As a psychotherapist and Jungian analyst, I believe the myth of Eros and Psyche can be used as a roadmap for the inner quest for wholeness and individuation. In this paper I will also look at the myth in terms the development and integration of the feminine in each of us, men and women alike.
The beginning of the myth sets up the conflict between the goddess, Aphrodite, and the beautiful, but uninitiated, earthly Psyche. Throughout the myth, both Psyche and Aphrodite’s son, Eros, are influenced by Great Mother archetype that abides within the goddess Aphrodite. She is the terrible, negative mother that cannot tolerate Psyche’s beauty. Also, Aphrodite cannot tolerate the fact that her son, Eros, would fall in love with a mortal. The Great Mother archetypal energy is overpowering and cannot be ignored. David L. Hart (1997) summarizes the archetypal force of the mother as follows:
“The mother acquires her peculiar force and influence on one’s life not primarily from a particular woman but from the vast storehouse of inherited human experience of “mother” – that is, from what Jung calls the mother archetype. The archetype, then, is a potential of psychic energy inherent in all the typically human life experiences, and activated in unique focus in each individual life. These forces will be modified according to infinite varieties of experience – appearing in what Jung calls complexes – but their energy and power derive from the archetype itself” (p. 90).
For all her beauty, Psyche is lonely, unwanted, and unwed. Her father, the king, is distraught and, in his grief, prays to the deities and asks them to send a suitable husband for his daughter. The sacred oracle answers his prayers and instructs the king to prepare Psyche for her marriage. She is to dress in wedding finery and go to a high mountain crag. She then is to plunge herself into the abyss to meet her husband—death. The death marriage is archetypal and is not unique to Psyche’s situation. Every young woman or maiden dies in marriage. Virginity is lost along with the carefree youthful days and the unconscious self-absorption of maidenhood.
When Psyche is gently brought down to the valley by the west wind, she finds herself in paradise. She enters a beautiful palace, her every wish is granted, and her marriage is consummated by the ecstatic union with an unknown god. Night after night Psyche meets this god, Eros, in darkness; she is lost in the unconscious embrace of her lover. Psyche has married a god and projected her love onto an unknown face. As C.G. Jung (1983) said, “Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face” (p. 92). Eros wants to it that way and says, “You must never see me.” And Psyche unconsciously, blindly, and blissfully live for union with the god of love.
But unconscious projections and life in blissful paradise cannot last; Psyche is awakening. She begins missing her sisters and, although Eros cautions her about seeing them, Psyche pines away and pleads with him until he relents. When the sisters finally meet, Psyche joyfully shows them the palace and tells them about her godlike lover and husband. The two sisters are insanely jealous and when they find out that Psyche has never seen her husband, they tell her that he must be an evil snake. The sister’s doubts work their way into Psyche’s heart and Psyche starts to wonder about the true nature of this unseen being. Is he a beast or is he a god? Psyche’s curiosity gets the best of her. She is no longer satisfied with the blissful not-knowing state of paradise. The evil sisters tempt Psyche to break the taboo of Eros’s invisibility. They are Psyche’s shadow and are a catalyst for Psyche’s development and forthcoming individuation journey.
“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow with considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance. Indeed, self-knowledge as a psychotherapeutic measure frequently requires much painstaking work extending over a long period” (Jung, 1983, p. 91).
Under the influence of the jealous sisters, Psyche brings in the light of an oil lamp and gazes on the splendor of Eros’s beauty. She pricks her finger on one of his arrows falls in love with the archetype of love itself. Intoxicated with desire for Eros, Psyche spills some oil from the lamp and burns him. The hot oil awakens Eros and he realizes that Psyche has disobeyed him; he no longer has total control and power over Psyche. He flies off to his mother, Aphrodite, and Psyche is on her own and is woe-stricken.
“Psyche’s act ends the mythical age in the archetypal world, the age in which the relation between the sexes depended only on the superior power of the gods, who held men at their mercy. Now begins the age of human love, in which the human psyche consciously takes the fateful decision on itself” (Neumann, 1952/1956, p. 86).
