François Gérard: a symbolic butterfly hovers over Psyche in a moment of innocence poised before sexual awakening. Since mosaics reading and writing essays rediscovery of Apuleius’s novel in the Renaissance, the reception of Cupid and Psyche in the classical tradition has been extensive.
The story has been retold in poetry, drama, and opera, and depicted widely in painting, sculpture, and even wallpaper. Apuleius’s novel, and occupies about a fifth of its total length. The novel itself is a first-person narrative by the protagonist Lucius. As a structural mirror of the overarching plot, the tale is an example of mise en abyme. It occurs within a complex narrative frame, with Lucius recounting the tale as it in turn was told by an old woman to Charite, a bride kidnapped by pirates on her wedding day and held captive in a cave.
There were once a king and queen, rulers of an unnamed city, who had three daughters of conspicuous beauty. The youngest and most beautiful was Psyche, whose admirers, neglecting the proper worship of the love goddess Venus, instead prayed and made offerings to her. Although her two humanly beautiful sisters have married, the idolized Psyche has yet to find love. Her father suspects that they have incurred the wrath of the gods, and consults the oracle of Apollo. Psyche is arrayed in funeral attire, conveyed by a procession to the peak of a rocky crag, and exposed.
Marriage and death are merged into a single rite of passage, a “transition to the unknown”. Exploring, she finds a marvelous house with golden columns, a carved ceiling of citrus wood and ivory, silver walls embossed with wild and domesticated animals, and jeweled mosaic floors. Although fearful and without sexual experience, she allows herself to be guided to a bedroom, where in the darkness a being she cannot see makes her his wife. She gradually learns to look forward to his visits, though he always departs before sunrise and forbids her to look upon him, and soon she becomes pregnant.
Psyche’s family longs for news of her, and after much cajoling, Cupid, still unknown to his bride, permits Zephyr to carry her sisters up for a visit. When they see the splendor in which Psyche lives, they become envious, and undermine her happiness by prodding her to uncover her husband’s true identity, since surely as foretold by the oracle she was lying with the vile winged serpent, who would devour her and her child. One night after Cupid falls asleep, Psyche carries out the plan her sisters devised: she brings out a dagger and a lamp she had hidden in the room, in order to see and kill the monster. But when the light instead reveals the most beautiful creature she has ever seen, she is so startled that she wounds herself on one of the arrows in Cupid’s cast-aside quiver. Struck with a feverish passion, she spills hot oil from the lamp and wakes him. There she is discovered by the wilderness god Pan, who recognizes the signs of passion upon her. Giuseppe Crespi: Psyche’s use of the lamp to see the god is sometimes thought to reflect the magical practice of lychnomancy, a form of divination or spirit conjuring.