Review – The Constant Princess

The Constant Princess (The Tudor Court No.1) – Philippa Gregory

HarperCollins, 2011

Originally published in 2005

Catalina, the Infanta of Spain, was born to great and terrible parents and grew up on the edge of a battlefield. She knows that her destiny is to marry Prince Arthur, son of the Tudor king Henry VII, and to one day be Queen of England. When the time for the wedding comes, however, nothing is as she expected. England is cold and wet, the Tudors are dour and suspicious, and in this country, all of a queen’s power depends on the will of her husband. Which makes it all the worse that Catalina and Arthur do not know what to make of each other at all. But Catalina will surprise herself in what she can do – and she will surprise the whole of England.

Having read the Cousins War series, the last book of which overlaps with The Constant Princess, I was interested to see how Gregory would approach a period I know more about and how she would write the key players. The Constant Princess hinges on a controversial theory and I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it, but the historical facts are so strange that any narrative trying to go behind the scenes would have to make some pretty big jumps. I love the way Gregory focuses on the women of history, not just the famous ones but the lesser known figures who were a part of that world – it was particularly fascinating to learn about Katherine’s extraordinary warrior-queen of a mother. The Tudor Court series continues with The Other Boleyn Girl.

Return of the Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)

If there’s a bright spot in the universe,” Luke once said, when he thought he’d be stuck on Tatooine forever, “this is the planet it’s farthest from.” For a backwater wasteland run by a mob of giant slugs, however, it gets a lot of narrative attention. Having left Cloud City with Han Solo (frozen solid in a block of carbonite and allegedly alive) Boba Fett delivered him to Jabba the Hutt’s palace, where Han is now on display as both trophy and warning. This is what happens if Jabba gets fed up with you.

But the Rebellion has bigger problems. In what is not the most original plot twist George Lucas could have come up with, the Empire has started construction on the Death Star 2.0 and are a startling way ahead of schedule considering the last one took them twenty odd years to develop. Darth Vader comes to see the progress and he’s a lot less impressed than I am. When the commander overseeing construction protests that he needs more men to get the work done on schedule, Vader pulls out the ultimate threat: the Emperor is coming to view the operation personally, and he does not accept excuses. Or other people’s opinions. Or any reality that doesn’t fit with what he wants.

Meanwhile, on Tatooine, C3-PO and R2-D2 are once more walking through the desert, this time towards Jabba the Hutt’s palace. They are carrying a message on Luke’s behalf. C3-PO’s hopes of this mission being a complete non-starter are dashed when they are allowed into the palace, and I don’t blame him for the reluctance – it’s a horrible place, full of horrible people and other people having a really horrible time. Having what is probably the most horrible time of all is the Twi’lek slave girl sitting at Jabba’s feet. Her sole purpose in this movie is being something beautiful that he can break. Did Jabba really need to be an inter-species sexual predator as well as a violent and capricious mob boss? Really?

The two droids don’t actually know what Luke’s message says. R2-D2 has already been fondled by Jabba’s creepy lackey by the time they reach Jabba and C3-PO is poised for a full on panic attack so the realisation that Luke doesn’t intend to get them out – that they are in fact gifts for Jabba, to more easily facilitate negotiations for Han’s release – is a dreadful shock. It’s hard to tell whether this is a ploy on Luke’s part or not. Despite delivering a sickening amount of flattery in one short message, he could not look more stony.

He’s also introducing himself as a Jedi Knight these days. That doesn’t mean much to Jabba, who keeps the droids but has no intention of giving up his favourite statue. On the way through Jabba’s extremely inhospitable halls, C3-PO and R2-D2 are brought to a torture chamber for droids (it is really disturbing) where C3-PO is fitted with a restraining bolt and sent back up to act as Jabba’s interpreter. R2-D2 is taken off to wait tables on Jabba’s barge. They are both terrified and this is not okay. I am disappointed in you, Luke.

