A stunningly beautiful girl, Psyche, is born after two older sisters. People throughout the land worship her beauty so deeply that they forget about the goddess Venus. Venus becomes angry that her temples are falling to ruin, so she plots to ruin Psyche. She instructs her son, Cupid, to pierce the girl with an arrow and make her fall in love with the most vile, hideous man alive. But when Cupid sees Psyche in her radiant glory, he shoots himself with the arrow instead.
Meanwhile, Psyche and her family become worried that she will never find a husband, for although men admire her beauty, they always seem content to marry someone else. Psyche's father prays to Apollo for help, and Apollo instructs her to go to the top of a hill, where she will marry not a man but a serpent. Psyche bravely follows the instructions and falls asleep on the hill. When she wakes up, she discovers a stunning mansion. Going inside, she relaxes and enjoys fine food and luxurious treatment. At night, in the dark, she meets and falls in love with her husband.
She lives happily with him, never seeing him, until one day he tells her that her sisters have been crying for her. She begs to see them, but her husband replies that it would not be wise to do so. Psyche insists that they visit, and when they do, they become extremely jealous of Psyche's beautiful mansion and lush quarters. They deduce that Psyche has never seen her husband, and they convince her that she must sneak a look. Confused and conflicted, Psyche turns on a lamp one night as her husband lies next to her.
When she sees the beautiful Cupid asleep on her bed, she weeps for her lack of faith. Cupid awakens and deserts her because Love cannot live where there is no trust. Cupid returns to his mother, Venus, who again decides to enact revenge on the beautiful girl.
Psyche, meanwhile, journeys all over the land to find Cupid. She decides to go to Venus herself in a plea for love and forgiveness, and when she finally sees Venus, the great goddess laughs aloud. Venus shows her a heap of seeds and tells her that she must sort them all in one night's time if she wants to see Cupid again. This task is impossible for one person alone, but ants pity Psyche and sort the seeds for her. Shocked, Venus then orders Psyche to sleep on the cold ground and eat only a piece of bread for dinner. But Psyche survives the night easily. Finally, Venus commands her to retrieve a golden fleece from the river. She almost drowns herself in the river because of her sorrow, but a reed speaks to her and suggests that she collect the golden pieces of fleece from the thorny briar that catches it. Psyche follows these instructions and returns a sizable quantity to Venus. The amazed goddess, still at it, now orders Psyche to fill a flask from the mouth of the River Styx. When Psyche reaches the head of the river, she realizes that this task seems impossible because the rocks are so dangerous. This time, an eagle helps her and fills the flask. Venus still does not give in. She challenges Psyche to go into the underworld and have Persephone put some of her beauty in a box. Miraculously, Psyche succeeds.
On her way toward giving the box to Venus, she becomes curious, opens the box, and instantly falls asleep. Meanwhile, Cupid looks for Psyche and finds her sleeping. He awakens her, puts the sleeping spell back in the box, and takes her to Zeus to request her immortality. Zeus grants the request and makes Psyche an immortal goddess. She and Cupid are married. Venus now supports the marriage because her son has married a goddess—and because Psyche will no longer distract the men on earth from Venus.
This story centers on the power of true love. Psyche first doubts that love, feeling that she must see Cupid in the flesh. She later redeems herself many times over when she proves her commitment, overcoming all obstacles in her way. Figuratively, love (Cupid) and the soul ("psyche" is the Greek word for the soul) belong together in an inseparable union. When Cupid sees Psyche, the soul in its beauty, he immediately wants to join with her. Somehow, this beauty is admired by men but does not lead to the kind of love that eventuates in a marriage proposal. But Cupid is able to fully appreciate Psyche’s beauty.
The happy ending, with Venus, Psyche, and Cupid all reaching a positive resolution, illustrates that when love is pure, all pains, sorrows, and challenges will align to ensure that the love is realized. Even nature, as the ants and eagle demonstrate, support true love. Of all the stories in the Greek mythology, none more clearly demonstrates that true love exists than this story. Moreover, Psyche reveals that true love is to be defended and supported no matter what the cost. This part of the myth is beautifully retold by the modern author C.S. Lewis under the title Till We Have Faces.
Psyche remains an unusual example of a female character who acts like a male hero. Although other female characters (such as Artemis) perform traditionally male activities, none so boldly acts as a hero might: overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles, fighting to win true love, achieving a status that is more than human.
Importantly, Psyche is a rare being who begins as a mortal and ends as a divinity. Her unique position raises questions about spirituality. Is the soul properly a thing of the earth or a thing of the heavens? How does Psyche's being change when she becomes immortal? Was there something about Psyche that was more than human from the very beginning, and why did she win the attention of Cupid in the first place?
The story continues to explore the distinction between humans and gods, as Venus is bitterly jealous of a mortal who draws other mortals away from her, a goddess. On earth, the soul, figured as Psyche, is amazingly beautiful but faces great trials. Order is restored when the soul reaches the heavens. The prospect of one’s own soul following this path can be very attractive.
It seems that the decision is up to Zeus. Must a soul earn its place (with help) in the realm of divinity? Must there be an advocate, another god, who must bring the case to Zeus? Although such questions are left open, it seems clear that Psyche's determination, courage, and belief in true love help her achieve divine status.
This myth also shows some of the interlocking storylines of the myths. Psyche visits Persephone in the underworld (it must be winter). Persephone’s box reminds us of Pandora’s, especially because she is so curious to open it. We will see the River Styx again, too, not to mention Zeus and Venus. The interconnected nature of the tales does raise questions about chronology: besides the Creation of Earth, it is unclear what the chronology might be, and which story happens before another. But as the characters and places overlap, the myths show themselves to be not only intertextual with each other but also unified in their depiction of one world in which all these characters and stories exist.