Apuleius: The Jar of Beauty

Remember Proserpine (Persephone), the daughter of Ceres (Demeter) who was abducted by Pluto (Hades), the god of the dead, and taken away by him into the underworld...? Psyche is now going to meet her!

[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).

The Jar of Beauty

So Psyche regained the little jar, now full, and quickly brought it to Venus. But still the cruel goddess’s will was not appeased.

Menacing her with greater, more terrible threats, Venus glared at her balefully: “Now I see how readily you’ve performed those impossible tasks of mine, I’m certain you must be some kind of high and mighty witch. But there’s one more little service you must perform, my dear. Take the jar and plunge from the light of day to the underworld, to the dismal abode of Pluto himself. Hand the jar to Proserpine and say: ‘Venus asks that you send her a little of your beauty, enough for one brief day. She has used and exhausted all she had while caring for her son who’s ill.’ And don’t be slow to return, since I need to apply it before I attend a gathering of deities.”

Now Psyche felt that this was indeed the end of everything: the veil had been drawn aside, and she saw she was being driven openly to imminent destruction, forced, was it not obvious, to go willingly on her own two feet to Tartarus and the shades.

Instantly she climbed to the summit of the highest tower, intending to throw herself from it, as the swiftest and cleanest route to the underworld. But the turret suddenly burst into speech: “Unhappy girl, why seek to destroy your self in this way? Why rashly surrender everything before this the last of your tasks? Once your breath is gone from your body, you’ll sink to the depths of Tartarus indeed, but from there you’ll not return. Listen to me. Not far from here is the famous city of Achaean Sparta. Seek Cape Taenarus there in the region — it’s remote — that borders on Lacedaemon. There is a breathing-hole of Dis, and through its gaping portal they’ll show you a rough-made path. Once cross the threshold and take that road and you’ll reach Pluto’s palace by the shortest way. But don’t go into the shadows without bearing in each hand a barley-cake soaked in honeyed wine, and hold two coins in your mouth. When you’ve completed a good part of your gloomy journey, you’ll meet with a lame ass carrying wood and an equally lame driver, who’ll ask you to hand him some sticks that have fallen from his load. But don’t utter a single word, and pass them by in silence. Not long afterwards you’ll reach the river of the dead, where Charon the ferryman demands an instant toll, then carries the shades to the further bank in his patched-up skiff. Thus we see that avarice lives even amongst the dead, and Charon, the tax collector for Pluto, that great deity, does nothing without a fee. A pauper who’s dying must find the passage-money, and unless there’s a coin to hand, no one will allow him to expire. Let that squalid old man have one of the coins you bear, but make sure he takes it out of your mouth with his very own hand. And when you’re crossing that slow-moving stream, an aged corpse afloat on the surface will raise its rotting hands and beg you to lift him into the boat, but don’t be swayed by mistaken pity. Once you are across the river and have gone a little further, some old women weaving at the loom will ask you to lend a hand for a while, but you must not help them either. All these and more are traps laid for you by Venus to make you let go of one of those barley-cakes. And don’t think losing a barley-cake is of little consequence: if you lose either cake, you’ll not see daylight again. For you’ll arrive at the monstrous dog,with triple heads of enormous size, a huge and fearsome creature with thunderous jaws, who barks enough to frighten the dead but in vain; he can do them no harm. He keeps constant guard at the threshold of Proserpine’s dark halls, defending the insubstantial palace of Dis. One barley-cake thrown as a sop will hold him, and you can get by easily and enter Proserpine’s presence. She’ll receive you courteously and benignly, and try to tempt you to sit down by her in comfort and eat a sumptuous meal. But you must squat on the ground, demand common bread, and eat that. Then tell her why you are there, take what is set before you, and make your way back, bribing the savage dog with that second barley-cake. Give the avaricious ferryman the coin you kept in reserve, cross the river, retrace your steps, and you’ll return to the heavenly choir of stars. But above all else, I warn you, be careful, whatever you do, not to open and not to look in the jar you’ve tied to your waist, and don’t let your curiosity loose by thinking too much about that hidden treasure: divine beauty.”

Thus the far-seeing tower performed its prophetic service. Psyche reached Taenarus without delay and, with both coins and cakes, hastened down the path to the underworld. She passed the lame ass-driver in silence, gave up her toll to the ferryman, ignored the cries of the floating corpse, spurned the cunning requests of the weaver-women, fed the dog a cake to assuage his fearful madness, and entered the palace of Proserpine. She accepted neither the pleasant seat nor the luxurious meal her hostess offered, but sat on the ground at her feet and, contenting herself with a simple crust, achieved what Venus had asked. In secret, the jar was quickly filled and sealed, and Psyche gathered it up again. She silenced the barking dog with the ruse of that second cake, paid her last coin to the ferryman, and ran even more swiftly back from the underworld.

But despite her haste to be done with her terms of service, once she’d returned to the brightness of day, and greeted it with reverence, her mind was overcome by a most unwise curiosity, “Behold,” she said to herself, “I’m foolish to be the bearer of such divine beauty and not take a tiny drop of it for myself. It might even help me please my beautiful lover.”

(1000 words)