In the story of Cupid and Psyche, found in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, Cupid, sent to wound Psyche with his arrows, falls in love with her himself, and flees. Later, her parents consult the oracle of Apollo at Miletus to find out whom she will marry. The oracle's reply is that Psyche should be dressed in funeral clothes and placed on a hill to be killed by a fiery winged serpent:

Let Psyche's corpse be clad in mourning weed

And set on rock of yonder hill aloft :
Her husband is no wight of human seed,

But serpent dire and fierce as may be thought,
Who flies with wings above in starry skies

And doth subdue each thing with fiery flight.
The gods themselves and powers that seem so wise

With mighty Jove be subject to his might;
The rivers black and deadly floods of pain
And darkness eke as thrall to him remain.

(This is the Loeb Classical Library translation of 1922, book 4, verse 31.) (Original Latin)

I cannot understand this prophecy either literally or allegorically. She does not marry a fiery winged serpent. She marries Cupid, who is winged but not fiery. It seems like a metaphorical stretch to understand him as a serpent. He does subdue each thing, but not with fiery flight. While it is true that mighty Jove is subject to his might, I do not know what to make of the rivers black and the rest of that part.

Also the clear implication of the funeral dress in the first line is that Psyche will be killed by the monster, and this is how Psyche's parents take it. But she is not.

What is going on here? Presumably Apuleius’ point is not that the oracle blew it. What does Apuleius mean us to understand about the prophecy?


2 Answers 2


The text

This is a translation in verse, so don't set too much store on the exact wording. Some of the words may have been chosen for rhythm and rhyme rather than for precise meaning.

For reference, here's the Latin original (or at least one of the preserved Latin texts, I don't know if we know what the exact original is):

Montis in excelsi scopulo, rex siste puellam
ornatam mundo funerei thalami.
Nec speres generum mortali stirpe creatum,
sed saevum atque ferum vipereumque malum,
quod pinnis volitans super aethera cuncta fatigat
flammaque et ferro singula debilitat,
quod tremit ipse Iovis quo numina terrificantur,
fluminaque horrescunt et Stygiae tenebrae.

An advantage with this classic is that multiple translations are often available for comparison. You have the translation by William Adlington in a modernized spelling. I didn't find another English translation online but I used two French translations (Nisard 1865, Bastien 1787) to write this answer.

Fire and iron

Cupid is not exactly described as a “fiery winged serpent”: his wings and the fiery aspect are mentioned separately. The fiery aspect is mentioned in the line “flammaque et ferro singula debilitat”: he cripples (debilitat) with fire (flamma) and iron (ferro). The word ferro can mean any of many objects made of iron, most commonly the sword, but here I think it refers to arrow tips. Although today Cupid's best known attribute is his arrows, the Romans also often had him carry a torch, as seen in the (modern) sculpture Cupid and Hymen George Rennie. The symbol of the lit flame standing for love that burns the heart was common in Roman culture, and some Roman wedding traditions involved a lit torch. This, by the way, is the origin of the English idiom “carry a torch”. So my understanding of this line is that “fire and iron” is a way to refer to Cupid's two attributes, the torch and the arrows, in a generic way that makes him not obviously identifiable, but rather evokes a terrible monster or warrior.

A similar interpretation is given by Thomas McCreight (“Psyche's Sisters as Medicae? Allusions to Medecine in Cupid and Psyche”, in Lectiones Scrupulosae: Essays on the Text and Interpretation of Apuleius's Metamorphoses in Honour of Maaike Zimmerman, p.159). He points out that the dual use of flame and iron is used again later in the story (V:20) when Psyche carries a lamp and a dagger to kill her husband who she still believes to be a monster. McCreight further analyses fire and iron as medical symbols.

In the light of the fact that fire and iron is a recurring theme, it is a bit unfortunate that Adlington dropped the association here, as did Nisard. Bastien describes him as “waging war with flame and iron”, which is closer to the original.


The serpent aspect comes from the line “sed saevum atque ferum vipereumque malum”. A word-for-word translation goes something like this: “but violent/wild/cruel/beastly (saevum, ferum) and evil (malum) like a viper (vipereum)”. The Latin vipera can mean either a snake in general or a viper in particular, and the adjective form used here is prone to being used in a metaphorical way, in particular to mean poisonous (as in viperea anima, quoted from Virgil, meaning “poisonous breath”). The viper a poisonous snake, I think the most common one around the Mediterranean. Love is commonly described as having a poisoning effect because it muddles people's judgement.

