The Beautiful Girl
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905): Le Ravissement de Psyche, 1895
The Nordic 19th century folktale East of the Sun West of the Moon is my favourite fairytale. However, it is more than a regional story about a beautiful girl and a prince. It is rather a profound description of soul and eternal love, which has been retold throughout the history in many different ways. Here is my version of the narration:
Once upon a time, there was a poor peasant with many children. The peasant's youngest daughter was the prettiest, and there was no end to her loveliness.
In the days before birth control, parents could not always provide for the whole family, and sometimes a child was abandoned or sold due to force of circumstances.
The youngest child used to be the most protected of all children. Moreover the oldest child would inherite his parents, and therefore the youngest had to take build a life of his own and venture out into the wide world. The youngest is always the most beautiful or most clever in fairytales. Her beauty is a blessing for her family, but not for herself. In the East of the Sun West of the Moon, she attracts a strange bridegroom and enters into an arranged matrimony.
Edward Burne-Jones: Cupid Finding Psyche, 1865
The same scene is repeted in an ancient Greek-Roman myth of Psyche and Cupid, where Psyche is the youngest princess of Sicily. She is the most beautiful girl in the world, but her beauty is not meant for a man, and therefore her parents abandon her. Additionally, the goddess of beauty, Venus (Aphrodite) becomes envy and jealous of her, sending her son Cupid/Amor (Eros) to cause Psyche to fall in love with the ugliest creature on the earth. However, Cupid falls in love with Psyche on his own.
The White Bear approaches a poor peasant on Thursday evening in the month of August, asking if he would give him his youngest daughter; in return, he would make the man rich. The peasant thinks he ought to have a conversation with his daughter first.
It is unusual that the point of time is told in detail. Thursday is not just any day, but a day of the Norse god of thunder and sky, Thor, who protects the universe from the forces of evil. The month of August refers here to the ancient holy celebration, the autumnal equinox.
On the left: East of the Sun West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957).
On the right: Psyche and Zephyr by Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
The enchanted castle of the mysterious husband
In East of the Sun West of the Moon, the White (Polar) Bear plays the role of Cupid falling in love with the beautiful daughter. According to some interpretations, a bear represent strength, bravery, self-control and solitary life, but also an evil influence or an obstacle. Even though the White Bear makes an irresistable proposal, the peasant first wants to ask for her daughter's opinion. In the old days, this never happened in the real life, but here it is important that the heroine voluntarily sacrifices herself as a sign of her virtue.
Finally, the girl reclutantly agrees and the White Bear takes her with him to an enchanted castle. The same happens to Psyche after her parents abandon her. Zephyrus, the west wind, takes Psyche to an opulent palace, where she gets married with Cupid. The very same theme is used even in the Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast fairytales, and it symbolizes the long journey away from the childhood into adulthood.
Anne Anderson: Anne Anderson's Old, Old Fairy Tales, Beauty and the Beast,
Racine Wisconsin, Whitman Publishing Company 1935
Neither the fairytale heroines nor Psyche are aware of their bridegooms' real identity. The husbands visit them in a human form only by nights, making bittersweet love to them, and this happens always in complete darkness. Otherwise, the heroines live a carefree life in luxury.
However, there is more to life than physical satisfaction, and the heroines were feeling more and more unsatisfied and homesick. Finally Cupid, White Bear and Beast allow their wives to visit the old home on the condition of their promise to not listen any suggestions about their having to discover the husband's real form.
You will bring great misery on both of us, but I cannot refuse you anything you ask, even though it should cost me my life
In all the tales the husband emphasizes that this could be a very dangerous and bad idea, and he is right. The heroine doesn't listen to his advices, and during the visit her relatives scare her by suggesting she is married with a troll or a snake. The relatives then give a candle or a lamp to her, for her to be able to see her husband in the darkness of the night.
On the left: Psyche gazing at Cupid by Simon Vouet (1590-1649)
On the right: Psyche and Cupid by Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
True Love Found and Lost
The fairytale heroines and Psyche obey the relatives by lighting the candle in the bedroom. They find a very attractive prince or god, whom they immediately fall in love with and kiss. However, in every tale some drops of light fall, waking up the husband. The White Bear, like Cupid, is literally burned by the love and curiosity of the spouses, which is merely a logical consequence of their disobedience and failure. Now they have to pay.
