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The Origin of Beauty and the Beast and the Tale of Cupid and Psyche

Updated on July 30, 2014
Beauty and the Beast, by Scott Gustafson
Beauty and the Beast, by Scott Gustafson
The Golden Ass, Apuleius
The Golden Ass, Apuleius

Beauty and the Beast is one of the most well-known and most beloved fairy tale stories known around the world, second only to Cinderella. The first published version of Beauty and the Beast was published in 1740 by the French authoress, Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneauve. Villeneauve wrote La Jeune Ameriquaine, et les Contes Marins, which was a collection of tales created to entertain her friends, and not children. One of these tales was the first modern version of Beauty and the Beast.

Villeneauve stole inspiration for her beastly tale from folklore and other fairytale artists of the time, as well as ancient myth and legend. There are stories like Beauty and the Beast, tales of a beautiful damsel who falls in love with a monstrous character, that date back to the ancient Romans.

In the second century Apuleis, a Roman story teller, printed The Golden Ass. The novel, the only novel of Ancient Rome to have survived in its entirety, follows the story of Lucius, a man desperate to practice magic. Lucius tries a spell to turn himself into a bird and fails, instead turning himself into an ass. A long journey follows the incident, upon which Apuleis fills the novel with many unique legends within the story of Lucius, one of which is the tale of Cupid and Psyche, the first known version of Beauty and the Beast.

The Tale of Cupid and Psyche

The story of Cupid and Psyche begins with a king and a queen. They have three daughters, all of whom are gorgeous, but Psyche, the youngest, is the most beautiful of all. Men from all over come to admire her beauty, and, in doing so, forget to worship Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. This, of course, angers Venus and she orders her son, Cupid, to make Psyche fall in love with a monster. That night Cupid sneaks into Psyche’s room to fulfill his mother’s wishes, but upon seeing Psyche’s beauty he becomes distracted and accidentally pricks himself with the arrow, thus falling in love with the princess. Cupid leaves without following Venus’s orders. Venus, still jealous of Psyche’s beauty sees to it that no man ever falls in love with her. So, men continue to journey to the palace to admire Psyche, but only her sisters find husbands.

At this point the king and the queen become worried and take Psyche to see the oracle, who tells them that Psyche is destined to marry a monster and that they should take their daughter to the top of the mountain and leave her there. Whilst alone, on top of the mountain, Zephyr, the west wind, swoops down and lifts Psyche up and carries her down to a field of flowers where she wanders across a castle. Inside, the castle is adorned in treasure and art. A bodiless voice tells her that everything she sees is hers. Psyche is treated to by an invisible staff of servants who prepare her a grand feast and accompany it with an invisible choir. That night, in the darkness of the bedroom, a man comes to her, and Psyche understands that this is her husband-to-be. Every night the man comes to her in the dark to lie with her, though she never sees him during the day. He tells her that she must never try to see who he is.

Eventually, Psyche becomes bored of the palace and lonely for company. She begs her husband to allow her sisters to come and visit her. Her husband agrees and has the wind bring them down the mountain. The sisters become jealous of the grand life of riches Psyche has been living and they convince her that her husband is the monster in the prophecy, and she must kill him that night while he sleeps.

That night, Psyche takes an oil lamp and a dagger and waits for her husband to sleep. Upon hearing his snores, she lights the lamp and lifts it above her husband and is awed by the beauty of his body, for he is the god, Cupid. In her distraction, Psyche spills the oil on Cupid, waking him and angering him. Seeing the knife in her hand, Cupid becomes furious and flies out the window, leaving her forever. As he leaves, the castle disappears, as do all the riches inside.

Psyche goes to Venus for help to get her husband back, but Venus is still jealous of Psyche’s beauty and gives her three tasks in which she has to pass. The first task is to organize a storehouse of grain, which she does with the help of ants enchanted by Cupid. The second task requires Psyche to collect the golden fleece on a heard of sheep, she accomplishes this with the help of a river god. The third task leads Psyche down into the underworld to bring back some of Proserpine’s beauty. Proserpine, the queen of the underworld, gives Psyche a box, but warns her not to look inside. Psyche waits until she is back on earth and looks inside the box, unable to contain her curiosity. But, when the box was opened, there was no beauty, instead, it plunged Psyche into a deep sleep. Cupid comes to the rescue of his wife, waking her with one of his arrows, and tells her to take the box to Venus. Meanwhile, Cupid goes to Jupiter, king of the gods, and Jupiter agrees to help settle Venus’s anger. Jupiter then gives Psyche ambrosia which makes her immortal, and Cupid and Psyche live happily ever after, for all of eternity.

Psyche peeking at Cupid as he sleeps
Psyche peeking at Cupid as he sleeps

Madame Villeneauve created her story of Beauty and the Beast to entertain her friends at the salon, the story is similar to that which we know today, though much longer and more sexualized. It clearly reflects parallel characteristics as the tale of Cupid and Psyche, as well as other fables and fairytales written before Villeneauve published hers in 1740. Villeneauve’s creation began with an extensive history of the characters, the beauty was actually a decedent from royalty and the beast was a prince who had been cursed. The story also included several dream sequences.

Sixteen years after Villeneauve’s work was published, another French female author, Madame Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont released her version of Villeneauve’s story, shortening it and rewriting it for children. Beaumont’s story ended with the transformation of the beast. Interestingly, neither Villeneauve nor Beaumont described the beast in their writing, leaving the appearance of the creature up to the imaginations of readers and illustrators.

As with any story as old as this, many versions have sprung up around the world. In the 1800s Danish writer, Hans Christian Anderson, included a Beauty and the Beast like story in his collection of fairy tales. His version, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, depicted the beast as a polar bear. Charles Perrault, author of The Little Glass Slipper, also published his own version of the story: Riquet with the Tuft. In his version, published in 1867, the prince was actually born ugly, but gifted with good spirit. In the end, the girl whom he was betrothed transforms his face to match that of his personality and they are wed.

Most versions of the fairytale portray the same recurring themes. While there is a plethora of themes to choose from (abandonment, trust, power, feminism, love, redemption, family, change, growth, etc.), self-image, to most, is the most obvious theme recurring in all versions. It is the common principle that one should not be deceived by appearances, for beauty can lie within the soul, even if it does not display on the face.

© 2014 Sckylar Gibby-Brown


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    • Cheryl OMalley profile image

      Cheryl OMalley 

      2 years ago from Maryland

      I loved the article and enjoyed how you identified recurring themes in folk and fairly tales. I look forward to seeing more of your work.

    • profile image

      Awni Banerjee 

      5 years ago

      Very insightful and informative. Thanks for sharing


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