Beauty and the Beast is one of the most popular Fairy Tales to be adapted and reworked into many forms, whether written or visual. It is of course one of my favourite stories of all time, though I am constantly surprised that many people are unaware of the origins of this common fairy tale.
It is a common misconception that the original tale was penned in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Bardot de Villeneuve entitled “La Belle et la Bete”. It was abridged later in the 1700’s by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont who turned it into a cautionary tale for young maidens. Due to her lack of reference to the original author she is often given the credit of penning the fairy tale.
However, the tale of Beauty and the Beast predates the 1700’s and can actually be traced to Greek/Roman Mythology, in a surprisingly little known tale of Psyche and Cupid. This may have something to do with the fact that Cupid is often depicted as a baby with a fondness for arrows. This was a mistake that occurred round about the 15th Century when Cupid’s image got confused with Putto and they became indistinguishable from each other.
Cupid comes from the Latin Cupido which means desire and was actually the god of erotic love – Slightly disturbing that images of baby now resemble this, don’t you think? Anyway I digress.
This story though common in the ancient world now only exists in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass.
The Story of Psyche and Cupid (in brief)
A King and Queen have three daughters, one of which has unearthly beauty, guess who that was? Her name was Psyche (which means life or breath in ancient Greek). Psyche’s beauty was so astounding that Venus grew jealous. Venus was angry that people were comparing Psyche’s beauty to her own that she ordered her son, Cupid to use one of his arrows of desire to force her to fall in love with a monster.
Cupid went to the earth to carry out his mothers will however he was so taken by Psyche’s beauty that he accidentally shot himself. From that moment he only had eyes for Psyche. At around the same time Psyche’s parents cannot find any mortal man to marry her so they seek the advice of an Oracle. The Oracle informs them that it is Psyche’s fate to marry an immortal lover, a monster who no god or human can resist. Her husband was waiting for Psyche at the top of a mountain.
Psyche accepted her fate and is swept away by Zephyr to a beautiful valley and in the centre is a magnificent palace which could only have been built by the hands of the gods. Psyche accepts that this is her home, a sentiment echoed through the halls by a faceless stranger. His only request id that his face remains a secret. The stranger visits Psyche at night and makes love to her. Despite his tenderness Psyche is haunted by the Oracles words, that he is a monster.
Psyche’s two sisters are eventually allowed to visit her and are jealous of her beautiful home. They convince Psyche that she needs to discover the identity of her husband. Psyche looks upon her husbands face and Cupid is so distressed at his wife’s betrayal that he flees the palace.
Psyche chases after her husband and spends many days searching for him before she comes to the Temple of Cere’s. Cere’s instructs Psyche to surrender herself to Venus. Venus gives Psyche three trials to overcome. Unbeknown to Psyche, Cupid is their providing her with much needed aid. Eventually Psyche is so upset by the trials she has to overcome that she opens a forbidden box and succumbs to Stygian Sleep. A sleep so strong she is considered the living dead.
Cupid has had enough of being separated by his wife and flies to her rescue. Lifting her sleeping form to the heavens, Cupid begs Jupiter to talk to his mother and make her lift the sleeping curse. Venus eventually agrees to lift the curse and as soon as Psyche wakes she is transformed into an immortal allowing her to be properly wed to the god Cupid.