Cupid was the Roman god of love. Also known as Amor, he was the Roman counterpart of the Greek god Eros. His name was derived from the Latin cupido, meaning "desire."
Cupid was the son of Venus, goddess of love. Some accounts give his father as Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods, while others say that Cupid was the result of Venus's love affair with Mars, god of war. The Romans usually depicted him as a winged child, or baby, carrying a bow and a quiver full of arrows. He was also occasionally depicted as a beautiful adolescent, with or without wings. Sometimes he was shown wearing armor. This may be a reference to his paternity, or to draw a parallel between warfare and love, or to suggest the invincible power of love. From his birth Cupid was an essential part of Venus's retinue, firing his arrows to inflame both men and women with passion. Since Venus (the Roman counterpart of the Greek goddess Aphrodite) was a notoriously jealous and spiteful goddess, it is not surprising that Cupid was portrayed as a willful and mischievous child, delighting in the complications that sometimes arise from sudden passion. However, unlike his mother, he was more often playful than malicious, although in some stories he did show a spiteful side.
According to the Roman poet Horace, Cupid's arrows were sharpened on a grindstone dampened with blood. In myth, Cupid had two different kinds of arrows. His leaden arrows filled their target with a fugitive, sensual desire that merely needed to be satisfied, while his golden arrows inspired a more spiritual and lasting love. In Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hermia makes a promise to her lover Lysander: "I swear to thee, by Cupid's strongest bow,/By his best arrow with the golden head,/By the simplicity of Venus' doves,/By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves."
Cupid is a Romanized version of the Greek god Eros, but he lacks much of the latter's elemental energy. According to Hesiod's Theogony, Eros was present at the creation of the world and was one of the first beings. For the Greeks, therefore, Eros was not just the god of sensual or romantic love, he was also a primordial force without which life itself was not possible. This Greek sense of the immense power of Eros as a creative principle, which could wreak havoc as easily as it brings harmony, is almost entirely absent from the figure of Cupid as imagined in Roman and later times.
The most famous myth about Cupid is the tale of Cupid and Psyche, as told by the Roman writer Lucius Apuleius (c. 124–c. 170 CE) in his Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass).
Psyche was one of three daughters of a king and queen. All three were fair, but Psyche's beauty was so astonishing that people flocked to marvel at her and sing her praises. As they did so they forgot to worshipVenus, and her temples and altars were neglected. The goddess was enraged and determined to punish Psyche for her presumption. She called her son Cupid and ordered him to punish Psyche by making her fall in love with an unworthy being. However, when Cupid saw Psyche he was so struck by her beauty that he fell in love with her himself.
Psyche's two sisters married, but Psyche remained single. It seemed that, while everyone admired her, no mortal fell in love with her. This distressed both Psyche and her parents. They consulted an oracle who told them to take her to the top of a high mountain, where a monster would take her for its wife. Although her parents were devastated, Psyche decided to submit to her fate.
As she waited fearfully for the monster to arrive, she was lifted into the air by Zephyr, the west wind, who placed her in a flowery grove, where she fell asleep. On waking, she discovered that she was near a marvelous palace, which was far richer and more beautiful than any earthly one.
A disembodied voice spoke in her ear. It told her that the palace belonged to her and that invisible servants would obey all her commands. After bathing and eating, she went to bed. In the night someone whom she knew was her husband came to her, but she could not see him. Night after night her husband continued to come, but he always arrived in the dark and left before dawn.
Psyche fell in love and begged her husband to reveal himself to her. He refused, asking why she needed to see him: did she doubt his love? Psyche was calmed, but despite her love for her husband she felt increasingly sad at the thought of her parents and sister. Finally, she persuaded her reluctant husband to allow her sisters to visit her.
The sisters were consumed with envy when they saw Psyche's palace and its riches. They feigned concern, saying that she might be married to the monster the oracle had predicted, and they eventually persuaded her that she must discover her husband's true shape.
At their prompting, Psyche took to bed with her a knife to kill the monster and an oil lamp. She leaned over her husband to discover his face and found not a monster, but a beautiful, winged young man. As she gazed adoringly at him, a drop of oil fell from the lamp in her trembling hand and awoke him. Without a word, her husband flew away. Psyche tried to follow but fell to the ground. Her husband returned to tell her that he was the god of love, and that although he would not punish her for her lack of trust, he would have to leave her forever. Psyche went to her sisters, who pretended to grieve but secretly hoped to become Cupid's new wife. They jumped from mountains, expecting the west wind to bear them off, but instead they were dashed to pieces on the rocks. Psyche wandered the earth, forlornly searching for Cupid. She met the goddess Ceres (Demeter), who told her that there was no remedy but to beg Venus's forgiveness. At her temple, Venus received her angrily, and set her to various difficult and dangerous trials. Psyche succeeded in completing all the tasks because animals and plants pitied her plight and helped her.
The suspicious Venus gave Psyche one final task: she had to descend to hell and bring back in a box some of the beauty that only Ceres' daughter Persephone could bestow. Again Psyche despaired, but again she received unexpected help: the tower from which she intended to throw herself spoke and gave her instructions on how to fulfill the task. There was only one condition—Psyche must not look inside the box.
Persephone gave Psyche the box and she hurried back. Once again, her curiosity got the better of her and she opened the box. However, it did not contain beauty, but sleep. Psyche immediately fell into a deep sleep.
Cupid, meanwhile, had recovered from the wound caused by the hot oil. He longed for Psyche and began looking for her. When he found her sleeping he gathered up the sleep from her eyes and replaced it in the box so that she could give it to Venus.
While Psyche hastened toward Venus, Cupid flew up to heaven and begged Jupiter to help him. Jupiter persuaded Venus to forgive Psyche and Cupid. Psyche was brought up to heaven, where she was given a cup of ambrosia to make her immortal. She and Cupid were united in marriage, and in time she bore him a daughter named Pleasure.
Apuleius's account is the only written source for the story of Cupid and Psyche, but it was depicted in earlier wall paintings and other images, which suggests that Apuleius was embellishing a much earlier and possibly widespread myth. In these images Psyche is often shown as a winged girl playing with Cupid. In Greek, psyche means both "soul" and "butterfly."
The myth may be an allegory about the struggle of the soul, the reflection of pure beauty, which is chained to the earth by its base passions—in particular, curiosity. Only after undergoing various difficult trials can the soul support the sight of pure beauty. And it is love (as embodied by Cupid) that helps the soul to reach its goal—the divine world of ideas.
Today Cupid is one of the best-known of the ancient mythological figures. He has featured in visual art and in poetry from ancient times to the present.
In painting, from the Renaissance on, Cupid is shown either as a beautiful, winged youth accompanying his mother Venus or firing his mischievous arrows, or as a winged cherub, equally mischievous but more sentimental. In early Renaissance allegorical paintings Cupid is sometimes shown in almost devilish guise as a warning against the temptations of the flesh.
In modern times Cupid has entirely lost any powers suggestive of the sacred or the divine. Instead he is invoked as an aid to sentimental love in popular music, portrayed as a Kewpie doll or greeting card figure, and incorporated into the domain names of Internet dating agencies.
See also: APHRODITE; DAPHNE; EROS; JUPITER; PSYCHE; VENUS.
- Burr, Elizabeth, trans. The Chiron Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology: Gods and Goddesses,.
- Heroes, Places, and Events of Antiquity. New York: Chiron Publications, 1994.
- Cupid and Psyche. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1996. . Charlotte.
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