m y t h o l o g y 

h o l l y  w o o d w a r d


Hades took Aphrodite both times she descended to his underworld realm. The first trip she tried to get her love Hyacinthus back; the king of hell gave her a son, Eros, instead. Hades left the goddess of love in the mud after he’d gotten what he wanted.

“Serves you right, you stupid fool,” Hades said, looking down in disgust at her Olympian-thin skin covered in filth. He thought he’d done a favor, giving her an education. “Don’t you know the ones with flower names always die young?”

But did they die because she loved them?

The second descent Aphrodite made to retrieve her son, who had fallen under Persephone’s thrall. (If there’s one thing in the world we can’t have, we will find it.) That came after Eros had asked about his father.

“You’re a love child,” Aphrodite had answered.

“What is love?”

She’d bit her lip. But he sensed enough to search the underworld for an answer.

“Tell me what love is,” Eros begged hell’s queen. “My mother won’t say.”

“First you have to learn to die,” Persephone told him.

Aphrodite got past Hades’ three headed dog by shoving her mirror at them; they howled and cowered at their reflections. The shades weren’t so easy to scare; she struggled through crowds of clawing shades who blamed her for their deaths, though without love they would have never lived – but they’d forgotten that. Aphrodite still bears scars from the throngs and from her son struggling to get away as she dragged him back home to Olympus. And from Hades. Even the goddess of love couldn’t refuse death’s advances. Hades claimed her as his daughter because he’d steadied Cronos’ hand while it had castrated Uranus; when his seed had fallen into the ocean, Aphrodite had risen from the foam. Her second descent to Hades’ kingdom, he raped her again. So Eros came to have a sister, Psyche.

Aphrodite coddled her first son like a lover, hoping he’d protect her from Hades. But ashamed that he had taken her twice, Aphrodite left their second child on a mountainside. A peasant couple found and raised her. When she came of age, no one would marry Psyche; her macabre beauty frightened men. No one would even marry her three earthly sisters. So they left the girl back on the mountain to die. But she didn’t – the ones we shun and wish would die always turn out to be gods’ children.

Aphrodite gazed over her subjects and started when she saw the gold-eyed young woman where she’d abandoned her wrinkled, blue infant thirteen years before.

“May a hideous monster fall in love with her,” the love goddess cursed. Then she watched in horror as crowds abandoned her shrines and came to worship the girl. Aphrodite threw down her mirror and ordered Eros, “Kill that cursed creature. Let her father take care of Psyche.”

Eros dutifully licked an arrow tip dark and strung it – how many fail to notice Eros is armed, a slip of the tongue from Eris, Ares’ twin sister, goddess of strife. Again and again women threw themselves in Eros’s path and asked, “How can I love you?”

“First you have to die,” Eros said. So they obediently took their lives, but he didn’t know what came next, yet.

When Eros saw Psyche, he faltered at her unflinching gaze and pricked his chest with the poison tip. Still he managed to sink the shaft into her heart. Eros swooped down to gather proof he’d executed his task, cupping her breast as blood poured from it.

“I know you,” Psyche said.

“Who?” Eros asked and sucked the poison from her wound, ignoring his own. “Who am I?”

She looked away.

“My brother.”

He cradled her and jumped from a cliff. A gust lifted them up to his palace; the wind felt he was father to Aphrodite, having made the foam from which she rose, so the wind held Psyche and Eros as his grandchildren. In the love god’s velvet tent pitched in a desert, Eros nursed Psyche at night, fleeing each sunrise so she wouldn’t see that the poison had eaten half his side. (Gods’ wounds never heal – that’s why they act so aloof; though nothing can kill the divine, the slightest cut will hurt forever.)

Even in darkness Psyche’s looks burned Eros.

“If you look at me,” he warned her, “one of us will have to die.”

Psyche thought he’d be the one killed; so many had tried to murder her and failed. She didn’t think he could be immortal and love her, gods had treated her so coldly.

Eros’s faceless servants fed Psyche so many sweets she wandered his desert hunched over, searching for the bitter weeds she used to live on. The ghosts of Eros dusted, running their hands over the same surface again and again. Something about dust frightened them.

