jaws oozing noxious venom. Remember Apollo’s oracle which prophesied you were destined to wed some brutish creature. Hunters, and farmers, and others round about have seen the thing returning from its predations, swimming in the shallows of the nearby river. They say that he’ll soon cease to nourish you with those delightful offerings, in which he indulges, but once your pregnancy reaches full term and burdens you with its richest fruit, he’ll devour you. You must decide about all this, will you listen to your sisters, both concerned for your safety, shun death, and live with us free from danger? Or do you prefer to end in the stomach of that savage beast? If you delight in the sounding solitude of this rural retreat of yours, the foul and perilous embrace of a clandestine love, the clasp of a venomous serpent, well, at least we loving sisters will have performed our duty.”

Then poor little Psyche, naive and vulnerable, was seized with terror at their dark words. Beyond reason, she forgot all the warnings her husband had issued, and her own pledge, and plunged headlong to ruin. Trembling and pale, the blood draining from her face, stammering feverish words through half-open lips, she answered as follows:

“Dearest sisters, true and loyal as ever to your own, you are right: I believe those who told you all this speak no lie. Indeed, I have never seen my husband’s face, nor do I know what he truly is. I only hear his midnight whispers, and suffer the attentions of an unseen partner who shuns the light. He must be some strange creature, I agree. He always warns me not to try and reveal his features, and threatens harsh punishment for my curiosity concerning his appearance. If you can save your sister from this danger, help me now. Neglect me and you’ll undo the good your care has brought about.”

Her defences were down, and those wicked sisters, having breached the gates of her mind, now quit the cover of their secret scheming, drew their blades, and bore down on the helpless girl’s timidity.

Said one: “Since our love of family compels us to shun all danger where a sister’s life is at stake, we’ll show you the only way to reach salvation, a carefully thought out plan. Take a sharp razor, whet it further, hide it in your palm, then place it secretly under the pillow where you lie. Then trim the lamp, fill it with oil, so it shines with a clear light, and conceal it under a little cover. Prepare all this with the utmost caution, and after he’s slithered into bed with you, as he’s lying there enmeshed in the web of sleep, and breathing deeply, slip from the bed and tiptoeing barefoot without a sound free the lamp from its dark prison. Seize the chance for a glorious deed of your own from the light’s clear counsel; and grasping your double-bladed weapon tightly, raise your right hand high, and with the firmest stroke you can muster sever the venomous serpent’s head from his body. Our help will not be lacking. As soon as you’ve won freedom by his death we’ll be waiting anxiously to rush to your aid, and carrying all the treasure back with us, we’ll see you joined in proper marriage vows, mortal to mortal.”

With this inflaming speech they kindled their sister’s now heated mind further and then left her, fearing, themselves, to haunt the scene of so evil an act. They were wafted by the winged breeze to the summit of the cliff, as before and, hastening away in swift retreat, boarded their ships and were gone.

Psyche was left alone, except that a woman driven by hostile Furies is never alone. In her grief, she ebbed and flowed like the ocean tide. Though the scheme was decided and she determined, still as she drew towards the act itself she wavered, confused in mind, torn by the countless conflicting emotions the situation prompted. She prepared and delayed, dared and feared, despaired and felt anger, while, hardest of all to endure, she hated the beast and loved the husband embodied in a single form. Yet, as evening led towards night, she readied all needed for the wicked crime with frantic haste. Night fell, and her husband came, and after love’s skirmishes and struggles he dropped into deep slumber.

[22-24] Then Psyche, though lacking strength and courage, was empowered by cruel fate, and unveiling the lamp, seized the razor, acting a man’s part in her boldness. Yet, as the light shone clear and the bed’s mysteries were revealed, she found her savage beast was the gentlest and sweetest creature of all, that handsome god Cupid, handsome now in sleep. At the sight, even the lamp’s flame quickened in joy, and the razor regretted its sacrilegious stroke. But Psyche, terrified at the marvellous vision, beside her self with fear, and overcome with sudden weariness, sank pale, faint and trembling to her knees. She tried to conceal the weapon, in her own breast! She would indeed have done so if the gleaming blade had not flown from her reckless hands, in horror at her dreadful intent. Exhausted now by the sense of release, she gazed again and again at the beauty of that celestial face, and her spirits revived.

She saw the glorious tresses, drenched with ambrosia, on his golden brow, the neatly tied locks straying over his rosy cheeks and milk-white neck, some hanging delicately in front others behind, and the splendour of their shining brilliance made the lamplight dim. Over the winged god’s shoulders white plumage glimmered like petals in the morning dew, and though his wings were at rest, soft little feathers at their edges trembled restlessly in wanton play. The rest of his body was smooth and gleaming, such that Venus had no regrets at having borne such a child. At the foot of the bed lay his bow, and his quiver full of arrows, the graceful weapons of the powerful god.

With insatiable curiosity Psyche examined, touched, wondered at her husband’s weapons. She drew an arrow from the quiver, testing the point against her thumb-tip, but her hand was still trembling and pressing too hard she pricked the surface, so that tiny drops of crimson blood moistened the skin. Thus without knowing it Psyche fell further in love with Love himself, so that now inflamed with desire for Desire, she leaned over Cupid, desperate for him. She covered him eagerly with passionate impetuous kisses till she feared she might wake him. Then as her wounded heart beat with the tremor of such bliss, the lamp, in wicked treachery, or malicious jealousy, or simply longing to touch and kiss, in some fashion, that wondrous body, shed a drop of hot oil from the depths of its flame on to the god’s right shoulder. O bold and careless lamp, a poor servant to Love, scorching the god of flame himself, though a lover it was who first invented you so as to enjoy, even at night, an endless sight of his beloved! Scalded like this the god leapt up, and realising his secret had been betrayed, flew swiftly and silently from his unhappy wife’s kisses and embrace.

