A Pride of Princesses, by Shirley Climo.
Once upon a time, so the mythmakers said, there lived a Greek king who had three daughters. The oldest princess was very pretty. The second princess was quite charming. The youngest princess, whose name was Psyche, was so lovely that even the flowers turned their heads to look at her.
Praise for Psyche's beauty spread throughout Greece and soon reached the ears of the gods and goddesses who dwelled high on Mount Olympus.
"Ridiculous!" scoffed the goddess Aphrodite. "This princess is only a girl. I
am the Goddess of Beauty."
Aphrodite pushed aside the curtain of clouds and inspected the earth below. No people worshipped in the temples built to honor her. No scented smoke curled up from the altars.
"Psyche is to blame!" The goddess clenched her teeth. "But she shall pay for stealing my glory."
Day by day, as Psyche became lovelier, her friends became fewer. Other maidens, even her own sisters, were jealous of her. Men, dazzled by her beauty, were afraid to speak to her.
"I wish I had snakes for hair and snaggle-teeth," the princess declared. "Then someone might love me."
Dismayed by her words, the king asked the all-knowing Oracle of Delphi what match might be in store for his youngest daughter.
"Psyche's husband awaits her on Mount Olympus. But," the old priestess warned, "he will not be human."
The king raged and the queen wept, knowing full well the perils on that mountain. Only Psyche was calm. "If that is what's foretold," she said, "then so it must be."
The next day, Psyche climbed Mount Olympus. Halfway up, she stopped to rest, pillowing her head on her arms. Would it be her fate to wed some savage beast, a bear or a wolf? Perhaps a terrible winged serpent would swoop down from the darkening sky. Shivering, the princess wrapped herself in her cloak and closed her eyes.
When Aphrodite looked down and saw Psyche alone on the mountainside, she sent at once for her son, Eros.
"How quickly you came," Aphrodite said, smiling at the handsome winged God of Love. "You are as swift as an eagle."
"Yet one of your arrows flies faster still, and never misses its target."
Eros nodded, wondering why his mother had summoned him.
"If only I had such skills!" The goddess stroked her son's feathered wings. "I count on you to help me. Wound a prideful Greek princess with one of your arrows..."
Alarmed, Eros jumped back. "I would not harm anyone, not even for you," he replied. "A sting from my arrow causes lovesickness, nothing more."
"But that's enough!" cried Aphrodite. "I want
this girl to fall in love. I want her to love the worst, the ugliest, the most horrible creature in the whole world."
Eros eyed his beautiful mother. Her ill humor, like storm clouds, would soon blow over. "Let me think on it," he said.
"It must be now," Aphrodite insisted, "while the princess slumbers on the slopes of Mount Olympus. Strike her now!"
Eros had to obey. Aphrodite was a powerful goddess as well as his mother. He plunged the tip of an arrow into the nectar of love, sweet and sticky as honey, and flew in search of the princess.
Aphrodite was pleased with her scheme. Eros would prick Psyche with a love-soaked arrow. Then, when that unlucky princess chanced to wake, her lovesick gaze would fall upon some hideous monster. Aphrodite herself would see to that.
But things did not go as the Goddess of Beauty had planned. As soon as Eros set eyes on Psyche, asleep in the moonlight, his heart began to pound. He had never seen so beautiful a maiden. His hand shook as he picked up his arrow, and it slipped through his fingers. Instead of piercing Psyche's heart, the arrow scraped his own knuckle.
"Clumsy!" Eros licked off the trickle of blood.
But it was too late. The winged god was already helplessly, hopelessly in love with Psyche. Gazing at her, he knew he must protect her from Aphrodite's fury. Gently, Eros lifted the sleeping princess and bore her to his palace.
When Psyche awoke, she rubbed her eyes in astonishment. She wasn't on Mount Olympus, nor had she been dragged to the den of a wild beast. She was in the garden of a magnificent palace. Fountains splashed into pools beneath trees laden with fruit. Except for birdsongs, she neither saw nor heard anything until a voice said, "Welcome, Princess. Everything here is yours."
Within the marble palace, she found a table laid with a supper of meats and cheeses and sweets of every kind. As she ate, she listened to the music of a lyre. But she did not see the hand that played it, nor any human form at all.
Psyche slept that night on a couch of softest goose down. She drifted from dream to dream until a sudden rush of wings awakened her. Something stood by her couch, concealed by darkness.
"Who is there?" gasped the princess.
"One who loves you," a voice answered.
Psyche found his words sweet and his voice kind. She talked with the mysterious visitor throughout the night. But when the morning star faded, he left as suddenly as he had come.
The days that followed were delightful for the princess. Unseen hands did her every bidding, and she wanted for nothing. When night fell, a beating of wings announced her visitor. Until dawn, he entertained her with stories and enchanted her with songs. Yet shadows always hid her suitor's face, and whenever she asked his name, he answered only, "One who loves you."
One night Psyche said, "I miss my family. I wish my sisters could pay a visit."
"That would not be wise."
"Please," she begged. "My father deserves news of me."
His wings rustled sharply as if whipped by a sudden gust of wind. "Very well," he agreed, and asked Zephyr the West Wind to carry Psyche's sisters to the palace.
Psyche greeted her sisters joyfully. They looked about in wonder and stared at her many treasures.
"Who has given you all this?" the older sisters asked.
"I cannot say," Psyche confessed. "He disappears at dawn."
"Don't you even know what he looks like?" asked the younger.
"I have felt the curls upon his head..."
"A sheep has curly hair."