The palace tent felt so fragile, the quiet hall clock might fell it with one stroke. Psyche dreaded Eros’s nightly approach, marked by his quiver scraping across the floor like a wooden leg. All night Eros and Psyche ran their hands over each other like the servants who dusted, or convicts in dark cells hoping to find a way through. They licked each other’s wounds like salt.

It was heaven, but Psyche missed the freedom of earth. She’d been happier laboring as a servant to her three earthly sisters. Better to be a slave to the lowest human than to an unknown power, she thought, so Psyche showed the sisters how to jump from the cliff and let the canyon wind lift them to the palace.

“This is too good to be true,” they said.

The eldest touched the red velvet bedspread, then held her finger to her tongue and muttered, “Blood.”

The second licked the sheets and said, “Rust.”

“Who is he?” the third asked.

“He won’t say.”

“What does he look like?”

“He won’t let me see.”

“Something’s wrong with this story,” the sisters chorused.

“He just wants a show of trust,” Psyche defended her love, though she’d felt the humps on his back when she tried to hold him. (She didn’t know they were folded wings.)

“You’ve given up everything that was yours for him and he doesn’t trust you,” the elder complained.

“Maybe he doesn’t want me to love him for his looks.”

“Who wants to hide something good?” asked the middle sister.

“Anyone who’d want you must be a monster,” the youngest said.

“Is he warm to the touch?”


“He’s death,” said her older sister.

“How could death make me feel for the first time that I’m alive?”

“Only a fool would choose this man over the sisters she’s known and loved all her life.”

Well, except for when they left me on the mountainside, Psyche thought.

“Men want to keep us so ignorant we might as well be dead,” her eldest sister went on. “And soon we will be, from the evil acts they try to hide so we’ll fall for them. Even gods shouldn’t be loved if they’re violent. I bet if you saw what your lover did by day, he’d kill you.”

“I think he has a good heart.”

“The only way you can tell is to cut him and see what he bleeds.”

The three sisters left wedding gifts of knives and a lamp that sputtered like a mad old maid.

Eros never slept, so Psyche didn’t rest at night – nor could she sleep in the relentless Olympic daylight. Psyche was going crazy without dreams. Since the servants did everything, all she could do was imagine things. “He must be a monster to have this many slaves.” And his skin was so cold it burned. “Is he the devil?” she asked herself. Who could tell the chill of Olympus from the cold of the underworld? “Or am I so monstrous he can’t bear to look at me and sees someone else in the light?” After all, she’d been the girl no man on earth would marry. Psyche tossed and turned in the deep feather bed to keep from suffocating; she missed the soft ashes she used to rest on. Marriage felt like death.

Eros sensed her unhappiness and spent all night crouched in the corner, sharpening arrows. By the next night his quiver was empty again.

Her sisters must be right; he’s a murderer, Psyche thought. If he used the arrows to hunt, he would bring home game. All he took was a dark liquid he wouldn’t share with her, like an addict.

“How can you love me?” she asked into the dark. Abandoned by her celestial and terrestrial parents, feared by men, Psyche knew everything except love – and her origins.

“Believe in me,” he begged.

“How can I believe what I don’t know?”

He wanted faith as a balm for his fear; she thought the only cure for fear was knowledge. Psyche loved knowledge above flesh, so innocent she didn’t know that truth was more mutable than skin, or that truth could hurt, like holding a mirror to someone who’s been burnt.

Finally she obeyed her desire to know; Eros was her lover, her brother – not her master. Leaving the knife where it lay, Psyche thought, “I’ll just use this lamp. I don’t need the blade.” She was right; the lamp would wound him enough. She lit it to see if he was monstrous – but can one really tell by looking?

She leaned over him, started and spilled the lantern’s hot oil on his wounded breast. Which half frightened her, the perfect beauty or the festering wound she’d caused? (Some say that she saw no one at all, for love, like any god, must be believed in to exist.)

Eros leapt away but couldn’t escape his seething skin. Psyche tried to hide the light, but all the darkness of the world can’t hide the smallest flame.