Yet, as he rose, Psyche clasped his right leg with both hands, a piteous impediment to his soaring flight; a trailing appendage; a dangling companion amongst the cloudy regions. At last she fell to the ground, exhausted. As she lay there, her divine lover chose not to desert her, but flew to a nearby cypress tree, from whose heights he spoke to her in her distress:

“Poor innocent Psyche,” he cried, “Venus commanded me, though I have disobeyed my mother’s orders, to fill you with passion for some vile wretch and sentence you to the meanest kind of marriage, but I flew to you as your lover instead. It was a foolish thing to do, I see that, and illustrious archer though I am, I shot myself with my own arrow, and made you my wife, only for you to think me some savage monster, and sever my head with a sword, a head that bears the very eyes that love you. I told you time and again to beware of this, I warned you over and over for your own good. As for those precious advisors of yours, I’ll soon take my revenge for their pernicious machinations; you I punish merely by my flight.” With this he took wing and soared into the air.

[25-27] Psyche lay there, on the ground, watching her husband’s passage till he was out of sight, tormenting herself with the saddest lamentations. But once he was lost to view, sped onwards into the distance by his beating wings, she hurled herself from the margin of the nearest river. Yet the tender stream, respecting the god who can make even water burn, fearing for its own flow, quickly clasped her in its innocuous current and placed her on the soft turf of its flowery bank. By chance, Pan, god of the wild, was seated on the shore, caressing Echo the mountain goddess, teaching her to repeat tunes in a thousand modes. By the river’s edge, wandering she-goats grazed and frolicked, cropping the flowing grasses. The goat-legged god, catching sight of the sad and weary Psyche, and not unconscious of her plight, called to her gently and calmed her with soothing words.

“Sweet lady, though I’m only a rustic herdsman, I benefit from the experience of many a long year. If I surmise rightly, though wise men call it not surmise but rather divination, by your weak and wandering footsteps, your deathly pale complexion, your constant sighs and those sad eyes, you are suffering from love’s extremes. But listen to what I say, don’t try to find death again by a suicidal leap or in some other way. Cease your mourning, end this sorrow. Rather pray to Cupid, greatest of the gods, worship him and earn his favour through blandishments and deference, for he’s a pleasure-seeking, tender-hearted youth.”

Psyche gave no reply to the shepherd god, but gave him reverence as he finished speaking, and went her way. After she’d wearily walked a good deal further, not knowing where she was, she came at twilight to a city where one of her brothers-in-law was king. Realising this, Psyche asked that her arrival be communicated to her sister. She was quickly led to her, and when they were done with embraces and greetings, her sister asked the reason for her presence. Psyche explained,

“You’ll recall your counsel, when you both advised me to take a sharp razor and kill the monster that played the role of husband and slept with me, before its rapacious jaws might swallow me whole. Well, I acted on that advice, with the lamp my accomplice, but when I gazed on his face I saw an utterly wonderful, a divine sight: Venus’ child, the goddess’ son, Cupid himself I say, lying there, and sleeping peacefully. Roused by that blissful vision, disturbed by excess of joy, distressed at being unable to delight in him much longer, through dreadful mischance a drop of hot oil spurted onto his shoulder. The pain roused him from sleep and, seeing that I was armed with flame and steel, he cried: ‘For your wicked crime, you are banished from my bed, take what is yours and go. I shall embrace your sister now – he spoke your name formally – in holy matrimony.’ Then he ordered Zephyr to drive me from the palace.”

Psyche had barely finished speaking before her sister spurred on by raging passion and venomous jealousy had conceived a tale to deceive her husband. Pretending she had just had news of her parents’ deaths, she took ship, and travelled to the cliff-edge. Though an adverse wind was blowing, filled with desire and in blind hope she cried: “Accept a wife worthy of you, Cupid: carry your mistress to him, Zephyr! And she took a headlong leap. Yet even in death she could not reach her goal. Her body was broken and torn on the jagged rocks, as she deserved, and her lacerated corpse provided a ready banquet for the wild beasts and carrion birds.

Nor was the second sister’s punishment slow in arriving. Psyche wandered on to the city where her other sibling lived in similar style, who likewise roused by her sister’s story, eager to supplant her wickedly in marriage, rushed to the cliff and met the selfsame end.

[28-31] Psyche wandered through the land, seeking Cupid, while he lay in his mother’s chamber groaning with pain from his scorched shoulder. Meanwhile a snow-white bird, the seagull that skims the surface of the sea, dived swiftly beneath the ocean waves, found Venus where she swam and bathed in the deep, and gave her the news that Cupid had been burned, was in the utmost pain from his wound, and lay there in doubtful health; moreover the rumours circling through the world, by word of mouth, had heaped reproach on her and gained her whole household a dreadful reputation. People said that they’d both abandoned their post, he to dally in the mountains, she to sport in the sea; that all delight, grace and charm was gone; that all was boorish, rough, unkempt; no nuptial rites, no friendly gatherings, no love of children; only a vast confusion, and a squalid disregard for the chafing bonds of marriage. So that loquacious, meddlesome bird cackled on in Venus’ ear, tearing her son to shreds before her eyes.

Venus at once grew angry, crying, “So, now that fine son of mine has a girlfriend has he? Come tell me then, my only loving servant, the name of the creature that’s seduced a simple innocent child. Is she one of the host of Nymphs, or the troop of Hours, or the Muses’ choir, or my own companions the Graces?”

The talkative bird’s tongue ran on, “Mistress, I’m not sure, but I heard he was desperately in love with a girl – Psyche, by name, if I remember rightly.”

Now Venus screamed, loud with indignation: “Psyche, that witch who steals my form, that pretender to my name! Is she the one who delights him? Does the imp take me for some procuress, who pointed that same girl out so he might know her?”

