Psyche’s story: from evil sisters to liberal arts teachers

Psyche had two older sisters who bitterly resented her far finer beauty. When Psyche married a mysterious stranger and took up life far away in a luxurious mansion, her older sisters were enraged with jealousy even though they had made lucrative, royal marriages. One older sister to the other exclaimed:

So there’s Fortune for you! Cruel, unfair, and stone blind! Is this acceptable to you, that we sisters, sprung from the same mother and father, should have to put up with such different destinies? We, the eldest, have been made over to foreign husbands like maids, banished from our home and even our country, to spend our lives far from our parents, like exiles, while the last of our mother’s brood, disgorged in a birth that wore her down, has got her hands on such wealth, plus a god for a husband! She doesn’t even know how to make proper use of such immense possessions. Did you see, sister, how much magnificent jewelry was lying around her house — and all those glowing clothes and flashing gems — and the gold to tromp on all over the place? If she’s got a husband as lovely as she claims, there’s no luckier woman alive in the entire world.

Psyche had never seen her husband in cold, impersonal light. She had only a warm, intimate sense of him. The evil sisters urged their sister to seek out her husband’s superficial secrets. With a vicious, verbal construction of his hidden monstrosity, the evil sisters urged their sister to kill her husband.

Psyche’s husband had lovingly warned about her evil sisters. He told her:

Those lying little whores are making every effort to set up a nefarious ambush, chiefly by persuading you to pry into my appearance. But if you see it once, you will never see it again, as I’ve often declared before. This being so, if ever again those abominable ghouls come here — and they will come, I know — with their vicious hearts armed to the teeth, enter into no conversation with them whatsoever. If, in your innate simplicity and kindheartedness, you cannot bear to hold back, at least don’t admit — or don’t answer — any questions about your husband. … Members of your own sex are on the attack; your own near kin are your enemies. They have taken up arms and marched against you. They have drawn out their battle line and sounded the signal to charge. Even now, your wicked sisters aim at your throat with drawn swords. Alas, what horrible disasters loom over us, my darling Psyche! You must through dutiful restraint spare yourself and me. Save your home, your husband, your person, and this tiny baby of ours from the imminent avalanche of ill luck. Do not look upon, do not give ear to those perfidious women — it is not right to call “sisters” those who in murderous hatred trample on the bonds of blood.

Psyche longed to see her sisters, not imagining their evil intent. With persuasive words and soft embraces, Psyche persuaded her husband to help her see her sisters. He arranged to have her sisters carried by the wind to meet her.

Psyche’s evil sisters turned her against her husband with a tale of him being a monster. The evil sisters declared that they knew as a fact (this was a time when facts mattered) that Psyche’s husband was a monstrous serpent, his body twisted in many coils, his neck oozing deadly poison, his gaping maw huge enough to devour a fat woman whole. He was the terrible force of patriarchy. That beastly patriarch encouraged obesity in women to make bigger meals for himself and viciously constrained women’s reproductive freedom by eagerly devouring pregnant women. The poisonous snake that was her husband not only oppressed Psyche, but also intended to fill his belly with her and the nascent child in her womb.

Her evil sisters’ dire words seized Psyche with terror. She begged her sisters for help. They responded with a foolish, vicious plot to have Psyche murder her husband. Psyche was to take a sharpened razor and sharpen it further on her delicate palm. After her husband had sex with her in bed and fell asleep, Psyche was to slide out of bed, uncover a hidden lamp, and then, with her sharpened razor, cut off her husband’s head at the neck joint. The evil sisters evidently believed that their sister had flesh of stone. They falsely thought that their fantasy of an ugly, oppressive, patriarchal husband wouldn’t be exposed by the light of the lamp.

The light of the lamp revealed the truth. Psyche’s husband was the sweetest beast, the gentlest wild thing in the world. He had luxuriant golden hair and a fabulous body. He was Cupid himself, the gorgeous god. Psyche’s desire for her husband burned hotter and hotter. She gazed on him and then passionately smothered him with wanton, open-mouthed kisses. Later, furious at her evil sisters for their treachery, Psyche induced them to kill themselves. But that wasn’t enough for a happy ending. Psyche’s doubts about her husband caused serious harm to their marital relationship.

