Thursday, September 27, 2012

Beast and Superbeast: Superman and Folktales part 1, Cupid and Psyche

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, by Antonio Canova

Well, this idea was going to be an academic article. But I realized that it didn't have any sort of argument. All I was saying was that the folk tale closest to the story of Superman is "Beauty and the Beast." That might be an interesting thing to think about for a few minutes, but it's not a terribly tasty academic subject. At least, not so far as I have been able to figure.

So, I'll put my thoughts on it in this blog. But not all at once. I'll begin by summarizing the relevant folk tales. The first one is from a long time ago.

I became interested in this connection when I was reading all the silver age Superman stories in which Lois incessantly tries to prove that Superman is Clark Kent. It reminded me of the ancient Roman novel The Golden Ass, by Apuleius. It's about a guy who does something to get a witch mad at him, so she turns him into a donkey, and he wanders around the Mediterranean trying to find a way to become human again. I like it ok.

Psyche at the throne of Apohrodite, by Edward Hale
In the midst of this story, the donkey man overhears an old woman telling a young woman the story of Cupid and Psyche. The young woman may or may not have been captured by brigands and was going to have to marry one of them or something. I haven't read the book in a long time. Anyway, the Psyche story goes something like this...

Psyche is beautiful, and this angers the goddess Venus because people are paying Psyche the homage due only the goddess of love. She sends her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a hobo or something, but Cupid falls in love with her. Interestingly, he doesn't just take her with him, but for some reason nobody wants to marry the prettiest girl in town. So her family consults an oracle, which tells them that she has to go up to the top of a mountain and marry a monster. Cupid has arranged an enchanted castle where Psyche can come live with her, but she's not allowed to see him. Every night, he visits her in bed, and because she can't see him in the dark she thinks he's a monster. She's allowed to go home to visit her sisters, who aren't exactly nice girls. They convince her that she has to get a look at him, so Psyche sneaks a lamp into bed. After Cupid falls asleep, she lights the lamp and sees his true beauty, but some lamp oil drips onto Cupid and he wakes up. Seeing what has happened, he spreads his white wings and flies away. The castle vanishes, and Psyche, pregnant with Cupid's child, returns to her sisters.  (The sisters, by the way, go to the mountain where the castle was and try to find them, but they fall off the mountain and die.) The story here becomes the tale of Psyche fulfilling tasks set by Venus, who forces her to sort a mound of grains (ants help her), collect wool from various sheep (a river god gives her advice), and journey to the underworld to ask Proserpina for a bit of her beauty (the complication here is that Psyche isn't supposed to look in the box, but she does, is put in a deep sleep, and is rescued by Cupid). Then Cupid petitions Jupiter to interceded on his behalf, and Jupiter convinces Venus to relent. Psyche drinks ambrosia and becomes Cupid's immortal bride.

Psyche opening the Golden Box, by John William Waterhouse
I'm including that summary largely because of two things. First, the god who hides his identity (in this story, by arriving in the darkness) and second, the woman who tries to discover that identity. For lots of images of this story, and a lengthier summary, try here. Cupid's reasons for not revealing his face are fairly clear in Apuleius. He seems to want her to trust him. Cupid says things like, "I would rather you would love me as an equal than adore me as a god." And "Love cannot dwell with suspicion." Here's an online version of the whole story, by the way.

So, has there ever been a clearer precedent for Clark Kent's relationship with Lois Lane than the line "I would rather you love me as an equal than adore me as a god"?

Sure, it doesn't quite line up with the bumbling Kent that so many versions of the story give us, but it's pretty good as a statement of Superman's motivations in maintaining the Kent identity.

The mythological context here also reminds me that the mixture of humanity and divinity usually doesn't go so well for the human in the story. Take Semele, for instance. She was a human in whom Zeus took an interest. Zeus' wife Hera found out about it and, in disguise, persuaded the poor girl to ask Zeus to appear to her as he appeared when he makes love to his wife Hera. Semele got him to swear by the river Styx to grant her one favor, and she asked him to appear in all his heavenly glory, so to speak. Zeus had to do it, because swearing by the Styx is an unbreakable oath for the Olympians. When he revealed his true glory to her, she disintegrated.

Should I just link to Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" at this point?

Next time...we travel east of the sun, west of the moon. Followed by a visit with the beauty and the beast.

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