Fairy Tales and Feminism — the Story of Psyche, Interpretation

I assume that readers are familiar with my previous article, where the story is summarised. I’ll turn now to observations and interpretation.

This story may be part of a novel by a known individual. However, an old woman tells Lucius the story, which may indicate that its origin is a folk tale, and it does indeed read like a fairy story, beginning “In a certain city there once lived a king and queen”.

The first thing to point out is that the heroine’s name is the ancient Greek word for the soul or spirit, which is unlikely to be a coincidence. Psyche is also, in the Jungian sense following the ancients, the word used to describe the entirety of the vast, mysterious inner world. This is reminiscent of the saying of the philosopher Heraclitus: “One would never discover the limits of psyche, should one traverse every road — so deep a logos does it possess”. The story is therefore about far more than the struggles of one woman to find herself; it is likely to be some kind of spiritual allegory on a cosmic scale, Psyche being a personification of the human soul, perhaps of the evolution of consciousness at the time the story was written.

The main purpose of this series of articles is to defend fairy tales against the criticisms made against them by feminists, suggesting that, when properly understood, these tales are good ammunition for their campaign. A frequent complaint is that the women are passive, and wait around for a man, or other outside agencies, to rescue them, a recent example of which was the actress Keira Knightley’s criticism of Cinderella. As I pointed out in Part 2 of this series, she has failed to understand that the Prince is not a separate person in the story, rather what in Jungian psychology is called the animus, the (potentially) divine masculine side of Cinderella’s own nature, that which will make her whole. The other outside agencies should also be interpreted symbolically as hidden aspects of the heroine’s personality.

This is clearly the case in the story of Eros and Psyche. I quote from my plot summary: “Her new husband, the owner of this palace, is not the deathly figure the oracle predicted. It is the god Eros, although she does not know this. He comes to her in the darkness of night, and she is addressed by him, but “she saw not her unknown spouse”. I take this to be a clear indication that he is a Jungian animus, described as an unknown man, the masculine side of her nature which will guide her to becoming her true self: “the god whom she has wedded will make her also a goddess”. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that he comes to her only at night while she sleeps, thus allegorically a figure from the dream-world of the psyche. Also, when it comes to the four tasks (which will be discussed in more detail below), Venus immediately recognises, as soon as she sees the first two impossible tasks completed, that the hidden hand of Psyche’s animus was involved: “This is not your doing, vile wretch, nor the work of your hands, but the work of him whose heart you won to your own hurt…”, and “I am well aware who was the secret author of this deed no less than the last”.

Further confirmation is as follows (quoting again from my plot summary): “Eros enlists the help of and makes a deal with Jove, who explains to Venus that she has nothing to fear from Psyche, whom he instructs Mercury to bring up to heaven, where he confers immortality upon her”. Eros here is clearly the divine animus who leads Psyche to Jove, the king of the gods, thus in Jungian language the Self. Her immortality is achieved by the union in marriage of the divine female and masculine aspects of her nature.

The Four Labours of Psyche

I am not an expert in interpreting symbols, and my suggestions are therefore limited. I will therefore use Erich Neumann’s interpretation¹ for additional help.

The first three tasks can be understood as the need to develop the latent masculine side of her personality or, as the Taoist tradition would say, the yang side.

Task 1: separate a jumbled and confused heap of corn, barley, millet, poppy seeds, chick peas, lentils and beans, a task which has to be completed by evening. This would be impossible were she not helped by a host of ants. I see this as Psyche’s need to develop her capacity for hard work, or perhaps the power of discrimination, thus an aspect of the mind. I remember reading one commentator who said that the ants were an external aid, failing to understand that the ants are aspects of her own nature, and that their task is carried out, as Venus recognises, under the supervision of Psyche’s animus.

Erich Neumann sees much more than this. His explanation is far too long to quote in full; I can mention only his main conclusion, which may seem far-fetched without his full argument. He sees the mound of seeds as symbolizing “a uroboric mixture of the masculine, that is to say, a promiscuity…”, and that Psyche, by successfully sorting them, puts “order into male promiscuity… (She) possesses within her an unconscious principle which enables her to select, sift, correlate, and evaluate, and so find her way amid the confusion of the masculine” (p95).

Task 2: (Please refer to my plot summary, if required). Here I will rely upon Neumann. He sees the rams of the sun as “symbols of the destructive power of the masculine”, and says that “Psyche seems condemned to destruction by the overpowering masculine principle”. However, “it is only with increasing integration, with the advancing development of the self, that the human Psyche can resist this assault”.

The sun is an obvious symbol of the male principle. However, Psyche is “aided by a reed, the hair of the earth, that is connected with the water of the depths, the contrary element to the ram fire… The reed whispers to her with… vegetative wisdom”. This is all suggestive of the feminine principle, the Earth goddess Gaia. The ingenuity of the feminine reed outwits the destructive male rams. As Neumann puts it: “The ruin of the feminine, as planned by Aphrodite is averted with the help of the reed… The situation in which masculine and feminine face one another in deadly hostility is transcended” (p101).

