[February 2020 | San Juan Silver Stage | By Karen Prather]

Who is Cupid? What was Cupid—mortal man or mythological deity? Was he a naughty angel baby with cherubic wings? Or was he a charming (somewhat capricious) and powerful young god known for his good looks and, perchance, for shooting arrows of love? However perceived, it’s generally accepted that Cupid—who seems to get younger as time passes—represents romantic love. There as many variations of who and what he was as there are arrows in his magic quiver.


Statue of Eros, Farnese, Napoli. (Wikipedia, Public Domain)

According to Greek mythology, Cupid first appeared around 700 B.C, a bow-wielding deity who was the most handsome of all the young immortals. The Greeks called him “Eros,” and as the son of Aphrodite—the goddess of love—Eros used his power (not always wisely) to make people fall in love.

Wielding his irresistible charm and armed with a quiver containing two kinds of magic arrows, he controlled mortal love…at his whim. When he fired a sharp-tipped golden arrow, it brought love into the heart of the female it struck. A blunt-tipped, leaden arrow (striking either male or female) would cause a desire to flee, leaving the recipient free to find another love relationship.

One story has it that the young Eros fell in love with a goddess named Psyche, revived her from death with a golden arrow, and married her. Another says that he had been harmed as a child, stung by bees, and experienced the kind of pain the lead arrow caused.

By the 4th century, the magic of Eros lost strength as the status of Greek women diminished. Aprhodite, as well as her son, Eros, were no longer as feared. A new version of Eros made him much younger and under the control of his mother, following her wishes rather than his own.

Victorian Cupid with Bow

17th-century Renaissance artists depicted Cupid as a chubby baby with angel wings and a bow. (Pinterest, Public Domain)

When the Romans replaced the Greeks, they adopted some of Greek mythology, changing it to fit into their own spiritual beliefs. Eros became Cupid (which means “desire”), the son of Venus (the Roman version of Aphrodite). Stories of Cupid written during this time highlighted the influence of his goddess mother. Cupid was depicted as an obedient mama’s boy, his mother controlling his every move.

Artist depictions of written legends contributed to society’s interpretation of Cupid throughout history. He kept getting younger, devolving from handsome young man into the chubby baby painted by 17th-century Renaissance artists. Eros, the charming deity both revered and feared because of his power to create (or destroy), has largely been forgotten. Victorians popularized Valentine’s Day with Cupid and his romance-inducing arrows as a symbol of love.

By the 20th century, the holiday had become commercialized, celebrated with candy, flowers, and gifts. Hallmark began creating Valentine’s Day cards around 1915, many picturing a winged, chubby, smiling cherub called “Cupid.”