Psyche’s Fourth Task: Go to Hell…

Crossing the River Styx
Joachim Patinir

Transitions as Liminal and Archetypal Situations
From a lecture delivered by
Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D.
at the Mythic Journeys Conference
June 2004, Atlanta, Georgia
The fourth step is the first time that Psyche will end up accomplishing the task herself. As her very last task, Aphrodite commands that Psyche must go into the underworld, fill an empty box with beauty ointment from Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, and return it to her. For the first time, Psyche thinks, “She must want me dead.” The only way she knows to go into the underworld is to die. Psyche now climbs up the highest tower to throw herself off. This time the tower talks to her saying, “Psyche, there is another way to finish this task. Go into the underworld via the Vent of Dis. Take coins with you for the ferryman. Take two cakes for the three-headed dog; one to let you into the underworld, and one to let you out again.”
And then the tower warns her saying, “Three times you will be asked for help, Psyche. You must harden your heart to pity, refuse, and go on.” And so Psyche does. Three times she is asked by very pathetic creatures or people to stop for a moment and help. Each time she remembers the advice. She says “No” and she walks on. She gives one of the coins to the ferryman who ferries her across. Even as she’s going across the River Styx, a pathetic man says, “Just hold my hand and pull me across. I didn’t have a coin.” But she ignores his plea. There was one other piece of advice from the tower. “Psyche, once you get the beauty ointment in the box, DON’T OPEN THE BOX!”
Psyche enters the underworld, gives the three-headed dog one cake, fills the box with beauty, gives the three-headed dog another cake, comes back across the river (because she has one more coin) and returns to the upper world.
All of the advice that the tower gave her was good. Psyche, having done exactly what the tower told her understands that, if she had stopped to help, she would have had to lend a hand. In each hand she had one cake and one coin. Had she lost what she was holding, she would not have had the means to return from the underworld.
People in the transition often have limited amounts of strength, health or energy as they go into the underworld. For example, the story of Psyche speaks to people living with cancer. They say, “Cancer was a cure for my co-dependency. Cancer was a way in which I could say to people, “I can’t do that.” The ability to say “No” is one of the challenges for a feeling man or the feminine psyche. When other people expect you to always be there for them, and you break from by saying “No,” you create a crisis in a relationship. It may be that you need to not stay in the underworld of your own depression or your own addiction or your own whatever it is, it is there. Addiction, illness, and depression are images of the underworld that you need to get through in order to get out. This liminal period of transition is a very long one. The tasks to be done keep on growing. It’s hard. It’s scary. If you’re going to make it through this transition to the new phase of your life in which you have integrated the new you, with all that you are for the next phase of your life, you’ve got to often learn to say “No.” Otherwise the people who have expectations of you will use your energy. Say “No,” and they’ll say, “You’re selfish.” Psyche manages to do all of that. She returns to the upper world. She’s no longer in the underworld. She has made it through.
By now, you can imagine, she’s very tired. She’s pregnant, and she’s been on this journey a long time. Because she is who she is, her archetypes are related to the relationship goddesses. That is, her archetype is she’s the Mother. She started out the Maiden very much like Persephone. She became a Lover, so she was like Aphrodite. She is pregnant, so she’s like Demeter. And she wants to be reconnected with this bridegroom, so she’s got the persistent energy of Hera.
For all that she has learned in mastering these good things, these are not strengths that she particularly feels deeply connected to as her meaning. What she wants most of all, after accomplishing all these tasks, is to be beautiful in order that Eros might love her and return. Psyche opens the box and death-like sleep envelopes her. She falls, like Snow White, as if dead. This is the point in the story where some people find fault with her decision. “Oh Psyche, after all this, did you have to become unconscious again?”
It is this action that calls Eros to her side, but Eros has been transformed as Psyche has grown through her ordeals. He used to be this child who ran home to mother, who hid things from mother. He felt betrayed because Psyche actually looked at him. It didn’t matter that when she looked at him she actually consciously loved him. He was so wounded that she broke the form and disobeyed him. Now we see a very different Eros who comes to her side, wipes the death-like sleep off of her, and then takes her to Olympus. There, in front of all the gods and goddesses, Eros announces that this is the conscious relationship that he wants. The Olympians celebrate a grand wedding now, no longer a hidden affair, not this unconscious relationship of love and soul, because those are the names of these two folks.

