BMCR 2009.09.25

Apuleius, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche

, Apuleius, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2009. xxiii, 102. ISBN 9780872209725. $8.95 (pb).


This volume presents the embedded tale of “Cupid and Psyche” from Apuleius’ Golden Ass as an independent narrative, along with substantial addenda not included in Relihan’s earlier translation of the novel entire (reviewed for BMCR by James J. O’Donnell; see BMCR 2008.11.26): a summary of the ancient depictions of Cupid and Psyche in other media, along with four Platonic texts, presented in place of an introduction as “A Brief Prehistory of Cupid and Psyche”; three more related texts presented as Appendices (Apuleius, On the God of Socrates 16; Martianus Capella, The Marriage of Philology and Mercury I.7; Fulgentius, The Mythologies III.6: The Tale of Cupid and Psyche); a provocative essay presented at the end as “Afterthoughts”; and a reprint of James Gollnick’s table of psychological interpretations of the tale. It is in these addenda, as well as in the presentation of “Cupid and Psyche” as independent narrative, that the volume’s chief contribution lies. Non-classicists, students, and classicists alike will find it well worth the price to have these valuable nuggets printed together with a lively and masterful, if at times verbose, translation.

The obvious audience for such a volume is the non-classicist or the beginning student. The former, whether a scholar in another field whose interest lies solely in “Cupid and Psyche” and not Apuleius’ novel as a whole, or a member of the general public who has the time or impetus to read only the crown jewel of Apuleian narrative, will find in Relihan’s translation a representation of Apuleius that ably balances justice to the original text with an engaging and stylish English rendering. For the beginning student as well, who might read the tale in a course or research agenda which has no room for the novel in its entirety, this volume is an ideal choice. For both groups, it provides enough of the framing narrative and enough supplemental material to pique the interest of some, and thereby convince them to read the entire novel anyway; failing that, it provides the rest with the minimum of information that must be had to make some contextual sense of the tale.

In justifying the excerption of “Cupid and Psyche,” however, Relihan hints that even an Apuleian scholar may derive some benefit from considering the tale by itself: “By presenting it in isolation, I seek to facilitate an appreciation of…[its] fame and influence and to make it easier to ask the question, Just what is this story that has been bent to Apuleius’ larger purposes?” (page ix; italics in original). Some scholars may disagree with this view and see no value in the excerption beyond providing a cheap edition of “Cupid and Psyche” for their Classical Myth students or colleagues in the English and Psychology departments. For my part, I think that there are two extremes towards which Apuleian scholarship tends in its treatment of “Cupid and Psyche”: considering its narrative frame too little, or considering it too much. Certainly reading the tale by itself is a valuable corrective to the latter tendency: if one reads this volume at a time when the rest of the Golden Ass is not so fresh in the mind, the tendency to see the tale as just another analogue of Lucius’ own story is countered, and one may appreciate the tale’s richness and profundity independent of the Ass-narrative.

Whatever an Apuleian scholar’s attitude towards the excerption itself, however, one cannot argue about the utility of the additional materials. “A Brief Prehistory” is a useful summary of the myth in other contexts. The Appendices provide translations that are not available elsewhere. “Afterthoughts” is an interesting scholarly contribution in its own right: it argues that the value of “Cupid and Psyche” as a key for interpreting the Golden Ass as a whole is to be found in its contrast with that larger frame rather than its similarity. Even the reproduction of Gollnick’s table is valuable in providing a summary of one of the more utilitarian bits of that scholar’s work on Apuleius,1 work that is unfortunately mostly ignored by classicists (perhaps because Gollnick is himself a psychologist). In addition to all of this, the Reader’s Commentary provides many useful notes, especially for those without Latin, and who are thus unable to use the Groningen commentary.

