Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Psyche's Third Labor

I've never been very happy with any of the commentary I read on Psyche's third labor. I found it all dissatisfying and consequently tended to ignore the labor altogether, which of course meant that I was missing something important due to impatience.

Here is what happens. Psyche has successfully sorted seeds and gathered gold wool. Now she is to get a drop of water from the River Styx, which comes crashing down a steep mountainside before plunging down into the Underworld and then circling back up to the mountain. The currents are too strong for Psyche to get any of this water at the base of the waterfall, and anyway, it is all going down to Hades.

As usual, Psyche cries and thinks about committing suicide and giving up on her labors. Instead, she befriends an eagle, sent by Zeus, who takes the crystal goblet she is to fill, and gets a few drops of the water from the top of the waterfall. And, once again, Psyche succeeds.

Neumann interprets this to mean something along the lines of how Psyche once again is able to harness male energy. Johson, who I generally like, writes that we are to think of Psyche as initially being overwhelmed by the largeness of life, and that she must now focus on just one drop to find her way.

One writer notes:
Eagle-like, she must circle high above the raging river of life, learn to recognize the bends, backwaters and bruising white torrents, and choose just enough water to fill her flask - no more.

I don't like this. It doesn't make sense to me. What is the difference between waiting until noon when the rams are asleep to go and get "just enough wool" and using an eagle to get "just enough" water? It's the same point, the only difference being that in the second labor, Psyche actually gathers the wool and in the third, the eagle gets the water. In the second labor, Psyche is warded off from getting too close to the rams lest they "overwhelm" her and now she is supposed to be worried about being "overwhelmed" again by the River Styx? How can the lesson be the same? Why would there be two distinct labors to make essentially the same point?

I said that the big difference--to my mind--between the two labors is that in the second, Psyche performs the action and in the second, the eagle is in charge. To my mind, the eagle is the big difference. Yes, the wool and the water are also different substances--the one is precious and powerful and the other a stand-in for the cyclical nature of life and death. My money is still on the eagle.

The eagle, Aetos Dios, belongs to Zeus and his big claim to fame other than helping Psyche, is in abducting Ganymede from the world of men to become the lover of Zeus and a cupbearer. Not an easy fate, I'd wager. Not one I'd want, anyway. I mean, one minute, Ganymede was minding his own business, strutting around as a Trojan prince and tending sheep, and the next minute he was kidnapped.

Anyway, Ganymede like Psyche, went to live with the gods. I'm unclear if he became a god, but very clear that Psyche did. She completes her transformation due to her labors, which makes her pretty unique--most heroes who are given labors eventually meet a tragic end. This is the powerful thing about Psyche; she's an early example of completion. Ganymede, well. He did get a constellation.

But back to the eagle. Here is the thing. In shamanism, the older generation of scholars always want to make the distinction between female and male shamans. Put simply, the men get to fly and the women get possessed. This makes sense from a certain point of view. The men get to fly up to the heavens and pal around with the gods and remember what they see and then go back to the mundane world to write or sing about it. Gods, on the other hand, like to come down to earth to see the women and take possession of them. Women don't tend to fly.

To get the water from the River Styx, however, Psyche has to be able to fly in some capacity. The eagle does this for her. In fact, I think it's even Zeus who sends the eagle to her to help her out (nice of him, given his reputation with other girls). I don't think the point, therefore, is that Psyche is supposed to contemplate the largeness of life and limit herself to one or two drops. I think the point is that if she is really and truly going to apprehend the whole life/death/rebirth cycle, she'll need to appeal to some inner Zeus-like entity, and fly. This is different than taking "just enough wool." In fact, it's a rather daring idea altogether as it goes against the way we think things are supposed to be, ie it's the men who turn into birds and the girls who stay at home and get possessed. Psyche gets to fly, but only if Zeus helps her and given that she already has some wool, she's in a pretty good place, whether she knows it or not, to get his attention in a meaningful way.

After she gets some of that water, it isn't surprising that the following and final labor has her diving down into the Underworld. She's already figured out land and air; now it's time for the world beneath.

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