With this cry, she swiftly emerged from the sea, and sought her golden chamber, where she found her son, indisposed as she had heard. She shouted from the doorway at the top of her voice: “Fine behaviour, highly creditable to your birth and reputation! First you disregard your mother’s orders, or rather your queen’s I should say, and fail to visit a sordid passion on the girl, then, a mere boy, you couple with her, my enemy, in reckless, immature love-making, presumably thinking I’d love that woman I hate as a daughter-in-law? You presume you’ll remain the only prince, unlovable, worthless, rake that you are, and that I’m too old to conceive again. Well, know that I’ll produce a better son than you. You’ll feel the insult all the more when I adopt one of my slave boys, and grant him your wings and torches, bow and arrows, and all the rest of the gear I gave you, which was never intended to be used this way. Remember your father Vulcan makes no allowance from his estate for equipping you. You were badly brought up from infancy, quick to raise your hands and fire arrows at your elders in disrespect, and expose me, your mother, to shame each day, you monster! You often make me your target, sneer at me as ‘the widow’, without fearing your step-father, Mars, the world’s strongest and mightiest warrior. Why would you, since you provide that adulterer with a ready supply of girls to torment me with? But I warn you: you’ll be sorry for mocking me, when that marriage of yours leaves a sour, bitter taste in your mouth!”

He was silent, but she went on complaining to herself: “Oh, what shall I do, where can I turn now everyone’s laughing at me? Dare I ask for help from my enemy Moderation, whom my son’s very excesses so often offend? Yet I shudder at the thought of tackling that squalid old peasant woman. Still, whatever its source, the solace of revenge is not to be spurned. I must certainly use her, her alone, to impose the harshest punishment on that good-for-nothing, shatter his quiver and blunt his arrows, unstring his bow, and quench his torch. And I’ll spoil his looks with a harsher medicine still: I’ll not consider my injuries atoned for till she’s shaved off his golden hair, which I brushed myself till it shone like gold; and clipped those wings of his, that I steeped in the stream of milky nectar from my breasts.”

With that she rushed out again, bitterly angry, in a storm of passion. At that instant she met with Juno and Ceres, who seeing her wrathful look, asked why that sullen frown was marring the loveliness of her bright eyes. “How opportune,” she cried, “my heart is ablaze and here you come to do me a kindness. Exert your considerable powers, I beg, to find my elusive runaway Psyche. I assume the widespread tale of my family, the exploits of that unspeakable son of mine, have not escaped you.”

Then they, aware of what had gone on, tried to assuage Venus’ savage anger: “My dear,” they said, “what is this fault your son committed that you take so seriously, so much so you set out to thwart his pleasures, and seem so eager to ruin the girl he loves? What crime is it, we ask, if he likes to smile at a pretty girl? Don’t you know he’s young and male? Or have you forgotten his age? Just because he carries his years lightly, do you think him forever a child? You’re a mother and a sensible woman besides. Stop spying so keenly on your son’s pursuits, blaming his self-indulgence, scolding him for his love affairs, in short finding fault with your own pleasures and talents, in the shape of your handsome son. What god, indeed what mortal, could endure your sowing the seeds of desire everywhere yet constraining love bitterly where your own home is concerned, and shuttering the official workshop where women’s faults are made?”

So they obligingly provided the absent Cupid with a plausible defence but Venus, offended that her wrongs were being ridiculed, turned her back on them and swept off towards the sea.

[Book 6: 1-4] Meanwhile Psyche wandered day and night, restlessly seeking her husband, eager if she could not mollify his anger with a wife’s caresses, at least to appease him with a devotee’s prayers. Spying a temple on the summit of a high mountain, she thought: “How do I know he might not live there?” Swiftly she moved towards it. Though she was wearied from her efforts, hope and desire quickened her step. When she had clambered up to the lofty ridge, she entered the shrine and stood by the sacred couch. It was heaped with ears of wheat, some woven into wreaths, and ears of barley. There were sickles, and all the other harvest implements, but scattered about in total disorder, as if left there by the harvesters escaping the summer sun. Psyche sorted them all into separate piles, thinking she should not neglect the temples or rituals of any deity, but rather appeal to the kindness and mercy of them all.

It was bountiful Ceres who found her, carefully and diligently caring for her shrine, and called to her from afar: “Psyche, poor girl, what’s this? Venus, her heart afire, is searching intently for you. She wants to punish you severely, demanding vengeance with all her divine power. Yet here you are looking after my affairs. How can you think of anything but your own safety?”

Psyche drenched the goddess’ feet with a flood of tears, and swept the temple floor with her hair, as she prostrated herself on the ground, uttering countless prayers, seeking to win the deity’s favour: “I beseech you by the fruitful power of your right hand, by the joy-filled ceremony of the harvest, by the unspoken mystery of the sacred basket, by the winged flight of your dragon-servants, by the furrowed Sicilian fields and Pluto’s chariot and the swallowing earth, by Proserpine’s descent to a gloomy wedding, the torch-lit discovery of that same daughter of yours and her return, and by all the other secrets which your sanctuary in Attica, Eleusis, cloaks in silence, oh, save the life of wretched Psyche, your suppliant. Let me hide for a few days here at least among your store of grain, till the great goddess’s raging anger abates with the passage of time, or until my strength, exhausted by my long journey, is restored by a chance to rest.”

Ceres answered: “Your tears and prayers move me more than I can say, and I long to help you, but Venus is not simply my niece, we share ancient ties of friendship, and besides she’s so good-hearted, I can’t afford to offend her. I fear you must leave the shrine at once, and count yourself fortunate not to be held here as my captive.”

Driven away despite her hopes, doubly afflicted with sorrow, Psyche retraced her steps. In the valley below, at the centre of a dimly-lit grove, she caught sight of another beautifully-fashioned temple. Not wishing to miss any path, however uncertain, that might lead to better expectations, and happy to seek help from any deity, she approached the sacred doors. There she saw rich offerings, gold embroidered ribbons, attached to the branches and the doorposts, whose lettering spelled the name of the goddess to whom they were dedicated, with thanks for her aid. So Psyche knelt and clasped the altar, still warm from sacrifice, in her arms, then dried her tears and prayed:

“Sister and consort of mighty Jove, whether you reside in the ancient sanctuary of Samos, which was granted the sole glory of your birth and infant tears and nurturing; or whether you frequent the lofty site of blessed Carthage, where they worship you as a Virgin riding the Lion through the sky; or whether you are defending Argos’ famous walls beside the banks of Inachus, where they call you the Thunderer’s bride, queen of the gods; you whom the East adores as Zygia,  goddess of marriage, and the West as Lucina goddess of childbirth: be Juno the Protectress to me in my dire misfortune. I am so weary from my great troubles. Free me from the dangers that threaten, for I know you come willingly to the help of pregnant people in peril.”

