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, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Hedone.html

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!

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