Re-examining What Makes a Hero in “Psyche and Eros” – Chicago Review of Books

From reading Percy Jackson on middle-school bus rides to finding my all-time favorite novel in the queer best-seller, Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, I’ve always been a fervent fan of Greek myths. Not only do they provide rich, vibrant characters and settings as inspirations, but they also open the door for interpretation, ingenuity, and unabashed creativity. In myth-retellings, we are allowed to take a glance at these intricate stories from a million different viewpoints and to bend the already otherworldly into what it inspires within us. 

Luna McNamara’s debut novel, Psyche and Eros, does just that. The story follows Greek icons, Psyche and Eros, through their unconventional love story. In McNamara’s interpretation of the classic myth, Psyche is a princess born into the Mycenaean kingdom, a direct relative of Perseus (slayer of Medusa in traditional mythology). At a young age, Psyche is destined by an oracle to defeat a great monster, pushing her to reject the suffocating confines of her gendered societal position, and subsequently embrace her destiny as a “hero.” 

McNamara’s other protagonist is Eros, the primordial god of desire, sex, and love (commonly known as Cupid in Roman mythology). Disillusioned with his eternal divinity, as well as the arrogance of younger gods and the dangers of desire and love, Eros spends his days begrudgingly doing the bidding of his adoptive mother Aphrodite, messing with the affairs of fellow gods, and carelessly chasing a sense of purpose. Per myth, Eros possesses magical arrows that cause those pricked to fall madly in love. When Aphrodite is offended by Psyche’s beauty, she orders Eros to shoot Psyche with a cursed arrow, one that would cause the young girl to fall in love with the first person she sees, but also be torn away from her newly beloved the minute they laid eyes upon each other. However, as he reaches into his quiver, Eros accidentally pricks himself with the arrow destined for Psyche and falls headfirst into a supposedly doomed love. 

Soon, Psyche and Eros embark on a relationship within the shadows of the night. As Eros conceals his true face and identity and finally finds purpose in the love he feels for Psyche, the latter begins falling for the god without any pretenses. However, when the pair do eventually come face-to-face, they suffer the consequences of Aphrodite’s curse. Yet, Psyche and Eros soon find that despite the curse, they might just have something truly divine, and thus, they fight tooth and nail—through Olympus and the Underworld—to see each other once again.

McNamara’s story, while drawing from ancient myth, certainly takes its own liberties. In Greek mythology, Psyche was never the princess of Mycenae, nor did the lovers’ story exist linearly with the Trojan War. Furthermore, Psyche’s relationships with famous Greek women like Penelope, Iphigenia, and Clytemnestra are tweaked for symbolic purposes. However, most notable—and possibly controversial to myth purists—is McNamara’s reinvention of Psyche herself. In the traditional myth, Psyche is not a fighter or a warrior; rather, she is a feminine and compassionate princess, one destined to marry a monster. In McNamara’s novel, Psyche is a bit rougher around the edges. From a young age, she is prophesied to slay a great monster, which influences her to train as a warrior under the tutelage of one of the most acclaimed female heroes, Atalanta. 

McNamara’s choice to mold Psyche into a defiant feminist figure serves many purposes. Not only does the myth of Psyche and Eros undergo a more contemporary revamp, but McNamara also obliterates the archaic idea that females—both mythological and real—fall within the categories of feminine or masculine, lover or warrior. Purists will criticize the bold feminist take, arguing that this version of Psyche belittles the original’s strength as a feminine icon, but to that I’d ask: when does the novel make a case for one being more valid than the other? McNamara’s Psyche, though at times a bit too stubborn and naive for her own good, is an unapologetically female warrior far beyond traditional mythological context, one that finally embraces that a true hero is one that values compassion and love over idolatry via brutality. 

Amidst–pun intended—Herculean tasks to reunite with her lover, Psyche declares,

You will be a great lover, not a great hero,’ Prometheus told me once. 

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He was wrong. I would be both.” 

Psyche and Eros is a nod to the strength of women and a love letter to the comfort and safety of female relationships. McNamara shines a light on the women forgotten and abused within traditional myths—giving them space and voices previously stolen by their more famous male counterparts. In Medusa, we see a representation of the resilience of women. Despite heinous violence and abuse at the hands of celebrated Greek figures such as Zeus and Perseus, Medusa remains compassionate. In Demeter, readers are privy to the beauty of maternal love and guiding female figures. In her daughter Persephone, McNamara paints the portrait of a feminine, terrifyingly dark, yet immensely headstrong and tenderhearted ruler. In Psyche’s warrior teacher Atalanta, the lines that separate her as a feminine or masculine character are wiped clean. Thus, McNamara’s cast of iconic women is far from one-dimensional—they are complex, rich, and vibrant in character, and all remind readers of the beauty and power of women. 

McNamara’s prose is vivid and luscious, with narratives delicately woven like traditional myths. Immensely humorous, unyielding in its feminism, and at times relatably messy, Psyche and Eros breathes new life into a famously unique Greek myth and loudly celebrates female voices. 

Psyche and Eros
By Luna McNamara
William Morrow & Company
Published June 13, 2023

Angie Raney

Angie Raney is a recent graduate of DePaul University where she studied creative writing, anthropology, and Spanish. Her poetry and creative nonfiction has been published in publications such as Crook and Folly, Silver Birch Press, Fleas on the Dog and more. Currently, she work as the Fundraising and Events Assistant for StoryStudio Chicago.

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