Jabba hosts a party that night – or maybe it’s not a party, maybe he always has a live band performing non-stop for his entertainment and skimpily clad dancing girls in chains performing at his whim, I don’t know. He’s the type. Boba Fett is in attendance, a little separate from the rest of Jabba’s crew and radiating a vibe of disinterest. When Jabba hauls the Twi’lek girl off the dance floor towards him, practically salivating at her distress, she fights back as hard as she can and I really want to rescue her from this story, because she DESERVES BETTER. Jabba gets bored with her struggles. He opens a trapdoor and drops her into the pit beneath the floor, to be torn apart by the monster he keeps beneath the palace.

The ‘entertainment’ is distrupted when a short-tempered bounty hunter in a helmet and body armour comes down the stairs, hauling Chewbacca along with them. There’s a price on his head and the bounty hunter has come to collect, using a thermal detonator as inducement for Jabba to up the sum. Jabba is amused. He agrees to hand over half the demanded (presumably exorbitant) price and the bounty hunter stays afterwards to join in the party. Chewbacca is towed off to the dungeons. One of the guards is a disguised Lando Calrissian, who watches but doesn’t act, not yet.

When the party is over and the palace is quiet, the bounty hunter slips back into the dark throne room and goes to Han, adjusting the settings on the carbonite to unfreeze him. Han tumbles out, unconscious, shaking and temporarily blind from hibernation sickness. He’s scared and confused. Pulling off the helmet, the bounty hunter is revealed to be Leia – but she’s shown her hand too soon. Jabba suspected a trick and set up an ambush. Han immediately tries to fast talk his way out of it, but no dice, he’s dragged off to the dungeons. Leia is forced to take on the vacant role of dancing slave girl, chained to Jabba’s side and stripped down to the infamous golden bikini.

Let’s not mince words: this is a narrative choice based on sexism. Leia’s treatment is specifically, sexually denigrating when there is no good reason for her to be treated differently to the male prisoners. I can’t watch this movie without remembering what it was like, as a little girl, to see my favourite character treated as a thing and to understand that she was being treated that way because she was the same gender as me. What’s worse is that I wasn’t surprised. Because I already knew that’s what happened to women when the story wanted to hurt them: their clothes got taken away and so did their strength.

I sincerely hope this trope dies a swift and merciless death.

In the dungeons, Han reunites with a jubilant Chewbacca, who explains that Luke is going to come and rescue them – an idea that Han is tremendously doubtful about, as he still thinks of Luke as a good-hearted but naive farmboy. Luke is not that person any more. He walks into the palace shrouded in a dark cloak, sweeping away the guards with easy gestures, like he’s swatting flies. Unfortunately, Jabba is not as susceptible to Jedi mind tricks. It’s strange to think he’d remember the ways of Jedi, that it’s actually only a generation ago that the Jedi were a legend everybody knew and respected. Jabba probably remembers little Anakin Skywalker the impossible Podracer – I wonder if he ever joined the dots? Probably not. He may not be swayed by mind tricks, but he’s not bright.

Luke is calm in the face of Jabba’s…everything. He does not speak directly to Leia and she does not look happy to see him; she’s still chained up, there’s nothing to be happy about yet. And Luke is not an all-powerful legend, he’s a well-trained man surrounded by professional killers. Jabba activates the trapdoor and Luke falls into the pit along with an unlucky guard, who is immediately devoured by the monster. As Luke is hoisted toward the Rancor’s maw, he stabs it in the mouth with an old bone and runs, but there’s no way out. So instead he smashes the portcullis gateway and brings it down on the Rancor’s head, much to its keeper’s distress.

His first attempt having failed, Jabba comes up with another exciting execution for his prisoners. Luke, Han and Chewbacca are taken out to the Dune Sea, where they will be hurled into the nest of the Sarlaac while Jabba’s crew watch on from his barge. Luke keeps his chill. Leia is disgusted with everything. R2-D2 serves drinks.

