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Myth, Art, and Conceptual Models In Greece

ISSUE:  Spring 1980
Cupid and Psyche: Apuleius and the Monuments. By Carl C. Schlam. Scholars Press. $4.50.
Art and Thought in the Hellenistic Age. By John Onians. Thames and Hudson. $19.95.
Persephone’s Cave. By Howard Baker. Georgia. $18.00.

“A king and queen used to live in a certain state, and they had daughters exceedingly fair, three in number.” Thus begins the story of Cupid and Psyche in the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, one of the most curious authors to inhabit the field of Latin literature. Fortunately, we have biographical details about him from his own pen: in his youth, he married a rich widow, who had nursed him back to life when he was ill, and her relatives, who were greatly peeved at the match, summoned him into court on a charge of using magic to tamper with her affections. Apuleius’ speech in his own defense survives. He won his case, or so at least we assume, and afterwards settled in Carthage, and lived the life of a Sophist: that is, he travelled as an itinerant lecturer giving talks in the various towns of Roman Africa of the second century A. D. There was a difference, however. The “Second Sophistic” of the second century was a Greek literary movement. Apuleius wrote in Latin.

His Metamorphoses is the best example of the Latin novel extant. Petronius’ Satyricon was greater, and more substantial, but all we have now is one magnificent fragment describing the banquet of the nouveau riche vulgarian, Trimalchio, and scattered lesser sections that must be put together like a jigsaw puzzle. The unlucky hero of the Metamorphoses, Lucius, was transformed by a magic spell into an ass (possibly for that reason the novel picked up the title, the Golden Ass) and did not recover human form until the Egyptian goddess Isis intervened on his behalf. While Lucius was an ass, he overheard an old woman tell the story of Cupid and Psyche.

The story must have been old enough, for Carl Schlam, in his Cupid and Psyche: Apuleius and the Monuments, identifies artistic representations of Cupid and Psyche dating back to the 5th century B. C. By the Hellenistic period, the pair are found commonly enough in art, Cupid with bird wings, and Psyche with the wings of a butterfly, for the butterfly early came to symbolize the soul, which is what the Greek word psyche means. But though the tale must be old, Apuleius’ telling of it is the earliest example we have. As he relates it, it is a mixture of folktale motifs, among which we may recognize bits of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella,” but it concludes with a quasi-religious ending that asks for allegorical interpretation.

An oracle warns that Psyche, the youngest and loveliest of the three princesses, is to be reserved for a dragon lover. Venus, whose jealousy the beauty of Psyche has aroused, has commanded her son Cupid to destroy Psyche, but her unhappy parents know none of this. Psyche is abandoned on a hilltop. But the west wind bears her down to a palace where invisible servants wait on her, and an unseen lover comes to her bed at night. So far, “Beauty and the Beast.”

Psyche’s siblings, who now begin to act the roles of Cinderella’s ugly sisters, visit her, grow wild with envy at the luxury of her palace, and proceed to poison her mind against her lover. He was a dragon, they said, and she must kill him as he lay sleeping beside her at night. Psyche was a naive soul, and her sisters were cunning temptresses. But as she poised over her lover to kill him, lamp in hand, the light revealed no dragon, but Cupid, and poor Psyche fell in love. A drop of hot oil from the lamp fell on the god and roused him, and he fled, badly burned.

Then began Psyche’s quest. She made her way to Venus, who imposed a series of ordeals on her, the last of which took her on a descent into the Underworld. But by now Cupid was searching for Psyche too, and he found her, faint and halfdead after her return from the Underworld. Jupiter took pity at last, and, acting the role of a benevolent godfather, he made Psyche immortal; Cupid married her, and their child was named Pleasure.

Apuleius’ story is the product of a long development that owes something to the myth that Diotima told Socrates in Plato’s Symposium (Cupid is Plato’s Eros, or Love, that helps man attain ideal Beauty), but since the first literary treatment is to be found in the Metamorphoses, the development can be traced only in art. This is what Professor Schlam has done, painstakingly, under chapter headings such as “The Iconography of Psyche,” “The Embrace,” “The Pursuits and Torments of Love,” and “The Metamorphosis of a Folktale.” The earliest renderings of Cupid and Psyche show them as mature man and woman, but their treatment after Alexander the Great ushered in the Hellenistic world, was more sensual, and increasingly Cupid was shown as a child. A sculpture in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, which is a copy of a Hellenistic original, shows the pair as children, kissing. But as well as the scenes of Cupid and Psyche embracing, there is a series that shows Cupid tormenting Psyche: a number of gems show Cupid inflicting burns on Psyche, and one cameo that is coeval with Julius Caesar shows him stepping on a prostrate Psyche, and pulling her hair. The opposite theme also occurs commonly: Cupid appears bound and tormented by Psyche.

