So far we have talked more about what happened in the Greater Mysteries, neglecting the Lesser Mysteries, mentioning only that perhaps initiates had to stand four tests connected to the elements. A glimmer of light is offered us by the beautiful story of Cupid and Psyche, contained in Apuleius’ Golden Ass. The book tells the story of the transformation of the protagonist, which is also the author, into an ass and of his adventures before turning back into human shape, thanks to the intercession of the Goddess Isis. It is likely that the story of Cupid and Psyche hides indeed an initiation to the lesser mysteries.
The myth of Cupid and Psyche
Venus, jealous of the beauty of the mortal Psyche, sends her son Cupid with the task of making her fall in love with a man of humble origins. In the meantime, Psyche’s father, worried because his daughter doesn’t find a husband despite her beauty, consults the oracle of Apollo, which tells him that the girl will marry a being that has not human origins, ‘a cruel and savage monster with the face of a snake’, after displaying her on the top of a mountain. Cupid sees her and falls in love with her whilst Psyche is asleep. When Psyche wakes up, she finds herself on the threshold of a fairy tale castle and she wanders around the rooms talking with an incorporeal voice. Cupid accepts to marry the girl on condition that she never sees his face and that they join together only at night. The marriage is celebrated but Psyche’s jealous sisters instill in her the suspicion that Cupid is a horrendous monster. Psyche, which in the meantime got pregnant, looks at Cupid’s beautiful face at the light of a candle. She gets very excited and lets a drop of wax fall on Cupid, who wakes up.
He immediately reproaches Psyche for breaching the agreement and then he disappears. Psyche, mad with love, goes in search of him all over the earth (whilst she looked at Cupid she also got injured with the head of one of the god’s arrows). After these events the jealous sisters will die, killed by their own avidity. In the meantime, thanks to her servant Custom, Venus finds Psyche and mistreats her. Then she puts in front of her a pile of poppy seeds, chickpeas, lentils and broad beans and asks her to separate them. Psyche completes this task thanks to the help of some ants. [Earth, analytical abilities, being able to give everything its value, being able to distinguish, choose and discriminate].
The second test consists of approaching a herd of sheep with pure gold wool and taking back to Venus a big quantity of that wool. Before it’s too late, a reed tells Psyche that, until the sun is high in the sky, the sheep gore and bite ferociously, dripping a mortal poison in whoever approaches them. The reed tells her that it is necessary to wait for the sun to start going down; the sheep will then become meek and she will be able to collect the wool without any danger. Psyche follows the reed’s advice and picks up the curls of golden wool entangled in the plants in the wood. [Water, flexibility, being able to wait for the right moment, after a journey of maturation, viz. after noon, letting things ‘happen’ by themselves – the wool entangled in the branches.]
In the third test Venus takes Psyche on the top of a mountain, shows her a rushing stream that runs in an inaccessible valley protected by fierce dragons and gives her a phial. The girl will have to draw water from the river, a tributary of the Styx, the marsh of the underworld. The water of the river screams and fights against whoever tries to draw it.
Psyche is helped by an eagle [air, ability to see, culture of development of superior faculties, being able to draw from our own ‘inner water’, overcoming the abyss between us and the spring].
Finally, the last test: Venus gives Psyche a jar, a ciborium, and asks her to take it in the underworld to Proserpine/Persephone, in order to receive from her a bit of eternal beauty. She strongly commands her to bring the jar back to her without opening it. Overcome by that impossible task and not knowing how to reach the Averno, Psyche is going to commit suicide by throwing herself from a high tower; at this point the tower decides to help her. It explains to her the road to access the underworld and gives her some good advice. Psyche will have to carry two coins and two honey cakes. On her way she will meet a limping donkey driver with a limping donkey; he will ask her to help him pick up the wood fallen on the ground. Psyche will have to carry on without helping him. Then she will have to be ferried across the underground lake that leads to the kingdom of Hades, paying Charon a coin, which he will collect from Psyche’s mouth. She will have to ignore both a dead old man who will go back to the surface of the lake asking her to be ferried, and the weavers that will ask for her help. The divine law forbids Psyche to touch their work and interfere [the Tower says: ‘down there pity is forbidden by laws; they are all Venus’ traps’].
She will then satisfy the ferocious Cerberus, the dog guarding the underworld, by giving him one of the cakes. Once into the underworld, Persephone will offer her a rich meal, but Psyche will have to ask for a piece of stale bread and eat only that. Once she has the box with its precious content, she will be able to go back giving Cerberus and Charon the other cake and coin. ‘But most of all’ – the Tower says – ‘never open the box!’ But Psyche, who wants to get Cupid back and be even more beautiful, opens the box and she is overcome by an infernal sleep. Cupid wakes her up and takes her with him in the heavens. [Fire: being able to see the true function of all things, their raison d’être, the plot behind appearances. Not self-pitying ourselves, being ruthless with ourselves and not reflecting on the outside the weak and ill parts of us].
When she breaches the first prohibition, Psyche is driven by the unbalances of the soul (envy, longing, jealousy, and the wicked sisters) to look at Cupid’s face. This is what reductionists do, when they desperately try and rationalize what cannot be reduced to reason. After a purification (death of the sisters, impure parts of the soul), Psyche faces the test of the four elements and passes it. She breaches the second prohibition as well, whilst carrying the same box that almost all the Kore in the archeological museum in Athens give Persephone as a gift…
Paradoxically, precisely by breaching the second prohibition and opening the box destined to Venus, that causes her to fall asleep in death, Psyche can rejoin Cupid and ascend to the heavens with him.