Finally, a word on the translation itself, though this matter has already been discussed in O’Donnell’s review of Relihan’s earlier translation of the entire novel, from which the text for this volume was taken with very few changes (the main difference being a number of rather innocuous and mostly helpful subtitles, e.g. “Psyche and Her Sisters,” or “Venus Learns the Truth,” or “The Death of the Storyteller,” which were added “to mark the progress of the story”; a few other minor changes are enumerated in footnote 3 on page xi). This is a good translation, and as successful as any I have read in keeping the reader’s interest and in conveying a strong sense of the playfulness and power of Apuleius’ prose. At times when the two goals conflict, he shows preference for capturing the sense or the spirit, rather than the language, of the original, and on the spectrum of translation between crib and paraphrase, he tends more in the latter direction. That is a valid choice, however, and one which I have at times wished other translators made more often. To offer a sense of the translation’s voice, I will end with a full passage by Relihan for comparison to the Latin. The passage offered here describes the moment when Cupid and Psyche’s first “marriage” is consummated (5.4):

“And now it is the depths of night, and a mild and merciful sound reaches her ears. Then, so alone and so unguarded, Psyche is afraid for her virginity; in fear and trembling, she lies quaking, and more than for any evil she is in mortal terror of the unknown. And then the unknown husband is there: he had climbed into the bed, he had made Psyche his wife, and before the sun had risen he had hastily gone away. And instantly the waiting voices that had been stationed in her room attend to the new bride for the virgin life just taken.”

(Iamque provecta nocte clemens quidam sonus aures eius accedit. Tunc virginitati suae pro tanta solitudine metuens et pavet et horrescit et quovis malo plus timet quod ignorat. Iamque aderat ignobilis maritus et torum inscenderat et uxorem sibi Psychen fecerat et ante lucis exortum propere discesserat. Statim voces cubiculo praestolatae novam nuptam interfectae virginitatis curant).

Note first that Relihan not only follows the perhaps more opaque reading clemens rather than demens (against the preference of the Groningen commentators, page 131 ad loc.2), but even dwells upon this strange paradox (that the noise that so frightens Psyche should be “merciful”) by translating a single word with two (this is one of Relihan’s more common less-than-literal techniques; he explains and defends this practice as serving a number of purposes on page xxxiii of his earlier complete translation: here, for example, he achieves both alliteration and nuance). Another of these doublets translates pro tanta solitudine. “In mortal terror” is quite strong for timet, but it captures the force of the piling up of fearful verbs, which Relihan has broken for other reasons. The next sentence in Latin is rendered by a single sentence in English; this, and the accurate translation of the pluperfects, successfully carries the rapidity of this sentence in the original. Relihan’s choice of asyndeton, however, to replace the polysyndeton in the Latin, helps maintain this rapidity, which is in danger of being bogged down by the inherent verbosity of English. In the ordering of phrases, one should note, he sticks even closer to the original than the crib in the Groningen Commentaries on Apuleius, which moves the sunrise to the end of the sentence (page 132). By ending with “gone away” here, Relihan preserves one of the effects by which a long sequence of events seems over in an instant: the bridegroom is gone, it seems, as soon as he has arrived. The sunrise, after all, is hardly the point of the sentence, and in fact contradicts this seeming rapidity: if we end with the thought that it was already sunrise when he left, we get the sense that it all must have taken a little time, at any rate. Finally, on reading the phrase “virgin life just taken,” however much it may convey the literal sense of interficere we may think “Surely this is too much!” That, however, is precisely the reaction Relihan wants us to have (page xi); it is, he argues, the reaction a reader must have to the Apuleian original, and thus one that should be reproduced in the reader of a translation. All of this illustrates how well Relihan manages to convey much of the Apuleian spirit that would be lost in a superficially more accurate translation, yet is even more literal than most when it suits this larger purpose.

To conclude: this volume provides an engaging translation of the most influential section of Apuleius’ novel, along with many aids to developing a better understanding of it in its context. Non-classicists may rest assured that they are getting a fair version of Apuleius’ tale, which makes up for its minor textual liberties by a general loyalty to the spirit of Apuleius’ original, while classicists can use it with confidence, whether for their students who may not have time for the novel in its entirety, or even for themselves, to aid in their consideration and evaluation of the tale in temporary isolation from its larger narrative context. Both groups will in the end be encouraged to return to the novel as a whole, their understanding of it enriched by this closer focus on one of its best parts.


1. Gollnick has published two books with substantive treatment of Apuleius: The Religious Dreamworld of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1999; and Love and the Soul: Psychological Interpretations of the Eros and Psyche Myth. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1992.

2. Zimmerman, M. et al. 2004. Apuleius Madaurensis Metamorphoses. Books IV 28-35, V and VI 1-24. The Tale of Cupid and Psyche. Text, Introduction, and Commentary. Groningen Commentaries on Apuleius. Egbert Forsten, Groningen.