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On the sixth day of Valentines Week, my true love gave to me…

The passionate sting of Cupid’s arrow.

We’ve all been the victim of Cupid’s bow whether we like it or not, and whether that first wound of love turns into something more lasting or heals and is forgotten. But, this chubby little cherub that has become the emblem of Valentine’s Day and companion to red hearts and chocolates has his origins in times older than the holiday itself. Cupid, or Eros, in his ancient Greek incarnation, was far from the rosy cheeked infant with fluttering wings that we think of today. So, without further ado, here is an insight into one of my most passionate interests: Greek mythology and culture.

 Red-Figure Lekythos Showing Eros in the Role of Archer

Attributed to Brygos Painter, Greek (active c. 490–470 B.C.), Red-Figure Lekythos Showing Eros in the Role of Archer, Kimbell Art Museum

In ancient Greek cosmology, Hesiod only mentions Eros as an attendant at Aphrodite’s birth, primarily as a symbol of the process of sexual union and procreation. He does not appear in Homer as a god at all. Although his presence is missing in major works early on, Eros was still a popular allegorical figure for love. Eros, as the son of Aphrodite and Ares, gods of love and war, respectively, became the most popular version of the god as time when on. His identity as the progeny of two opposite forces may be a byproduct of the popularity of Aphrodite and Ares as a couple. In fact, there are several amusing stories about the two lovers, including a tryst in which both were caught in flagrante delicto, literally in a netted trap forged by Hephaestus, Aphrodite’s husband.

In later literature of Anakeron, Eros is the “playful tempter to love, the role that later becomes his stock-in-trade.”* This role as instigator is the main characteristic that stuck with Eros through time and into his form as a cherubic archer.

Interestingly, his accoutrements of bows and arrows do not appear until the late fifth century in Euripides’ Medeia as “weapons of love”. Cupid’s iconic set was not the first tool to be used for inciting feelings of love though; in early fifth century art, Eros is sometimes portrayed with an ax, whip, or a pair of sandals instead. I’m sure it would be less romantic to be beaten into loving someone with a pair of shoes, but to each his own.

As for Eros’ appearance, he is usually depicted in ancient Greek works as an adolescent boy with wings or a hovering, small, and naked winged figure, which may be where the cherubic infant image originated. Only later in the 2nd century AD does he appear in literature as an adult male.

For example, Eros is seen as an adult male in the story of Eros and Psyche, a love story in and of itself. Eros began a love affair with Psyche under the condition that she never see who he is. While they conduct a passionate affair in the dark, Psyche’s jealous sisters prod her to steal a look at her lover. Suggesting that he could be a serpent who would devour her, her sisters eventually tear down Psyche’s resolve, and one night she attempts to see Eros’s face. Holding an oil lamp for light, Psyche leans over, dripping oil on Eros in the process and waking him. She sees that her lover is Eros, but he flies away. Trials and tribulations ensue, but eventually the two are reunited, Psyche is made immortal, and a marriage between then is blessed by Zeus.

Through time, cupid, the god of sexual love and beauty, has become a cute symbolic figure of love and romance on greeting cards, but few remember his beginnings as a primordial god of desire and erotic love. Personally, I’d rather be struck with an arrow from this god of old.

So Eros, hit me with your best shot!

 


* Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, Vol. 1, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. p 3-4.

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