"And he has strong wings with soft feathers..."
"Then he is not a man!" cried one sister. "He is a monster! That's what the oracle foretold."
"He might be feeding you now...fattening you first...to DEVOUR YOU!" added the other.
"But..." Psyche bit her tongue. Perhaps he did use darkness to hide something dreadful. "But...what can I do?"
"Without his knowing, light a lamp," the sisters suggested. "See for yourself what sort of a creature he is."
After Zephyr had sped her sisters away, the princess hid a small oil lamp beneath the couch. But she could not conceal her guilt so easily.
Her visitor noticed Psyche's distress. "You are upset," he said. "I shall not stay."
"Don't go!" cried Psyche. "Rest first--on the couch."
"If that is what you wish," he agreed. Yawning, he lay down and closed his eyes.
When she knew by his breathing that he had fallen asleep, Psyche lighted the lamp and held it over his head. Its beam shone upon the fairest youth that the princess had ever seen.
"Can it be...Eros? Are you...you are
the God of Love!"
Psyche's hand trembled, and the lamp tipped. Smoking oil spattered on the god's wing and ran down his shoulder.
Eros cried out in pain. He saw Psyche bending over him, still grasping the lamp. With scorched wing dangling, he vanished into the night sky.
For many weeks, the princess wept and waited. When the god did not return, she vowed, "I will search for him, though it take me all my life."
Psyche wandered through the valleys and woodlands of Greece, calling for Eros. On a hilltop, she came to a deserted temple honoring Aphrodite. She bent down before the altar.
"Hear me, O goddess. Help me to find your son."
Aphrodite heard Psyche's plea. "How dare you ask for my
help," she shrieked, "when Eros is lying burned and bandaged?"
"By your leave, I might prove my love for him," said Psyche.
"Prove yourself to me first!"
The goddess seized great baskets of barley and millet and poppy seeds, brought to the temple long before as offerings. She scattered them everywhere. "Seperate these grains by nightfall."
Left alone, the princess stared at the seeds. No one could do such an enormous task. Then she noticed a long line of ants marching into the temple.
"Pity me," she told them, "for my task is hopeless."
As if obeying a hidden command, tens of thousands of ants swarmed across the stone floor. Picking up the tiny seeds, they swiftly, silently, carried the grains to their proper baskets.
When Aphrodite returned, she found everything in order. "Trickery's afoot!" she muttered.
The goddess threw Psyche a crust of bread for her supper and bid her sleep on the cold floor. In the morning, she smiled to see the princess with red-rimmed eyes circled with shadows.
"In the thicket by the stream are sheep with golden fleece," said Aphrodite. "Fetch a bundle of their wool."
Psyche had to shade her eyes to look at the sheep, for their coats gleamed as brightly as the sun. But she saw no playful lambs or gentle ewes among the flock. All were fierce rams, with sharp horns and wicked hoofs. "Such dreadful beasts!" she cried. "How can I shear them?"
The reeds beside the stream began to quiver. From their midst a voice murmured, "When the sheep come here to drink, hasten to the thicket. Pluck the wool that clings to the bushes."
Psyche did not know who had spoken. Was it a river god or just the wind in the rushes? But she did as she was told and safely gathered an armload of the golden fleece to carry back to Aphrodite.
The goddess snatched the wool. "Worse luck the next time, you wretched girl," she snapped. "Know you of the underworld?"
The princess nodded. She had heard of its terrors.
"Go there. Tell the goddess Persephone that I am worn from tending my sick son and need some of her beauty magic."
Psyche knew that no tiny ants, no voice from the reeds could aid her on this dangerous journey. Yet as she stumbled past an old tower, a voice called fom within.
"Look for a coin and a cake in yonder cave. Give the coin to the ferryman. Feed the cake to the three-headed watchdog."
The princess obeyed, too frightened to do otherwise. In exchange for the coin, the ferryman rowed her across the River Styx to the dark and dreary underworld. While the monstrous dog that guarded the entrance gobbled the cake, Psyche slipped into Persephone's palace.
The goddess, hearing the reason for her errand, gave her a small box. "Take this to Aphrodite. But take care! Powerful magic is inside."
Psyche returned quickly, relieved to leave the underworld behind. As she drew close to Aphrodite's temple, she hesitated, staring at the box in her hand. Did she not need a bit of beauty, too, to look lovely for Eros? Catiously, Psyche lifted the lid of the box. A sweet-smelling mist swirled up.
"Oh!" Psyche fell to the path.
There the God of Love found her overcome by a deadly sleep. He wiped the clinging vapor from her eyes, returned it to the box, and awakened Psyche with a touch from one of his arrows.
"You have come back!" cried the princess.
"I have never left you," Eros replied.
Then Psyche knew that he had sent the ants. His voice had spoken from the reeds and called from the tower. She held out her arms. "Stay with me now."
"First, you must take the box to Aphrodite. And I, too, must attend to something."
While the princess hurried back to Aphrodite's temple, Eros flew to the heights of Mount Olympus. There he told Zeus, ruler of all the gods, of Psyche's many trials. Zeus sent a messenger to bring both the princess and the Goddess of Beauty to him.
"Psyche has proved herself worthy," Zeus decreed. He handed her a cup of ambrosia. "This is the nectar of the gods. Drink it and live among her always."
Aphrodite watched, speechless with anger, as Psyche sipped from the cup of immortality. But her good humor returned when Eros reminded her that if the princess was in the heavens, Psyche could not turn heads on earth. The temples to the Goddess of Beauty would no longer be neglected.