Cupid is the little cherub with the bow and arrow that is most commonly associated with Valentine’s Day and the emotion of love in general. While he is well-known thanks to advertising agendas, Cupid is more than a mere marketing ploy. He is a character that originated in Roman mythology and a symbol that has remained with mankind over many centuries. Although most people know what Cupid looks like, few know his background.
The name “Cupid” comes from the Latin “cupido,” which means desire. Thus, Cupid is associated with all forms of love – from affection to intimacy. The figure is generally portrayed as being a chubby young boy who can take flight by way of his tiny wings. He carries a bow and arrow that are used as an instrument of attraction. Anyone who is pierced by his arrow is destined to fall in love. This has resulted in Cupid being the instigator of events in many mythological stories.
In Roman mythology, Cupid is the son of Venus, the Goddess of Love and Mars, the God of War. Scholars have speculated that the birth of Cupid might have been representational of how love and war are both opposites, yet interconnected. It is well-established that the love affair between Venus and Mars was an allegory of the realities of both love and war. Hence, Cupid is symbolic of both innocence (a child) and danger (a carrier of weapons); one who can do good (make people fall in love) or wicked (make people feel desire, often against their free will).
The legend of Cupid tells that his mother Venus was jealous of the beauty of a young mortal named Psyche and ordered Cupid to punish the woman. Instead, Cupid fell deeply in love with her. He took her as his wife, but as a mortal she was forbidden to look at him.
Psyche was happy until her sisters persuaded her to look at Cupid. As soon as she gazed upon him, Cupid punished her by leaving. Their lovely castle and gardens vanished and Psyche found herself alone in an open field with no sign of her husband.
As she wandered trying to find her love, she came upon the temple of Venus. Wishing to destroy her, Venus gave the mortal a series of tasks. Psyche was given a small box and told to take it to the underworld to capture some of the beauty of Proserpine, the wife of Pluto.
During her journey she was given tips on avoiding the dangers of the realm of the dead and was warned not to look in the box. Yet temptation overcame Psyche and she opened it. Instead of finding beauty, she found deadly slumber. Cupid found his wife lifeless on the ground. He gathered the deadly sleep from her body and placed it back into the box. The gods, moved by the love Psyche and Cupid shared, made the mortal a goddess. Cupid thus became a symbol of love and affection.
While he was first introduced thousands of years ago, Cupid has been portrayed and analyzed in literature far beyond the ancient world. He has also been widely depicted in Italian art and has been shown realistically in paintings and sculptures dating back centuries. Notable works include “The Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Psyche” by Raphael; “Cupid and Psyche” by Orazio Gentileschi and “Psyche revived by the kiss of Love” by Antonio Canova.
Although times change, certain elements of the human experience do not, such as the fundamental emotions of love and affection. Perhaps this is the most rational explanation for why Cupid has remained a relatable and iconic entity throughout several centuries of human existence. The legend of Cupid and his commitment to his beloved makes the character a symbol of eternal love and therefore, the main figure associated with Valentine’s Day, the most romantic day of the year.