Eros woke up to her desire for something beside him and razed his palace; she was all he’d ever wanted to dwell in.

Psyche came back to consciousness in a pit of dirt, blinded by the brief glimpse of his godhead.

“But I loved you,” Eros yelled down at her.

“What is love?” she asked back from the depths of earth.

In answer, Eros plunged the knife she’d left into his eyes, so he missed his targets more often and Psyche could regain her sight; in love only one person had to be blind, then. She got her vision back, but only to see the great distance between them.

From his barren perch Eros shot his arrows blindly, killing many, and so proved the sisters right. Love became a four-letter word. Countless victims of his rage marched down to Hades; to try to cool their venomed wounds which burned through marble tombs, the tortured shades bathed in the Styx, poisoning it.

“Is this the thanks I get?” Hades railed. He’d given Eros the bow and arrows, leaving them secretly beside his infant’s crib.

Some say the three sisters married perfect monsters, the kind who seem faultless in public, though as soon as the door closes they turn. “My husband’s a perfect monster,” they told everyone, though none believed them. “Those sisters,” people said, “are nothing but stories, and they’ll never be happy.”

Others say the wicked girls raced to take her place in the god’s bed, jumping off the earth’s edge, the way she’d shown them, but the indifferent wind let the three plunge into the chasm.

Maybe Psyche threw herself from the cliff over and over, but the wind kept lifting her, whispering in her ear, “You can’t die.”

Psyche didn’t yet know why.

Or else Psyche only had to leap into the wind again to be lifted up, but she couldn’t, after seeing her sisters splatter in the gorge’s depths. Eros lay down to bridge the cleft between soul and skin, as thin as the one between time and eternity, but as deep.

“Step on my wound,” he said. But Psyche couldn’t make even the smallest leap of faith. She began walking back to his palace on Olympus.

When Psyche reached her brother’s ruined house, Aphrodite blocked the gate, demanding, “Fetch me Persephone’s beauty secret.”

Psyche walked back down the chasm to the Styx, where Charon stood in his paper boat. He turned his back when she couldn’t pay him the fare of two gold coins to cross the thin river. In Hades, money reigns, though it buys nothing there. The dead all think they’ll return, even Charon, so money is more craved in the underworld than on earth.

“I’ll pay later,” she told him.

“Everyone says that. You’re already late.”

“Without faith, even you won’t make it back,” Psyche said.

One of Eros’ wild arrows hissed by Charon’s breast and hit his hull. Charon lowered his head and ferried her to the far shore where Hades’ palace rose, a great skeleton temple laced with green scum. On the skiff, shades ran their hands over Psyche the way they had over Eros’s house, crowding close, but the more that crushed in, the emptier air felt. They bowed their heads close to hear her breath with the fragile awe of children.

“Why are some so faint?” she asked Charon.

“As the living forget them, the dead lose substance until they disappear completely, though they’re still there, thousands of them in the air.”

She’d hoped the underworld would be different from the other worlds of heaven and earth. What use were hierarchies? Weren’t they all finally equal in death?

One pale wraith tore her dress with his long nails.

“Who are you?” Psyche asked. “Where are your relatives on earth?” She wanted to tell them on her return to remember their dead. “I’ll bring them word.”

He looked blankly back.

“They can’t remember anything of love,” Charon said. “They could if they drank from the fountain of memory. They want and fear it like wine. But most choose the gray water of Lethe.” Charon watched a shade lick a tear from her cheek. “The fount’s filled with tears from the living. Hades feeds off Persephone’s ceaseless weeping. With her there beside him, he’s the strongest force in the underworld. A shade is the opposite of the soul, just the darkness a life makes; the soul is what one gave away on earth. The darkest shades here inspire the most dread. Don’t pity them. The ghastliest have the least to lose and are the most dangerous. But bring back word for him, in writing, so I can patch the boat,” Charon said. Through the hole Eros had shot in the paper shell, the Styx seeped like a snake and curled round their feet, burning cold.

