So far, in my discussion about Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World (and ebook link), I have talked about the early history of the tale and the versions by Villeneuve and Beaumont. I have also been busily updating the Beauty and the Beast and East of the Sun and West of the Moon pages at SurLaLune. I am very much behind, but the History of Beauty and the Beast and Tales Similar to Beauty and the Beast pages are pretty much done. Of course, these will be supplemented by the same pages on East of the Sun once I have completed those updates. The Beauty and the Beast Bibliography is also under reconstruction and about a third of the way done.
To sum up, we've established that Beauty and the Beast is firmly a literary tale with definite, traceable origins. But hey, this is folklore. Things are never that simple. Because writers have been drawing inspiration forever from artistic creations that preceded them and folklore, especially myth and fairy tales, has been a primary source for just as long.
So for today, we go back, way back, in history to the second century A.D. to what can be considered one of the genesis--if not the genesis--Animal Bridegroom tale. Absolutes are always open for debate and I'm not starting one here.
Again, from my introduction to Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World:
Although there are valid arguments for some Greek and Roman myths as sources—such as the stories of “Zeus and Semele,” “Europa and Zeus,” and “Kallisto and Zeus”—they require complicated analysis for comparing to Beauty and the Beast. One of the best discussions about early mythic Beauties and Beasts can be found in Graham Anderson’s Fairytale in the Ancient World (2000).
The earliest traceable literary source for Beauty and the Beast is the story of Cupid and Psyche. The tale appears in Metamorphoses, commonly known as The Golden Ass, written by Apuleius in the second century AD. Cupid and Psyche is the best known and most enduring story from The Golden Ass. Speculation over Apuleius’s work supposes that he, too, derived the story from an earlier source. Examples of Cupid and Psyche appear in visual art centuries prior to Apuleius, but no literary examples exist, either because they never did or because they have been lost in the ravages of history. An excellent compendium and study of the tale can be found in The Tale of Cupid and Psyche: An Illustrated History (2002) by Sonia Cavicchioli. Whatever Apuleius’s influences may have been, his version of Cupid and Psyche is the one that primarily influenced future literary and artistic interpretations of the tale for the two millennia that followed, especially when it was embraced during the Renaissance and after.
Cupid and Psyche—of which two versions are offered in this collection, one a direct translation of Apuleius—shares many elements with Beauty and the Beast, but the stories are quite different. In truth, Cupid and Psyche has influenced a large range of Animal Bridegroom tales—as they are commonly labeled—and Beauty and the Beast tales are only a small, albeit very popular, portion.
Anderson discusses Cupid and Psyche the most in his chapter on Beauty and the Beast, but he also has some useful discussion of other myths I listed above. I didn't include those myths in my book since the connections are rather tenuous and other stories gained priority. They would be included in a companion book if I do it.
A quick read of a version of Cupid and Psyche for children--if you are not overly familiar with the tale--may be helpful since it is a quick read although significantly shorter than the original. The story has been interpreted and referenced over and over again. I've collected a nice library of poetry and visual art over the years.
Significant things to note about Cupid and Psyche--he's a god, not a beast. But the story elements are so influential that there is no doubt about it being part of the Animal Bridegroom folktale type. Also, Psyche is rather frustratingly stupid at times. While the heroine grows and makes less mistakes as the story progresses in other tales of this type, Psyche makes mistakes pretty much up to the end although her heart is in the right place. There is certainly the air of myth instead of fairy tale to the story, for the humans have to be lesser than the gods.