As she bowed in supplication, Juno appeared in all the glorious majesty of her divinity. “How I wish,” she cried, at once, “I could match my will to your prayer. But it would bring me shame to go against the wishes of Venus, Vulcan’s wife and my daughter-in-law, whom I’ve always loved as if she were my own. And then the law prevents me harbouring another’s fugitive servant without their consent.”

[5-8] Terrified at this second shipwreck of her hopes, unable to find her winged husband, Psyche abandoned all thought of salvation, and took counsel of her thoughts:

“What else can I try, what other aid can ease my tribulations, since the goddesses despite their favourable views cannot help me? Where else can I turn, caught in such a web? What roof can conceal me, what darkness can hide me from the all-penetrating eyes of powerful Venus? Why not pluck up courage, as a man would, and abandon idle hope? Go to your mistress willingly, though late, and by yielding to her furious pursuit mollify her. Besides, who knows that you may not find the one you’ve long searched for, there, in his mother’s house?” So, ready to risk the unknown consequences of surrender, even destruction itself, she pondered how she should commence her imminent appeal.

Meanwhile Venus, abandoning all attempts to find her on earth, sought the heavens. She ordered her chariot readied, that Vulcan the goldsmith had carefully wrought with subtle skill, offering it to her as a gift before they entered into marriage. It was noted for its filigree work and more valuable for the very gold removed by the refining file! Four white doves, with glad demeanour, emerged from the dovecote surrounding her chamber, offered their snowy necks to the jewelled harness, then lifted the burden of their mistress and happily took flight. Sparrows rose in the chariot’s wake, chirping madly at its approach; and all the birds, that sing so sweetly, great Venus’s retinue filled with song and unafraid of rapacious eagles or circling hawks along the way, echoed their delight with honeyed melodies. Thus the clouds parted, the Heavens opened, to welcome their daughter and the highest ether received the goddess with joy.

She went straight to Jove’s royal citadel, and urgently demanded to borrow the services of Mercury, the messenger god. Nor was Jupiter’s celestial assent denied her. In triumph she descended from the sky, with Mercury too in her wake, and gave him careful instructions:

“Arcadian, you know your sister Venus has never accomplished a thing without your presence, and no doubt you’re aware I’m trying in vain to find a runaway servant. So nothing remains but for you to publicly proclaim a reward for whoever finds her. Go carry out my order at once, and describe her features clearly, so that no one charged with wrongfully hiding her can claim ignorance as a defence.” With that she handed him the details, Psyche’s name and the rest, and promptly left for home.

Mercury rushed to comply, running here and there from person to person, fulfilling his task with this proclamation: “If any man knows the whereabouts of, or can arrest in flight, the runaway servant of Venus, the princess named Psyche, he should meet with Mercury, author of this announcement, by the shrine of Venus Murcia in the Circus Maximus. The reward offered is seven sweet kisses from Venus herself, and one more deeply honeyed touch of her caressing tongue.”

After his proclamation, the desire for so fine a reward roused the competitive instinct in every mortal man, and more than anything it put an end to Psyche’s previous hesitation. Familiarity, a servant of Venus, ran at her as she approached her mistress’ door, and began shouting at the top of her voice: “So, you worthless girl, you’ve at last remembered you have a mistress! Just like your thoughtless behaviour to pretend ignorance of all the trouble we’ve endured, searching for you. But now you’ve fallen into my hands and a good thing too, now you’re in Death’s claws indeed, and you’ll pay the price for this endless defiance.”

[9-10] With that she seized her tight by the hair and dragged her inside. The unresisting Psyche was thrust into Venus’ presence. The goddess burst into savage laughter as women do when deeply enraged, beating her round the head and dragging her about by the ear, crying: “So you deign to call on your mother-in-law at last, do you? Or are you here to visit that husband of yours, laid low by your own hand? Don’t you worry, I’ll entertain you as a fine daughter-in-law deserves. Where are those attendants of mine, Anxiety and Sorrow?”

When they entered she handed the girl over to them for punishment. At the goddess’s command they flogged poor Psyche and tortured her in other ways, then returned her to their mistress’s sight. Then Venus screeched with laughter again: “Look at her,” she cried, “trying to stir my pity with that offering, that swollen belly of hers! No doubt she thinks its illustrious origin might gladden its grandmother’s heart. Indeed what joy, in the very flower of my youth, to be known as a grandmother, with the offspring of a lowly servant as Venus’ own grandson! But how foolish of me to call it such: since this ‘marriage’ of mortal and god took place in some country villa, with nary a witness, without the father’s consent. It was not done within the law, and your child too will be illegitimate, if indeed I allow the birth at all.”

Having launched this tirade, Venus flew at her, beat her about the head severely, tore her hair, and ripped her clothes to pieces. Then the goddess called for wheat, millet and barley, poppy-seeds, chickpeas, lentils and beans, and mixed the heaps all together in one pile. Then she returned to Psyche: “You look such a hideous creature you’ll only attract a lover by hard work. So I’ll test out your industriousness myself. Sort that pile into separate kinds, each in its own heap, finish it all by this evening, and show it me for approval.” With that Venus took herself off to a marriage feast.

Psyche sat there dumbfounded, gazing silently at that confused and inextricable mountain of a task, dismayed by its sheer enormity. But a passing ant, a little ant of the fields, pitied the great god’s bride, and seeing the intractable nature of the problem, condemned the goddess’s cruelty. Running this way and that, it summoned and gathered together a whole squadron of local ants, crying: “Nimble creatures of Earth, the Mother of all, take pity on this pretty girl in trouble, run swiftly now to the aid of the wife of Love himself!” Wave after wave of the six-footed folk appeared, and with tireless industry took the heap apart piece by piece, and sorted it into differing piles each of a separate nature, then quickly vanished from sight.

