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16-psyche-in-comparisons

M-type asteroids are high albedo (i.e shiny) asteroids made partially or mostly of metal. Of all of M-type asteroids currently known in the solar system, 16 Psyche is the most massive.  It is a hunk of iron and nickel (and other heavy metals?) which has a diameter of 250 kilometers.  Psyche orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter and is believed to be the exposed core of a planet approximately the size of Mars which was obliterated by a catastrophic impact.  The asteroid is named after the intrepid mortal who found love and ultimately apotheosis in an “Eyes Wide Shut” type Greek myth of great suspense, horror, and beauty.

The Rapture of Psyche.jpg

Are you curious to know more about 16 Psyche based on this description?  I certainly hope you are, because NASA has just announced future missions for the 2020s and 16 Psyche is on the list. As currently conceived, the Psyche exploration mission will send a robot probe powered by solar electric propulsion out to the obliterated core to examine the planetoid.  The probe will be equipped with a magnetometer and a gamma-ray spectrometer to find out more about the composition and history of the enigmatic relic.

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Of course other long term aspects of the mission are of interest as well.  Although we have not yet mastered nuclear fusion, safe comprehensive control of such boundless energy is probably only 20 years or so away [winky icon].  What if humankind had sophisticated manufacturing robots and near infinite energy?  In such circumstances 8 million cubic kilometers of steel might come in very handy indeed.  So far the good news keeps rolling in for 2017.  This Psyche mission can’t happen fast enough for my taste.

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Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, ca. 1867, gouache on paper)

The story of Cupid and Psyche is a breathless tale of hidden identity, subservience, misplaced trust, and true love.  It is a favorite theme for western artists, particularly since it features Cupid (the capricious god of love who wreaks so much chaos in mortal life) emotionally caught in a seemingly impossible situation. Each of these three paintings by Edward Burne-Jones depicts the moment, late in the story when Cupid finally forgives Psyche (who has suffered endless woe, pain, and setbacks).  Psyche has visited the underworld and returned with a box containing divine beauty.  Warned not to open the box, she has decided to steal a pinch so that Cupid will love her despite her mortality.  Unsurprisingly the otherworldly box contains poison of infernal sleep. Cupid then intervenes directly and utilizes his divinity to rescue her from the curse.

Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1867, mixed media)

As a young man Edward Burne-Jones studied theology at Oxford and was anticipating a career as a minister–until his spirit was seduced by ancient poetry (really!).  He left the university without a degree and joined a brotherhood of artists and poets. He painted three nearly identical versions of this dramatic scene over the course of several years.  The first and finest from around 1867 is a gouache portrait of Maria Zambaco, a Greco-English beauty.  In 1866, Maria’s mother had commissioned Burne-Jones to paint Maria (as Psyche no less) for an entirely different picture, and the (married) Burne-Jones fell in love with the (married) Zambaco.  Their tempestuous affair destroyed both marriages and nearly led them to suicide before ending in 1869 (although it resulted in a number of gorgeous paintings—which were pilloried by the Victorian art world for portraying female sexual assertiveness in a positive light).

Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1871, watercolor and pastel on paper?)

Although outwardly the same, these three paintings are also subtly different.  In the last painting, from 1872, Cupid is not red and radiant but gray and diffuse (and he has lost his ever-changing wreath).  Psyche’s hair has changed color and her features have been altered.  Additionally, the sheer repetition of this same moment of divine intervention suggests that romance is a figure eight:  our arguments and passions keep repeating themselves (which is in fact what happens in the tale of Cupid and Psyche).  Lovers  relive the same moments of longing, confusion, and passion again and again and again even as the world changes like water and our lives wear out.

This lovely work was painted in 1904 by John William Waterhouse, the last of the Pre-Raphaelite artists.  It depicts a critical moment in the love story between Cupid, god of love, and Psyche, a beautiful mortal persecuted by Venus.

Psyche Entering Cupid's Garden (oil on canvas by John William Waterhouse, c.1904.)

I won’t repeat the entire myth, which symbolizes both the nature of love and the nature of the human soul, but I will explain the context of the painting.  Psyche was cursed by Venus never to marry.  Venus’ beautiful and capricious son Cupid, however, had fallen in love with Psyche and, in protest, refused to shoot his arrows at any living thing–which meant the living world began to age and die, being unable to… renew itself without Eros.  Psyche visited the oracle of Apollo who explained her destiny thus, “The virgin is destined for the bride of no mortal lover. Her future husband awaits her on the top of the mountain. He is a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”

We know that the monster is the beautiful god of love, but Psyche knows only the oracle’s dire words.  She goes to the mountain and, swooning, is carried away by the wind to the palace of Cupid.  Waterhouse has painted her as she awakens and enters the garden of the palace of love.  Although afraid, she sees the ineffable beauty of the garden and realizes the owner is no mortal.  As a gardener, I would like to dwell on the musk roses and cypresses, yet as a painter I am obliged to point you towards the troubled mien of Psyche as she attempts to puzzle out the nature of her monstrous divine consort.

A perennial favorite for artists, the entire myth is told best by its originator, the incomparable Lucius Apuleius who used the story of Cupid and Psyche as a chapter in The Golden Ass, the only complete Milesian tale to survive from ancient Rome.  The Golden Ass is arguably the immediate ancestor of the novel and it is every bit as ribald as its name suggests.  The chapter about Cupid and Psyche however is dead serious (as is the overall book, which subtly suggested that if Roman aristocrats continued to degrade and oppress everyone else in society, Roman civilization would founder).

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