Lando has managed to get aboard the smaller craft that is transporting the prisoners. When they reach the Sarlaac (another enormous monster that is all tentacles and teeth) a gangplank extends over its snapping mouth. “Jabba, this is your last chance,” Luke calls out. “Free us or die.” Jabba laughs. Luke is prodded out onto the gangplank. He nods to Lando, flicks a salute to R2-D2 and does a Force-powered backflip as the Skywalkers’ guardian droid sends his lightsaber flying into his hand. A free-for-all breaks out as the other prisoners fight off their guards. Boba Fett flies down to deal with Luke and is accidentally knocked into the pit by a half-blind Han. Leia, with enormous pleasure, loops her chain around Jabba’s neck and throttles him to death. R2-D2 then busts her out. Team Rebellion leave Jabba’s barge in flaming smithereens as they fly away.

Upon departure from Tatooine, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Lando and C3-PO go to join the Rebellion forces in the Millenium Falcon while Luke travels back to Dagobah with R2-D2. Meanwhile, at the construction site of the second Death Star, everyone is assembled to greet their Emperor. He casually delivers his orders to Vader as they walk between ranks of stormtroopers: they are going to wait for Luke to confront them, and then claim him for the Dark Side of the Force. After all, the Emperor has already turned one Skywalker. Why not get the latest model?

On Dagobah, Yoda’s nine hundred years are weighing heavily on him. He tells Luke that his training is complete, then gently mocks him for the awestruck statement “So I am a Jedi.” Yoda insists that Luke must defeat Vader before he can truly call himself that and Luke quietly brings up the question of his parentage. Yoda tries to avoid answering but has to admit that it’s true, Darth Vader is Luke’s father. He pleads with Luke to pass on what he’s learned, his last, choked words being, “There is another Skywalker.” Then he’s gone. His blanket collapses as the body underneath it fades away.

Leaving the hut, Luke is joined by the ghostly presence of Obi-Wan. Luke angrily demands to know why he lied about who Vader really was; Obi-Wan unapologetically explains that it was true ‘from a certain point of view’. “He’s more machine now than man,” he says sadly. Luke is convinced that there is still good in Vader (where is your EVIDENCE, Luke, he put your best friend in a FREEZER) and is unwilling to kill him. Obi-Wan then reveals that Luke has a twin sister, kept separate from him since birth. Luke guesses, instantly and correctly, that it’s Leia. It’s a Force thing. Obi-Wan tells him to be cautious of his emotions, lest the Emperor use them against him.

Aboard the Rebellion flagship, Lando has been made a general (to Han’s genuine delight) and Leia has got hold of proper clothes again, thank goodness. The rebels have learned the location of the new Death Star and also know that the weapons systems are not yet operational. Most importantly, the Emperor will be aboard. They have a small window of time in which to attack. The energy shield that defends the Death Star is generated on the forest moon of Endor, and has to be taken out before the station itself can be destroyed; Lando volunteers to lead the attack on the Death Star while a strike team led by Han goes after the energy shield. Han wouldn’t commit Chewbacca to such a dangerous mission, which is really adorable, but Chewie exasperatedly insists on going and Leia volunteers as well. Luke arrives in time to join them. Leia can immediately tell something is up with him but it’s not the right place for explanations.

Han practically orders Lando to take the Falcon, like it’s a lucky charm between them that will make sure his friend comes back in one piece. They’re pretty cute together now that all the betrayal and back-stabbing is out of the way. The Emperor, however, is by no means as unprepared as the rebels think. He has the imperial fleet waiting on the far side of Endor, where it won’t be detected.

Han’s team approach in a small imperial shuttle in the hope that they can use it to land undetected. Last time Han posed as an imperial officer, it didn’t go well, but this time everything goes to plan – until Vader senses Luke’s presence. When the rebels land on Endor, there are stormtroopers in the forest looking for them. Luke and Leia are separated from the rest of the group as they try to stop two scouts getting away; they are then separated from each other when they run into more stormtroopers and Leia is knocked unconscious.

She’s found by an Ewok. Ewoks are an indigenous species on Endor, who are basically walking, talking, spear-carrying teddy bears. Star Wars fandom does not seem to like them. I DO. So does Leia. She befriends this one by communicating through the medium of biscuit and they fight a stormtrooper together, which is a proven bonding experience. The Ewok decides she’s friendly enough to take back to his village. This apparently necessitates another costume change, Leia’s third so far in the course of the movie. The rationale behind the Ewoks just happening to have a dress in Leia’s size, designed for her species, goes unexplained.

