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The Wonder and Cautionary Tale of Raphael’s Mythologically-Themed Ceiling

Cupid points out Psyche to the Three Graces

In search of places you (and I) should visit, I have found a beautiful home called the Villa Farnesina, built for the mistress of a wealthy Roman banker, Agostino Chigi.

During the period of the high Renaissance, a very good time to be alive, if only for the sake of art appreciation, Chigi commissioned painters to create frescoes celebrating the classical theme of  the relationship between Cupid and Psyche. Raphael, one of the most famous painters of that, or any subsequent era, created a paean to the gods and goddesses of Classical Rome. The villa can be seen here  and here

Ironically, Raphael did exactly the same thing astrologers do when they appropriate Greek myths nowadays; he chose to portray only the romantic, pleasant side of the myth, and forego the ugly, darker, more troubling aspects of the story.

The myth of Cupid and Psyche is complicated, but very Greek, in its focus on jealousy, mistaken identity, and deception. The problem that students of astrology come up against, unfortunately, is in trying to interpret these myths in a simplistic way that ignores the sociohistorical world the Greeks inhabited.

So instead of looking deeper at the underlying themes the myth of Cupid and Psyche personifies, astrology students today will look for the simple phrase that tells us what Cupid “means,” or what Psyche “means” in a chart. However, there is a serious problem in appropriating Ancient Greek symbolism and hoping that it will make some sense in a postmodern world.

Aphrodite pointing to Psyche

We appropriate this symbology rather unthinkingly, in my opinion, with a fair amount of desperate desire (so very Psyche-like, according to the myth) that everything in our relationships will “work out” if only our Psyche conjuncts someone else’s Cupid (amongst other symbols we look for).

If you read the story, you know what happened when the mythical Psyche did try to connect with Cupid.

All hell broke loose, in the guise of Cupid’s jealous, possessive mother, Aphrodite, who commanded that this mere upstart of a girl, no matter how beautiful she was, be punished for declaring herself even more gorgeous than Aphrodite. How dare she? Instead, of course, Cupid fell for this babe, and ran off with her, hiding Psyche on an island out of Aphrodite’s sight.

Now, if your life resembles this myth, not only am I sorry for you, it’s not a fate I would wish for mere mortals such as we. I think you see the problem by now? We do not consciously desire to live these myths, and if we misunderstand their meaning, and try to apply the sociopolitics of the Ancient Greeks to our every day lives, we are unhappy, because their myths revolved around how miserable the gods and goddesses were.

Did you know that in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, the Greeks struggled with the concept of whether humans were actually superior to the gods? Well, they did. Therefore, their myths focused on the extent to which the gods made messes of their immortality, and all the ways in which humans (think of Odysseus, for example) found ways around the dictates and selfish whims of jealous gods.

A spandrel depicting Aphrodite, Ceres, and Juno

It is my belief that if we’re going to study astrology, and attempt to make use of it, and attempt to make some sense of it, that we should be much more careful how we approach interpretation, which is too often a slapdash, haphazard activity conducted to make others feel better, or worse, used to control other’s behaviors according to our values and beliefs.

What do the asteroids Psyche and Cupid have to do with someone’s actual love life? Realistically, not much. Those asteroids are up there in the sky, hurtling through space, not caring if they have a name or not. So our urge to name those asteroids tells us something much more important about us than it ever can about the nature of a hunk of rock.

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