Psyche's Fourth Task: The Underworld Journey
This is part of a series of articles, beginning here:
Venus Goes Retrograde: The Tale of Eros and Psyche
At this point in the story, Aphrodite is determined that Psyche must be done away with. So she devises the most difficult and diabolical task of all: a journey to the land of death itself—the underworld. Mortals are not allowed to go to the underworld—the only way to do it is by dying. So this is both task and puzzle. How is Psyche to go there if she must die to do it, and however is she to come back? It is impossible, and so her first response is a fit of tears, as it always is. But help is near and Psyche hears a voice emanating from the very tower she had come to throw herself off of. The tower itself speaks to her and gives very specific instructions. The tower tells her how to find a path to the underworld and tells her to take two coins and two honeyed barley cakes with her. She will encounter a donkey-driver, a drowning man and the three Fates—she is not to help or be distracted by any of them. Above all, she is to save the honeyed cakes for Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the underworld, because when she throws him a cake his three heads will fight over it and allow her to pass. She is to put the coins in her mouth, so that she may pay Charon, the ferryman who will take her across the Styx in his boat, for both crossing and return. And Psyche’s mission is to ask Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, to fill a special box with a magic cosmetic, that she may return with it to Aphrodite. Aphrodite has definitely given her dirty work to her daughter-in-law.
What Does It Mean?
This part of the story is loaded with meaning. Psyche must go to the underworld. She again gets divine help, this time from a tower, which represents solitude. Using solitude, she is to go into her own underworld and to fetch something from its Queen that will bestow beauty. When a person knows her own underworld and is master (queen) of it, she indeed has access to a special, mysterious beauty. To do this difficult task, Psyche must avoid those who would drain her energy and attention: the donkey-driver and the drowning man, who are forever in need of help and will never be saved by it. They will always and forever need help again. Also, the three Fates are a distraction—and who, upon meeting the Fates, would not want to stop and ask the questions only they can answer, such as “what is my future, how long am I to live, will I find happiness?” But these questions are a distraction from a life of freewill. Psyche must avoid superstition and pass them by.
Psyche take the tower’s good advice, successfully avoiding all these hazards and is then undone when she is at the very verge of success. Having distracted Cerberus, paid Charon, avoided those who would steal her focus and obtained the box’s contents from Persephone, she is on her way back up the path when she is seized with curiosity and a desire to use the cosmetic herself. “Why should I not make myself beautiful for my husband, since I may see him soon?” she wonders. She opens the box. Big mistake. Turns out the box contains a deep, deathlike sleep, which overpowers her and puts an end to her progress right then and there.
Here’s where Eros re-enters the picture. He’s been watching all these proceedings from Mount Olympus, where the gods dwell. He’s been hanging with his dad, remember? He knows Psyche is on the brink of success. So he flies down to the underworld, gathers up that “beauty sleep” and shoves it back in the box. This wakes Psyche up and he sends her on her way. A contract is a contract and upon completion of these tasks, Aphrodite will have to pay up. Which she does.
Aphrodite ultimately is won over by Psyche’s earnestness and persistence. She actually dances at their wedding-feast, now celebrated with her blessing.
Does This Apply To You?
I want to point out here that one of the most important of Psyche’s superpowers in all this is her ability to inspire and accept help. Even the very stones of the tower gain the ability to speak that they may advise her. By this point in the story she has received help from creatures of the earth (ants) and air (eagle), as well as the plant kingdom (the reeds) and the mineral kingdom (the tower), as if she had uttered the Native American cry, “All my relations, be with me now!”
This task has the nature of Water about it, as underworld journeys always do. This part of the story asks:
Are you open to this kind of help? Are you this vulnerable?
Do you have appropriate solitude in your life?
Are you willing to go into your own underworld and do you know how to avoid being distracted by those parts of you that are, and perhaps always will be, needy?
Can you forego superstition, stop seeking for answers from others, when they are best found within yourself?
This brings us to an interesting question about the myth itself—was it a bad thing or a good one that Psyche failed at the last minute? Perhaps it was a necessary part of the story. I don’t really know. This may be something that every person’s psyche needs to decide for itself.
Read the next part of this thread: Psyche’s Hidden Fifth Task, Dealing with the Wrath of Other Women . . .