In the search for his sister, Luke finds Leia’s discarded helmet and Han finds the ruin of the speeders she took down. Chewbacca is distracted by the smell of meat, suspended from a branch. It must smell incredible to him because he reaches out without thinking and the whole lot of them are scooped up in a net. Eternally resourceful, R2 cuts them free, but they are quickly surrounded by Ewoks, and they don’t pass muster nearly so well as Leia does. Then C3-PO sits up and the Ewoks mistake him for a god. It’s a pretty racist bit of storytelling, actually, relying on the trope of ‘gullible natives’. The trope is carried further when Luke, Han and Chewbacca are transported to the village to be cooked. The Ewoks’ reverence doesn’t go so far as listening to what C3-PO actually wants, so Luke fakes a divine rage by lifting C3-PO into the air with the Force. That’s enough to convince the Ewoks, who free their prisoners.

C3-PO recounts their adventures to date, complete with precise sound effects. He has an appreciative audience; the Ewoks decide to adopt them all, including the rebel cause. Luke slips away from the festive atmosphere and Leia follows him, sensing that he’s in an odd mood. He asks if she remembers her mother. She tells him that she remembers a woman who was kind and sad, but that can’t have been Padme, as she died when the twins were born. Luke tells Leia that Vader is on Endor. He explains that Vader is his father – and that Leia is his sister. She claims to have always known, which is total nonsense and probably just her way of handling all the awful of the situation. Luke insists on leaving. Han comes bumbling up while Leia desperately wants to be left alone, and his jealousy jumps to all the wrong conclusions. Despite his confusion, he does try to be supportive.

Luke surrenders to Vader. He is determined to reawaken the Light Side in him, just as Vader is determined to bring out the Dark Side in him. Vader turns almost plaintive as he tells Luke that he must obey the Emperor – Luke is right, the little slave boy from Tatooine is still in there, but that doesn’t change any of Vader’s innumerable murderous life choices and he makes a new one by hauling his optimistic son off to face the Emperor.

Han’s team prepare to take out the shield generator and Lando leads the rebel fleet towards the Death Star. With a clever diversion tactic courtesy of their Ewok allies, Han and Leia reach the control bunker where the generator is located, but it is a trap set up by the Emperor. They are quickly surrounded by stormtroopers and when Lando reaches the Death Star its shield is still operational. Realising that the imperial forces are prepared for them, Lando tries to call off the attack. It’s too late. Suddenly, they are all stuck in a last stand.

Aboard the Death Star, Luke is calm in the face of the Emperor’s…everything. He tries not to react when the Emperor gloats over the imminent failure of the rebel attack, but he’s rethinking his pacifist approach. Why he considers killing the Emperor to be crossing a moral line when he’s been totally fine with killing stormtroopers is a mystery to me – he killed Jabba’s people without any visible qualms either – but probably it’s something to do with setting a Good Example to Vader, who has been making querulous comments on how irresistible the Dark Side is ever since he came into the Emperor’s presence, like he’s trying to convince himself as well as Luke. The Emperor has a lot to say about Destiny, and how Luke’s Destiny is to become a Sith Lord like his father. To drive home Luke’s despair, he reveals that the Death Star’s weapons system is up and running – maybe not at full strength, given that it only takes out a single spacecraft, but certainly capable of decimating the rebel fleet when the Emperor gives the order.

Destiny, though, has failed to take the Ewoks into account. No doubt the Emperor thought of them as inconsequential, but the terrain is in their favour, they are small and fast enough to easily disappear when they want to, and there are enough gaps in stormtrooper armour that bows and arrows shot by expert marksmen have a good impact. You get the feeling that they have been watching the imperial invaders closely and planning all of this in detail. Chewbacca provides their small army with extra muscle. Han hotwires the control bunker doors while Leia covers him and they gain entry, setting the place to blow up.

