Summary and Analysis: Roman Mythology Love Tales — Pyramus and Thisbe, Baucis and Philemon, Pygmalion, Vertumnus and Pomona, Hero and Leander, Cupid and Psyche



In Babylon there lived the most handsome pair of young lovers in the East. Pyramus loved Thisbe and she loved him, but although they were nextdoor neighbors they could never get together because both sets of parents opposed the courtship. In order to converse they had to whisper through a chink in the wall that separated them. Tired of this subterfuge, they agreed to meet one night outside the city to elope. Thisbe arrived at the meeting place under a mulberry tree and was frightened off by a lion with bloody jaws. The lion found her scarf and ripped it, staining the scarf with blood. When Pyramus came along he discovered the scarf and the lion's tracks and he assumed Thisbe had been killed. No longer wishing to live, he took his sword and plunged it into his body. The blood spurted upward and dyed the white mulberries red. Thisbe returned to find her lover at the point of death. She obtained his sword and committed suicide. The two of them were buried in a single urn. Since that time the mulberry tree has always put forth red berries.

In Phrygia there grows an oak and a lime tree very close together beside a wall, and not far off is a wide marsh inhabited by birds. The story is this. The land was once peopled with an impious race who refused Jupiter and Mercury refuge when they came in disguise. The only couple that took the gods in was Baucis and Philemon, an elderly pair in very modest circumstances. Despite their poverty they treated Jupiter and Mercury with great hospitality, setting before them the best food they had. The wine cups mysteriously were refilled, and Baucis and Philemon knew they were in the presence of divinity then. The couple scrambled to kill their single goose for the gods, but the bird flew to the gods. Then Jupiter told the aged pair they must hurry up a nearby mountain because a flood was about to destroy their evil neighbors. Baucis and Philemon did so, accompanied by Jupiter and Mercury, and soon a flood swamped the countryside. Their own hut, however, was transformed before their eyes into a marble temple. The two gods offered to grant the couple anything they wished. They both requested to serve in the temple and to die at the same time, which the gods bestowed on them. After serving until it was time to die, Philemon suddenly found himself turning into an oak while Baucis was changed into a lime tree.

Shunning the world of fickle women, Pygmalion thought it best to live singly. But being a sculptor he fashioned a dream woman, one very elegant, modest, and realistic. Obsessed with his own marble creation, he brought it gifts and even lay with it in bed. Although he knew it wasn't real, he was completely in love with his statue and longed for it to respond to him. At a festival dedicated to Venus, Pygmalion prayed to the goddess to give the statue life. He went home and embraced it, and as he did so a pulse began to beat and the marble turned to warm flesh in his arms. In this way Pygmalion achieved possession of his ideal woman.

The nymph Pomona was single-mindedly devoted to the cultivation of fruit trees, and although she was strikingly beautiful, she disdained the suitors who flocked to her gardens and orchards. But one suitor was more determined than the rest. Vertumnus would resort to any disguise just to be near her — fisherman, farmer, shepherd. One day he visited her in the guise of an old woman and praised her fruit trees, kissing her passionately by way of greeting. The old woman then began to talk of her single state, of what a fine lad Vertumnus was, and of the dangers of rejecting men. She told Pomona a story of a young man who killed himself when rejected in love and of how the gods turned the woman who spurned him into a statue. But the words of the old woman did nothing to change Pomona. Finally in desperation Vertumnus threw off his disguise and stood naked before Pomona, who fell in love with his handsome form. They embraced and spent the rest of their lives tending fruit trees.

In Sestus there lived the lovely Hero in a tower by the sea, where she ministered to Venus and Cupid. Across the Hellespont lived Leander, a striking young man. They met at a festival of Adonis and fell in love. Leander agreed to swim the Hellespont for an assignation with Hero, while Hero would light a lamp to guide him. Thus, during the summer the two enjoyed many secret nights of love. But winter came with fierce weather and Hero could not resist putting the lamp forth to guide Leander to her bed. He drowned in the attempt to swim across from Abydos to Sestus. When Hero looked down at the wave-battered rocks in the morning and saw his mangled body she plunged from a crag onto the rocks, uniting herself with Leander in death.

A king had three daughters, of whom the youngest, Psyche, had such a radiant beauty that it rivaled Venus'. And people deserted the worship of Venus in adoration of Psyche. Venus was furious and commanded her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with the most loathsome creature on earth. However, Cupid, a handsome youth, fell in love with Psyche and asked Apollo for help. As time passed Psyche fell in love with no one, whereas her sisters were married to kings. Her parents consulted the oracle of Apollo, which commanded them to dress Psyche in mourning and take her to a rocky mount where a hideous and mighty dragon would carry her off to be its wife. Sadly her parents did as they were told and went home to mourn.