Rivers black and deadly floods of pain

The last two lines describe the unnamed Cupid as “making Jupiter himself tremble” (“tremit ipse Iovis”), “terrifying gods” (“numina terrificantur”), and causing rivers (“flumina”) and the dark hell (“Stygiae tenebrae”) to become terrified (“horrescunt”). I'm not sure what the last verse means literally. Etymologically, Stygiae refers to the river Styx, which is the boundary between earth (where humans live) and Hell (the Underworld where the dead live), but it often refers metonymically to the Underworld, i.e. Hell. Merriam-Webster notes that

English speakers have been using stygian to mean "of or relating to the river Styx" since the early 16th century. From there the meaning broadened to describe things that are as dark, dreary, and menacing as one might imagine Hades and the river Styx to be.

but the association between “Stygian darkness” and the dreadriness of Hell in fact dates back from well before its adoption in English, as evidence by its use by Virgil (Georgica, III:551). So I don't think that the river (flumina) is Styx or is dark in any remarkable way, but rather the author insists that there is no barrier to Cupid's power. Love (or lust, this passage does not distinguish between the two) has affected Jupiter and other gods many times in Roman mythology. One of the best known myths about Pluto, ruler of Hell, is his abduction of Persephone, so love has reached Hell itself. As for the river, I don't know if this alludes to a specific mythological tale.

Nisard translates this passage by stating that the gods themselves have been affected by Cupid and Styx failed to defend Hell against him, without mentioning a river (not Jupiter nominally). Bastien states that Cupid is feared by “the master of the gods” and that he is feared by “sea, hell and heavens”. My take on this passage is that the important point is the universality of the fear of the unnamed monster, that he affects not only humans but even the most powerful and fearsome gods.

The funeral dress

Prophecies are always cryptic or incomplete, and often misleading. Prophecy Twist is by no means a recent trope. The oracle didn't get anything wrong, but his words have three possible interpretations.

  1. The prophecy is definitely meant to make Psyche and her entourage believe that Psyche is supposed to be killed.

  2. But this point in the story, the reader knows that Venus has wished Psyche a fate worse than death: she is to fall in love with the worst possible person (IV:31: “hominis extremi, quem (…) Fortuna damnavit (…)”: the most extreme human damned by fortune (…)). So for the reader, the prophecy ostensibly suggests that Psyche will fall in love with the monster that it describes rather than being killed by it.

  3. If we interpret the description of the monster symbolically rather than literally, it fits the embodiment of love.

  • I wish I could upvote this more than once. I wish all my stackexchange questions were answered so thoughtfully and completely. I will wait a couple of days to see if anything else appears, and then mark it accepted. Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 21:02
  • Great answer! Re the river: there are several classical love stories involving river gods or goddesses, Alpheus and Artemis (or Arethusa) being probably the most famous. It doesn't have to be a specific mythological tale, especially since "flumina" is plural; it could just mean that even rivers - or rather their gods - are subject to love.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 21:15
  • Cassandra carries torch to "celebrate" her impending forced marriage to Agamemnon in the Trojan Women. (I seem to recall it relates to Spica—"That fierce virgin and her star" from the Yeats—but it's been a while since I was researching that subject.) Very good answer. You may also be interested in this question on Mythology: mythology.stackexchange.com/q/2853/2892
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 1:56
  • 1
    Joined the site just to upvote your answer. Laudatio tuae manet in secula seculorum.
    – Dennis
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 3:18
  • 2
    Good answer. One thing to note: funereus probably designates mourning, rather than being dead as the OP suggested. So if Psyche is clad in the "dress of a mourning marriage", that means she will be in mourning at her own wedding, not dead herself. She will be 'mourning' her recently deceased sisters around the time of her (re)unification with Cupid.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 19:03

Let Psyche’s body be clad in mourning wed,
And set on rock of yonder hill aloft:
Her husband is no being of human seed,
But serpent dire and fierce as might be thought.
Who flies with wings above in starry skies,
And doth subdue each thing with fiery flight.
The gods themselves, and powers that seem so wise,
With mighty Jove, be subject to his might,
The rivers black, and deadly floods of pain
And darkness eke, as thrall to him remain.’
Source: Adaptation of the William Adlington translation

I don't think this is a prophecy about Psyche's fate so much as a cryptic prophecy about her future husband, (but not so cryptic that the audience wouldn't get the reference.) The Golden Ass is a bawdy comedy, and comedies usually end in reconciliation, if not marriage.

  • "Let Psyche’s body be clad in mourning wed"

This may be a reference to the fate of her sisters:

And so [Psyche's sister] cast herself headlong from the mountain. But she fell into the valley neither alive nor dead, for all the members and parts of her body were torn amongst the rocks, whereby she was made prey to the birds and wild beasts, as she worthily deserved.

