The love god and the oil lamp, from Ferment February 02

Many Ferment readers will already be familiar with the myth of Psyche. It comes from the writings of Lucius Apuleius1, an ancient Roman who was a devotee of Isis.

Psyche was a maiden of mortal family who found a divine lover. His embraces made her happy, although he met her in darkness and forbade her to look upon his face. Eventually she brought an oil lamp to his bed as he lay sleeping, and discovered that he was none other than the winged god of love, Cupid himself. As her hand trembled, hot oil from the lamp spilled onto the body of the god. He flew away, injured and angered. Psyche then fell into the clutches of Venus, Cupid’s mother, who commanded her to do a series of seemingly impossible tasks. The first involved a large heap of different sorts of grain seeds, thoroughly mixed together, which Psyche was required to separate in a limited time. While the young woman gazed at the seeds, friendly ants came to help her... Eventually Venus relented, Psyche and Cupid were reunited, and Psyche was made a goddess.

Psyche’s story has been interpreted as a “journey from blind instinctual attraction to a knowing, individuated love”.2 Yet it can be also seen as a description of a path between two forms of religious devotion. The first is blind faith, trust like that of a very small child who has not yet begun to ask questions -- pure bhakti. The second is the devotion that sees, the devotion of someone who has asked some questions, and found some answers, and experienced the consequences of the seeking and the finding. Before Psyche brings the oil lamp to her lover they are both happy, and their relationship is untroubled. Afterwards both are hurt, and their relationship goes through a crisis. If we could all trust without questioning, perhaps we would live in untroubled harmony with the divine. The trouble is that not all of us can do so. Sometimes we feel compelled to seek out the truth, whatever the cost may be.

For some of us, the search for truth involves studying the writings which can tell us about spiritual journeys of past times. At times, the study can seem as tedious and hopeless as Psyche’s grain-sorting job. Yet, like Psyche’s work with the grain, it may prove in the end to be part of the path that takes us back to the god we have lost. And perhaps we will no longer have to choose between the god’s kiss and the lamp of the truth seeker.

Colin Robinson

1 Apuleius, Lucius (translated by Graves, Robert); The Golden Ass;  Penguin, 1950.
2 Hall, Nor; The Moon and the Virgin; The Women’s Press, London, 1980; pp20 - 21.

© Colin Robinson 2002

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