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Introductory Note

THE legend of Cupid and Psyche has been the subject of a learned work by Rohde, called Psyche; it has been examined by W. A. Clouston in his Popular Tales and Fictions (i. 205), and in a lighter vein by A. Lang in Custom and Myth, and in his preface to the reprint of Adlington's version. It would be out of place to deal with the matter at any length here; but the salient points may be indicated. Whilst the tale as a whole is essentially Greek in its delicacy and charm, nor can a like sequence of incidents be found elsewhere, it has been compounded of elements which are of great antiquity and often bear the stamp of a primitive age. Chief amongst these are: (1) the mysterious husband; (2) the forbidden privilege; (3) the impossible tasks; and (4) the helpful beasts.

(1) The most familiar type of the Mysterious Husband appears in the tale of Beauty and the Beast, in which a maiden is wedded to a serpent or some horrible monster, who afterwards proves to be a prince bewitched. It is clear from the hints and suggestions of Psyche's sisters that the legend may originally have contained this element, or at least that it was known to those who told the tale. But in the Greek story, Cupid's concealment is assigned to a more natural cause -- a desire to hide his love from Aphrodite, his offended mother.

(2) In many of the tales of this type, the bride is forbidden to see her husband, or to ask his name; sometimes when the bride is one of a superior race, such as a fairy, the husband is not to see her at certain seasons, or unclad, or to mention a particular word or name in her presence, or to speak words of reproach to her. The incident of the burning lamp is almost exactly reproduced in East of the Sun and West of the Moon, where the husband is a White Bear by day, and only resumes his true shape at night. These incidents are really part of a larger subject, which includes prohibitions of all sorts, particularly (as in Bluebeard) the Forbidden Room; and they seem to embody to some extent a test of obedience and a moral lesson. Strange enough they may seem to the reader, yet there is no doubt that they represent social customs which once existed. The classical student will remember how the Spartan bridegroom for some time was not allowed to visit his wife except by stealth. Indeed such customs do still exist amongst savages, who often impose the strictest etiquette upon new-married couples. In some parts Africa, a bridegroom often is not allowed to see his bride at all, or not during the day; and similar restrictions are known for India, America, and other parts of the world.

(3) Impossible tasks are part of the stock-in-trade of the folk-tale. From Heracles and Jason to Tom Tit Tot, we find these tests of endurance or ingenuity the never-failing delight of generation after generation of children. Each of the tasks set to Psyche might be made the subject of an interesting investigation; it will suffice now to call attention to the warning not to eat in hell, which meets us in the myth of Demeter.

(4) The beasts which help Psyche to perform her tasks are equally familiar from our Western nursery tales. They are especially frequent in India, and have been by some scholars attributed to Buddhist influence; but the theory will not hold, for they are both older than Buddhism and reach beyond its possible influence. This type of, incident belongs to a time when the animal world was felt to be closely connected with mankind. Each understands the speech of the other, and they show mutual kindness and good-fellowship. We are in a world where all nature is linked together as a whole, and it is quite the natural thing for men, beasts, and trees to be friends together. It is a very pleasing picture; a world where, in spite of much that is ugly, some of the fairest illusions of childhood seem to last all through life.

I forbear to speak of the minor elements of the tale, such as the jealous sisters familiar to us in the story of Cinderella, and the cruel stepmother or taskmaster who sets the tasks. No one can have read or heard popular tales without meeting with these. But enough has been said to indicate the general lines of analysis which are useful in examining the tale. It is in the combination that the artist shows his power; and of all the tales of the world, it is hardly too much to say that this tale of Cupid and Psyche is the most beautiful and charming.


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