In Search of Cupid and Psyche: Myth and Legend in Children's Literature


In The Uses of Enchantment (1975),Freudian analyst Bruno Bettelheim interprets the "Cupid and Psyche" myth as a story about a the development of mature consciousness, the difficulty of joining wisdom and sexuality, and the problem of sexual anxiety. He also sees some aspects of Oedipal love involved in this story, especially Aphrodite’s possessive jealousy of her son, but … overall, his interpretation is very optimistic about the psychological potential of human development as it is presented in the Eros and Psyche tale.


When Psyche breaks the taboo by using the lamp to see Eros in the darkness, Bettelheim understands this as an attempt to expand her consciousness before she is ready for it:

The story warns that trying to reach for consciousness before one is mature enough for it or through short-cuts has far reaching consequences; consciousness cannot be gained in one fell swoop. In desiring mature consciousness, one puts one’s life on the line, as Psyche does when she tries to kill herself in desperation. The incredible hardships Psyche has to endure suggest the difficulties man [sic] encounters when the highest psychic qualities (Psyche) are to be wedded to sexuality (Eros)

(The Uses of Enchantment. NY, 1977: p. 293)

Here Bettelheim emphasizes the dangers involved in developing consciousness. Psyche’s repeated decisions to kill herself in order to end her despair at the prospect of completing her seemingly impossible tasks symbolically express the depression which frequently accompanies psychological development. For Bettelheim, a primary aspect of this development is the integration of sexuality with the highest aspirations of consciousness. He insists that nothing less than a spiritual rebirth is required to bring together these seemingly opposite aspects of the human being. The troubled relationship between Eros and Psyche symbolizes the difficulty involved in this integrative process, and Psyche’s journey to the underworld dramatically portrays the powerful experience of rebirth which preceds and helps to bring about this hard-won integration. . . .



Bettelheim . . . considers the Eros and Psyche story as merely one example of the general animal-husband theme in fairy tales. This emphasis on universal motifs is reminiscent of Schroeder’s search for parallels in the Andromeda and Melusina stories . . .. Bettelheim views the animal-husband in these tales as a symbol of a girl’s sexual anxieties.

To begin with, the prediction that Psyche will be carried off by a horrible snake gives visual express to the inexperienced girl’s formless sexual anxieties. The funeral procession which leads Psyche to her destiny suggests the death of maidenhood, a loss not easily accepted. The readiness with which Psyche permits herself to be persuaded to kill Eros, with whom she cohabits, indicates the strong negative feelings which a young girl may harbor against him who has robbed her of her virginity.

(Ibid, p. 253)

According to Bettelheim, the value of the animal-husband tales, including the Eros and Psyche story, is that they assure children that their fear of sex as something beastly is not unique to them and that sexual anxiety, which is often implanted by others, frequently turns out to be unfounded (Ibid,¸p. 297-298)

Stories about the animal-husband assure children that their fear of sex as something dangerous and beastly is by no means unique to them; many people have felt the same way. But as the story characters discovers that despite such anxiety their sexual partner is not an ugly creature burt a lovely person, so will the child. On a preconscious level these tales convey to the child that much of his anxiety is implanted in him by what he hs been told; and that matters may be quite different when one experiences them directly, from the way one sees them from the outside.

(Ibid, p. 297-298)

So when Psyche discovers that her lover is not the monster she feared but a magnificent god, this reassures people on a subconscious level that sex is not beastly but potentially beautiful. In this reasoning Bettelheim goes a step beyond [J.] Schroeder and [Jacques] Barachilon, who more or less use the Eros and Psyche myth to illustrate the dynamics of projection as a girl’s way of dealing with her sexual anxieties. Bettelheim stresses ore than these other two commentators the role of society in generating sexual anxiety in children and the positive unconscious role which the Eros and Psyche myth and other animal-husband tales have in offsetting such anxiety. . . .

While Bettelheim’s interpretation is close to Schroeder’s . . ., Bettelheim interprets the tale as a symbolic portrait of the fullest possible human development: "Not physical man, [sic] but spiritual man must be reborn to become ready for the marriage of sexuality with wisdom . . . wedding of the two aspects of man requires a rebirth ( Ibid, p. 293 )

For Bettelheim, Psyche primarily symbolizes the ego, and particularly the developed, conscious aspects of the ego. This follows from his view that the myth is about the development of consciousness. It is not entirely clear whether Bettelheim restricts this description of development to one gender, but there is reason to believe that he does relate the Eros and Psyche myth primarily to the female’s perspective:

Despite all warnings about the dire consequences if she tries to find out, woman is not satisfied with remaining ignorant about sex and life. Comfortable as an existence in relative naivete may be, it is an empty life which must not be accepted. Notwithstanding all the hardships woman has to suffer to be reborn to full consciousness and humanity, the stoires leave no doubt that this is what she must do.

(Ibid, p. 295)

Here Bettelheim seems to emphasize the female’s path of development, but he broadens his focus when he goes on to indicate how the female’s development is usually inextricably bound up with a corresponding development in the male:

One woman has overcome her view of sex as something beastly, she is not satisfied with being kept merely as a sex object or relegated to a life of leisure and relative ignorance. For the happiness of both partners they must have a full life in the world, and with each other as equals. That, these stories convey, is most difficult to achieve for both, but it cannot be avoided if they wish to find happiness in life, and with each other.

(Ibid, p. 295)

When Bettelheim discusses the relation between sexual anxieties and psychological development portaryed in the Eros and Psyche myth, he emphasizes the valuable role this myth can play in reconciling these widely diverse aspects of the psyche. The myth is able to overcome the apparent opposition between wisdom and sexuality because it is itself a union of opposites as a story of bringing together the divine and the human.

. . . Bettelheim believes that the message of the Eros and Psyche myth reaches the individual at a deep level, possibly at the level where sexual anxieties arise. By showing that the monster is actually divine (Eros as a god), the myth supports the ego’s attempt to face and assimilate sexuality. Thus the myth helps to overcome a person’s initial anxiety and offers hope that the id is not what it at first seems to be, but that once it is confronted and accepted by the ego, it is transformed into something that benefits and enlarges consciousness. Like the other Freudian interpreters, Bettelheim ignores the symbolism of the birth of Voluptas . . ..

Chapter One: "Cupid and Psyche"

Course Outline


Erich Neumann

J. Schroeder