Professor Joel Relihan’s translation of Apuleius’s “Tale of Cupid and Psyche” has won acclaim as an exuberant rendering of the story suitable both for first-time readers as well as for classicists who study the narrative in the context of the larger novel in which it appears, The Golden Ass.
The plot. Venus, the goddess of love, is jealous of the beauty of Psyche, a mortal woman. Venus sends her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a wretched man. Instead, Cupid falls in love with Psyche. Complications ensue. (Cupid flies away, Psyche is faced with impossible tasks and deadly perils, etc.) In the end, Jupiter on Olympus offers Psyche the cup of immortality; there is a wedding feast and dance. We are told in the last line that eventually she gives birth to a daughter, Delight.
The literary attraction? Apuleius is one of the reasons to learn Latin: this is so exuberant, so over-ornamented, so baroque and over-the-top that it can take your breath away. In my translation I tried to reproduce some of these effects.
And the genre is? It is in many ways a domestic comedy. The immature boy who has fallen in love with a woman who looks exactly like his mother learns to stand up to his mother and so becomes a man; the immature young woman learns that what shares her bed is not a monster but a man and so becomes a woman.
Why the story matters. While we know through art and through allusions in other authors (primarily Plato) that there were other popular stories in antiquity concerning Eros (Cupid) and Psyche, Apuleius’ is the only written version that we have. It has its influence into modern times as a free-standing story because it makes a simple, quasi-religious assertion that many people want very much to believe, that love makes the lover immortal. But it also passes underground, as it were, to reappear in medieval and later folklore. The Bride of Death, The Invisible (or Monstrous) Husband, The Violated Prohibition, The Impossible Tasks, The Descent to the Underworld—these will live on in Beauty and Beast, and also King Kong.
Cupid and Valentine’s Day. The character of Cupid in Apuleius’ story is a far cry from the Cupid who becomes the kewpie doll. Cupid in Apuleius is much more about sex than sentiment.
A book for Valentine’s Day? Of course! Now it has to be understood that there are parts of the story that are violent and unpleasant. But once you accept Cupid and Psyche as a sort of fairy tale, you can accept the violence (the worst parts are no worse than what you find in the Brothers Grimm); and it ends as a genuine comedy, with an ecstatically happy ending that asserts that love turns children into adults, brings joy into the world, perpetuates the species, reconciles adults to the passing of time, refashions society, binds the universe together, and makes the soul immortal. What better definition of love would you want?