Roughly three centuries after Apuleius wrote the tale of Psyche and Cupid, Martianus Capella represented its inner meaning in The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Martianus expanded the two evil sisters to seven sisters allegorizing gynocentric liberal arts education. Martianus’s seven sisters of the liberal arts aren’t obviously evil. They don’t explicitly urge women to kill their husbands. But the seven sisters torture their students with tedium and interminably delay them from joyfully consummating marriages. They teach lies as fantastic as the evil sisters’ claim that Psyche’s husband was a monstrous serpent.

seven sisters of liberal arts dominate men scholars

Modern scholars haven’t understood how Martianus’s text portended the Dark Ages. With misplaced irony, one such scholar declared:

The crowning irony of this tale lies in its implications for us today. The compiler was a transparent poseur. He was purportedly in touch with the ages. His most intricate and impressive revelations he got from the “Egyptians” and “Chaldeans.” These authorities are unassailable. … The compiler makes sport of experts like Archimedes and Hipparchus. He brags that he will refute them and point out their fallacies. He offers to be the first to settle a matter of higher mathematics. And this jackanapes has succeeded in imposing his frauds upon all generations of scholars to the present. His citation of authorities are still being taken seriously, and his learning is still regarded with undue respect.

A brilliant, under-appreciated satirist, Martianus intentionally represented oppressive, fallacious learning from the seven sisters of liberal arts education. Moreover, the situation that Martianus ridiculed has continually worsened, with little notice among institutionalized scholars, to produce the Dark Ages of today. To redress fundamental failings in social justice, the literary history of the seven sisters and the liberal arts must be understood.

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The text above recounts a portion of the tale of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius’s Golden Ass, 4.28 to 6.24. I’ve made some minor changes to accentuate the tale’s continuing relevance. The first two quotes (from 5.9 and 5.11), as well as additional unquoted short phrases, are from the Latin translation of Ruden (2011) pp. 95-107. The Golden Ass dates from the second century GC. A Latin text of the Golden Ass is available online. The third quote above is from Stahl & Johnson (1971) vol. 1, p. 242. For more on that (faulty) understanding of the coming of the Dark Ages, id. pp. 231-43.

I’ve made a few emendations to Ruden’s translation based on inspecting the Latin and my sense of the best translation. In particular, in the quote from 5.9, for tantis opibus I’ve used “such wealth” in place of Ruden’s “all this wealth.” The wealth is indicated subsequently in the passage. In 5.11, for meos explorare vultus, I’ve used “pry into my appearance” in place of Ruden’s “spy on my face.” Men tend to be more concerned with their bodies generally, rather than just their faces. The Latin is consistent with such a range of concern. For ut tibi saepe praedixi, I’ve used “as I’ve often declared before” in place of Ruden’s “that has been my repeated decree.” Loving husbands don’t issue decrees to their wives. The Latin doesn’t clearly indicate that Psyche’s husband did so.

Martianus’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury having drawn upon Apuleius’s Golden Ass isn’t controversial among scholars. The dependence is extensive:

Of the numerous sources Martianus drew  upon, the most important for the narrative setting of The Marriage was Apuleius. … His main inspiration for the setting was the Cupid and Psyche episode occupying the middle books (4.28 – 6.24) of The Golden Ass. … As Martianus’ tale unfolds we are impressed with the many Apuleian reminiscences, particularly at the end, where the heavenly banquet celebrating the marriage of Philology and Mercury calls to mind the marriage feast of Cupid and Psyche. … the principal model {for Martianus’s allegory} is the Cupid and Psyche episode from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses {another name for the Golden Ass}. … Martianus’ debt to Apuleius appears time after time in general situations, detailed scenes, and innumerable echoes of words and phrases. There is no question that Martianus was inspired by Apuleius, not only with the idea of an allegorical wedding but also with the romantic and festive treatment proper to a wedding.

Stahl & Johnson (1971) pp. 42, 84.

[image] Seven sisters of liberal arts education dominate men scholars. By Francesco Pesellino, Florence, Italy, about 1450. Held in Birmingham Museum of Art, England, item 1961.101. Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Image hosted on Wikimedia Commons.


Ruden, Sarah, trans. 2011. Apuleius. The golden ass. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Stahl, William H. and Richard Johnson, with E. L. Burge. 1971. Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts: the Marriage of Philology and Mercury. New York: Columbia University Press.

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