Stories We Love and Live By – The Myth of Psyche

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One of our family’s beloved traditions is reading at bedtime. We snuggle with our children, have real conversations with them (they think they are successfully deploying a stall tactic – we know better), say our goodnight prayers, and then we read stories. We have loved reading Come On Rain by Karen Hesse – a picture book which recounts the anticipation, and then the sheer delight, of a young girl and her friends and their mothers, as they revel and romp in the rain on a hot, humid day. Frindle by Andrew Clements left us agog at Nicholas Allen’s ingenuity, amazed at the power of words. And then there is The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. We were deeply touched by the magical grandmother’s gentle mentoring of her princess granddaughter.

One story that I hope to share with my daughter soon is the myth of Psyche. This is a story that I love, a story that I believe in. It is one of the few, according to Jungian psychologists Jean Shinoda Bolen and Robert Johnson, that help us understand the psychology of feminine, rather than masculine, development.

Let’s take a look.

Psyche is a mortal woman who wants to find her estranged husband, Eros, God of Love and son of Aphrodite. Aphrodite, whose jealous fit led to their meeting and falling in love in the first place, holds the key to their being reunited: it often happens that whatever has wounded us is instrumental in our healing.

Aphrodite assigns Psyche four tasks, all of which are symbolic of skills she needs to develop. Note that while each task requires her to do more than she feels capable of and she is initially paralyzed by fear, they are part of a course that Psyche has chosen.

Task 1: Sort seeds

For the first task, Psyche must sort a huge jumble of corn, barley and poppy seeds into separate piles before morning. The task seems impossible – and is impossible – given her timeframe, until an army of ants comes to her aid, and helps her sort the seeds.

Sifting through possibilities and establishing personal priorities in the face of conflicting feelings and competing loyalties requires a sorting of the seeds. Sometimes we need to sleep on the problem letting the industrious collective of ants – our subconscious – work things out. As we learn to trust our intuition, clarity will emerge.

Task 2: Acquire golden fleece

Aphrodite next orders Psyche to obtain golden fleece from the rams of the sun, huge aggressive beasts who are in a field, butting against each other. This task also seems impossible, for if Psyche goes amongst the rams, she’ll be trampled. This time, instead of ants coming to her aid, the reeds on the river’s edge call to her, advising her to wait until sundown when the rams disperse so she can safely pick strands of fleece off the brambles the rams have brushed against.

Psyche’s ability to acquire the golden fleece without being crushed is a metaphor for a every woman’s task of gaining power without losing her innate sense of connectedness and compassion. My friend Lori Richards shared these words from Suzanne Brogger:

If a woman can only succeed by emulating men, I think it is a great loss and not a success. The aim is not only for a woman to succeed, but to keep her womanhood and let her womanhood influence society.

Task 3: Fill the crystal flask

For the third task, Psyche must fill a flask with water from an inhospitable stream, etched into a jagged cliff and guarded by dragons. To help her in this seemingly impossible task, the eagle of Zeus, CEO of Olympus, has the ability to see what it wants and plunge from the sky and grab it with its talons.

Psyche’s ability to fill the crystal flask is symbolic of her learning how to set a goal, avoid the pitfalls that will inevitably come, and to then achieve her goal.

Task 4: Learn to say no

For the fourth and final task, Aphrodite orders Psyche to descend into the underworld and fill a box with the beauty ointment. This task is more than the traditional hero’s test, for Psyche is told she will encounter people on her way who will ask for her help, and she will have to ignore their pleas and continue on.

To set a goal and pursue it in the face of requests for help from others is especially difficult for women whose lives are focused on care giving. In completing the task of saying no, three times, Psyche exercises choice. Many women allow themselves to be imposed on and diverted as they set about their goals. They cannot accomplish what they set out to do, or to determine their life course until they learn to say no. I love these words attributed to Oprah Winfrey:

We can’t ever REALLY say yes, until we learn to say no.

As Psyche completes these four tasks, she grows and develops. Yet, despite ALL she achieves, her basic feminine nature remains unchanged. For she never would have undergone this hero’s journey, risking everything, had it not been for a relationship.

Why do I love this story? Why do I want my daughter to live by it?

Because to become who she is – to accomplish all that she was meant to do – she needs to not only love and nurture and care and connect, she needs to know how to sort through and prioritize her possibilities, to learn when and how to obtain power without selling her soul, to keep her eyes on her prize, and to learn to say no.

As she does so, she will say yes to who she really is.

May we each say YES!

What stories do you love and believe in? What stories encourage you to dream? Tell me more!

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