If Luke wants to save his friends, he has to take out the Emperor. When Vader reads Luke’s mind and learns that Leia is also a Skywalker, Luke very nearly kills him. He cuts off Vader’s hand, he has him pinned – but when it comes right down to it, he will not kill his father. That’s just not who he is. Seeing Luke’s unwavering commitment to the Light Side, the Emperor tires of his game. He tortures Luke with Force lightning, delighting in it, while Vader stands silent behind him. Luke weakly pleads with his father to save him and something, finally, finally, snaps. Vader is not strong enough to stop the Emperor, but he’s strong enough to lift him. Hoisting his master into the air, somehow walking while wreathed in lightning, Vader hurls the Emperor into the Death Star’s power core, to his death.

With the shield down at last, Lando flies into the Death Star to aim for the power generator. He sends back most of his team, there’s no space for the fight in here. One pilot takes down a Star Destroyer and sends it smashing into the Death Star, and the station is in chaos as Luke staggers for a hangar bay, more or less carrying Vader. At Vader’s insistence, he removes the helmet, revealing the damaged human underneath. Luke wants to save him. “You already have,” Vader says. “Tell your sister…you were right.” He dies there, and has someone to mourn him.

The rebels take out the power generator. Luke escapes just in time and Lando bursts through the flames with a triumphant shout. To those watching on Endor, the explosion means victory. Han tries to reassure Leia that Luke wasn’t on board the Death Star when it blew and she calmly agrees that he wasn’t, that she can feel he’s still alive. Han misunderstands again. Leia spells it out with unnecessary patience, like he’s a bit thick for not having worked it out already: Luke is her brother.

Luke brings Vader’s body to the moon surface and builds a pyre to burn it. He stands vigil while the rest of the universe celebrates the end of the Empire, in a retconned montage that includes Coruscant and Naboo. It is an outpouring that cannot be stopped. The Ewoks celebrate in their own way, lighting bonfires and dancing, using stormtrooper helmets as drums. Han and Chewbacca grab onto Lando like family, and Leia yanks Luke into a hug. When he looks back at the night, he sees Obi-Wan and Yoda watching him – and his father is with them. The young, hot version of his father, because this is on DVD and George Lucas got at it. Still, it’s kind of fitting. It wasn’t Vader that Luke saved, it was Anakin. And Leia pulls Luke back into the revels, because this is the family that Luke saved himself to rejoin.

I have such mixed feelings about this movie. I can’t watch it without feeling my mother’s quiet and fierce disappointment on Leia’s behalf and my own sense of betrayal as an adult; I also have a lot less patience for Darth Vader getting every second chance that Luke can muster after so many people suffered and died at Vader’s own command. At the same time, Luke’s stubborn insistence on forging a new way, on being a better kind of Jedi, brings a deeper sense of relief after seeing the terrible mistakes made by his predecessors.

Which does not mean he can’t make terrible mistakes of his own. But he’s begun the right way.

Welcome to the Castle

I am delighted to announce that a podcast reading of my story ‘Blueblood’ (originally published in the anthology Hear Me Roar) went up on the PodCastle website today as part of Aurealis Month. I’m listening to it as I write this – you can listen to it too here! There’s something strange and wonderful about seeing the words you’ve written appear fully formed in the pages of a book, but hearing them read aloud is like experiencing the story brand new. As a storytelling medium, fairy tales are at their best when told aloud, and I am so happy that my retelling is being shared in this way. A huge thank you to PodCastle and to Loulou Szal, who narrated the story for the podcast.

In other exciting news, ‘Doubt the Sun’ (originally published in Daughters of Frankenstein) has been chosen for reprinting in Heiresses of Russ 2016. The anthology contains seventeen stories that are ’emblematic of the new vitality to be found in lesbian-themed tales of wonder, the eerie, and the miraculous’. It’s an honour to have been chosen as a contributor.

What is there to say?

