There are those rare times throughout history when mere mortals achieve the impossible and end up victorious for reasons that could only be described as “otherworldly”.
Human capability is limited at best. We are not immortal. We do not possess eternal youth. We cannot fly at will. We do not have the ability to transfigure into choice animals or shape shift. How is it then, certain mortals in times past have achieved wondrous feats that transcended their human limitations resulting in not only their survival but garnering the laurels of victory?
Two words – Divine Intervention.
This esoteric concept was initially discussed in previous episodes but in reference to situations which from a mortal perspective were incredibly challenging. The upcoming venture that has yet to unfold in our epic tale involves circumstances which are deadly and hopeless for any given human being. There are no percentage points for survival. When approaching this next and last of labors by relying strictly on just mortal ingenuity or sheer human strength, all is lost. This last of labors is doomed before it is even undertaken where only one’s belief in assistance from the gods is the key which enables a mortal to make it through alive.
The previous episode concluded with our heroine being swooned to unconsciousness. We are led to think this is due to Psyche’s profound exhaustion after successfully completing yet another of the incredibly challenging tasks enforced by her viciously cruel mother-in-law, the goddess Venus. But before fainting, the girl is also informed of her fourth and final task. One that is utterly void of human survival.
Psyche is told she must venture to Hell and back again.
We return once more to our heroine still in her state of unconsciousness.
Psyche opened her eyes and was surprised how serene she felt. Surrounded in a thick white mist, the girl perceived to be enveloped in a comfortably suspended cloud. She then heard him speak. “My beloved.”
It was the voice of her Cupid. He emerged from the mist and stood at a distance from his wife sweetly smiling at her. Psyche was at first overjoyed but became horrified upon noticing the extent of his wounds. His shoulder was wrapped in thick white bandages and the wing adjoining it hung limply along that same side of his body. The repercussions from unprotected skin being exposed to the fire filled liquid of burning lamp oil.
Psyche gasped aloud as she rushed forward to tend to her husband’s injuries. “Touch me not, my love, and listen carefully to my words.” Cupid gently admonished his wife. “My mother seeks to destroy thee and plans on doing so with this final task, since there is barely a mortal who descends into the Underworld with the hope of ever returning. Thy bravery and faith have sustained thee through these labors and now our loving bond will be thy guide through this final and most treacherous of journeys. No matter what lies ahead, trust that I will be with thee in spirit. When in need, breathest to thine core with eyes closed and my council shall be present. Believe in the purity of our love and survival is thine.”
Psyche gasped aloud once more, this time from being harshly revived by a bucket of ice water. Her eyes sprung open to a vision of her mother-in-law smirking with her arms folded while saying in a playful sing-songy tone, “So glad you could join us. Time to go to work, slave.”
The crack of Venus’ whip on Psyche’s leg forced the girl to her feet as the goddess impatiently waited to show her servant where her fourth and final task was to begin. Much like her most recent labor, Psyche was positioned once more on her knees behind Venus as she rode her dove drawn chariot through the sky. But instead of battling the crippling fear which accompanied her first trip, the girl knew what to expect and deeply inhaled the open air, rejuvenating herself.
The goddess flew her chariot for quite some time over vast plains and high mountain ranges. Upon reaching the borders of ancient Phyrigia (some of you may already be familiar with that place given it being the point of reference in my myth about the hospitable couple named Baucis and Philemon), Venus descended to the land below. It was there they came upon a sparse stretch of land known as Plutonium, otherwise called the Gateway to Hell.
With not a soul anywhere in the nearby vicinity, Psyche at first perceived the sunken grotto with the gazebo-like sacrificial structure and its large oblong pool of crystal clear water to be quite tranquil and peaceful looking….until she noticed the stairs which descended from the grotto, deep into the Earth below along with the thick vapored smoke which emanated from them.
