The myth of Cupid and Psyche is not one that is retold a lot anymore. Usually, when romance writers reach to the classics for inspiration they turn to the story of Hades and Persephone. Which is interesting because Psyche is a strong female character. You would think in an era where we claim to have equality between the sexes more authors would be reaching for stronger female archetypes instead of romanticizing what is basically Stockholm syndrome.
Psyche was a princess whose beauty was without equal. Men came to her kingdom just to look at her and eventually they began to turn away from the worship of Venus to worship her instead. Venus was angered at a mere mortal usurping her power and sent her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with the worst person and or thing her could find. Some versions of the story say he tripped and fell on one of his own arrows others say he simply looked at her and fell in love. Her family was told to prepare Psyche for marriage and then she was to jump off a cliff. Cupid had the west wind spirit her away to a palace where her every wish was granted. He came to her every night and made love to her. Psyche was happy but missed her family and was afraid they mourned her death. Cupid brought her sisters to visit and Psyche was thrilled to see them. Her sisters, on the other hand, were jealous of her good fortune and filled her head with suspicions about her husband. After they left Psyche put their plan into action. She waited until her lover was asleep and lit a candle. She was so astounded by Cupid’s beauty that she spilled hot wax on one of his wings. He awoke and fled to his mother leaving Psyche to face Venus’ wrath for harming her son. Psyche followed Cupid’s flight and challenged Venus for Cupid. Venus told Psyche that she might have Cupid if Psyche would perform a few small tasks for Venus. After managing to survive and perform the near impossible feats asked of her by her mother-in-law Psyche was granted immortality by Zeus and her marriage to Cupid was recognized by the gods. Cupid and Psyche is a myth in which a woman performs tasks of bravery to win her man. The problem many readers have with the story is that Cupid comes across as pathetic. His is deathly wounded by a bit of candle wax and is unable to protect the woman he loves from his mother.
Two recent modern retellings are The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt and A Faerie Tale: The Beloved by Genevra Thorne. In The Raven Prince, the Earl is terribly scarred by smallpox and doesn’t believe anyone can see past the scars. When he hires a female secretary he falls in love but wanting to spare her a lust he is sure she finds distasteful he goes to a London brothel. His widowed secretary takes the place of a whore at Aphrodite’s Grotto as she figures one night in the arms of the man she loves is worth possible infamy. In A Faerie Tale: The Beloved the woman actually is a whore. She is so depressed by the life she is forced to live to survive and the men who only take her to bed for the novelty of bedding a freak, she was scarred in a fire as a child, that she begins the novel by throwing herself off a cliff. She lands in Ashton’s arms and before his Allure overtakes her he sees a woman who might love him. He pays to visit her every night so he can court her without he seeing his face.
Both modern authors use scars to alienate instead of unearthly beauty though Thorne makes use of that with her idea of Allure. Hoyt says it is not beauty but ugliness that stops us from seeing the person. I’m not sure that that is true. I think extremes of either alienate people and make them judge by appearance. Thorne would appear to agree as she makes the male protagonist isolated because of his unearthly beauty.
Yet both authors are writing historical fiction and choose to make their female leads whores. Whores are social outcasts. The stories are set in Regency and Medieval times respectively. These are both times when a woman was either chaste or reviled by society. Anna risks her good name to be with the man she loves. Eden has become a whore because it was better than starving to death. It is also a useful narrative convention because it allows Ash to visit her each night whereas he couldn’t visit a respectable woman at night. Still making the women whores takes away their feminine power. In the original story, Cupid was able to visit each night because he married Psyche. There is no real reason The Earl and Ash could not have married and then wooed their women. There is no hint of the second part of the fairy tale in The Raven Prince and very little of it in A Faerie Tale: The Beloved. In Thorne’s tale Eden does challenge Ash’s grandfather after he is punished for placing a memory spell on her. Yet the punishment is not revoked even though she is allowed to share it with him. It seems even when we have strong archetypes to draw from we insist on creating women who bow to men, who are won by them.