The gentle West Wind picked Psyche up and carried her off to a wondrous, fertile country. She awoke to find a palace of gold and silver and gems. Voices within the palace reassured her and she made herself welcome, bathing and eating. At night Cupid came to her in darkness and made love to her, but he left before daybreak. Even though she never saw him she knew he was god-like and handsome. Cupid would return every night, but happy as she was Psyche could not help thinking of her sisters, who were lamenting for her. Cupid warned her that her sisters would bring ruin, yet Psyche longed to see them. When at last they came to visit they were amazed and jealous to see Psyche's lavish wealth and to hear her speak so lovingly of her husband. When the sisters left, Cupid again warned Psyche of them, but since she had no other companions, she longed to see them. The sisters returned and made Psyche confess that she had never seen her husband. They made her doubt whether he was a man and not some hideous monster. Further, they gave her a knife to murder him and a lamp with which to see him. In her consternation Psyche decided to settle her husband's identity once and for all. In the night as Cupid lay asleep she brought the lighted lamp over to him with the dagger in her hand. But she saw the most handsome being alive on the bed and the dagger fell from her hand. But hot oil from the lamp fell on his shoulder. Awakening, he left her, but as he departed he revealed himself as the God of Love, who cannot live where trust is lacking.

Desolate, Psyche determined to find her husband and show him how strong her love really was. Cupid had returned to his mother Venus, but Venus was angry when she learned he had chosen Psyche. After praying to the gods in vain Psyche resolved to approach her arch-enemy Venus and offer to serve her humbly. It required all the courage Psyche could muster. And Venus received the girl with humiliating scorn, taunting her about her vanished husband. Venus observed that to obtain a mate such a plain-looking girl as Psyche must become accomplished in menial but diligent service. The goddess then set the poor girl an impossible task.

Psyche had to sort out a huge mixture of tiny seeds into separate piles. Bewildered at having to do it by nightfall Psyche was disheartened, but an army of ants felt compassion for her and sorted the seeds. Venus was angry when she found the job done, and she gave Psyche a bread crust and told her to sleep on the ground, thinking to destroy her beauty. The next morning Venus told the girl to fetch some of the golden fleece from very fierce sheep that grazed by a river. Psyche despaired of the task and considered drowning herself, but a reed advised her to wait till the sheep came out of the thicket near evening and she could gather the fleece from the thorns. Having accomplished it, Psyche was given the task of fetching a vial of water from the source of the River Styx, which was unapproachable except by air. An eagle took the flask and filled it for her.

Then Venus gave Psyche a box to take to the underworld and borrow some of Proserpina's beauty. A tower told her how to reach the underworld and how to conduct hereself there, so Psyche safely passed Charon and Cerberus and reached the Queen of Death, who filled the box. As Psyche returned to Venus she was seized with curiosity to know what was in the box and thought to enhance her own beauty for Cupid's sake. As she opened the box and saw nothing in it she fell into a deathlike state.

By now Cupid had recovered from the wound that the hot oil had caused. Although Venus had locked him in his room, he escaped through a window and discovered Psyche in a swoon. Cupid took the sleep from her eyes, put it back in the box, and pricked her awake with an arrow. After reproaching her for her curiosity he assured her that everything would work out. As Psyche took the box to Venus, Cupid asked Jove to make Psyche immortal so that they might be officially married on Olympus. Jove consented, and the wedding took place. Venus no longer objected to the match, and they lived happily forever.


These stories, as presented by Ovid, Musaeus, and Apuleius, are intended to entertain. The gods, who make appearances in some of these tales, are simply fictional devices, not religious beings. Here we see myth degenerated into yarn-spinning. Ovid's "Pyramus and Thisbe" and Musaeus' "Hero and Leander" show two sets of lovers that commit suicide. The purpose is sentimental, but the effect is bathetic, since each lover dies stupidly. Passion is inflated to grotesque proportions and utterly lacking in reason or prudence. In Ovid's "Pygmalion" love becomes' pathological, morbid, as the hero idolatrizes his own statue after rejecting all real women. "Vertumnus and Pomona" is a silly treatment of the hardhearted woman with the ardent suitor theme, in which Ovid asserts the value of handsome nudity over fatuous persuasion. In each of these tales there is something effeminate and decadent. Ovid's "Baucis and Philemon" is a different matter, however. While it is sentimental it is touchingly so, for one feels affection for the humble elderly couple still very much in love.

Apuleius uses fairy tale motifs to suggest allegorical meanings in "Cupid and Psyche." There are the familiar devices of the serpent-human lover, the envious elder sisters, the magic prohibition, the wicked mother-in-law, the series of perilous tasks, the descent to the underworld, and the happy ending. Yet the story can be read as the soul's passage through hard discipline from carnal love to spiritual love. It also hints that a heavenly estate awaits the soul that patiently endures long trials in the service of love. Such ideas were not foreign to the cult of Isis, of which Apuleius was an initiate.

If the patriotic legend revealed the hard backbone of Roman culture, the love story tended to show its vulnerable belly. The elevation of passion into a ruling principle, the mixture of sentimentality and cynicism, the emphasis on metamorphoses and feminine psychology all suggest a decadent stage of civilization, a loss of nerve and vigor. Where erotic love excludes other realities it becomes effete and self-destructive. The tales of lovers who seal their union in death operate by this logic. The point is that when the old heroic legends lose their attraction one finds an obsession with love cropping up, and it means a culture has gone soft.

Back to Top