Every February I wonder how a chubby, winged boy-child with less than useful wings became a symbol for Valentine’s Day. The Ancient Greeks called Cupid Eros, and described him as a vengeful youth. The Hellenistic Greeks and the Romans shrank the slender young man into a chubby benign figure. A few hundred years later, English culture viewed Cupid as a symbol of innocence, romantic love, and the mascot of Valentine’s Day. Cupid is a myth in many cultures, but of what, exactly?
Eros’s Family Ties
Cupid’s early years are surrounded in mythological scandal. He first appears in Homer’s Odyssey as the child of Aphrodite and Ares. Aphrodite was actually married to Ares’s brother Hephaestus. Both Aphrodite and Hephaestus had liaisons outside of the marriage bed. Aphrodite had her longest relationship with Ares with whom she had six sons and a daughter, including Eros. She also had a son with the mortal Anchises, a son with Hermes, a son and a daughter with Poseidon, and four daughters and a son with Dionysus. Apparently, Hephaestus didn’t notice the children weren’t his, or perhaps he didn’t notice them at all.
Despite their best efforts to remain unseen, the sun god Helios discovers the couple, and tells Hephaestus who made a net of invisible bronze chains, and draped it over his bed. Then he told Aphrodite he was going out of town.
Aphrodite invited Ares to visit her, and when they got onto the bed, the net fell on them. They were well and truly trapped. Hephaestus then called all the gods to see what his wife and brother were doing. Everyone had a good laugh, and the lovers were separated —Ares to Thrace and Aphrodite to Cyprus.
Eros, whose name means Desire, was a slim youth with boyish features representing love as irrational. He had wings, presumably for transportation, but also because love can be fickle and flighty. Eros carried a bow with arrows and a torch because love can both wound and inflame the heart. Eros has two types of arrows. One has a gold tip and fills its target with uncontrollable desire. The other has a lead tip that infuses its target with revulsion and the desire to flee. Eros is sometimes mischievous; other times, vindictive. He chooses his targets accordingly. On some occasions, Eros’s efforts don’t have the result he intended.
Eros & Apollo
One day Apollo, the patron god of archery, saw Eros taking care of his bow and arrows. The handsome god who had just defeated a dragon, told Eros he should leave weapons to those who could use them and go about his own pastimes. Eros was furious.
In revenge, Eros shot Apollo with a golden arrow so he would fall into a passionate love for the first woman he saw. Unfortunately for her, Apollo’s eyes fell on the river nymph Daphne. Eros then shot Daphne with the lead arrow, which was just as well, because she was sworn to virginity.
Apollo pursued Daphne. She rejected him, but he wouldn’t give up his pursuit. Finally, Daphne called on her father for help, and he transformed his daughter into a laurel tree. Apollo was heartbroken, and made a laurel wreath in Daphne’s memory. He returned to his creative and heroic endeavors. She remained rooted to the ground. Eros, no doubt, enjoyed the chaos he caused.
Eros & Narcissus
The mortal Narcissus was an excellent hunter, and the most attractive man in his city. He was also arrogant and disdained love.
Echo was a nymph who could only finish a sentence or repeat the last words someone spoke. When Echo saw Narcissus hunting, she fell in love with him. But she couldn’t speak unless he spoke first. One day Narcissus became separated from his hunting mates, and called out “Is anyone there?” Echo repeated “anyone there.” Narcissus said, “come here.” She said the same. Narcissus called we must be together. Echo rushed to Narcissus. He spurned her attentions. Echo fled in humiliation.
Eros was both angry that a mortal ignored the love of a goddess, and wanted to help Echo.
Eros shot golden arrows into both Narcissus and Echo, expecting that when Narcissus saw Echo, he would immediately fall in love with her. Unfortunately, Narcissus was sitting beside a lake at the time, and the first thing he saw was his own reflection. Narcissus didn’t realize he was looking at his own image, only that the creature was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. He refused to be separated from the reflection. One day Narcissus reached out to embrace his reflection, fell into the lake, and drowned.