Psyche jumped off at the palace shore and sank ankle-deep in mud that smelled of rotting dreams. Beneath, Hades and Persephone huddled on jewel-crusted thrones at the bottom of a sunken pit; around them the sorriest dead swarmed like flies, biting the king and queen.

“Don’t be afraid of Hades,” Charon whispered to Psyche. “Not even his subjects are; he keeps forever all who enter his realm, but there’s nothing worse than eternal death, so what can he threaten them with? We fear what we want, and most want life.”

The shades cowered around Psyche. The dead were free – except from the desire to leave.

Hades heard their buzz, slowly turned and lifted a finger toward her.

“What do you want?” he demanded.

“To know your secret.”

He laughed till charred flesh fell from his rotting face.

“You don’t even know your own,” Hades warned, shaking his finger at Psyche.

“What?” she asked. “What am I?”

“My daughter,” he said, reaching toward her.

As his bleeding hand groped close, she cried, “I’d rather be dead than yours.”

“Die and you’re wholly mine,” he said and crossed his arms. “I am your father and your mother’s father.”

Psyche writhed like a maggot exposed to the light; she foamed at the mouth until brown spit covered her and dried into a hard casket.

Eros came and begged Hades, “Let my sister go and take me in her stead.” Psyche had taught him what love and dying were, and that the first was harder.

At his words her carapace started to crack and shatter. Darker, thin-limbed, covered with dust – but so carefully arranged – Psyche emerged. Sap crept through her veins, unfolding her like a nightmare until she hardly knew who she was again, though now she looked more like her mother; both were now born of death and raised from a shell. But Psyche saw that her father had given her much, her new velvet, exile, and life, though he didn’t have that last one himself.

“You’ve given me enough,” she told him, turning away.

“Wait, since Eros got my arrows, I’ll grant you the secret of beauty for Aphrodite,” Hades said, knowing the most dangerous gift is to offer love what she wants. He handed his daughter a heavy lead coffer.

Persephone gave her a wedding brooch of three rubies, one for each of the pomegranate seeds she’d eaten. Everyone says, “If only Persephone hadn’t swallowed those,” except the underworld queen, who knows that without the fruit she wouldn’t have the strength to come back to life.

At the edge of the Styx, Psyche handed the ruby pin to Charon, paying for her release with the seeds that kept another in Hades. She gave him her discarded shell to replace the boat broken by Eros. In return Charon gave Psyche the secret to hope, a draught from the river Lethe. He tried to fasten the brooch to his robe; it pricked him and fell into the Styx. From the wound seeped a thread of smoke, all that remained of the blood which used to burn veins.

On the long walk back up the road from hell to heaven, Psyche felt she had to know what was in the great coffer, but when she opened the lid, she found Eros laid out and fell down. Hades rushed up, shoved his daughter in, shut the top and delivered the box to Aphrodite. When she lifted the top and saw her two children lying silent, she fell down as if dead – the secret of Persephone’s beauty is sleep.

With both gods of love trapped by Hades, few died on earth, fewer still were born. Though no one on heaven or earth missed Psyche, without the gods of love, life on earth became hell, and there was nowhere to tell people to go. The underworld’s wraiths grew dangerously faint. Hades lost all respect.

The king of hell saw that both worlds were falling apart and knelt by the queen of love. He bathed Aphrodite with the chill waters of Styx, to cool her bedsores. He’d never stooped so low; though death forgives all, no one forgives him, nor had he ever asked for forgiveness. But with his last strength – even he’d grown weak as people forgot him – Hades whispered, “Forgive me,” in Aphrodite’s ear.

“I will,” answered his child bride.

Eros and Psyche woke.

Psyche’s wings took her to heaven; Eros wandered through hell. They sent messengers to tell each other, “I will come to you.” When the couriers finally got through, the lovers both thought the words a rebuke.

They put on masks so they could go unnoticed and find each other faster; they pass each other over and over.

They search the whole world. Psyche hunts its breadth; Eros plumbs the depths. The farther apart they go, the tighter they draw love’s cords. They will find each other, when they take off their masks and let themselves be found. They will find each other, though it takes forever. They will find each other changed.


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