Friday, June 1, 2012

Eros, Venus, Cupid, Psyche: All 'Bout Love

Eros is the mythical Greek goddess of love; you may know her Roman counterpart as Venus, a god who sometimes drives us to despair, denies our most soulful needs, or restores us through love. Indeed, the story of Venus, her son Cupid, and his beloved Psyche reveals all the nuances and degrees of erotic love, so-called because of the original Greek goddess of love.

As it happens in mythology, the gods often compete with mortals and mortals dare the gods above by desiring what the gods possess. The story of love includes these mythical strains:

Eros or Venus envies the beauty of Psyche, so delicate and lovely that mortals begin to worship her as if she were a goddess herself. That is, of course, intolerable so Venus resolves to take care of Psyche, her competition for devotion. She sends her son, Cupid, not the plump, winged creature of Valentine cards, but the divine and divinely gorgeous god, muscled and masculine, to shoot an arrow into Psyche and thus, dispose of her by matching her to a hideous, earthly creature.

Cupid cannot ruin Psyche, however. Instead he manipulates the mortals, first by informing Psyche’s parents through an oracle to take Psyche to a remote mountain, dressed in funereal garb, and leave her. They mourn, of course, and alone, bereft of family, Psyche’s heart races with fear until soft, warm winds caress and carry her to a sweet meadow whereupon she lies down to sleep. Waking, she sees an exquisite castle. Upon approaching it to enter, she hears whispered words that assure her she has found her own home.

There, at night, Psyche’s mate comes to her, but she never sees him. She only hears soft words of love that persuade her she has not been matched with something monstrous, but someone wonderful. Still, as young brides often do, especially in Greek tales, Psyche longs for the company of her sisters, a notion that her husband, whispering on the breeze, advises against, but Psyche persists and Cupid relents.

The sisters, however, are more like Venus herself. Their hearts bend toward envy, especially when they see that Psyche’s home is far better than their own. They seed doubt in Psyche, suggesting that she must be matched to something monstrous if Psyche cannot recount what her husband looks like. Vulnerable, Psyche yields to their suggestion and betrays her husband’s trust by sneaking into his chambers once he is asleep and raising a candle to spy upon him.

He wakes, hot wax having fallen upon his shoulder, and flees, both physically and spiritually wounded. Psyche now has real cause to appear in mourning clothes for her beautiful husband has returned to his mother, and Venus vows to make Psyche pay for harming her son.

First, Venus deprives Psyche of any certainty about Cupid. Worse, Psyche, like Cain, is homeless and friendless on earth because mortals fear Venus’ wrath so much that they will not help Psyche much less continue to admire and worship her.

So Psyche herself prays to Venus, asking her for her beloved’s return. Furious and unrelenting, Venus assigns Psyche one impossible task after another, but Psyche succeeds because Nature inclines toward Psyche. First, ants come to Psyche’s aid when she must separate tiny seeds (Remember a similar story thread in the fairy tale, “Queen Bee?”). Then briars snag golden fleece from hostile sheep so that Psyche can collect it without any harm coming to her. Next an eagle flies for her, retrieving water from the River Styx, then Persephone, goddess of the Underworld and daughter of Demeter, the nurturer, helps Psyche collect beauty.

After this task, Psyche once again succumbs to doubt and curiosity. She peeks inside the box where Persephone’s beauty rests, only to fall under the spell of a deep sleep. But Cupid, healed and no longer his mother’s prisoner, like Prince Charming, visits Psyche and wipes the slumber from her. This he places into the box that had held beauty and directs Psyche to offer it to his mother.

Cupid, however, hedges his bets by calling upon Jupiter, also known as the Greeks’ Zeus, to insure Venus’s response. Jupiter gathers all the gods and goddesses to witness his latest edict: the marriage of Cupid and Psyche. Then Jupiter offers Psyche the food of the gods, ambrosia, and thus transforms Psyche into a goddess herself. With that climax, the love between Cupid and Psyche rises to the level of the divine, heart and soul entwined in happiness.

As promised, this myth delivers the nuances and degrees of erotic love:

·      First, pheromones, beauty, or appearance work to draw one to another for upon seeing Psyche, Cupid can do her no harm; he loves her.
·      Second, such superficial love cannot endure unless it yields to something deeper, often after trials and complications, including jealousy, doubt, and heartache.
·      Third, deep and true love overcomes those deficiencies, transforming the lovers into selfless, trusting individuals who become one, the mind and body unite, the heart and soul woven into a single, sturdy thread, the physical and spiritual domains undivided.

Indeed, erotic love--the love of attraction--must embrace familial impulses and agape as it matures in order to endure. And that is the love we seek, the one that knits up all our cares and woes, that overcomes all obstacles in its path, that triumphs over the pettiness and wickedness that we humans struggle to suppress.

Reading Challenge:

Read a poetic definition of erotic love, one serious and the other satirical. You may read the text and hear the poem, Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare, on YouTube at It, like traditional marriage vows, is serious and clearly describes a love that rises to the level of the divine. You may also listen and read Shakespeare’s satirical Sonnet 130 at Though lighter in tone, it makes a serious point about loving well and selflessly.

Writing Challenge:

Imitate Shakespeare’s sonnet form (or Petrarch’s if you wish) and create your personal, poetic definition of erotic love.

To imitate Shakespeare, you will create three quatrains followed by a couplet for a total of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter (five stressed syllables per line) with a rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Each one of Shakespeare’s quatrains develops an image for his subject, and the closing couplet pronounces the theme or point of those images.

Petrarch, on the other hand, organized his fourteen-line sonnet according to an eight (two quatrains)/six (two tercets) pattern; i.e., the first eight lines develop the idea with images and the final six apply those images to a theme, usually using contrast. Also written in iambic pentameter, Petrarchan sonnets employ a different rhyme scheme, one that underscores the eight/six pattern: abba, abba, cdc, cdc.

GUM (Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics): Dynamic Language

Once upon a time, erotic, from the Greek goddess Eros and the Greek word, erōtikós, meaning of love and given to love, was more divorced from sexuality although it did refer to intimacy. Now erotic has evolved over time into a word that definitely denotes sexual love and connotes sexual intimacy with or without love as a motivator. Word meanings shift over time with today’s erotic having more to do with the bestseller, 50 Shades of Gray, than the union of heart and soul.