[11-13] Venus returned from the wedding festivities that evening, smelling of balsam and soaked with wine, her whole body garlanded in gleaming roses. When she saw how perfectly the difficult task had been performed, she cried: “This is not your doing, you wretch, but the work of that boy who fell in love with you to your misfortune and his.” Then she threw Psyche a lump of bread for her supper, and went to her bed.

Cupid was still under close custody, locked in a room deep in the house, partly for fear his injury would be worsened by wanton self-indulgence, partly to keep him from meeting his sweetheart. So, under one roof but separated, the lovers spent a wretched night.

But as soon as Dawn’s chariot mounted the sky, Venus summoned Psyche and gave her a fresh task: “Do you see the wood which borders all that bank of the flowing river, where dense thickets overlook the source nearby? Sheep, with fleece that glistens with purest gold, wander there and graze unguarded. Obtain a hank of that precious wool, in any manner you please, and bring it to me straight away, such is my decree.”

Psyche left willingly, not to fulfil the goddess’ demand, but to escape from her troubles by throwing herself from a cliff into the river. But a green reed, that piper of sweet music, stirred by the touch of a gentle breeze, was divinely inspired to prophesy thus:

“Poor Psyche, though you’re assailed by a host of sorrows, don’t pollute these sacred waters with a pitiful act of suicide. Conceal yourself carefully behind this tall plane-tree that bathes in the same current as I do. Don’t go near those dreadful sheep right now, as they soak up heat from the burning sun and burst out in wild fits of madness, venting their fury on passers-by with those sharp horns set in stony foreheads and their venomous bite, but wait till the sun’s heat fades in late afternoon, when the flock settles to rest under the calming influence of the river breeze. Then while their savagery is assuaged and their temper eased, just explore the trees in the wood nearby, and you’ll find the golden wool clinging here and there to the bent branches.”

Thus a simple reed, in its kindness, taught Psyche in distress how to save herself. She never faltered, nor had reason to regret obeying the advice so carefully given, but accepted her instructions, and easily filled the folds of her dress with soft gleaming gold, carrying her spoils to Venus. Yet her success at this second dangerous task garnered no favour in her mistress’ eyes. Venus frowned and said with a cruel smile: “I know the true author of this achievement only too well. But now a serious test will prove if you’ve real courage and true intelligence. Do you see that steep mountain peak, rising above those towering cliffs? Dark waters flow from a black fount there, down to the nearby valley’s confined depths, and they feed the swamps of Styx, and the bitter stream of Cocytus. Draw me some of the freezing liquid from the bubbling heart of that spring, and bring it me quickly in this little phial.” With that, she gave her a crystal jar, and added a few harsh threats for good measure.

[14-15] Psyche, determined now, if she failed, to end her wretched life at last, clambered swiftly and steadfastly towards the mountain summit. But when she neared the ridge that was her goal, she saw the vast difficulty of her deadly task. A high and immense rock wall, jagged, precarious, and inaccessible, emitted dread streams from jaws of stone, flowing downwards from their precipitous source through a narrow funnel they had carved, and sliding unseen down to the gorge below. On either side fierce serpents slithered from holes in the cliffs, extending their heads, eyes given to unblinking vigil, their pupils on watch at every moment. Even the waters were alive and on guard, crying out: “Off with you! Where are you going? See here! What are you doing? Beware! Be gone! You’ll die!” As if changed to stone though present in body, the helpless Psyche took leave of her senses, and overwhelmed by the threat of inescapable disaster lacked even the last solace of tears.

But the sharp eyes of kindly Providence saw an innocent soul in trouble. Mighty Jupiter’s royal eagle, wings outstretched, was there to aid her: the raptor recalled that time long ago when at Cupid’s command he had served to carry Ganymede, the Phrygian cup-bearer, through the heavens to Jove. Now he brought timely assistance, honouring Cupid’s claim on him. Seeing the ordeal the god’s wife was enduring, he left the bright roads of high heaven, and circling above her called: “Simple and innocent as you are, do you really expect even to touch, never mind steal, a single drop from that most sacred and cruel of founts? Jupiter himself, and all the gods, fear these Stygian waters. Surely you know that, just as you swear by the power of the gods, so the gods in turn swear by the power of Styx. Now, pass me that phial!”

He snatched it from her hand, and swept off to fill it from the stream. Balanced on his great sweeping wings he flew beyond the serpents’ reach, those savage jaws, those incisors, those triply-grooved flickering tongues, swerving to right and left. The water rose and threatened to harm him if he did not desist, but he gathered them, claiming he sought them at Venus’ orders, acting on her behalf, and was granted easier access on that account.

[16-20] So Psyche regained the little jar, now full, and quickly brought it to Venus. But still the cruel goddess’s will was not appeased. Menacing her with greater, more terrible threats, Venus glared at her balefully: “Now I see how readily you’ve performed those impossible tasks of mine, I’m certain you must be some kind of high and mighty witch. But there’s one more little service you must perform, my dear. Take the jar and plunge from the light of day to the underworld, to the dismal abode of Pluto himself. Hand the jar to Proserpine and say: ‘Venus asks that you send her a little of your beauty, enough for one brief day. She has used and exhausted all she had while caring for her son who’s ill.’ And don’t be slow to return, since I need to apply it before I attend a gathering of deities.”