“Do you see those steps which lower themselves into the mist, slave?” Venus asked Psyche. “It is one of the few places on Earth which bears a pathway that leads directly to the Underworld. Descend those steps and upon doing so hold your breath, for the fog you see is a deadly vapor which prevents the weak of heart from going any further by having them breathe in their own fear and thus annihilating themselves. Continue ever downwards until you reach a river that flows with water blacker than the darkest sky of a moonless night. Once there, a ferry will arrive to transport you, provided the proper fare be paid. Should that be done correctly, you will arrive in the Underworld. It is there you must seek the ruler of that nether-kingdom whom they call Persephone, Queen of the Dead. Once found say to her,
“O ghostly Queen, my mistress the goddess of Beauty, Venus, calls upon your divine assistance. While tending to her son who was gravely wounded, my mistress’ allure has been compromised. She graciously asks if you could impart a portion of your beauty ointment so that her illustrious looks like none on Heaven and Earth can be revived once more.”
Venus then pushed Psyche out of the chariot’s carriage and proceeded to throw a satchel at her slave’s feet saying, “There is fare money along with sustenance for one meal per day. Should you not partake in your usual dilly-dallying I expect to have my beauty ointment in 3 days time.”
The goddess could be heard mockingly saying “Have a breathtakingly pleasant journey.” followed by her shrill cackle echoing down the embankment as Venus flew her chariot immediately out of sight into the heavily clouded sky directly above them . Psyche picked up the satchel and walked straight down the declining landscape directly on to the sunken grotto.
She had never felt more alone.
A digital reconstruction of the recently discovered Plutonium in 2012 in southwestern Turkey with its entranceway to the Underworld on the right. The mist from the portal being naturally occurring mephitic vapors which are lethal.
Realizing it might be quite some time before encountering a pool like the one situated before her, Psyche sat hugging her knees as she gazed upon its placid water. And much like what took place at the enchanted fountain, the pool’s smooth surface was disturbed by her falling tears.
Before her eyes Psyche beheld her reflection being replaced by that of her husband. “Prepare thyself, dearest, for my mother has relayed to thee only partial truths.” Cupid warned his spouse. “The vaporous mist which emanates from yonder steps is of a deadly poison ’tis true but it lingers well past the portal’s entranceway. Thou must practice containing a staggered breath for an elongated time if thou wishest to venture well beyond the Underworld’s entrance. Know thou art not alone since thy loving husband shalt be at thy side in spirit with each step thou takest going forward.”
The water then once again became smooth as glass.
It dawned on Psyche that not only did she need practice holding her breath, she had to do so while quickly moving at the same time. After many trial attempts that included numerous false starts and even a fit of sneezing, Psyche felt ready to begin her harrowing journey.
Taking three breaths through her nose with her mouth closed that were as deep as they were slow, Psyche began her descent after taking in a fourth and final intake of air. As she entered the dim tunnel-like entrance, a friendly little sparrow flew alongside her, only to immediately drop dead upon coming into contact with the vaporous mist. With her satchel in hand Psyche thought it best to look downwards at her feet given the involuntary intake of air from a fall or even tripping would seal her doom. The downward incline was so steep, it seemed to the girl as if the path was at a near vertical angle going straight down. The mist was still ever present but Psyche remained calm keeping in mind anything vaporous always rose upward and outward.
As she quickly ventured downwards, an unforeseen problem occurred – the natural light from outside grew dimmer and dimmer. Psyche was walking straight down into the abyss of total darkness. How would she know the mist had fully dissipated if she couldn’t even see her hand in front of her face? Psyche was too far along to attempt turning around but wasn’t far enough to be outside of the vapor’s vicinity just quite yet. The girl knew she had to keep moving and press on.
First came the dizziness, followed by the internalized pain of her body’s desperate need to breathe. The darkness of the girl’s surroundings only added to her dilemma as she started to black out. Before she knew it, Psyche lost all consciousness resulting in her body falling forward down the path in the pitch darkness.
She awoke flat on her back on what appeared to be the base of the path where things once again became horizontal. Psyche was able to ascertain this by virtue of the illumination provided by various lit torches interspersed throughout this non-vertical section. Not only could things be seen, a strange lapping sound of waves could be heard somewhere not too far off in the dim distance as well. Realizing she had made it through the mist’s danger zone, Psyche rose from the floor and briskly headed towards the direction of the flowing water.
She didn’t have far to go. Despite being in a subterranean tunnel that spewed vapor from deep within the earth, Psyche became suddenly overcome with a chill that seeped to her very core, as if replacing the marrow in each of her bones. Upon reaching the source of the flowing water sound, she immediately understood why. Psyche had reached the body of water which borders the Underworld better known as the River Styx.