When he returns home Aphrodite is furious with Eros and is also determined to find the culprit, Psyche, who he has married. Aphrodite wants to destroy this mortal creature that has despoiled her beloved son. When she finds Psyche, Aphrodite assigns her four impossible tasks that are the foundation of her individuation process. Psyche dissolves into tears and wants to kill herself; it is all too much for her. She knows cannot act from her own will or her ego-centered being alone. Sherry Salman said, “Jung saw the ego as prone to errors of misguidedness (inappropriate choices) and one-sidedness (excess). He believed that the material surfacing from the unconscious served to bring light to its fundamental “darkness” (1997, p. 62). Because of Psyche’s inner resources and the ego’s surrender to the Self (the archetype of wholeness), she is given help every step along the way. “The goal of individuation is the power to draw on the transcendent function, the tension and interplay of opposites, in everyday life” (Young-Eisendrath, 1997, p. 233).
The first task assigned to Psyche is to sort an enormous pile of seeds by evening. The ants from the instinctual world help her do this. They teach Psyche how to bring order, evaluate, select, and discriminate in the muddle of confusion. Next Psyche is to gather wool from the golden rams. The gentle reed, advises Psyche to be patient and wait until nightfall to gather the wool from the rams when the masculine power is not so deadly. Psyche needs to relate in the cool of the evening instead of challenging the rams in the heat of the day.
In the first two tasks, Psyche is helped by feminine instinctive and vegetative aspects of creation, but in the third task, it is the masculine spirit that helps Psyche. Zeus’s eagle swoops past dragon teeth to fill a crystal vase with water from a spring that feeds the underworld. Psyche learns that, although she is a vessel, she cannot contain the whole archetypal force of the raging water. A few drops of the sacred water contain the whole and is all that is needed. With the accomplishment of these three tasks, Psyche has incorporated and integrated masculine qualities of discrimination, ordering, sifting, knowledge, and power into her feminine nature.
Psyche was a relatively passive onlooker in carrying out the first three tasks, but has to perform the fourth task herself. She needs to go on her own to the underworld and collect a jar of beauty ointment from Persephone for Aphrodite. In doing so, Psyche embraces her own struggle with the deep feminine. However, she is not without help; this time she receives guidance from an inanimate tower. In his book, Psyche and Eros, Erich Neumann said the structure “is a symbol of human culture and of the human consciousness and is therefore designated as a “far-seeing tower” (1952/1956, p. 111). Psyche follows the precise instructions given to her for safe passage and return, but cannot resist one last temptation; she opens the box of beauty ointment and falls into a deep unconscious sleep. Eros is attuned with her plight, leaves his mother, and is immediately at Psyche’s side. He wakes Psyche up so she can deliver the ointment to Aphrodite.
Although Psyche opens the box with the ointment, she does not fail. The ego’s surrender to something greater than the mortal being is a necessary part of her individuation. After Psyche returns from the underworld and after she has incorporated the four tasks of individuation into herself, Psyche is able to connect more consciously with the Self, the archetype of wholeness. Psyche also returns to her earthly feminine self in a more mature, integrated way. “The developmental tasks for a woman are to recognize the disclaimed and dissociated authority, competence, goodness and/or power that she has seen as belonging to others, and to dissolve the persona of adolescent femininity (Young-Eisendrath, 1997, pp. 235-36). Psyche matures and passes all of Aphrodite’s tests. She can stand on her own versus being unconsciously possessed by the Great Mother archetype.
Eros is also re-awakened to his godlike stature (versus being controlled by his mother, Aphrodite) by Psyche’s acts and suffering. He flies to the heavens and appeals to Zeus to grant Psyche an immortal place at Eros’s side. Through her love for Eros and successfully completing her individuation tasks, Psyche is able to transcend the limits of mundane earthly life. The union between Eros and Psyche is complete and a daughter, Pleasure, is born to them.
“The interweaving of these two divine figures and mystical experiences constitutes the archetype of the coniunctio of Eros and Psyche. Their gloriole, and at the same time the supreme fruit of their union, whose earthly reflection is pleasure, is their divine child, heavenly bliss” (Neumann, 1956, p. 145).
Hart, D.L. (1997). The classical Jungian school. In P. Young-Eisendrath & T. Dawson (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Jung. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Jung, C.G. (1983). The essential Jung. (A. Storr, Ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Neumann, E. (1956). In Amor and Psyche: the psychic development of the feminine. (R. Manheim, Trans.) Bollingen Series LIV. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published in 1952)
Salman, S. (1997). Gender and contrasexulatity: Jung’s contribution and beyond. In P. Young-Eisendrath & T. Dawson (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Jung. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Young-Eisendrath, P. (1997). The creative psyche: Jung’s major contributions. In P. Young-Eisendrath & T. Dawson (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Jung. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.