Now Psyche felt that this was indeed the end of everything: the veil had been drawn aside, and she saw she was being driven openly to imminent destruction, forced, was it not obvious, to go willingly on her own two feet to Tartarus and the shades. Instantly she climbed to the summit of the highest tower, intending to throw herself from it, as the swiftest and cleanest route to the underworld. But the turret suddenly burst into speech: “Unhappy girl, why seek to destroy your self in this way? Why rashly surrender everything before this the last of your tasks? Once your breath is gone from your body, you’ll sink to the depths of Tartarus indeed, but from there you’ll not return. Listen to me. Not far from here is the famous city of Achaean Sparta. Seek Cape Taenarus there, in the region, it’s remote, that borders on Lacedaemon. There is a breathing-hole of Dis, and through its gaping portal they’ll show you a rough-made path. Once cross the threshold and take that road and you’ll reach Pluto’s palace by the shortest way. But don’t go into the shadows without bearing in each hand a barley-cake soaked in honeyed wine, and hold two coins in your mouth. When you’ve completed a good part of your gloomy journey, you’ll meet with a lame ass carrying wood, and an equally lame driver, who’ll ask you to hand him some sticks that have fallen from his load. But don’t utter a single word, and pass them by in silence. Not long afterwards you’ll reach the river of the dead, where Charon the ferryman demands an instant toll, then carries the shades to the further bank in his patched-up skiff. Thus we see that avarice lives even amongst the dead, and Charon, the tax collector for Pluto, that great deity, does nothing without a fee. A pauper who’s dying must find the passage-money, and unless there’s a coin to hand, no one will allow him to expire. Let that squalid old man have one of the coins you bear, but make sure he takes it out of your mouth with his very own hand. And when you’re crossing that slow-moving stream an aged corpse afloat on the surface will raise its rotting hands and beg you to lift him into the boat: but don’t be swayed by mistaken pity. One you are across the river, and have gone a little further, some old women weaving, at the loom, will ask you to lend a hand for a while, but you must not help them either. All these and more are traps laid for you by Venus, to make you let go of one of those barley-cakes. And don’t think losing a barley-cake is of little consequence, if you lose either cake you’ll not see daylight again. For you’ll arrive at the monstrous dog, with triple heads of enormous size, a huge and fearsome creature with thunderous jaws, who barks enough to frighten the dead but in vain; he can do them no harm. He keeps constant guard at the threshold of Proserpine’s dark halls, defending the insubstantial palace of Dis. One barley-cake thrown as a sop will hold him, and you can get by easily, and enter Proserpine’s presence. She’ll receive you courteously and benignly, and try to tempt you to sit down by her in comfort, and eat a sumptuous meal. But you must squat on the ground, demand common bread and eat that. Then tell her why you are there, take what is set before you, and make your way back, bribing the savage dog with that second barley-cake. Give the avaricious ferryman the coin you kept in reserve, cross the river, retrace your steps, and you’ll return to the heavenly choir of stars. But above all else, I warn you, be careful, whatever you do, not to open and not to look in the jar you’ve tied to your waist, and don’t let your curiosity loose by thinking too much about that hidden treasure, divine beauty.”

Thus the far-seeing tower performed its prophetic service. Psyche reached Taenarus without delay and, with both coins and cakes, hastened down the path to the underworld. She passed the lame ass-driver in silence, gave up her toll to the ferryman, ignored the cries of the floating corpse, spurned the cunning requests of the weaver-women, fed the dog a cake to assuage his fearful madness, and entered the palace of Proserpine . She accepted neither the pleasant seat nor the luxurious meal her hostess offered, but sat on the ground at her feet, and contenting her self with a simple crust, achieved what Venus had asked. In secret, the jar was quickly filled and sealed, and Psyche gathered it up again. She silenced the barking dog with the ruse of that second cake, paid her last coin to the ferryman, and ran even more swiftly back from the underworld. But despite her haste to be done with her terms of service, once she’d returned to the brightness of day, and greeted it with reverence, her mind was overcome by a most unwise curiosity, “Behold,” she said to herself, “I’m foolish to be the bearer of such divine beauty, and not take a tiny drop of it for myself. It might even help me please my beautiful lover.”

[21-22] And with those words she unsealed the jar; but there was never a drop of beauty there, nothing but deathly, truly Stygian sleep. When the cover was lifted slumber attacked her instantly, enveloping her entire body in a dense cloud of somnolence. She collapsed where she stood, fell on the path, and deep slumber overcame her. She lay there motionless, like a corpse but fast asleep.

Cupid, feeling better now that his scar had healed, could no longer endure the absence of his beloved Psyche and, dropped from the high window of the room where he’d been confined. With wings restored by his long rest, he flew all the more swiftly, and swooping to Psyche’s side he wiped away the sleep with care and returned it to the jar where it belonged. Then he roused her with a harmless touch of his arrow, saying: “Look how you’ve nearly ruined yourself again, poor child, with that insatiable curiosity of yours. Now be quick and finish the task my mother assigned. I’ll take care of everything else.” With this he took lightly to his wings, while Psyche, for her part, swiftly carried Proserpine’s gift to Venus.

Now Cupid, pale of face, devoured by uncontrollable love, was so concerned by his mother’s sudden harshness he returned to his old tricks, quickly flying to heaven’s heights on his swift wings, kneeling before great Jove, and attempting to win support for his cause. Jupiter tweaked Cupid’s cheek, raised the lad’s hand to his lips, kissed it and replied. “My dear son, despite the fact you’ve never shown the slightest respect granted me by all other deities, but wounded my heart again and again, and shamed me with endless bouts of earthly passion, I, who command the elements, I, who ordain the course of the stars; and despite the fact you defy the law, even the Lex Julia itself, and the rules that maintain public order; that you’ve injured my good name, and destroyed my reputation through scandalous adulteries, transforming my tranquil features vilely into snakes and flames, and birds and beasts, and even cattle; nevertheless, because of my sweet disposition, and the fact that you were cradled in my own arms, I’ll do as you ask. But only on one condition; that you beware of making me your rival by giving me, in payment for this favour, some other girl of outstanding beauty.”

[23-24] So saying, he ordered Mercury to call an impromptu gathering of the gods, with a fine of a hundred pieces of gold for failing to attend the heavenly assembly, which threat guaranteed the celestial theatre was filled. Almighty Jupiter, from his high throne, gave the following address:

“O deities, inscribed in the roll-call of the Muses, you all know it to be true that I raised this lad with my own hands. I’ve decided the impulses of his hot youth need curbing in some manner. We must take away the opportunity; restrain his childish indulgence with the bonds of matrimony. He’s found a girl, he’s taken her virginity. Let him have her, hold her, and in Psyche’s arms indulge his passions forever.”