Neither was the vengeance of the other delayed, for Psyche, traveling in that country, happened to come to another city where her other sister lived. When she had declared all such things as she told to her other sister, she ran likewise to the rock and was slain in the same way.
Source: ibid. Book V.27

The line about mourning is followed by a reference to the rocky precipice from which the sisters leap. Here marriage is conflated with death. Psyche being led to a crag and exposed is reminiscent of a human sacrifice. Andromeda leaps to mind:

There Ammon, the Unjust, had made decree
Andromeda, the Innocent, should grieve
her mother's tongue. They bound her fettered arms
fast to the rock. When Perseus her beheld
as marble he would deem her, but the breeze
moved in her hair, and from her streaming eyes
the warm tears fell. Her beauty so amazed
his heart, unconscious captive of her charms,
that almost his swift wings forgot to wave.
Source: P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphosis 4.669

Here we have wings, we have a sacrificial bride, the breeze (Zephyr figures in the story of the sister's death, which involves being carried by the wind), and love at first sight.

I don't know if Apuleius is consciously referencing that passage of Ovid's, but Ovid's Metamorphosis is so influential, it's almost impossible not to. Scholars seem to agree:

Ovid in Apuleius' Metamorphoses
A Book-like self. Ovid and Apuleius
A Comparison of Ovid and Apuleius as Story-Tellers

Ovid even uses the term "cupidi" in this section:

Ut stetit, “o” dixit “non istis digna catenis,
sed quibus inter se cupidi iunguntur amantes
Source: ibid. 4.678

Translated by Frank Justus Miller as: "Then, when he alighted near the maiden, he said: "Oh! those are not the chains you deserve to wear, but rather those that link fond lovers together."

We even have an aquatic monster to be slain by Perseus, and Ovid specifically references Apollo slaying the dragon Python in these passages. Like Cupid, Apollo is famed for his archery, and is also associated with the fire of divine inspiration. Love is commonly understood as a fire kindled in the heart, a different kind of divine inspiration.

*(The choice of viper, a much smaller serpent, may be a secondary reference to Cupid's "poisoned" arrows—arrows may be said to "have wings" in that they fly.)

  • Apuleius would seem to brilliantly invert the story of Andromeda in his prophecy, where the fearsome beast is now Love itself. The irony is that now it is the beast who is vanquished by the maiden. In falling in love with Psyche, Cupid becomes her subject. Love conquers all, but Psyche conquers Cupid.

It's also worth looking at another famous source on Eros/Cupid, which is Plato, in The Symposium and Phaedrus. There you'll find allegory for Eros and Psyche (body and soul), and reference to wings. Derrida wrote about the φάρμακον (pharmakon) in relation to this subject—pharmakon can be medicine or poison, and shares a common root with the word for a sacrificial victim and poisoner. Death again comes up in relation to this topic:

"The Platonic-Socratic position maintains that the love we generate for beauty on this earth can never be truly satisfied until we die"
Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy | Philosophy of Love

  • Cupid has power over mighty Jove because even Jove is subject to the whims of his heart.

But it goes deeper than that. Aristotle weighs in on the subject of Eros, referencing Hesiod:

And Hesiod says, “ First of all things was Chaos made, and then broad-bosomed Earth ... and Love, the foremost of immortal beings,” thus implying that there must be in the world some cause to move things and combine them.
Source: Aristotle, Metaphysics

In this conception, Eros/Cupid is the force behind all of creation, the "desire" that brings things together to generate the universe and everything in it. (I believe early conceptions of gravity were based on this idea of attraction.)

Without Eros, everything in the universe grinds to a halt, and thus, even the river Styx, which has power over the Olympian gods, trembles before Eros' power.

  • The prophecy is essentially saying that Psyche will be married to the most powerful entity in the universe, described as a fearsome beast to invite a false conclusion

That this entity turns out to be Love is the twist.

  • 1
    Excellent answer! While Gilles's answer is also excellent and has convenient headings, yours explains viperum better. // Love as the driving force behind the universe reminds me of Empedocles.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 14:50
  • @Cerberus Empedocles for sure! (Great comment). I especially liked how Giles did a close reading of the Latin text, and I wasn't originally going post an answer, but I saw an opportunity to approach it from a slightly different angle, and provide some additional interpretation. The Andromeda connection was initial a random thought, but when I went back to the Ovid, I started seeing many parallels.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 19:31
  • Great intertextuality.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 1:32

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