The American election results are not something that any of us, no matter how far away we live, can ignore. I am sadder and more cynical than I was a week ago, but I’m going to repeat here what I said on Tumblr:

As an Australian, I do not pretend to understand the American electoral system or the political and social landscape that led voters to make the choices they have made. I watched this election unfold on Tumblr. I watched people go from cautious optimism to shock and terror. I am on the other side of the world and I am afraid, not just because I care about the minorities who are now more at risk than ever, or because the other side of the world is not nearly far enough away for my own country to be unaffected, but because this year humanity as a species has put its ugly side on full display. I’m afraid of what happens next. This is not what the future was meant to look like.

I’m honestly not sure that anything I say is going to be helpful right now, but silence will help less. So here’s all I have to offer: hold on. To each other and to hope. You are anything but alone. Your country is still yours no matter what he says or does. You are going to have chances to wear him down, to loosen his grip, so take them. Make him regret ever running for office.

All of this is going to be history someday. The chapter isn’t written yet, so fight him for the pen.

The future does not belong to him.

And to that I’ll add, keep safe.

Ladies of Legend: Pandora and Psyche

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes From Around the World (Kingfisher, 1998) ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherine Headlam, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp,

Trigger warnings: dubious sexual consent, attempted suicide

The first thing you need to understand for any of the following information to make sense is that gods and goddesses are usually, not to put too fine a point on it, mean. The Greek Pantheon are no exception. They do what they want and if there is even a rumour that someone is better at anything than they are – better at weaving, at music, at winning the subjective mess that is popular beauty standards – they will come and make their competitor’s life absolute hell. Because they CAN. They also have a petty point-scoring system among themselves that leads to vicious pranking; for instance, that little business of the war on Troy.

The Pantheon are a younger generation of gods, preceded by the Titans, and the two battled it out for who would rule. Zeus, the leader of the Pantheon, came out on top and settled in by demanding animal sacrifices from humanity as a part of their worship. The Titan Prometheus was tasked with cutting up the first sacrifice so that Zeus could decide which bits he wanted, and was so artful in his arrangement of the dismembered animal that Zeus ended up picking the bones and the humans were left with all the edible pieces. Zeus retaliated by outlawing fire on Earth. Prometheus, ever the rebel, stole fire right out of Mount Olympus and returned it to humanity, spreading it so far and wide that nobody would be able to take it away again.

Zeus took a subtler approach on his next attack. He had his son Hephaestus, god of smithing, create the shape of a beautiful woman – one source says of clay, another of metal. Zeus then brought her to life. She was a blank canvas for the other gods to bestow traits upon, including beauty, grace, intelligence and persuasiveness, cunning, deceit and a powerful sense of curiosity. In other words, a multi-faceted human. She was named Pandora (in another version, Anesidora) and sent down to earth to be the bride of Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. She brought with her a container – a box or a jar locked up with a key that was placed into Pandora’s keeping. The gods told her that if she was to live happily, she should never open the box.

Prometheus, sensibly, did not trust anyone who had Zeus pulling their strings, but Epimetheus had been given this beautiful woman as a gift (as a thing, not a person) and he decided to keep her as his wife. There are shades of Blodeuwedd in this. By all accounts, the couple were happy at first, but there was that box in their house. Pandora could not stop thinking about it. She thought it was unjust of the gods to give her something they didn’t want her to use (well, she wasn’t wrong) and eventually gave in to her curiosity, opening it up to see what lay inside.

There’s some disagreement on what exactly that was. One version has it that she was right, the box was full of wonderful gifts that escaped the second the lid went up and were therefore lost; the better known story is that the diseases and disasters of the world spilled out and were anything but lost, spreading to the far corners of the world like a vicious mirror of Prometheus’s gift. Only one good thing was in Pandora’s box: hope. That, she kept.

She had one child, a daughter called Pyrrha. When Zeus decided he no longer liked this miserable world that he’d brought about and sent a flood to wash the slate clean, Pyrrha and her husband (also cousin, being the son of Prometheus) Deucalion were among the few to survive. One story has it that Zeus was impressed by their goodness and spared them; another has it that Prometheus warned Deucalion in time, which I personally find more credible. Pyrrha helped repopulate the world by transforming stones into women, but she also had six blood children of her own and one of her daughters was given Pandora’s name.

