Apuleius: Fears and Doubts

Here the sisters will remind Psyche of the oracle of Apollo, so it would be good to reminder yourself of the oracle's words, too.

High on a mountain crag, decked in her finery,
Lead your daughter, King, to her fatal marriage.
And hope for no child of hers born of a mortal,
But a cruel and savage, serpent-like winged evil,
Flying through the heavens and threatening all,
Menacing ever soul on earth with fire and sword,
Till Jove himself trembles, the gods are terrified,
And rivers quake and the Stygian shades beside.

The word "Stygian" means belonging to the Styx, the river at the boundary between the land of the living and the land of the dead in Greek mythology. You can read more about the river Styx at Wikipedia.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Cupid and Psyche unit. Story source: Apuleius's Golden Ass, as translated into English by Tony Kline (2013).

Fears and Doubts

Wedded together in conspiracy, her sisters, landing at the nearest harbour and not even troubling to visit their parents, now hurried to the cliff, and with wild recklessness, not waiting for the attendant breeze, flung themselves into the air. Zephyr, mindful of his master’s orders, caught them reluctantly in the folds of his ethereal robes, and set them gently on the ground. Without a moment’s hesitation they marched into the palace side by side and, with false affection, embraced their victim, flattering her, masking the depths of their secret treachery with pleasing smiles.

“Dear Psyche,” they said, “no longer the little girl you once were, a mother now, think what a fine thing for us that burden of yours will prove! With what joy you’ll fill our whole house! O how lucky we will be, to share in the care for that golden child! If it takes after its father as it ought, it will be a perfect little Cupid.”

With such simulated expressions of feeling they gradually influenced their sister’s mind. Once eased of their travel weariness by rest and refreshed by vaporous warm baths, they feasted well on fine rich foods and sweetmeats. She ordered a lyre to play, it sounded; flutes to pipe, they trilled; choirs to perform, and voices swelled. Those sounds with no visible musicians caressed the listeners’ souls with the sweetest of melodies. But the wickedness of those vile women was not lessened at all by those honeyed modulations.

They turned the conversation according to their deceitful scheming casually towards her husband: what kind of a man he was, what his birth and background. In her thoughtless innocence Psyche forgot her earlier inventions and composed a fresh fiction. She claimed he came from the neighbouring province, a merchant responsible for extensive trade, middle-aged, with a dash of grey in his hair. Without prolonging the conversation, she heaped lavish gifts on them once again and sent them back by their airy vehicle.

Once conveyed aloft on Zephyr’s tranquil breath, they returned home talking spitefully: “Well, sister, what do you say to that foolish girl’s monstrous lies? First he’s a young man with a new growth of beard, now he’s middle-aged with a streak of grey in his hair. Who can change so suddenly from one age to another? The answer, my sister, is that she’s making the whole thing up or has no idea what her husband looks like. In either case, and we must soon separate her from for her riches. If she’s truly ignorant of what he looks like, she must have married a god, and it’s a divine child that womb of hers is carrying. Well, if she becomes the mother of a deity, and let’s hope not, I’ll tie the noose and hang myself. Meanwhile, back to our parents, and weave the threads of guile to match the pattern of our scheming.”

They greeted their parents haughtily, but irritated thus, they spent a troubled and a wakeful night. Early in the morning the wretched pair, hastened to the cliff and, with the help of the breeze as usual, swooped downwards angrily. Rubbing their eyelids to squeeze out a tear, they greeted the girl with cunning: “There you sit, feeling blessed and happy, in ignorance of your dire misfortune, careless of your danger, while we’ve been awake all night, unsleeping in our concern for your problems, sadly tormented by your impending disaster. We know the truth now, you see, and sharing of course in your ills and troubles we cannot hide it from you: what sleeps beside you, shrouded by the darkness, is a monstrous serpent, a slippery knot of coils, its blood-filled gaping jaws oozing noxious venom. Remember Apollo’s oracle which prophesied you were destined to wed some brutish creature. Hunters, and farmers, and others round about have seen the thing returning from its predations, swimming in the shallows of the nearby river. They say that he’ll soon cease to nourish you with those delightful offerings in which he indulges, but once your pregnancy reaches full term and burdens you with its richest fruit, he’ll devour you. You must decide about all this; will you listen to yours sisters both concerned for your safety, shun death, and live with us free from danger? Or do you prefer to end in the stomach of that savage beast? If you delight in the sounding solitude of this rural retreat of yours, the foul and perilous embrace of a clandestine love, the clasp of a venomous serpent, well, at least we loving sisters will have performed our duty.”

Then poor little Psyche, naive and vulnerable, was seized with terror at their dark words. Beyond reason, she forgot all the warnings her husband had issued and her own pledge, and plunged headlong to ruin. Trembling and pale, the blood draining from her face, stammering feverish words through half-open lips, she answered as follows: “Dearest sisters, true and loyal as ever to your own, you are right: I believe those who told you all this speak no lie. Indeed, I have never seen my husband’s face, nor do I know what he truly is. I only hear his midnight whispers and suffer the attentions of an unseen partner who shuns the light. He must be some strange creature, I agree. He always warns me not to try and reveal his features and threatens harsh punishment for my curiosity concerning his appearance. If you can save your sister from this danger, help me now. Neglect me and you’ll undo the good your care has brought about.”

Her defences were down, and those wicked sisters, having breached the gates of her mind, now quit the cover of their secret scheming, drew their blades, and bore down on the helpless girl’s timidity.

Said one: “Since our love of family compels us to shun all danger where a sister’s life is at stake, we’ll show you the only way to reach salvation, a carefully thought out plan. Take a sharp razor, whet it further, hide it in your palm, and then place it secretly under the pillow where you lie. Then trim the lamp, fill it with oil, so it shines with a clear light, and conceal it under a little cover. Prepare all this with the utmost caution, and after he’s slithered into bed with you, as he’s lying there enmeshed in the web of sleep and breathing deeply, slip from the bed and tiptoeing barefoot without a sound free the lamp from its dark prison. Seize the chance for a glorious deed of your own from the light’s clear counsel and, grasping your double-bladed weapon tightly, raise your right hand high, and with the firmest stroke you can muster sever the venomous serpent’s head from his body. Our help will not be lacking. As soon as you’ve won freedom by his death, we’ll be waiting anxiously to rush to your aid, and, carrying all the treasure back with us, we’ll see you joined in proper marriage vows, mortal to mortal.”

With this inflaming speech, they kindled their sister’s now heated mind further and then left her, fearing, themselves, to haunt the scene of so evil an act. They were wafted by the winged breeze to the summit of the cliff as before and, hastening away in swift retreat, boarded their ships and were gone.

Psyche was left alone, except that a woman driven by hostile Furies is never alone. In her grief, she ebbed and flowed like the ocean tide. Though the scheme was decided and she determined, still as she drew towards the act itself she wavered, confused in mind, torn by the countless conflicting emotions the situation prompted. She prepared and delayed, dared and feared, despaired and felt anger, while, hardest of all to endure, she hated the beast and loved the husband embodied in a single form. Yet, as evening led towards night, she readied all needed for the wicked crime with frantic haste. Night fell, and her husband came, and after love’s skirmishes and struggles he dropped into deep slumber.

(1300 words)

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