Task 3: Psyche has to draw icy water from the top of a high mountain into an urn and bring it back to Venus. The climb is extraordinarily difficult — “it was a rock of measureless height, rough, slippery, and inaccessible”. There are fierce dragons in crannies in the crag, and the waters have voices that tell her that she is doomed to die. The task seems impossible, but is completed for her by an eagle, “the royal bird of highest Jove”.

When Venus sets this task, she says that it will reveal whether Psyche has “a stout heart and prudence beyond the prudence of woman”, another clear indication that the labours are developing the masculine/yang side of her personality. The eagle is an obvious symbol of male power and strength — Neumann calls it “the masculine spirit aspect” (p105). Again he sees more deeply into the symbolism, and says: “Psyche then, as feminine vessel, is ordered to contain the stream, to give form and rest to what is formless and flowing; as vessel of individuation, as mandala-urn, she is ordered to mark off a configured unity from the flowing energy of life, to give form to life” (p103).

Task 4: the descent into the Underworld (please refer to my plot summary, if required). As Neumann points out, “the first three problems… are solved by ‘helpers’ ”, which he correctly identifies not as outside agencies, which is what commentators sometimes suggest, rather as “inner powers of Psyche’s unconscious”². However, she has to complete the fourth task herself. He says that “four is the symbol of wholeness” (p110), which can therefore be seen as the completion of her individuation process.

The interpretation of this task is very complex. I’ll quote one brief passage from Neumann: “Her journey to Persephone signifies that she must now consciously look death in the face. Now, at the end of her development, she confronts this death situation as one transformed, no longer as an inexperienced girl, but as one who loves, who knows, and who has been tested. This ‘extreme journey’ becomes possible for Psyche only when, through her labors, she has acquired a consciousness that far transcends the merely instinctive knowledge she possessed to begin with. Thanks to her union with the powers symbolized by the ants, the reed, and the eagle, she is able to adopt the attitude of consciousness that is represented by the ‘far-seeing tower’ ” (p115).

Having apparently failed in the fourth task, Psyche is rescued by Eros, who now longs to be reunited with her. He finds her, returns the sleep to the casket, wakes her (opens her eyes to her true nature), and urges her to perform the task with which she was charged, saying cryptically that he will see to the rest. As noted earlier, as divine animus, he enlists the help of Jove (the king of the gods, thus in Jungian language the Self) who confers immortality upon her, and an elaborate wedding ceremony follows³.

Conclusion

In the story of Psyche we see, at one level, a woman’s journey to find herself, developing and integrating the masculine side of her nature in order to achieve the union of male and female in the Self. She has therefore completed the task described by Jesus in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “Every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (see appendix). At another level, Psyche represents the cosmic feminine yin principle, struggling to survive, and to achieve parity with the masculine yang.

Even though she is developing her masculine/yang nature, this is nevertheless a story of female individuation⁴. She is battling against:

  • men who see her only as a sex-object
  • her father whose primary concern is that she finds a husband, thus seeing her only as a wife, not as a person in her own right
  • her jealous, evil sisters, symbolic of the worst aspects of human nature in the material world
  • the goddess Venus/Aphrodite, representing the dark, negative aspect of the Great Mother archetype, more familiar to us as Kali from the Hindu tradition.

She wins all these battles, the last of which is surely the most difficult. She has to take on the archetypal realm of the gods, which resents her attempt to become like them. She succeeds where Prometheus failed; he stole fire from the gods but was condemned to eternal punishment by Zeus (Jove), whereas Psyche is accepted by him into the heavenly realm, and becomes an immortal, thus a female Hercules. She is a model that all women can aspire to, a true feminist icon.

Appendix

Saying 114. A similar statement is found in Saying 22: “When you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female not be female… then shall you enter the Kingdom”. Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who obviously knows nothing about Jungian psychology, is somewhat perplexed by this piece of apparent sexism: “The saying (i.e. 114) has caused a good bit of consternation, especially among feminist historians of early Christianity…” He goes on to make a complex, contrived argument in an attempt to explain how a spiritual writer (or teacher, if Jesus actually said this) could say such a thing: “…women in the Greek and Roman worlds were understood to be imperfect men. They were men who had not developed fully”. (Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, Oxford University Press, 2004, p68)

Interestingly, the full quote (saying 114) includes Jesus saying: “I shall lead her, so that I will make her male…” The gnostic Jesus is therefore adopting the role of the divine animus, the equivalent of Eros in this story. It seems that Jungian psychology was alive and well nearly 2,000 years ago!

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Footnotes:

1. Amor and Psyche: The Psychic Development of the Feminine, Princeton University Press, 1971.

2. He also says: “We must understand the helpful animals as powers inside Psyche. But Psyche herself is active, even though her acts are performed by powers within her” (p108)

3. This is reminiscent of the culminating wedding scene in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, in which a male character Ferdinand has to seek the divine feminine within himself, represented by Miranda. For a commentary, see my article Shakespeare’s Heretical Play.

4. As Neumann says: “Even though she is compelled to build up the masculine side of her nature, she remains true to her womanhood” (p110).