From: The Golden Asse
by Lucius Apuleius
Adlington’s translation, 1566


The most pleasant and delectable tale of the marriage of Cupid and Psyches

Venus, who would not yet be appeased, but menacing more and more said, What, thou seemest unto me a very witch and enchauntresse, that bringest these things to passe, howbeit thou shalt do nothing more. Take this box and to Hell to Proserpina, and desire her to send me a little of her beauty, as much as will serve me the space of one day, and say that such as I had is consumed away since my sonne fell sicke, but returne againe quickly, for I must dresse my selfe therewithall, and goe to the Theatre of the Gods: then poore Psyches perceived the end of all fortune, thinking verely that she should never returne, and not without cause, when as she was compelled to go to the gulfe and furies of hell. Wherefore without any further delay, she went up to an high tower to throw her selfe downe headlong (thinking that it was the next and readiest way to hell) but the tower (as inspired) spake unto her saying, O poore miser, why goest thou about to slay thy selfe? Why dost thou rashly yeeld unto thy last perill and danger? know thou that if thy spirit be once separated from thy body, thou shalt surely go to hell, but never to returne againe, wherefore harken unto me; Lacedemon a Citie in Greece is not farre hence: go thou thither and enquire for the hill Tenarus, whereas thou shalt find a hold [sic] leading to hell, even to the Pallace of Pluto, but take heede thou go not with emptie hands to that place of darknesse: but carrie two sops [*] sodden in the flour of barley and Honney in thy hands, and two halfepence in thy mouth. And when thou hast passed a good part of that way, thou shalt see a lame Asse carrying of wood, and a lame fellow driving him, who will desire thee to give him up the sticks that fall downe, but passe thou on and do nothing; by and by thou shalt come unto a river of hell, whereas Charon is ferriman, who will first have his fare paied him, before he will carry the soules over the river in his boat, whereby you may see that avarice raigneth amongst the dead, neither Charon nor Pluto will do any thing for nought: for if it be a poore man that would passe over and lacketh money, he shal be compelled to die in his journey before they will shew him any reliefe, wherefore deliver to carraine Charon one of the halfpence (which thou bearest for thy passage) and let him receive it out of thy mouth. And it shall come to passe as thou sittest in the boat thou shalt see an old man swimming on the top of the river, holding up his deadly hands, and desiring thee to receive him into the barke [*] , but have no regard to his piteous cry: when thou art passed over the floud, thou shalt espie old women spinning, who will desire thee to helpe them, but beware thou do not consent unto them in any case, for these and like baits and traps will Venus set to make thee let fall one of thy sops, and thinke not that the keeping of thy sops is a light matter, for if thou leese one of them thou shalt be assured never to returne againe to this world. Then shalt thou see a great and marvailous dogge, with three heads, barking continually at the soules of such as enter in, but he can do them no other harme, he lieth day and night before the gate of Proserpina, and keepeth the house of Pluto with great diligence, to whom if thou cast one of thy sops, thou maist have accesse to Proserpina without all danger: shee will make thee good cheere, and entertaine thee with delicate meate and drinke, but sit thou upon the ground, and desire browne bread, and then declare thy message unto her, and when thou hast received such beauty as she giveth, in thy returne appease the rage of the dogge with thy other sop, and give thy other halfe penny to covetous Charon, and come the same way againe into the world as thou wentest: but above all things have a regard that thou looke not in the boxe, neither be not too curious about the treasure of the divine beauty. In this manner the tower spake unto Psyches, and advertised her what she should do: and immediately she tooke two halfe pence, two sops, and all things necessary, and went to the mountaine Tenarus to go towards hell. After that Psyches had passed by the lame Asse, paid her halfe pennie for passage, neglected the old man in the river, denyed to helpe the woman spinning, and filled the ravenous mouth of the dogge with a sop, shee came to the chamber of Proserpina, onely contented with course bread, declared her message, and after she received a mysticall secret in a boxe, she departed, and stopped the mouth of the dogge with the other sop, and paied the boat-man the other halfe penny. When Psyches was returned from hell, to the light of the world, shee was ravished with great desire, saying, Am not I a foole, that knowing that I carrie heere the divine beauty, will not take a little thereof to garnish my face, to please my love withall? And by and by shee opened the boxe where she could perceive no beauty nor any thing else, save onely an infernall and deadly sleepe, which immediately invaded all her members as soone as the boxe was uncovered, in such sort that shee fell downe upon the ground, and lay there as a sleeping corps.

But Cupid being now healed of his wound and Maladie, not able to endure the absence of Psyches, got him secretly out at a window of the chamber where hee was enclosed, and (receiving his wings,) tooke his flight towards his loving wife, whom when he had found, hee wiped away the sleepe from her face, and put it againe into the boxe, and awaked her with the tip of one of his arrows, saying: O wretched Caitife, behold thou wert well-nigh perished againe, with the overmuch curiositie: well, goe thou, and do thy message to my Mother, and in the meane season, I wil provide for all things accordingly: wherewithall he tooke his flight into the aire, and Psyches brought her present to Venus.

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