Zeus is touchy about sacrifices. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is touchy on the subject of beauty. When a doting mother was unwise enough to remark aloud that her youngest daughter was more beautiful than Aphrodite, the goddess’s followers turned around and started worshipping the human princess Psyche instead and Aphrodite was livid. She sent her son Eros to take revenge on her behalf by piercing the girl with a divine arrow that would cause her to fall in love with a terrible candidate and make a disastrous marriage. Eros screwed it up by getting distracted by Psyche’s lovely face and literally shot himself in the foot, falling desperately in love with the girl his mother wanted him to destroy. If you can call that experience love, which I feel very dubious about.

Psyche did not even want to be worshipped. It was weird, and uncomfortable, and really lonely. Her two older sisters married and left her behind, as Psyche was so high on the general population’s mental pedestal that nobody dared try for her hand. Her anxious father consulted the oracle of Apollo on where to find Psyche a husband and was told to take her to the top of a steep mountain, where she would be claimed as the bride of a monster so terrifying that even Zeus would fear him.

NEVER CONSULT AN ORACLE. They are the actual worst.

Instead of just letting their daughter live the single life for the rest of her days, Psyche’s parents escorted her to the mountain in tears, fully expecting to never see her again. She was left alone with her terror. Instead of a monster, however, she was caught up by a gentle wind which carried her to the foot of the mountain and into a palatial house. It was beautiful but empty. Disembodied voices and hands tended to her needs, bringing food and playing music. Thoroughly bewildered, she went to sleep, having seen no trace of the prophesied monster.

She was woken in the middle of the night by someone – or something – climbing into her bed. That is straight up nightmare material right there, and it was pitch black, she couldn’t see a thing. Her ‘husband’ (please note, Psyche had not agreed to any part of this arrangement) did not say who he was or why she was there. Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies discreetly skims over the details, but it’s very clear what happened: they had sex in a situation where consent was seriously compromised and the stranger left before it got light.

The first night set a pattern. The owner of the beautiful house came to her each night in darkness and never let her see his face. At length they had an actual conversation, with him informing her that her sisters were scaling the mountain to seek her out. Can I just pause there for a moment to acknowledge how brave those women were? They thought their sister had married a monster. They didn’t know if she was even still alive, but they were willing to risk their lives to find out. Psyche’s husband did not want her to let them in but of course she did, asking the obliging wind to carry them safely to the palace. Here, sexism takes over the narrative. We’re expected to believe that the devoted sisters who dropped everything to find Psyche switched over into rabid jealousy as soon as they saw her jewels and lovely clothes. Apparently wanting to know what kind of a man their little sister had married, and being appalled when she couldn’t tell them because she didn’t know, is unreasonable.

They pointed out that she was prophesied to marry a terrible monster, could she really be sure she hadn’t? Who else would refuse to let his own wife see his face? Upon hearing that Psyche had fallen pregnant, they warned her that her monster-husband probably wanted to eat her and the baby at the same time, and told her she should kill him. Convinced by their arguments, Psyche concealed a lamp and a knife in her room. That night, once her husband had fallen asleep, she lit the lamp and saw him for the first time.

It was, of course, Eros. Aphrodite’s son had the form of a beautiful youth and even in bed, kept his bow and arrows close by. As Psyche held the lamp over him, marvelling, she scratched herself on one of the arrows and doomed herself to eternal insta-love. She leaned in to kiss him. The lamp tipped, dripping burning oil on Eros’s bare shoulder, and he flew (literally flew) from the room in a panic. Psyche clung on to him as long as she could, before she lost her grip and tumbled to the ground.

Eros went home to his mother. He knew she would be outraged that he’d decided to sleep with Psyche instead of obeying Aphrodite’s orders to ruin her life (though…you know, her life with him wasn’t great. There’s an argument about semantics to be made there) but apparently a drop of hot oil was too much for his immortal body to handle and he needed his mother to heal him. Psyche was left alone on the mountainside with the crashing weight of realisation that Aphrodite herself would soon descend in a maternal rage. Psyche decided to skip to the finish line and tried to drown herself in a river, but the river god recognised her as the bride of Eros and wouldn’t let her die. She then prayed to the goddesses Hera and Demeter for help. Neither was willing to offend Aphrodite for Psyche’s sake.

