The mention of Cupid typically conjures up images of a cherubic infant wielding a bow and arrow, but this wasn’t always the case. Long before the Romans adopted and renamed him—and way before his association with Valentine's Day—Cupid was known to the Greeks as Eros, the handsome god of love.
One of the first authors to mention Eros (circa 700 B.C.) was Hesiod, who described him in “Theogony” as one of the primeval cosmogonic deities born of the world egg. But later accounts of the lineage of Eros vary, describing him as the son of Nyx and Erebus; or Aphrodite and Ares; or Iris and Zephyrus; or even Aphrodite and Zeus—who would have been both his father and grandfather.
Armed with a bow and a quiver filled with both golden arrows to arouse desire and leaden arrows to ignite aversion, Eros struck at the hearts of gods and mortals and played with their emotions. In one story from ancient Greek mythology, which was later retold by Roman authors, Cupid (Eros) shot a golden arrow at Apollo, who fell madly in love with the nymph Daphne, but then launched a leaden arrow at Daphne so she would be repulsed by him.
In another allegory, Cupid’s mother, Venus (Aphrodite), became so jealous of the beautiful mortal Psyche that she told her son to induce Psyche to fall in love with a monster. Instead, Cupid became so enamored with Psyche that he married her—with the condition that she could never see his face. Eventually, Psyche’s curiosity got the better of her and she stole a glance, causing Cupid to flee in anger. After roaming the known world in search of her lover, Psyche was eventually reunited with Cupid and granted the gift of immortality.
In the poetry of the Archaic period, Eros was represented as a studly immortal who was irresistible to both man and gods. But by the Hellenistic period, he was increasingly portrayed as a playful, mischievous child. Because of his associations with love, 19th-century Victorians—credited with popularizing Valentine's Day and giving the holiday its romantic spin—began depicting this cherubic version of Cupid on Valentine’s Day cards in a trend that has persisted until this day.
READ MORE: The History of Valentine's Day