Echo eventually wasted away, leaving only her voice behind
Eros Becomes Cupid
Time passed and social expectations changed. Eros, the sexually attractive and controlling youth no longer appealed. In the 4th century BCE, women’s social status in Athens went into serious decline, and stories of Eros became linked with his mother, Aphrodite. Under his mother’s influence, Eros became less threatening and more relationship oriented. As Greek myths passed into Roman culture, names changed. Eros became Cupid, and Aphrodite, Venus.
Cupid & Psyche
Psyche was a beautiful princess with two sisters. In fact, many people thought she was more beautiful than Aphrodite, and began building temples in her honor. Venus was furious. She sent a plague upon Psyche’s kingdom and told the king she would not remove it until he sacrificed his daughter. So, he tied Psyche up and left her to die.
Then, Venus told her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a hideous monster. [So much for the thought that Venus would curb her son’s vindictive nature.] Good son that he sometimes was, Cupid set out to do his mother’s bidding. But before the monster was in place, Eros accidentally struck himself with his golden arrow and fell in love with Psyche. Instead of linking her to a beast, Eros joined Psyche to himself. He didn’t let her see his face, but he kept her in a life of luxury.
When Psyche’s sisters realized Psyche’s lifestyle was more opulent than theirs, they were jealous. They badgered Psyche and said her husband was monster. Psyche began to have doubts and thought if she looked at Cupid while he slept, she would know the truth. And if he was a handsome man, she could refute her sisters’ allegations. So, Psyche took a lamp, and held it over her sleeping husband. She also had a knife, in case he turned out to be a monster after all.
Cupid, of course, was a creature of beauty (and didn’t look anything like a chubby boy). While Psyche gazed at her husband in awe, a drop of lamp oil spilled on Cupid. Oops. Cupid woke up, saw the knife in Psyche’s hand, flew out the window, and went home to his mother.
Psyche begged Venus to return Cupid to her. The goddess agreed, provided Psyche performed four impossible tasks: sort an enormous amount of pulses and grains; gather wool from a golden sheep; fill a crystal container with water from a spring that fed the Styx, and bring her a box of containing some of Persephone’s beauty. Cupid and other gods helped Psyche complete the tasks, but the fourth task was Psyche’s undoing. Psyche opened the box, and fell into a sleep as deep as death.
Cupid awoke Psyche with one of his arrows and told her to give the box to his mother. He then interceded with Jupiter to bring Psyche to Mt. Olympus where Jupiter commanded she be given nectar and ambrosia, to make Psyche immortal. She could then marry Cupid. And the couple may have lived happily ever after, which would be a first in Greco-Roman mythology.
Cupid Joins Valentine’s Day
As history progressed, Cupid became a symbol for romantic love. A trickster who aimed his arrows at people who sometimes resisted.
However, it was greeting cards that truly cemented the tie of Cupid, Red Hearts and Valentine’s Day. In the 19th century, social etiquette discouraged the free expression of one’s feelings. But what could be wrong with a small home made gift, or a card expressing affection for the recipient?
Even today, in the words sung by Sam Cooke, many people still urge Cupid to draw back his bow.
♥️ ♥️ ♥️ ♥️ ♥️
Cupid Shooting a Bow. Charles-Andre van loo. 1761.
Vulcan & Venus. Louis Jean Francois Legrenee
Mars, Venus & Cupid. Peter Paul Rubens.
Eros Farnese. Haiduc.
Apollo & Daphne. Nicolas Poussin. 1625.
Echo & Narcissus. John William Waterhouse. 1903.
Woman & Cupid.
Cupid and Psyche. Jean-Francois de Troy.
Cupid Pleads With Jupiter for Psyche. Raphael.
Young Girl Defending Herself from Eros. William-Adolphe Bouguereau. 1880.
1909 Valentine Card.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.