“Cupid, draw back your bow
And let your arrow go
Straight to my lover’s heart for me.”
~ Sam Cooke
Cupid, the spritely and mischievous little putto, has long been the mascot of Valentine’s Day in the United States since Hallmark began producing Valentine’s Day greeting cards in 1916. Often portrayed with his mother, Venus (Aphrodite), the chubby rascal is known for firing his golden arrows into the hearts of unsuspecting singles, awakening an unknown desire for an equally unsuspecting partner. He has come to represent the surprising and fleeting nature of love; but that hasn’t always been the case.
The myth of Cupid dates back to 700 B.C. and the writings of the Greek Hesiod. He was first known as Eros, the Greek god of love, and was depicted as a handsome immortal male, irresistible to both god and man. As the son of Aphrodite, Eros was more often seen as a troublemaker, feared for his power – for who could conquer the power of love?
In the Hellenistic period (323-31 B.C.) the visage of Eros was changed. In order to impose a limit to his power, his likeness was reduced to a small child held in check by his mother, Aphrodite. He was given wings to represent the spirited and often fleeting nature of human love. He was given golden arrows for which to strike desire in some, and leaden arrows to strike aversion in others, almost always at his mother’s behest. However, that didn’t stop Eros from acting a bit puckish at times. In one outing, he shot a golden arrow at the god Apollo, causing him to fall hopelessly in love with the nymph Daphne, but then launched a leaden arrow at Daphne so she would be repulsed. (Ah, shades of high school. I remember it not fondly.) In another story, Eros was tasked by his mother, who was jealous of the mortal beauty, Psyche, to seek out the girl and cause her to fall in love with a monster. Instead, he became smitten himself, and after living with her in his luxurious house attended by invisible servants, married her.
As the Romans integrated Greek culture, they changed the name of Eros to Cupid. They also kept the cherubic depiction of the god that we see today. (Although in some depictions, he is shown as blind, representing the randomness of his arrows’ targets.)
If you are lucky enough to have found love, why not thank the little devil for being a heckuva good shot this Valentine’s Day? And for those still waiting, keep making yourself available … there’s a golden arrow with your name on it.