Aphrodite duly arrived and started flogging Psyche for the crime of not implicitly trusting her extremely untrustworthy son. But where’s the fun in sticking to physical pain when you can throw in some psychological torture too? She decided to set Psyche tasks that were impossible for a mortal to achieve, then use the failures as an excuse to beat her again. That’s Aphrodite for you.

For the first task, she mixed together grains, beans and seeds and scattered them on the hearth of Aphrodite’s own palace. If Psyche could not separate them all by nightfall, she would be whipped. Psyche tried, but knew she would fail and started to cry. Fortunately for her, an ant noticed her distress and rallied an army of tiny helpers to aid Eros’s bride. When Aphrodite returned, the task was done.

Not that it stopped her coming up with a new one just as difficult – the next day Psyche was sent to take a handful of golden wool from a flock of sharp-horned, poison-toothed sheep. Hovering on the edge of their meadow, Psyche was warned by a nearby reed (yes, an actual reed) that the gold fleece grew burning hot under the sun and riled up the sheep into a ferocious temper. If she went to them after dark, and gathered the wool from thorns and briars instead of the sheep themselves, she would complete the task unharmed.

Psyche followed that advice. Aphrodite was furious. She ordered Psyche to go to the Styx, the river of the dead, and bring back water from its source – not just that, but water taken from the middle of the river, meaning Psyche would have to wade in. Psyche reconsidered plan A, suicide, which would be a lot easier in this particular locale. As she ran towards the dragons that guarded the river, however, Zeus (in the body of an eagle at the time) spied her and flew down to help, having received Eros’s support in an awkward love affair. He filled the jug for her, so that she could return with it to Aphrodite.

Who sent her straight back to the Underworld, to call upon its queen and ask for some of her beauty. It was against all the rules for a mortal to go into the realm of Hades and Persephone and come back alive, but when a despairing Psyche climbed to the top of a tower, planning to jump and just end all of this misery once and for all, the tower itself spoke up to protect her. If she took two barley cakes and two coins, she could bribe both the ferryman Charon and the three-headed dog Cerberus to let her in. She also had to ignore all pleas for help, refuse any food or drink except for bread and water, and sit upon the ground even if she was offered a throne.

Psyche followed these instructions. Aphrodite sent phantoms to beg her for help, hoping to make Psyche drop the barley cakes, but she ignored them and reached Persephone, who gave her the box without complaint. I’d love to know what Persephone actually thought about this situation and whether she was secretly rooting for Psyche to win or just hoping that Aphrodite would stop complaining if she helped out this one time.

The last test was of Psyche’s will. She had been warned not to open the box, but longed for a god-like beauty to win back Eros and gave into temptation. The box, however, did not contain beauty. It was all a scheme between goddesses. Psyche breathed in a rush of air from the underworld and collapsed, dying.

While she was suffering through Aphrodite’s tasks, Eros was recovering from the burn. Finally fully healed, he came for her just in time, carrying her to Mount Olympus where Zeus gave her ambrosia – the food of immortality. It made Psyche the goddess of the soul and gave her the wings of a butterfly. When her daughter Hedone was born, she too was a goddess, joining the family business as the representative of sensual pleasures.

Male rule-breakers get to be tricksters and heroes. The thieving and deceit of Prometheus helped humanity survive, and his eventual imprisonment and torture only made him a more beloved figure. When the women of mythology break the rules, though, they might not even get the agency of being wicked – they’re just foolish girls who should have known better. The message is very clear: take what you’re given with grace or it will be taken away, ask no questions, expect nothing better than obedience. Even modern books of mythology perpetuate this idea. The truth is, these women were set up very deliberately to fail. Why give a gift, then forbid the receiver to touch it? How can you ask a girl to trust you when you won’t even show her your face?

But Pandora and Psyche are not foolish, or failures. They are survivors of cautionary tales meant to crush female curiosity.

If you want to live outside the box, you have to open it first.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!