Apuleius: Psyche's Next Task

The next task involves sheep... but not your average, everyday sheep. These are vicious creatures indeed! Psyche, of course, accomplishes this task too, whereupon Venus will impose an even more terrifying task which will require her to visit the Styx and the Cocytus, another one of the rivers that surrounds the land of the dead. You can read more about the Cocytus 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).

Psyche's Task

Venus returned from the wedding festivities that evening, smelling of balsam and soaked with wine, her whole body garlanded in gleaming roses. When she saw how perfectly the difficult task had been performed, she cried: “This is not your doing, you wretch, but the work of that boy who fell in love with you to your misfortune and his.” Then she threw Psyche a lump of bread for her supper and went to her bed.

Cupid was still under close custody, locked in a room deep in the house, partly for fear his injury would be worsened by wanton self-indulgence, partly to keep him from meeting his sweetheart. So, under one roof but separated, the lovers spent a wretched night.

But as soon as Dawn’s chariot mounted the sky, Venus summoned Psyche and gave her a fresh task: “Do you see the wood which borders all that bank of the flowing river, where dense thickets overlook the source nearby? Sheep, with fleece that glistens with purest gold, wander there and graze unguarded. Obtain a hank of that precious wool, in any manner you please, and bring it to me straight away; such is my decree.”

Psyche left willingly, not to fulfil the goddess’ demand, but to escape from her troubles by throwing herself from a cliff into the river.

But a green reed, that piper of sweet music, stirred by the touch of a gentle breeze, was divinely inspired to prophesy thus: “Poor Psyche, though you’re assailed by a host of sorrows, don’t pollute these sacred waters with a pitiful act of suicide. Conceal yourself carefully behind this tall plane-tree that bathes in the same current as I do. Don’t go near those dreadful sheep right now, as they soak up heat from the burning sun and burst out in wild fits of madness, venting their fury on passers-by with those sharp horns set in stony foreheads and their venomous bite, but wait till the sun’s heat fades in late afternoon when the flock settles to rest under the calming influence of the river breeze. Then while their savagery is assuaged and their temper eased, just explore the trees in the wood nearby, and you’ll find the golden wool clinging here and there to the bent branches.”

Thus a simple reed, in its kindness, taught Psyche in distress how to save her self. She never faltered, nor had reason to regret obeying the advice so carefully given, but accepted her instructions and easily filled the folds of her dress with soft gleaming gold, carrying her spoils to Venus.

Yet her success at this second dangerous task garnered no favour in her mistress’ eyes.

Venus frowned and said with a cruel smile: “I know the true author of this achievement only too well. But now a serious test will prove if you’ve real courage and true intelligence. Do you see that steep mountain peak, rising above those towering cliffs? Dark waters flow from a black fount there, down to the nearby valley’s confined depths, and they feed the swamps of Styx, and the bitter stream of Cocytus. Draw me some of the freezing liquid from the bubbling heart of that spring, and bring it me quickly in this little phial.” With that, she gave her a crystal jar, and added a few harsh threats for good measure.

(600 words)

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