Beauty and the Beast’s Origins

The Golden Ass was written in the late 2nd century and was the only latin novel to survive in its entirety.

In the course of the story, told in several “books”, many other inset stories were related including, in book four, the story of Cupid and Psyche. This rendering of the story is the oldest recorded telling of this ancient fairy tale and is presented as a retelling so its origins go even farther back. It has been suggested that the tale was changed slightly to suit what was going on in the novel so how the myth originally went no one knows anymore.

In the novel the protagonist was transformed into, well, a golden ass and in this particular book he has been stolen by thieves. The thieves throw the protagonist into a cave along with a young woman they had also kidnapped. The young woman is scared and crying so an old woman, in league with the thieves, tells her the story of Cupid and Psyche.

Psyche

Psyche was a beautiful woman who boasted that she was even more beautiful than the goddess Venus. Venus heard this and, angered, sent her son Cupid to prick her with his arrow and cause her to fall in love with the ugliest, vilest creature he could find. When he found her he was stunned by her beauty, when she woke suddenly and was able to look him in the eyes even though he was invisible he jumped and stuck himself with the arrow instead of her. He instantly fell in love with her.

Venus cursed Psyche so that no one would ever marry her. Her parents consulted an oracle to try to find a husband for Psyche and were told she was too beautiful and not meant for mortal love. They were told to leave her alone on a mountain top. When they did Psyche was whisked away by Zephyr and taken to live in Cupid’s house where she was attended by invisible servants and told she could never behold her husband who kept their marriage bed dark.

Psyche and Cupid

Psyche was lonely with only invisible servants and an invisible husband for company so she asked to allow her sisters to visit her. Her sisters advised her that all this invisible husband business was nonsense and so she used a lamp to behold her husband that night. She was stunned to see that he was none other than the god Cupid. He awoke and immediately left her for betraying him, leaving her alone and pregnant.

To re-earn her husband’s trust and love she ended up going to his mother Venus and being forced to complete increasingly impossible and dangerous tasks. When she does so Zeus forms a council and determines that Psyche is worthy of becoming a goddess and she drinks the ambrosia that allows her to transform. She is then reunited with her husband and bears their child, a daughter named Voluptas.

This ancient myth and fairy tale has gone on to inspire many others throughout the centuries. The two most well-known are East of the Sun and West of the Moon and of course the even more popular Beauty and the Beast.

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