Then he turned to Venus saying: “Now my daughter, don’t be despondent. Don’t fear for your lineage or status, because of his wedding a mortal. I’ll make it a marriage of equals, legitimate, in accord with civil law.” And he ordered Mercury to bring Psyche to heaven at once. Once there he handed her a cup of ambrosia, saying: “Drink this Psyche, and be immortal. Cupid will never renege on the bond, and the marriage will last forever.”

Presently a rich wedding feast appeared. The bridegroom reclined at the head, clasping Psyche in his arms. Jupiter and Juno sat beside them, and all the deities in order. Ganymede, the cup-bearing shepherd lad, served Jupiter his nectar, that wine of the gods, and BacchusLiber served all the rest, while Vulcan cooked the meal. Now the Hours adorned everyone with roses and hosts of other flowers; the Graces scattered balsam; the choir of the Muses sounded; Apollo sang to the lyre, and Venus danced charmingly to that outpouring of sweet music, arranging the scene so the Muses chimed together, with a Satyr fluting away, and a woodland creature of Pan’s piping his reeds.

So Psyche was given in marriage to Cupid according to the rite, and when her term was due a daughter was born to them both, whom we call Pleasure.’


Taken from:

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2013 All Rights Reserved.

Art and Symbolism

A red-figure depiction ofAphrodite, robed and in a head scarf, holding a staff in one hand and an apple in the other.
Aphrodite winning the Judgement of Paris, red-figure hydria, ca. 470 BCE (British Museum, London)

In Greek art, Aphrodite was usually represented as a young woman, slender and beautiful, embodying the ideals of female physical attractiveness and allure.


Venus Genetrix, Roman copy of Greek statue from the 5th century BCE (Capitoline Museums, Rome)

The two most common mediums in which the goddess is represented are vase painting and sculpture (both reliefs and statues). Her image can also be found on coins and, less commonly, paintings and frescoes. Very few frescoes and free-standing paintings from Ancient Greece have survived, while vases and sculptures have a higher chance of being preserved.

In vase paintings, small sculptures, and coins, Aphrodite is commonly represented fully clothed and wearing jewels. Necklaces, earrings, diadems, and bracelets are all part of her arsenal of beauty-enhancing tools. Occasionally, she can also be represented holding or standing next to objects such as mirrors, jewel boxes, fans, and parasols. In rare instances she can also hold a sceptre.


Aphrodite robed and seated. She is holding a hand mirror in one hand and a circular crown-like object in the other.
Aphrodite with mirror and jewels, red-figure volute-krater, ca. 330-310 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

As for attributes pertaining to the natural world, the main ones are various birds, the myrtle plant, and the shell. Doves, geese, sparrows, swallows, and swans were sacred to Aphrodite, and she can often be seen in their company. On some occasions she can even use them as transportation methods, either riding on the back of the larger birds or having them drag her chariot through the air.

Myrtle was a plant sacred to the goddess, who is sometimes represented holding a little branch of this plant. Flowers and floral crowns or garlands were also associated with the goddess because of their fragrance, and can appear in depictions of her.


Aphrodite is seated with a small figure of winged Eros on her shoulder. She sits beside a tall myrtle branch, and two female figures flank her.
Aphrodite sitting next to a myrtle branch, with Eros on her shoulder, red-figure lekythos, ca. 420-400 BCE (British Museum, London)

Lastly, and most importantly, Aphrodite could be represented coming out of a scallop shell. This is a nod to her birth from the sea, but it also refers to her role as goddess of sexuality, as the shape of the shell is reminiscent of the female genitalia. It is interesting to note that even when she is emerging from a shell and has no clothes on, Aphrodite is usually represented as wearing her signature jewels.


Terracotta statuette of Aphrodite in a shell, 3rd century BCE (State Collections of Antiquities, Munich)

The first life-sized statue of a naked Aphrodite was sculpted by Praxiteles of Athens (ca. 400–340 BCE) and acquired by the city of Knidos to be used as a cult image. Although the original is lost, many copies and descriptions survive. This particular image greatly influenced the way that Aphrodite was represented during the Hellenistic Period, so much that it became the most popular iconography for sculptures of the goddess (although clothed depictions did not cease to be produced). Copies and variations depicted Aphrodite naked, usually emerging from a bath, squeezing water from her hair, or grabbing a piece of cloth to cover up. A famous variation was the so-called ‘kallipygos’ (“beautiful buttocks”) type, representing the goddess coyly admiring her own backside.


Engraving of a coin showing a depiction of the Knidian Aphrodite statue, 4th century BCE


Venus ‘Pudica’, Roman Copy of Greek Original from 4th Century BCE (National Archaeological Museum of Athens)
Plaster Cast statues of two different renditions of Aphrodite Taking a Bath (Munich Museum of Casts of Classical Statues)

















Aphrodite can also be accompanied by other divine or semi-divine figures. The most common is her son Eros, usually represented as a winged child or teenager. Other members of her entourage include the Graces, the Hours, and Himeros and Peitho (the personifications of desire and persuasion, respectively). When portrayed in the context of an assembly of deities, Aphrodite is commonly found alongside her lover, the war god Ares; on certain occasions she is also depicted in the company of her mother, Dione.


Aphrodite reclining with her head and shoulders on the lap of Dione. To their left sits Hestia. All three are dressed in sheer robes that cling to their forms. The figures are missing their heads and arms.
Aphrodite lying on the lap of her mother Dione, with Hestia, Parthenon East Pediment, 5th century BCE (British Museum, London)

Mesopotamian Connections

A terracotta plaque of Ishtar in the nude, wearing a necklace and the horned crown of divinity. 19th-17th century B.C.E., Iraq. Currently in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

The Babylonian Ishtar (also known by her older Sumerian name, Inanna) is the oldest known predecessor of Aphrodite. She was worshiped primarily in Babylonia and Assyria (modern-day Iraq), but her cult was known in other parts of the Mediterranean world, such as Syria and Anatolia, and her attributes influenced other goddesses such as Astarte (worshiped by the Phoenicians in Lebanon, coastal Syria, and Cyprus) who would go on to influence the Greek Aphrodite in turn. Ishtar was the goddess both of sexual love and of war, and so her attributes are contradictory, though both are associated with physicality. She was considered to possess a feminine side, associated with her role as the goddess of sexual love, as well as a masculine side, associated with war. An echo of this duality is found in the love affair between Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love, and Ares, the god of war. Lastly, Ishtar was associated with the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead. This is due to the fact that in Mesopotamian myth she descended to the Netherworld and later returned.