Although categorized as a river, this waterway of moving liquid was unlike any other river, brook, creek, or stream Psyche had ever seen before. Its waters were utterly and completely black. A black so dark and deep, the river possessed a glossy sheen that reflected the slightest hint of illumination anywhere within its remote vicinity.
The river which transported the dead to their final destination in the Underworld technically “flowed” yet at the same time seemed stagnant and deathly still, given the waves of the fatalistic river moved with a lugubrious slowness as if comprised from a most thick, heavy tar.
Psyche’s first reaction was to immediately turn and find her way back out but suddenly and unexpectedly the river’s opaque surface revealed a crystal clear image of her husband.
“Thy efforts have thus far been commendable, my love. My time is short for the Ferryman cometh. Thy satchel and its contents must now be addressed. Inside are 2 barley cakes. Hold one in each of thine hands going forward. My mother hast also placed 2 coins for thine “proper fare”. Soon the Ferryman Charon and his boat shall arrive. Payment must be made in exchange for his transport and must be done in a particular manner only.” Cupid intensely warned his wife. “Place one of the 2 coins between thine lips. When Charon arrives, place thyself in the ferry with thine eyes closed. The Ferryman must collect his fare from thine mouth with his own hand. Only then shall He transport you. Thou hast now reached the border of the Underworld, my wife. Unless thou art in the presence of the Queen of the Dead, thou must not speak nor listen to anything surrounding thee! Know that whilst in the Underworld thou must not willingly partake of any comforts. Persephone will most surely invite thee to dine with her. Decline any food or drink she offers, as well as seat thyself on her floor. Remain focused on your goal and be not distracted. Stay strong in knowing how well thou hast done so far and know thy husband is immensely proud of thy courageous efforts.”
In an instant, Cupid’s image disappeared like a speck of dust being blown from a smooth glass surface.
Psyche went to immediately retrieve the contents from the satchel when she heard a strange sound. A sound of hooves in motion but staggered and extremely slow. As the girl tried to ascertain where the sound was coming from she was startled with alarm when a voice spoke directly from right behind her:
“Excuse me, young lady. Can you help a tired old man and his lame beast of burden?”
Directly behind her stood a frail elderly man dressed in the barest of rags and badly hunched over, no doubt from his advanced age and many years of hard toil. His feet were black as soot due to the absence of there being no shoes nor slippers. Beyond the old man sat a donkey of equally advanced years. The creature sat straight up on its hind legs while on its back was a large bundle of kindling wood. All around the animal lay numerous stray branches in every direction from where it sat.
“My hooved companion is going lame.” the impoverished man explained. “Her leg is giving out more and more these days since she is older than even her master. Could you find it in your heart to assist a weary old beggar in gathering up the branches which have fallen from the bundle on her back?” his eyes glimmered with desperation.
Without hesitating, Psyche moved forward to help the poor wretch by insisting he rest while she fetch and re-bundle his kindling for him. But upon remembering Cupid’s warning, she abruptly turned away, saying not a word.
“Oh please help me, Miss!” the ragged old man plead desperately . “Every branch is needed if I am to stay warm at night and my donkey does not have long to live to bear another burden like this again.”
A large tear comprised of both pity and frustrated rage from having to resist her natural inclination to help a vulnerable person in need was Psyche’s only reaction. Aside from that, the girl remained steadfast and kept her back turned away from the helpless beggar.
Almost thankfully, a different sound could be heard coming from across the flowing black river. An ancient sound which represented both announcement and congregation – the blowing of a ram’s horn. The strange echoing sound also signified the arrival of Charon, the Ferryman of the River Styx.
Psyche had no choice but to turn around in order to retrieve the contents of her satchel. And much to her surprise upon doing so, the girl noticed she was utterly alone.
No one else was there.
For just as the impoverished pauper seemed to instantly materialize behind her, he and his decrepit beast of burden had instantly disappeared.
With not a minute to contemplate what had taken place, Psyche rushed over to the satchel, grabbed both barley cakes, inserted one of the coins between her lips, stood on the black watered shore, and waited for the Ferryman’s arrival.
*Cover image – “Charon and Psyche” by Errol le Cain, 1976
*Brad Kronen’s book “Love in the Stars” published by Llewellyn Worldwide, Inc. is available for purchase at your local book seller or online at amazon.com at the link listed below.