Christina is an Egyptian writer and translator who teaches at Al-Alsun Faculty, Ain Shams University.
More than 2000 years ago, people believed that the world they inhabited was governed by gods and goddesses. Such a belief shaped the face of the earth as it influenced people’s traditions, history, storytelling, and art. People resorted to Mythology to account for all the mysteries they grappled with and to establish some strings of meaning out of their chaotic world. Many of us overlook myths and fairy-tales although they are a great source of wisdom and an authentic humane repertoire. This article will tackle the theme of love in Greek mythology, the effect of mythology on pop-culture, and the modern retellings such myths morphed into. So, as C. S. Lewis remarks, “someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
The Story of Aphrodite
Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, womanly beauty, sexuality, and erotic pleasures. She is the mother of the famous Greek god, Cupid (Eros), who goes around with darts to strike people, forcing them to fall in love with the first person they see. Born from sea foam, without parents, Aphrodite's key symbols in Greek Mythology are myrtles, roses, doves, sparrows, and swans. Aphrodite’s beauty was so mesmerizing that Greek gods welcomed her with open arms to join them in their castle on the clouds and even bestowed upon her a golden throne. The dazzling goddess also made great contributions to humanity as she gave her beauty and attractiveness to mortal females when Zeus desired to unite with earth’s failing mortals. Greek people built for Aphrodite temples and statuses and paid her due homage. Worship of Aphrodite endured throughout the Roman Empire as people created an equivalent love goddess called Venus.
As ironic as it may seem, the name of Aphrodite is associated with unrequited love. Indeed, no one is safe from the cruelty of the darts of love. The story begins when Aphrodite plays with her son Cupid, and all of a sudden, one of Cupid’s arrows hits Aphrodite’s chest. The first person the goddess comes across is Adonis, son of Cinyras and Myrrha; a beautiful and remarkable youth. Unfortunately, Adonis isn’t interested in love and has commitment issues as he is obsessed with hunting and travelling. Smitten with love, Aphrodite starts stalking her beloved and abandons her golden throne in heaven to embark on a tiring quest to find Adonis, yet Adonis always flees her grip. The story’s finale features Aphrodite pursuing Adonis in a hazardous forest, warning him to come with her not to be hurt by wild animals, yet Adonis neglects her warnings, getting killed by a beast. The story ends with Adonis dying in Aphrodite's arms.
Shakespeare retold the myth in his famous poem Venus and Adonis (1593), known as Shakespeare's first publication. Shakespeare excelled in depicting this tear-jerker myth through his refined poetry as he sheds light on the tragedy of Venus: “She is Love, loves, and yet she is not lov’d,” writes Shakespeare. The tragic story always resonates with abundant modern love stories, such as the world-famed story of Lady Diana and Prince Charles. Deprived of the marital love she needed, Diana once told her son William that to be loved is a treasure that one needs to hold unto: “If you were lucky enough to find someone who loved you, then you must protect it,” Diana indicates. There is a startling affinity between the myth of Aphrodite and the modern stories of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, among other stories that revolve around the charming bride pursuing her lost bridegroom.
Cupid and Psyche
The myth of Cupid and Psyche has been widely hailed for its romantic ascent. It revolves around Psyche, a mortal princess yet of a dazzling beauty, which causes people to worship her instead of Aphrodite (Venus). As a result, Aphrodite summons her mischievous son Cupid, who always wreaks havoc on people because of his darts, ordering him to strike Psyche with one of his darts and let her fall in love with a monstrous beast. Cupid fails to do what is right, as always expected, and instead scratches himself with the arrow by mistake and gets inflamed with Psyche’s love! Apollo, the god of wisdom and prophecy, notifies Psyche’s parents that their daughter is not going to marry a mortal bridegroom but, rather, a wretched immortal serpent. (There always has to be a mistake). The west wind abducts Psyche to an aglow palace, with golden gates and shiny walls. Psyche startles at such a celestial setting and tells herself that this magnificent palace must be the home of a god.
Psyche marries the invisible Cupid despite his demand that Psyche shall not bring any light into their chamber. However, Psyche’s sisters remind her of Apollo’s prophecy, urging her to heed her vile husband. Such a piece of advice stems from the sisters’ self-obsessed desire to ruin Psyche and Cupid’s relationship and to retain their firm hold on their sister. Consequently, Psyche approaches her husband with an oil lamp, and Cupid escapes feeling betrayed and hurt. Racked with guilt, Psyche gropes the earth searching for her lost lover until she reaches Aphrodite’s palace. Playing it right into Aphrodite’s hands, the alluring mortal princess is completely mortified! Aphrodite starts torturing Psyche on the grounds that she is testing her future son’s wife to see how qualified she is. Nevertheless, Psyche is no tardy in sacrificing herself even as a penalty for Cupid to forgive her. The story ends with Cupid and Psyche reunited and with Psyche made immortal.
The myth of Cupid and Psyche has been retold far and wide. However, the best modern retelling of the myth so far is C. S. Lewis’ novel Till We Have Faces (1956). Lewis composed an idiosyncratic story, narrated from the perspective of Orual, Psyche's jealous sister as the novel commences with Orual, the recluse queen who decides to narrate her story, using the feminine first-person narrative. Lewis’ novel is indeed one of the dense novels of all times as it deals with psychology, philosophy, spirituality, and even feminism. The novel is Lewis’ last masterpiece that he wrote prior to his death, at the culmination of his spiritual and literary awareness. He himself declared that this novel is “far and away the best” he has written. The novel is obviously at variance with all the previous works of Lewis. It is neither a heated philosophical and religious debate as The Problem of Pain, nor a flamboyant fantasy as The Chronicles of Narnia, which is invariably read and acclaimed by children. Lewis in this novel is transposed from the knowledgeable theologian to a barefaced, doubtful seeker. This was the first time for the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which is known by its brevity, to be retold with such a profound approach.
Influenced by his background as a Christian theologian, Lewis reflects on a myriad of religious beliefs, trying to retell them in a way outside the conventional religious realm. To exemplify, Lewis makes Cupid a symbol for divinity and Psyche as an epitome of the perfect believer who searches for unity with God. Owing to the limitation of human nature, man will remain destitute of the knowledge of God until he is freed from his mortal body, which is aptly exemplified by Psyche and Cupid’s inconceivable relationship. As a symbol for the decent human being, Psyche agrees to follow her intuition and embark on an adventure to the gods’ palace although she has never seen the gods before. Only after Psyche’s death, she comes face to face with the Greek gods, deeming every phenomenon she sees in the secret valley as real, embraceable, and touchable, such as the gold and amber palace inhabited by the god of the mountain, who is wholly light. The novel ends with Psyche awarded by the Greek gods for her faith and patience.
© 2022 Christina Aziz Hanna