Like Aphrodite, Ishtar was affiliated with all aspects of human sexuality. She could be appealed to by her worshipers to lend her aid in matters of unrequited love and sexual potency. She was also the patron goddess of sex workers. It should be noted, however, that Ishtar was not associated with pregnancy or childbirth. Also, like Aphrodite, Ishtar was known for occasionally taking or attempting to take mortal lovers. The Epic of Gilgamesh contains an episode in which Ishtar, enamored with the titular hero, makes sexual advances towards him. Gilgamesh rejects the goddess’s proposition, which earns him her wrath. Thus, similar to how Aphrodite was enraged by Hippolytus’ refusal to honor her, so too did Ishtar grow angry at being rejected by mortals.

 As a war goddess, Ishtar was frequently depicted wearing a flounced robe with weapons coming out of her shoulders, as well as holding at least one other weapon. She was sometimes shown with a beard to emphasize her masculine, warlike characteristics. Finally, her animal attribute was the lion. Her warlike aspect was frequently invoked, especially in the Assyrian Empire. During this period her main cult centers were at the cities of Nineveh and Arbela (modern Erbil), and she was strongly associated with the Assyrian king. So, Ishtar was also a patroness of royal power and military might.

In relation to the underworld, there are multiple accounts of Ishtar’s descent to, and return from, the land of the dead. Thus, it was no coincidence that Mesopotamian grave goods bore the iconography of Ishtar more than any other deity.

Further reading:


Head and shoulders of Venus wearing a large golden crown and a jeweled necklace. She holds a golden sceptre. Her dress, and the background of the fresco, are in shades of pink and red.
Venus, from the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus in Pompeii, 1st century BCE


Many of Venus’ attributes in art were the same as her Greek counterpart, Aphrodite: jewels and staffs, myrtle, flowers, doves, and the shell. Moreover, many depictions were variations on the 4th-century-BCE Knidian Aphrodite type, in which the goddess was almost or completely naked. She was also often accompanied by her lover Mars (sometimes depicted as a young man and sometimes as a more mature warrior), or by her son Cupid and other winged Erotes.


A wall fresco of Venus in partially nude, seated, accompanied by 2 cupids and the god Mars. Mars is undressing Venus, and his bronze shield is propped against the wall behind them.
Venus and Mars, Pompeii fresco, ca. 1st century CE (National Archaeological Museum, Naples)


Venus in her shell, Pompeii, Casa della Venere, 1st century CE


Mars seduces Venus, Pompeii, Casa dell’Amore Punito, 1st century AD

As the Roman state came into contact with different cultures and religions, Venus started to be assimilated to other, similar goddesses from Asia Minor and Syria-Palestine. This resulted in syncretic portrayals in which the image of Venus has incorporated iconographical attributes of other goddesses, such as Isis’ knotted robe and crown.


Venus-Isis, Roman bronze statue, 2nd century CE (Walters Art Museum)

Two new epithets and, consequently, iconographies of the goddess gained prominence between the end of the Republican Period and the very beginning of the Imperial Period: Venus Victrix (‘victorious’) and Venus Genetrix (‘foundress of the family’). The former was particularly venerated by general Pompey, as she had ‘granted him victory’ in his military campaigns. He then funded the construction of a temple dedicated to this particular iteration of the goddess, and issued coins that sometimes showed her holding a small winged Nike in one hand and a shield or scepter in the other.


A coin depicting Venus Victrix, a semi-nude figure holding a small statue of winged Nike in one hand
Venus Victrix holding a statue of Nike, Roman coin, ca. 44 BCE (Private Collection)

On the other hand, Venus Genetrix was particularly worshipped by the Gens Iulia, which claimed to descend from her through the Trojan hero Aeneas. The temple of Venus Genetrix, dedicated by Julius Caesar, was finished and consecrated by Augustus. The cult statue of the goddess, created by Greek sculptor Arkesilaos, probably depicted Venus as dressed and robed, with Cupid on her shoulder (as portrayed on the pediment of the nearby temple of Mars Ultor), or holding a small winged Nike and a scepter. Both types kept being depicted on imperial coins in the following centuries, sometimes swapping the face of Venus with that of the current empress.


Relief depicting the temple of Mars Ultor, detail showing pediment. Venus Genetrix is the the third figure from the left (Museo della Civiltà Romana, Rome.)

Media Attributions and Footnotes

Media Attributions

  1. The Greek is ambiguous as to whether this refers to both the penis and testicles or just one or the other.
  2. Aphrodite's Greek epithet "Philomedes" can be translated as either "smile-loving" or "genital-loving."
  3. A yellow metal prized in ancient times, probably a form of brass or a similar alloy.
  4. Traditional Greek mourning (particularly for women) included beating their chest, dressing in dark clothes, and tearing at hair.
  5. The myth of Aphrodite and Adonis draws elements from Mesopotamian myth. The Sumerian myth Inana's Descent to the Netherworld, and the later Akkadian Descent of Ishtar, tell the story of the fertility and love goddess Inana/Ishtar going in search of her lover Tammuz/Dumuzi, who has gone to the Netherworld (world of death). For further reading, see section "Mesopotamian Connections" or visit ORACC.
  6. Purple was a very expensive dye, and implies a lavish funeral.
  7. The Latin word for a female wolf, lupa, was also used as a derogatory or slang term for a sex worker, so Cupid may be referring to this usage in his insult.


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