What the mythical Cupid can teach us about the meaning of love and desire

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(THE CONVERSATION) Every Valentine’s Day, when I see images of the chubby winged god Cupid aiming his bow and arrow at his unsuspecting victims, I take refuge in my training as a scholar of Greek poetry and myth. elders to meditate on the strangeness of this image and the nature of love.

In Roman culture, Cupid was the child of the goddess Venus, popularly known today as the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war. But for ancient audiences, as myths and texts show, she was truly the patron deity of “sex” and “procreation.” The name Cupid, which comes from the Latin verb cupere, means desire, love or lust. But in the strange combination of a baby’s body with deadly weapons, as well as parents associated with both love and war, Cupid is a figure of contradictions – a symbol of conflict and desire.

This history is not often reflected in modern Valentine’s Day celebrations. Valentine’s Day began as a celebration of Rome’s Valentine’s Day. As theologian and Late Antiquity scholar Candida Moss explains, the courtly romance of holiday advertisements may have more to do with the Middle Ages than ancient Rome.

The winged cupid was a favorite of medieval and Renaissance artists and authors, but it was more than just a symbol of love for them.

Born of sex and war


The Romans’ Cupid was the equivalent of the Greek god Eros, the origin of the word “erotic”. In ancient Greece, Eros is often considered the son of Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, as well as sex and desire.

The Greek Eros often appears in early Greek iconography along with other Erotes, a group of winged gods associated with love and sexual intercourse. These ancient figures were often depicted as older teenagers – winged bodies sometimes personified as a trio: eros (lust), himeros (desire) and pothos (passion).

There were, however, younger and more playful versions of Eros. Art depictions from the 5th century BC show the child Eros pulling a cart over a red-figure vase. A famous sleeping bronze of Eros from the Hellenistic period of the 2nd century BC. J.-C. also shows him as a child.

During the time of the Roman Empire, however, the image of the chubby little Cupid became more common. The Roman poet Ovid writes of two types of Cupid’s arrows: one that inflicts uncontrollable desire and another that fills its target with repulsion. Such depiction of Greek and Roman deities holding the power to do both good and evil was common. The god Apollo, for example, could cure people of disease or cause a plague to ruin a city.

Earlier Greek myths also made it clear that Eros was not simply a distracting force. At the beginning of Hesiod’s “Theogony” – a poem telling the story of the creation of the universe told through the reproduction of the gods – Eros appears very early on as a necessary natural force since it “disturbs the limbs and tames the spirit and the advice of all”. mortals and gods. This line was an acknowledgment of the power of sexual desire even over the gods.

Reconciling conflict and desire

And yet, Eros was not all about the sexual act. For the early Greek philosopher Empedocles, Eros was associated with Eris, the goddess of strife and strife, as the two most influential forces in the universe. For philosophers like Empedocles, Eros and Eris personified attraction and division on an elemental level, the natural powers that cause matter to spring into existence and then tear it apart again.

In the ancient world, sex and desire were considered an essential part of life, but dangerous if they became too dominant. Plato’s Symposium, a dialogue on the nature of Eros, offers a study of the different ideas of desire at the time – moving from its effects on the body to its nature and ability to reflect who people are.

One of the most memorable segments of this dialogue is when the speaker Aristophanes humorously describes the origins of Eros. He explains that all humans were once two people combined into one. The gods punished humans for their arrogance by separating them into individuals. So the desire is really a desire to be whole again.

Play with Cupid

Today it may be commonplace to say that you are what you love, but for the ancient philosophers you are both what you love and how you love it. This is illustrated in one of the most memorable Roman tales of Cupid which combines elements of lust with philosophical musings.

In this account, the 2nd-century North African writer Apuleius places Cupid at the center of his Latin novel, “The Golden Ass”. The main character, a man transformed into a donkey, relates how an older woman tells a kidnapped wife, Charite, the story of how Cupid visited young Psyche at night in the darkness of her bedroom. When she betrays his trust and lights an oil lamp to see who he is, the god is burned and flees. Psyche must wander and perform tasks almost impossible for Venus before she is allowed to reunite with him.

Later writers explained this story as an allegory of the relationship between the human soul and desire. And Christian interpretations have relied on this notion, seeing it as detailing the fall of the soul through temptation. This approach, however, ignores the part of the plot where Psyche gains immortality to stay by Cupid’s side and then gives birth to a child named “Pleasure”.

Ultimately, the story of Apuleius is a lesson in finding balance between matters of body and mind. The “Pleasure” child is born not of secret nocturnal meetings, but of the reconciliation of the struggle of the mind with the affairs of the heart.

There’s more than a little play in our modern Cupid. But this little archer comes from a long tradition of wrestling with a force that wields so much influence over mortal minds. Tracing his way through Greek and Roman myths shows the vital importance of understanding the pleasures and dangers of desire.

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