Psyche's Descent into the Underworld: The Transcending Pattern in Myth and Literature

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1982

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Abstract

The myth of Cupid and Psyche first appears in the Latin novel of Apuleius entitled the Metamorphoses or Golden Ass. Its wide influence may be due, in part, to the archetypal significance and power of the myth, especially of its central event, Psyche's katabasis or descent into the underworld. Apuleius can be credited with creating both the tale and the unique novel that frames it, as well as explicitly connecting the two parts into one carefully integrated whole. Chapters I through IV of this study examine Apuleius' synthesis of his philosophical, literary, and folk-tale sources into one novel with this Neoplatonic myth at its core. The myth is seen to function as the keystone and symbolic heart of the work. Psyche's descent into the underworld, her subsequent reunion with her divine husband, her apotheosis, and the birth of her daughter Bliss set the pattern for the spiritual quest of Lucius, the novel's hero. Parallel to Psyche's descent and return are Lucius' seaside vision of the goddess Isis and his subsequent spiritual rebirth. Parallel to Psyche's elevation to Mt. Olympus and attainment of immortal status are Lucius' initiations into the Isiac mysteries with their promise of long life and eternal bliss in the Elysian Fields. Psyche's katabasis is clearly a metaphor for the soul's descent inwards to a source of power that confers knowledge and immortality. The wide influence of the Psyche myth throughout Western literature may thus be due to its most universal spiritual meaning. The second part of this study begins with an analysis of the spiritual descent and rebirth pattern in myth, ritual, and psychology. Based on psychophysiological research on the Transcendental Meditation technique a model of a "transcending" pattern is proposed for understanding these events as they occur in imaginative literature. The transcending model contains three stages: 1) a naturally increasing quiescence of mind and physiology, which is expressed metaphorically as a dive or descent; 2) a noetic and ineffable experience of the inner self, which may be suggested by images of an unbounded and eternal sense of being; and 3) a blissful return to activity with a more integrated, holistic psyche. Six modern novels which consciously retell the Psyche narrative are then examined in the light of this transcending model. They are: Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean, Odessa Strickland Payne's Psyche, Pierre Louys's Psyche, Jules Romains's Psyche trilogy, C. S. Lewis's Till Have Faces, and Francois des Ligneris's Psyche 58. The novels consistently appear to treat the katabasis event as a transcending to subtler levels of the inner self which is important to the spiritual development of the protagonist. In addition, Erich Neumann's analysis of the myth as an archetype for specifically feminine development is examined along with other views of the feminine quest. It is found that the literature of the feminine quest also conforms to and is illuminated by the transcending model. The study concludes by applying the transcending model to several modern novels not consciously related to the Psyche tradition. The model is found to be useful in understanding the metaphoric dives and descents of each protagonist, the basic structure of the narrative, and even of the creative process itself. Thus the transcending model proves to be a powerful technique for analyzing the form and content of literature as well as its effects upon the reader.

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