On the left: Psyché abandonneée par l'amour by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752).
On the right: East of the Sun West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957)
He tells her that if she held out a year, he would have been free, but now he must go to his wicked stepmother, who enchanted him into this shape and lives in a castle East of the Sun West of the Moon, and marry her hideous daughter.
A stepmother is often used as a symbol of the destructive forces of unconsciousness, jealousy and cruelty. Since the first bride has proven unfaithful and impatient, the prince's enchantment is not broken, and he has to marry a princess matching his rank instead of marring for love.
East of the Sun West of the Moon is a mysterious place, which is impossible to reach. Nevertheless the heroine has to find it, if she wants to find her beloved.
Afterwards the husband and the magical castle disappear and the heroine is left alone in the world. Now she must search for her husband to prove her worthiness and dedication after her indiscretion.
On the left: East of the Sun West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957)
On the right: Psyche at the Throne of Venus, 1883 by Edward Matthew Hale (1852-1924)
Coming to a great mountain, she finds an old woman playing with a golden apple. She asks if the woman knows the way to the castle East of the Sun West of the Moon. The old woman does not, but lends her a horse to reach a neighbor who might know, and gives her the apple.
The mountain here is like a powerful obstacle of nature, before which one has to stop. Old women are Mother Goddess in disguise, symbolizing wisdom and guidance. At this point, Psyche meets Ceres (Demeter), the mother goddess of fertility. Ceres tells her that she must call directly on Venus, because she is the one who has caused all the problems in the first place.
Brian Froud: Fairy Godmother
A golden apple is a sacred symbol of affection, love, sexuality, fertility and goddesses of love. It is given here as an ordinary commodity, but it is an extraordinary item. The lending of a horse is a sign of luck, trust and faith, because horses were considered strong and intelligent, even worshiped in ancient cultures.
This first meeting is not entirely succesful, but the heroines are helped on their journey towards the beloved.
The neighbor is sitting by another mountain, with a golden carding-comb. She also does not know the way to the castle East of the Sun West of the Moon, but lends her a horse to reach a neighbor who might know, and gives her the carding comb.
Again, the heroine has to stop and seek advice from the goddess. Once more she receives an ordinary item.
In the tale of Psyche, at this point Psyche meets Juno (Hera), the goddess of marriage and family. Juno gives her the same advice as Ceres.
Again, the meeting is not entirely succesful, but the heroines are helped on their journey towards the beloved.
The third neighbor has a golden spinning wheel. She also does not know the way to the castle East of the Sun West of the Moon, but lends her a horse to reach — not a neighbor but the East Wind. She also gives her the spinning wheel.
Spinning wheel is a symbol of many different mother goddesses as a sign of female power. Spinning wheels play an important role in many fairytales.
Now the heroine is going to receive help from the four winds, Venti (Anemoi). It means she has to travel to all four cardinal directions of the earth in her quest. Usually the winds are portrayed in conflict with each other, but here they work together assisting the heroine to achieve her goal.
The Wind Deities
The East Wind, god Vulturnus (Eurus) is gentle bringing warmth and rain.
The East Wind has never been to the castle East of the Sun West of the Moon, but his brother the West Wind, being stronger, might have. He takes her to the West Wind.
Henri-Joseph Ruxthiel (1775-1837): Zephyr a Psyche, 1814
The West Wind, god Favonius (Zephyrus) is vigorous bringing dry weather, but also fertility, light spring and early summer breezes.
The West Wind does the same, bringing her to the South Wind; the South Wind does the same, bringing her to the North Wind.
The South Wind, god Auster (Notus) brings heat and drought and storms of late summer.
The North Wind reports that he will take her if she really wants to go. She does, and so he does.
North Wind in East of the Sun West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957)
The North Wind, god Aquilon/ Septentrio (Boreas) is the violent and most powerful of the four winds, bringing winter and cold.
The Land of East of the Sun West of the Moon
After rearching the place where her husband was taken, the heroine takes out the golden apple she had received. The new bride sees it, wishing to buy it. The heroine agrees, if the new bride can get her for one night to the castle where the prince is imprisoned.
