Gods, Love and Eternal Life

The story of Cupid and Psyche and the Gospel of John both speak of gods, love and eternal life, but the stories are as different as night and day, with different kinds of gods, different kinds of love, and different means of receiving eternal life.

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For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

I want to tell you a story of gods’ love and eternal life, but it’s not the one you are thinking about.

Cupid is the Roman name for the Greek god Eros, the god of desire, sexual attraction and romantic affection. In In Roman mythology, Cupid is the winged son of Venus, the goddess of beauty and love. Like his mother, Cupid is epitome of human beauty (although we would probably use the word “handsome” to describe it). He’s not the chubby little cherub from the Valentine’s Day cards.

The narrative of Cupid and Psyche dates at least to the second century C.E. It comes from the pen of Lucius Apuleius in his novel Metamorphoses (or The Golden Ass). It’s a wonderful tale as stories go, with lots of material that would be used by later authors. It was a popular tale in the middle ages and was the inspiration for poetry through the ages. Even the story of Beauty and the Beast bears more than a passing resemblance to the story of Cupid and Psyche. It’s also a gold mine for psychologists and family therapists looking for a mythic description of human conflicts. Somewhere, I’m sure, a marriage counselor has read this story and thought, “I think I treated that couple.”

[A complete synopsis of the plot of Cupid and Psyche follows at the end of this post.]

The story of Cupid and Psyche and the Gospel of John both speak of gods, love and eternal life, but the stories are as different as night and day, with different kinds of gods, different kinds of love, and different means of receiving eternal life.

Like Venus and Cupid, the mortal woman Psyche is beautiful beyond words. Venus is jealous of her, but Cupid becomes obsessed and wants to possess her. The story takes many twists and turns until it arrives at its conclusion with Psyche receiving eternal life so that she can live with Cupid forever.

These gods of love in Roman lore are petty, vain, mean spirited, jealous, possessive, and ruled by their desires. Venus seeks to destroy her rival beauty queen and ruin her happiness by keeping her from a good marriage. Cupid holds Psyche as a prisoner in a splendid palace and calls it love. When his love is offended, he is wounded to the point of incapacity.

Psyche deserves love because she is so beautiful. She deserves love because of her piety. She deserves love because she completes the ordeals Venus throws at her. She deserves love because of her devotion to Cupid. Psyche is flawed, to be sure, but she is an object of love because her attractive qualities.

Furthermore, love is as destructive as it is beneficial. Cupid becomes sick with love and stands by while his mother mistreats Psyche. Psyche’s broken heart leads her to despair of life itself.

The gift of eternal life is jealously guarded by the Roman deities. Mere mortals cannot possibly share the life of the gods. Psyche is allowed to sip the ambrosia of immortality only as an “exception to policy.”

Contrast with this simple affirmation, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

This kind of God pours out his life for humans. He gives that which is most precious to him, even though those to whom he gives this gift abuse it time and again. He doesn’t act out of his own need, insecurity or weakness, but out of his overflowing heart and never failing power. He loves and gives himself to humans not because of their beauty or attractiveness or worthiness of any sort, but despite their unworthiness.

In Cupid and Psyche, Psyche spends a good bit of the story pursuing Cupid who has abandoned her because of his displeasure with her actions. The story of God’s love is the story of him pursuing us despite our actions. Instead of jealously guarding the divine life and keeping it from mortals, he sent his son precisely so that we can share his life. He gives this life to “whoever believes.” Eternal life is intended for all.

Paul describes God’s love this way:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

Of love itself, he says:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

That is as far from the story of the god Cupid and the mortal Psyche as we can get.

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A Synopsis of Cupid and Psyche

A king had three daughters. Two of them were pretty enough, but one of the three was so beautiful that people came from miles around to see her. The beautiful girl’s name was Psyche.

Venus, the goddess of beauty and love, became so jealous of Psyche that she sent her winged son Cupid to make her fall in love with a horrible monster. Cupid started out to do what his mother said, but when he saw her, he fell in love with her too, to the point of obsession.

Venus remained jealous of Psyche and used her powers to keep anyone from asking for her hand in marriage. Her two sisters married royal princes, but Psyche remained alone. Everyone admired her, but nobody loved her and she became depressed and lonely.

Her parents were afraid that they had unwittingly incurred the anger of the gods, so they consulted an oracle. The oracle told them: “The virgin is destined for the bride of no mortal lover. Her future husband awaits her on the top of the mountain. He is a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”

Her parents took her up the mountain where she stood on the edge of a cliff and thought about jumping off. Cupid, however, sent the wind-god Zephyr to pick her up and carry her to his palace, which was a truly wonderful place. It was lavishly appointed and contained everything a person could want. There were servants to care for her every need, entertain her and provide her with the finest of delicacies.

Cupid, her new husband, came to her only after dark, so that she could not see him. The two fell in love and enjoyed their evenings together, but Cupid would never let Psyche see him, and she didn’t know that he was a god. She begged to see him, but he constantly refused to reveal himself to his wife. This life pleased Psyche for a brief while, but she eventually thought about her family and her isolation and became unhappy. She begin to think of the palace as a really nice prison (which it was).

She repeatedly spoke to Cupid about this, and she eventually won a grudging concession from him. She could not leave, but her sisters could come visit. When her sisters saw how rich Psyche had become, they became envious and they planted seeds of doubt in Psyche’s mind. “Remember that prophecy that you would marry a hideous beast. That’s why he won’t let you look at him. He’s treating you well to fatten you up and eat you.”

The sisters’ words haunted Psyche, so one night she slipped out of bed and lit a lamp to find out just what her husband looked like. She carried a knife to cut off his head if she didn’t like what she saw. When she drew near Cupid, she found the most handsome of the gods with wings on his back. As she leaned in to have a closer look, a drop of oil from the lamp fell on Cupid’s shoulder. He awoke, saw what was going on and became angry. He said some hurtful things and then flew away, intending never to see Psyche again. Psyche laid down on the ground and wept.

Psyche searched for her husband endlessly, without food or rest. In her search, she decided to approach Venus herself even though she thought Venus would probably kill her. She didn’t care. Venus treated her horribly, and told her that Cupid had been so wounded by her that he had become sick. Psyche did her best to appease Venus but to no avail. Venus kept the lovesick Cupid locked up in his chamber. Eventually, Venus gave Psyche a series of impossible and deadly tests of her devotion. With the help of some of the other gods, however, Psyche managed to do everything Venus demanded.

Venus’ last challenge sent Psyche to the underworld to fetch a box of beauty for the goddess of love. Venus complained that her beauty had diminished somewhat because she had been worrying about her lovesick son and having to put up with her worthless daughter-in-law. Psyche was sure that she would die anyway, so she did what Venus demanded and made the dangerous journey to the realm of the dead. When she obtained the box of which Venus spoke, she returned to the world of the living. But even though she had been warned not to open the box, she did so anyway so that she could have a portion of the beauty it contained. It turned out, however, that the box didn’t contain beauty at all. The only thing in it was the sleep of death, and Psyche slumped to the ground, her life slipping away.

And here’s the Hollywood happy ending.

Cupid saw what was happening, escaped from his chamber, flew to Psyche and revived her. Psyche completed her task for Venus while at the same time Cupid flew to plead his case before Jupiter, king of the gods, who then interceded on Psyche’s behalf with Venus. Under pressure from Jupiter, Venus consented for her son to be with Psyche. Psyche was brought to the assembly of the gods where she was given ambrosia to drink, so that she too could be immortal and live with Cupid forever.

An complete English rendition of Apuleius’ story is here.

Related: Valentine Yes, Cupid No