Cupid, the God of Love, in all his many Forms

Cupid, our Valentine’s Day symbol, is one of the most multifaceted characters in myth and art. From early Ancient Greek times he has been depicted variously as a baby, a child; multiple young, winged children called amores, erotes, putti or cherubs; a young boy, and even an adolescent, capable of falling in love himself. He has wings and is armed with a bow and arrow or a burning torch.


Cupid by Hans Zatzka

Cupid by Hans Zatzka (1859–1945 or 1949), a cute and mischievous little boy.


In ancient Greece he was known as Eros and originally seen as the very essence of the uncontrollable passionate instinct which pervaded nature, man and even the universe. Myths spoke of how Eros had combined with Chaos to create all life as we know it.

Later, he became transformed into the mischievous offspring of Aphrodite, the goddess of Love, and Ares, the god of War. There are tales of him complaining to his mother about bees, about how tiny they are, and yet they cause so much pain. She responds to him that he too is tiny and also causes a lot of pain!


‘The Wasp’s Nest (aka The Invasion)’ by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

 ‘The Wasp’s Nest (aka The Invasion)’ by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), an allusion to the tale of Cupid and the Bees, and an example of multiple cupids, also known as Amores, Putti and Erotes. They don’t look too cherublike here!


Cupid has two types of arrows.  The first, gold-tipped, causes a person to have uncontrollable passion for whomever they next lay eyes upon; the other, tipped with lead, will cause the opposite effect, an extreme aversion.

The story of Daphne and Apollo perfectly illustrates the use of Cupid’s arrows. To punish the god Apollo for insulting him, Cupid wounded him with a gold-tipped arrow, causing him to fall desperately in love with Daphne, a beautiful water nymph. Apollo began to pursue her, desperate for her love. Yet Cupid had also shot a lead-tipped arrow at Daphne, so she fled from Apollo, horrified at the thought of being with him.

In the end, so determined was she to avoid his embraces that she prayed to her father, a river god, to save her. Just as Apollo caught up with her, she was turned into a laurel tree, yet his love for her was so strong that he embraced the bark, listening for the sound of her heartbeat, and vowed that the laurel would ever be precious to him. He took the leaves and made himself a crown of them, and used his godly power to make the laurel into an evergreen, saying, “Since you can never be my bride, my tree at least you shall be! Let the laurel adorn henceforth my hair, my lyre, my quiver… and as my head is always youthful, let the laurel always be green and shining!” Such was the undying nature of the love which Cupid with his arrows could inspire.


Apollo and Daphne by John William Waterhouse

‘Apollo and Daphne’ by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)


Yet Cupid himself, in the end, also fell a victim to his own arrow. Psyche, the youngest daughter of the king and queen of ancient Sicily, was so beautiful that people began to worship her and neglect Cupid’s mother, Aphrodite, the goddess of Love and Beauty. Incensed, she ordered Cupid to shoot his arrow at Psyche and cause her to fall in love with a hideous being. Yet Cupid fumbled, scratched himself with his own arrow and fell deeply in love with Psyche.


Love and the Maiden by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

‘Love and the Maiden’ by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908), ‘Love’ referring both to Cupid’s feelings for the maiden (Psyche) and the meaning of his Greek name ‘Eros.’


Secretly disobeying his mother because of his passion, he placed Psyche in a beautiful palace and became her lover. The jealousy of her older sisters, however, caused problems, and the course of true love definitely did not run smoothly for these two. Aphrodite sent Psyche on dangerous and impossible missions, which she was only able to fulfill through the help of various gods and other friendly beings.


The Rapture of Psyche or Ravissement by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

‘The Rapture of Psyche’ (also known as 'The Abduction of Psyche' see note [1]) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). Cupid has rescued Psyche and is flying her to safety. The love between the two of them and his protectiveness are manifest. They are ascending up to Heaven, the Realm of the gods, and the artist hints of this by depicting Psyche with the butterfly wings that she will gain once made immortal. (Her name, Psyche, was the ancient Greek word for both the soul and a butterfly.)


In the end, Cupid came to Psyche's rescue, resuscitating her from a deathlike coma with his godly powers and flying her off to the Realm of the Gods and away from danger. He then pleaded with Zeus, the king of the gods, to make her immortal so they could be married. Zeus took advantage of Cupid’s desperation to make him promise never again to aim his arrows at any of the gods, but we mortals remained fair game!


Cupid Shooting a Bow by Charles-André van Loo

‘Cupid Shooting a Bow’ by Charles-André van Loo (1705-1765). This little Cupid seems to be aiming his arrow straight at us!

All ended in the best romantic tradition with a big wedding and Aphrodite being reprimanded by Zeus. And further down the line, Psyche gave birth to their child, the female goddess of Pleasure, Hedone.


A vintage Victorian Valentine’s Card,

  A vintage Victorian Valentine’s Card, showing a sweet, not mischievous Cupid, bringing the blessings of true love.


[1]  The original French title, ‘Le Ravissement de Psyché,’ is often translated as ‘The Abduction of Psyche,’ which seems inaccurate to me, since he has just rescued her and is flying her to safety, and she is clearly more than delighted to be in his arms once more.  So, to my mind ‘Rapture’ is a more appropriate translation. I am inclined to think our prudish Victorian ancestors might have found the word ‘rapture’ a little too passionate! Just my thoughts….

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