Apuleius: The Oracle of Apollo

You can read more at Wikipedia about the Temple of Apollo in Didyma (now Didim in modern-day Turkey), second only to Delphi in its reputation for divine pronouncements by means of the oracle.

[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 Oracle of Apollo

Psyche, for all her conspicuous beauty, reaped no profit from her charms. Gazed at by all, praised by all, no one, neither prince nor commoner, wishing to marry her, sought her hand. They admired her divine beauty of course, but as we admire a perfectly finished statue. Her two elder sisters, whose plainer looks had never been trumpeted through the world, were soon engaged to royal suitors and so made excellent marriages, but Psyche was left at home, a virgin, single, weeping in lonely solitude, ill in body and sore at heart, hating that beauty of form the world found so pleasing.

So the wretched girl’s unhappy father, suspecting divine hostility, fearing the gods’ anger, consulted the ancient Miletian oracle of Apollo at Didyma. With prayer and sacrifice he asked the mighty god for a man to marry the unfortunate girl. Apollo, though Greek and Ionian too, favoured the author of this Miletian tale with a reply:

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 king, blessed till now, on hearing this utterance of sacred prophecy went slowly home in sadness and told his wife the oracle’s dark saying. They moaned, they wept, they wailed for many a day. But the dire and fatal hour soon approached. The scene was set for the poor girl’s dark wedding. The flames of the wedding torches grew dim with black smoky ash; the tune of Hymen’s flute sounded in plaintive Lydian mode, and the marriage-hymn’s cheerful song fell to a mournful wail. The bride-to-be wiped tears away with her flame-red bridal veil; the whole city grieved at the cruel fate that had struck the afflicted house and public business was interrupted as a fitting show of mourning.

But the need to obey the divine command sent poor Psyche to meet the sentence decreed, the ritual preparations for the fatal marriage were completed in utter sorrow, and the living corpse was led from the house surrounded by all the people. Tearful Psyche walked along, not in wedding procession, but in her own funeral cortege.

Her parents saddened and overcome by this great misfortune hesitated to carry out the dreadful deed, but their daughter herself urged them on: “Why torment a sorrowful old age with endless weeping? Why exhaust your life’s breath, which is my own, with this constant wailing? Why drown in vain tears those faces I love? Why wound my eyes by wounding your own? Why tear your white hair? Why beat the breasts that fed me? Let this be your glorious reward for my famous beauty. Too late you see the blow that falls is dealt by wicked Envy. When nations and countries granted me divine honours, when with one voice they named me as the new Venus, that’s when you should have mourned, and wept, and grieved as if I were dead. I know now, I realise that her name alone destroys me. Lead me now to that cliff the oracle appointed. I go swiftly towards this fortunate marriage, I go swiftly to meet this noble husband of mine. Why delay, why run from the coming of one who’ll be born for the whole world’s ruin?”

With this, the girl fell silent and went steadfastly on, accompanied by the throng of citizens around her.

They came to the steep mountain crag decreed and placed the girl, as commanded, on its very top, and then deserted her, one and all. They left behind the bridal torches, lighted on the way and now extinguished by their tears, and, heads bent low, began their journey home, where her unhappy parents, exhausted by this dreadful blow, shut themselves in the darkness of their room and resigned themselves to endless night.

Meanwhile Psyche, on the topmost summit, frightened, trembling, and in tears, was lifted by a gentle breeze, a softly whispering Zephyr, stirring her dress around her and causing it to billow, its tranquil breath carrying her slowly down the high cliff slopes to the valley below, where it laid her tenderly on a bed of flowering turf.

(700 words)