Apuleius: Venus and the Goddesses

To understand the tensions and recriminations in this confrontation between Venus and her son Cupid, it helps to remember something about Venus's own love life. Although Venus (Aphrodite) is the lovely goddess of love, her husband is Vulcan (Hephaestus), the god of the forge and metalworking, a lame god whom Venus did not love at all. Among her lovers was the god of war, Mars (Ares). There is a famous incident recorded already in the ancient poem, Homer's Odyssey, which tells how Vulcan used his skill as a craftsman to fashion a net which trapped the unsuspected lovers in bed, exposing their adulterous love for all the gods and goddesses of Olympus to see. You can read the story as told by Homer in the Odyssey here: Ares and Aphrodite.

[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).

Venus and the Goddesses

Psyche wandered through the land, seeking Cupid, while he lay in his mother’s chamber groaning with pain from his scorched shoulder.

Meanwhile a snow-white bird, the seagull that skims the surface of the sea, dived swiftly beneath the ocean waves, found Venus where she swam and bathed in the deep, and gave her the news that Cupid had been burned, was in the utmost pain from his wound, and lay there in doubtful health; moreover the rumours circling through the world, by word of mouth, had heaped reproach on her and gained her whole household a dreadful reputation. People said that they’d both abandoned their post, he to dally in the mountains, she to sport in the sea; that all delight, grace and charm was gone; that all was boorish, rough, unkempt; no nuptial rites, no friendly gatherings, no love of children; only a vast confusion, and a squalid disregard for the chafing bonds of marriage. So that loquacious, meddlesome bird cackled on in Venus’ ear, tearing her son to shreds before her eyes.

Venus at once grew angry, crying: “So now that fine son of mine has a girlfriend has he? Come, tell me then, my only loving servant, the name of the creature that’s seduced a simple innocent child. Is she one of the host of Nymphs, or the troop of Hours, or the Muses’ choir, or my own companions the Graces?”

The talkative bird’s tongue ran on: “Mistress, I’m not sure, but I heard he was desperately in love with a girl – Psyche, by name, if I remember rightly.”

Now Venus screamed, loud with indignation: “Psyche, that witch who steals my form, that pretender to my name! Is she the one who delights him? Does the imp take me for some procuress, who pointed that same girl out so he might know her?”

With this cry, she swiftly emerged from the sea and sought her golden chamber, where she found her son, indisposed as she had heard. She shouted from the doorway at the top of her voice: “Fine behaviour, highly creditable to your birth and reputation! First you disregard your mother’s orders, or rather your queen’s I should say, and fail to visit a sordid passion on the girl; then, a mere boy, you couple with her, my enemy, in reckless, immature love-making, presumably thinking I’d love that woman I hate as a daughter-in-law? You presume you’ll remain the only prince, unlovable, worthless, rake that you are, and that I’m too old to conceive again. Well, know that I’ll produce a better son than you. You’ll feel the insult all the more when I adopt one of my slave boys and grant him your wings and torches, bow and arrows, and all the rest of the gear I gave you, which was never intended to be used this way. Remember your father Vulcan makes no allowance from his estate for equipping you. You were badly brought up from infancy, quick to raise your hands and fire arrows at your elders in disrespect, and expose me, your mother, to shame each day, you monster! You often make me your target, sneer at me as ‘the widow,’ without fearing your step-father, Mars, the world’s strongest and mightiest warrior. Why would you, since you provide that adulterer with a ready supply of girls to torment me with? But I warn you: you’ll be sorry for mocking me, when that marriage of yours leaves a sour, bitter taste in your mouth!”

He was silent, but she went on complaining to herself: “Oh, what shall I do? Where can I turn now everyone’s laughing at me? Dare I ask for help from my enemy Moderation, whom my son’s very excesses so often offend? Yet I shudder at the thought of tackling that squalid old peasant woman. Still, whatever its source, the solace of revenge is not to be spurned. I must certainly use her, her alone, to impose the harshest punishment on that good-for-nothing, shatter his quiver and blunt his arrows, unstring his bow, and quench his torch. And I’ll spoil his looks with a harsher medicine still: I’ll not consider my injuries atoned for till she’s shaved off his golden hair, which I brushed myself till it shone like gold, and clipped those wings of his, that I steeped in the stream of milky nectar from my breasts.”

With that she rushed out again, bitterly angry, in a storm of passion. At that instant she met with Juno and Ceres, who, seeing her wrathful look, asked why that sullen frown was marring the loveliness of her bright eyes. “How opportune,” she cried; “my heart is ablaze and here you come to do me a kindness. Exert your considerable powers, I beg, to find my elusive runaway Psyche. I assume the widespread tale of my family, the exploits of that unspeakable son of mine, have not escaped you.”

Then they, aware of what had gone on, tried to assuage Venus’ savage anger: “My dear,” they said, “what is this fault your son committed that you take so seriously, so much so you set out to thwart his pleasures and seem so eager to ruin the girl he loves? What crime is it, we ask, if he likes to smile at a pretty girl? Don’t you know he’s young and male? Or have you forgotten his age? Just because he carries his years lightly, do you think him forever a child? You’re a mother and a sensible woman besides. Stop spying so keenly on your son’s pursuits, blaming his self-indulgence, scolding him for his love affairs — in short, finding fault with your own pleasures and talents in the shape of your handsome son. What god, indeed what mortal, could endure your sowing the seeds of desire everywhere yet constraining love bitterly where your own home is concerned, and shuttering the official workshop where women’s faults are made?”

So they obligingly provided the absent Cupid with a plausible defence, but Venus, offended that her wrongs were being ridiculed, turned her back on them and swept off towards the sea.

(1000 words)