But by the Christian period, Cupid and Psyche had developed into expressions of belief in the soul’s immortality. The Roman world had abandoned cremation for inhumation by the 3rd century A. D., with dramatic consequences for the sarcophagus trade, and the pair appear frequently on the relief sculptures that decorate these late Roman sarcophaguses. They are shown banqueting on one; on another, a sleeping Psyche is borne aloft by two winged cupids. It is as symbols of the immortality of the soul that Cupid and Psyche pass at last into early Christian art.

These were the elements that Apuleius wove into his folktale, and, as Professor Schlam makes clear in an admirably cautious conclusion, his own contribution to the story was considerable. He probably added Cupid and Psyche’s daughter, Pleasure, and the intermingling of folktale motifs is partly his, too. He also added a lively sense of comedy. Psyche is a simple ingenue, but she develops a degree of toughness as the story progresses; Venus is a bitchy mother-in-law, and her fellow deities are temporizing politicians. The tale may be an allegory, but Apuleius enjoyed telling it with wit and irreverence.

“The Hellenistic world was born in pride and soon moved from vanity to delusion,” writes John Onians in the brief conclusion to his Art and Thought in the Hellenistic Age, Aristotle’s pupil and successor as head of the Lyceum, Theophrastus, averred that no one could call the Homeric heroes happy any longer; happiness was something that only the contemporary world knew. But before the middle of the 2nd century B. C., it was clear that the Hellenistic world had failed, not culturally but politically. The Romans were too strong, and the Hellenistic kingdoms could not match them in manpower or military organization, and it made no difference that they were ignoramuses in art, literature, and philosophy.

Onians sets his theme with Plato’s myth of Atlantis. Atlantis was a barbarian state that engaged in conspicuous consumption. Her citizens built luxurious private houses and took pleasure in grandiose public baths and gardens; their life was reminiscent of Rome five centuries later. In contrast was the self-sufficient life of Athens that Plato describes much as she could have been in the archaic period, before Pericles made her an imperial city. Wealth and power corrupted the Atlantids until they grew arrogant, and Zeus determined to punish them. At this point, Plato’s Critias breaks off, but, from the Timaeus, we learn of earthquakes and floods, and in a single day and a night Atlantis vanished beneath the sea.

The world that emerged after Alexander the Great was the mature flowering of Greek culture that failed before the new Atlantis, Rome. Or so it seems, in this ambitious book, which is full of brilliant perceptions and a good deal of wrongheadedness. Onians tries to synthesize art, literature, and the considerable achievements of Hellenistic science and technology into an analysis of Hellenistic culture, and the result is a book that teases nearly as much as it informs. A chapter on “Measure and Scale” spends a good deal of time on what it meant to be large or small; another on “Time and Space” deals largely with the ordering of Greek architecture. What emerges is that the Hellenistic Age fostered two contradictory traditions: one derived from the barbarian world that Alexander the Great conquered, and we can call it Atlantid, and the other we may as well call Athenian, following Plato’s example, for it was Greek, and Athens had much to do with its formation.

What is fascinating is the strange relationship between Hellenistic Greece and the rising power of Rome. What did the Greeks think of these barbarians who were so anxious to make their worth known to them that they wrote their earliest histories in Greek rather than Latin? It was surprising as well as chagrining to discover that they were so overwhelming on the battlefield. The Greek historian Polybius, who spent 17 years in exile at Rome, attempted to analyze the reason for Rome’s success. It was moral superiority; Rome had achieved the moderation and balance to which Greek philosophers had aspired. One wonders what Polybius might have written, had he returned two centuries later, while Rome still was powerful, but her moral superiority had evaporated. Would he have recalled the fate of Atlantis? In Polybius’ shoes, or sandals, Onians would have done so. Or so one suspects.

The subject of Persephone’s Cave is something that its author calls the “cultural accumulations of the early Greeks.” What Persephone has to do with it, I failed to discover, for the focus of this series of essays by Howard Baker is Samos, and though the essays range from Aesop to Pythagoras, all have something to do with Samos, however remote. Samos, said the historian Herodotus, deserved note for three of the greatest achievements in Greece: an acqueduct tunneling through a mountain, a harbor mole, and the “largest temple known to us,” the Heraion. Baker begins with the acqueduct, which is still reasonably intact and photogenic today, some 2,500 years or so after it was built by the engineer Eupalinos of Megara. There is much perception, and a good deal of learning in Persephone’s Cave, and it is a pleasant literary ramble, but since there is neither beginning nor end, nor for that matter, a middle, the reader can peruse it without bringing his thoughts into focus. Persephone’s Cave is itself a sort of cultural accumulation.


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