Sometimes people ask me why I gave Psyche a sword.
To which I answer: why not?
Let me explain. The myth of Eros and Psyche, the foundation for my novel, comes from The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, a novel written on the fringes of the Roman empire in the second century CE. The myth appears as a story within a story, occurring after the main character is taken captive by a pack of bandits. The bandits have also captured a young noblewoman named Charite, who weeps with terror because she has been snatched away from her true beloved. An elderly woman who serves as the bandits’ cook takes pity on Charite and tells her the story of Eros and Psyche to distract her.
Charite is eventually reunited with her beloved, although their story comes to a macabre ending when her new husband is betrayed and murdered, and Charite must seek vengeance against his killer with sword in hand. It was this image – of a girl with a sword – that was burned into my mind as I read the tale.
Additionally, Psyche herself is an unusually dynamic heroine for Greco-Roman myth. She is the one who completes the impossible tasks assigned to her by Aphrodite, similar to the labors of Heracles. She is the only mythic woman to make the katabasis, the underworld descent, and return again.
I decided to key into this and dial it up to eleven.
In my reimagining of Psyche’s story, the Delphic oracle prophesizes that Psyche will conquer a monster (in contrast to the original version, in which she is said to marry a monster). Myth and history have many gaps and lacunae, and perhaps the things we think we know are actually illusions. A speck of dust in the oracle’s eye, and Psyche’s journey could be seen in a very different light.
In my version of the tale, Psyche’s parents decide to raise her as a hero-girl in line with this prophecy. She comes from a lineage that includes many famous heroes, such as Perseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus.
However, none of these heroes were what we might necessarily call good. For the Greeks, a hero was characterized by incredible accomplishments and unusual capabilities, but in the modern world we want our heroes to be a bit more admirable.
Through the novel, Psyche eventually comes to see the devastation that these so-called heroes leave in their wake. Psyche realizes that she is not unworthy of this dream, but that the dream is unworthy of her. She arrives at a definition of heroism that privileges connection, community, and compassion over bloody self-aggrandizement.
It’s this questioning of received ideals that makes me comfortable calling the story feminist. Come for the girls with swords, stay for the deconstruction of patriarchal values, I suppose. After all, in addition to being a love story, the myth of Psyche and Eros is also about personal growth and the ascent of the soul – which is what Psyche’s name means.
Psyche and Eros by Luna McNamara publishes in Hardback on the 25 May (Orion Fiction, £16.99)