The daughter [of the evil stepmother] agrees but gives the prince a sleeping drink to prevent the girl from waking him up, and does the same the next nights, when it was the prices of the carding comb and the spinning wheel.
It is charasteristic for the imposter bride, besides being ugly, that she is always greedy for material possessions. She doesn't really love the prince and will sacrifice the prince's welfare for own material gain.
Now the heroine has found her prince, being able to be together with him. At the same time, she cannot wake him up and get him back, which is ironical and sad, because she originally lost him by accidentally waking him.
However, some folk in the castle hear the heroine's frustrated crying and tell about it to the prince. On the third night, the prince will not drink the poison drink given by the new bride. Now he is awake when the his beloved heroine comes to visit him and can tell her how to rescue him.
Riding away from the East of the Sun West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957)
The prince announces that he will only marry the girl who can wash his stained shirt. It is assumed that the new bride cannot do it, because she is actually a troll and doesn't have true love. As to be expected, the heroine washes his shirt clean and at the same time she is herself washed clean of her sins. It is common in many religions for brides to go through such a ritualistic cleaning as a symbol of purity and forgiveness.
Afterwards, all the evil trolls burst from rage. The prince and his true love can finally be together and leave the land in East of the Sun West of the Moon, taking with them all the gold and silver they can carry.
Psyche in the Underworld
The tale of Psyche and Cupid follows a slightly different path after the second trial. The third goddess she talks with is Venus herself, who is angry at Psyche and orders her to carry out three ordinary but impossible tasks, corresponding with the elements of earth, fire and water. Every time Psyche succeeds with help of compassionate animals and gods.
Giulio Romano's (1492-1546) painting of Psyche and Venus in Palazzo del Te from 1520's.
Venus is not happy with Psyche's survival and wants to get rid of her once and for all by sending her with a box to the Underworld, where she is to give it to Proserpina (the goddess of Death, Persephone), asking her to place inside a little of her divine beauty for Venus.
Psyche thinks that the easiest way to the Land of Death is to throw herself off from a tower. However, the tower talks to her, forbiding her to do that, because she wouldn't be able to return. Then the tower tells her how to reach the Underworld and return from there, avoiding all dangers. She is especially adviced not to open the box.
Returning from the Underworld, Psyche follows the first orders. However, her curiosity takes her over and she opens the box of Venus. She finds no beauty in the box, but a heavy somniferous mist, corresponding to the element of air. Psyche falls dead asleep on the ground. Cupid no more bear to see his beloved in danger, but rescues her.
Antonio Canova (1757-1822): Psyché ranimée par le baiser de l'Amour, 1793
In the end, everything turns out well. Psyche has now completed the four tasks of Venus, and the four earthly elements are integrated in her soul. Only then the supreame god Jupiter (Zeus) helps Cupid and Psyche by declaring they should be together. Afterwards Psyche flies with Cupid to the world of the gods. She drinks the elixir of immortality, which I take as the fifth divine element. Cupid and Psyche will have a daughter Voluptas (Hedone), the goddess of sensual pleasure and bliss.
True Everlasting Love
The beautiful heroine and the prince or god finally have each other, living happily ever after. However, this is not all there is to say. The oldest of all these written stories is the tale of Psyche and Cupid from the Roman (Greek) mythology. The Greek word psyche means butterfly, but also soul.
Therefore Psyche is the immortal human soul, which is rewarded with eternity and love, but only after she is first purified through her suffering in the material world and her courage is tested by impossible tasks. Psyche leaves her dull caterpillar existence and the restraining cocoon, breaking out and reborn as a beautiful butterfly or soul. She is united with Cupid, representing love. Together they symbolize everlasting love.
William Etty (1787-1849): Cupid and Psyche in the Heavens
The lesson of this allegory is that the everlasting love is not given free, but one has to have courage and be prepared to sacrifice everything for it. Nor does the real love consist only of the physical attraction and material things, but it goes much deeper, overcoming the four elements, the four winds, sleep and even death: Amor vincit omnia; et nos cedamus amori.