Psyche, Goddess of the Soul

Friday, May 18, 2018

The story of Psyche and Cupid is a beautiful, archetypal story that has been retold over the generations.

Psyche, the main character of the story, is originally Greek. Translated, her given name means "soul". You may have seen psyche referenced to in the modern medicine of psychology, and rightfully so. Psychology is the science of understanding and healing a person's inner world - not necessarily their mind, but their deep, complex, spiritual aspects.

Carol Gilligan, author of The Birth of Pleasure, encourages the use of this myth as a road map of the soul. The idea of "mapping a myth" inspired me to read this story in depth and find its guiding elements. I found that this myth teaches not only what the soul needs to find peace but how to achieve it.

Becoming familiar with the soul takes time. Unfortunately, years of experience can cloud the understanding of self. Luckily, with gentle effort and self-study, it is possible to become familiar again with this "forgotten", quiet voice. The story of Psyche, through the lessons Venus gives her, shows the way.

Sorting Seeds

As Psyche's first trial, she was given a massive pile of different seeds and grains to sort. Not a single grain could be out of place - not a single mistake made. At first, Psyche was overwhelmed by the task. Luckily, she had helpers. An army of humble ants came to her aid and did the sorting for her while she rested.

The act of sorting hints at a more sacred art than simple organization. Seeds and grain are nature's essential components of life. If Psyche's first challenge was to sift through them, to decide what is placed where, I think its a wonderful place to start - by individually determining what is most essential to life. I call this value-based living. Identifying what qualities and virtues are most important and valuable enables their prioritization.  I consider the ants to be a personification of the subconscious mind. If a person can hear their inner voice - the thoughts beneath the thoughts, the thoughts that create feeling - they able to identify what is most important to the soul. The soul already knows what is most important - one need only listen to the quiet voice inside to hear what needs to be heard.

Gathering Gold

Psyche's next task was to collect golden fleece from a flock of poisonous rams. When she saw the task seemed impossible, she walked to a nearby river and was ready to drown herself in it. Just before stepping in, a reed from the river told her the secret to success - to gather individual strands of wool left on the branches of trees until she had enough. Psyche, finding hope in the reed's message, was able to complete her second assignment.

This second task is essential for Psyche to learn to trust her inner self. Again, I look at the whispering reed as another personification of the subconscious. The inner voice, full of wisdom and experiences of its own, is able to guide success. It plays its part by whispering and gently guiding with nudges and hints on our journey. Dreams, personal poetry and journal entries, and visceral reactions to music and art are all ways the soul speaks. It is an act of wisdom to develop a trusting relationship with this inner voice by acting on the guidance it gives.

Sometimes the instructions given are unconventional, but they are unique to each individual and their circumstances and will not be ignored. In the myth, Psyche is surrounded by deadly animals and the temptation to drown in her sorrow. Stripped down to its archetypal bones, the story highlights a choice: act on the soul's direction or die. Deafness to the soul's voice is a willful acceptance of a death worse than loss of life - the death of spirit.

Fetching Water

The third task given to Psyche was to collect water from the River Styx in a bowl given to her by Venus. The river was nestled in the depths of treacherous mountains that not only were full of serpents but also continually crumbled and rebuilt themselves at will. For a mortal, these mountains were impassible.

Imagine Psyche sitting at the foot of these mountains, bowl at her side, filled with dread and the certainty of death. As she watched the writhing mountains, an eagle  appeared at her side. The eagle explained he had been sent by Zeus, the king of the gods, to assist her in this part of her journey. The eagle took her bowl in its talons, flew high above the serpentine mountains to the river, and brought Psyche her bowl full of dark water.

Life's experiences can sometimes push one to the limits of what they feel they can handle. The soul is keenly aware of ts limits. I believe these limits are divinely placed so the soul recognizes where it's obligation ends and others begin.

This is an opportunity to exercise faith. Whether faith is placed in divinity, a generous universe, or simply in the goodness of the human spirit, at some point one are required to reach out for strength and learning. It can be challenging to be vulnerable and allow space for this assistance, especially when  doing so in the past has brought let down and pain. But the soul knows the wisdom in connection. Trust and act on its encouragement to reach out and receive. Life was never meant to be lived alone.

Braving the Underworld

Psyche's final trial meant a trip to the Underworld, where she was to obtain a pearl of beauty from Persephone and bring it back to Venus. Just as she was to enter the Underworld, she was once again given advice from a nearby tower.

In order to make it past the giant, three-headed dog Cerberus that stood guard at the gates of the Underworld, Psyche must bring two honey cakes to give Cerberus - one for her passage in and the other for her return. On her journey, she will come across those who beg for her help. The tower explained that Psyche was to stop for nothing and never set the cakes down. She would not complete her journey otherwise.

Just as the tower promised, help was needed. An old man needed only a moment's assistance to gather sticks. Three old women asked for untangling wool for their weaving. As simple as the requests were, as much as she desired to stop and help, Psyche continued her journey without pause. She found Persephone and brought the pearl to Venus, completing the final step of her mission.

I believe each person is born with a life's mission, or a soul purpose. The missions vary in length, appearance, and purpose, but each brings value to the collective and meaning to the individual. Each journey is unique - and sometimes it follows unconventional paths. There are those who try to deter or detour the journey. Success may require a certain level of rebellion or shirking of the judgments of others. Sometimes detours are less sinister because they are merely distractions. When one chooses to hear the soul's direction clearly and follow its guidance, distractions can be avoided. Perhaps most importantly, one will find assurance to take the steps that lead to alignment with their true purpose.

 If this myth is a road map, where does it lead? 

After completing each of her given tasks, Psyche has become familiar with the voice of her inner self. 
She has learned to trust its sound by acting on her intuition. She finds humility by accepting both the limits of her mortality and the help of others. She appreciates the weight and influence of her soul purpose and seeks to fulfill it without pause. With this earned insight, she sees that the tasks given to her were lessons rather than punishments.  In summary, she has become a well-rounded, intuitive, and wise woman who understands her worth. This is a reward greater than pearls and rubies.

At this point, Cupid re-enters the story. He beholds Psyche in all her glory and remembers his love for her. Zeus transforms Psyche, making her a goddess (elevating her to a more fitting nature) and she and Cupid are married. Shortly after Psyche gives birth to a daughter named Pleasure, and fittingly so - for what greater peace can there be than to live in one's truth and find love there?

Originally published in Strong Yellow Soul Magazine, February 2018
© Channing B. Parker. Design by FCD.