This is a chapter of Once Upon A Time: Children’s Stories From The Classics by Blanche Winder.
In a previous story, you heard how poor Psyche, when she was the servant of Aphrodite, was made to do all kinds of difficult things and was finally sent down under the earth for a pot of Persephone’s ointment. You shall now hear exactly what these hard tasks were; and, also, the full tale of the sorrowful princess’s visit to the kingdom of Hades and his six months queen.
You must know that, after Aphrodite had forced Psyche to become her servant, she prepared to set off to a grand wedding, saying that Psyche must stay at home to perform the first of the tasks that would be set for her. Leading her to a great piled-up quantity of wheat, barley, millet, poppyseed, peas, lentils, and beans, the queen of love declared that all the seeds were to be sorted into different heaps before she came back from the wedding breakfast. Then she mounted her chariot drawn by four doves, shook the jeweled reins, and was driven swiftly away.
Psyche sat by the great heap of seeds and gazed at them despairingly, knowing well that she could not separate one kind from another even if she toiled for a week. But a little ant, who had overheard Aphrodite’s command, ran quickly to all the other ants in the fields about the palace and told them that they must come at once to the help of the princess whom Cupid loved.
So up the ants marched in an army —just as you may sometimes see them marching now— traveling over the ground in tiny black waves, one after another, and began to work as hard as ever they could to separate the grain and the seeds into heaps. So well did they succeed that, on Aphrodite’s return, the task that she had set poor Psyche was finished.
When the queen of love saw this she was angrier than ever, for she thought it was Cupid’s doing. The next morning she called Psyche into the garden and pointed to a dark forest in the distance.
“Go into that wood,” said she, “and you will see a stream flowing through the bushes. Wild sheep are feeding there that shine like gold. Bring me some of the wool from their fleeces.”
Psyche set off willingly — not to try and catch the sheep, but to throw herself into the river and so end her sorrows, for she knew that the wild sheep were terribly fierce, and had long pointed horns and poison-tipped teeth with which they bit anybody who came near them. As she stood on the river bank, however, preparing to jump in, she heard the sweetest music in the world coming from somewhere near the ground. Stooping to listen, she found that the sound came from a green reed, which was growing, with many others, on the brink of the cool, running water.
“O, Psyche!” sang the reed, very softly and tenderly. “You must not throw yourself into my beautiful river! Wait until this afternoon, when the fierce wild sheep will wander farther along the green meadow and lie down to rest in the distant shade. Then go into the bushes where they have been feeding and gather the torn pieces of golden wool which they are sure to have left hanging on the thorns.”
Psyche listened to the gentle words of the reed, and, when she saw the terrible sheep move away, she ran hastily to the bushes and collected the torn fragments of golden wool that clung to the briers. Putting them into her apron, she carried them home to Aphrodite, who now lost her temper entirely.
“Somebody has been helping you to do this!” cried she. “Now you shall have a much harder task! Go to the top of yonder mountain, where you will find a stream called the Styx, inky-black and icy-cold, gushing out of a rock. Bring me this crystal bottle full of the water!”
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Poor Psyche took the bottle and climbed to the top of the mountain as fast as she could, meaning to throw herself from the top, just as she had meant to fling herself into the river. She saw the rock that Aphrodite had described and the black Styx, quite out of reach and guarded by many horrible dragons. For a moment she was so frightened that she stood quite still, and, as she stared at the dragons, suddenly a great eagle swooped down from the sky, spread its wings over her head, and spoke to her as tenderly as the reed had done.
“Give me your bottle, Psyche,” said the eagle. Then, taking the crystal bottle in its big claws, it swept between the angry dragons like a gust of wind, dipped the bottle into the river, and brought it back to Psyche quite full of the strange inky-black water.
Joyfully Psyche hurried once more to Aphrodite; but again the queen of love —quite forgetting the meaning of her own beautiful title— declared that the poor princess had been helped.
“It seems to me that you can call witches and wizards to obey your orders!” said she. “Very well! You shall find some sorcerer who can lead you down into the kingdom of Hades and you shall bring me back some of Persephone’s beauty ointment!”
Psyche went away, more dismayed than ever.
“This time I certainly will kill myself,” she thought, so she climbed the highest tower in the palace, and, for the third time, made ready to throw herself down, on this occasion into the garden. But behold! The tower itself suddenly found voice and spoke to her out of its depths as softly and sweetly as the reed and the eagle had done.
“You must not despair, poor Psyche,” said the tower. “I will tell you what to do. Go straight through the streets of the city you see in the distance, and from there to the marshes beyond. In the midst of the marshes, you will find a deep hole in the ground, which you must be brave enough to enter! Carry in either hand a little cake made of barley and honey, and put two copper coins in your mouth. Presently, as you travel down the dark passage below the hole, you will meet a lame man driving a lame donkey. He will ask you to pick up some sticks that have fallen from the donkey’s back, but be sure you pass on without answering him. After that, you will come to a black river, which is the very same Styx from which the eagle filled your crystal bottle, and a ferryboat will be rocking upon it, with a strange-looking ferryman, called Charon, seated in the bows. He will demand a copper coin from you, so make him take, with his own fingers, one of the two that are in your mouth. As Charon is rowing you across the river you will see another old man, pretending to drown in the water. He, too, will call on you for help, but you must not heed him. Near the bank on the far side, you will find some old women seated, weaving. They also will cry for aid, but once again you must pass onwards without reply. All these things are only traps to make you drop your little honey and barley cakes, without which you would never be able to return to the sunlight through the strange hole in the marshes. Last of all you will hear a furious barking, and, at the very gate of Hades’s palace, you will see Cerberus, a terrible dog with three heads. Throw one of your cakes to him and hurry on, and you will find yourself at the foot of the throne of Persephone herself.
“She will speak kindly to you and offer you delicate cakes and meats, but you must refuse everything except a morsel of brown bread. Then, seated humbly on the ground, ask her for a pot of her magical ointment, and she will grant your request. On your way from the palace, throw the second cake of barley and honey to the fierce three-headed dog, and, once more, he will let you pass. Give Charon your other coin, and he will ferry you back across the river. Then hasten homewards along the dark passage — but be sure you do not open the pot of ointment, for it is not well to know the secrets of the Shining People and their friends.”
Psyche thanked the friendly tower most earnestly, and set off for the dark hole in the marshes, carrying her copper coins and her honey and barley cakes. Everything happened just as the tower had said it would. She saw the lame man with the lame donkey, Charon in the ferryboat, the drowning man, the old women who weaved, and the terrible dog with the three heads. Persephone was even kinder than she expected and gave her the little jar of ointment quite willingly. In safety, the pretty princess returned to the sunshine; but then, as you have been told in another story, she disobeyed the tower’s orders and opened the pot of ointment!
What would have happened to her if Cupid had not found her in her deep sleep, nobody can tell. But the story had a very happy ending. And perhaps the nicest part of all was Aphrodite’s forgiveness of Psyche when Zeus made the princess one of the Immortals. After all, the queen of love only wanted her son to make a happy marriage, and she must have been very glad that she herself was not the one to open the pot of Persephone’s ointment, for she might never have been found as Psyche was found by Cupid, and so might have remained folded in the silvery enchanted mists of sleep forever.