It has always struck me as odd that in the modern world, Cupid is depicted as a winged, mischievous child. Sometimes he’s even wearing a diaper. It’s odd because, up until the Victorian Age, everyone knew Cupid as a total heartthrob. Cupid first appeared on the scene in 700 BC, where he was known to the Greeks as the god Eros (a Greek word meaning desire). As the son of the goddess Aphrodite (the goddess of love), Eros was given the power to play with the hearts of both mortals and gods. He caused mayhem everywhere he went, and the other gods complained that he had more power than should be allowed.

What was this power that Eros, later known to the Romans as Cupid, had? Eros had the power to make people fall in and out of love. A power he used depending on his mood and whims. Needless to say, we can all imagine the chaos and heartbreak he caused. Not only did he have the maturity of an eighteen-old man (impetuous and fearless with little concern for consequences), he had the body of a fully-grown male in his prime. The statuary of Ancient Greece and Rome, depicts Eros with the body of a warrior and with masculine wings. By masculine wings, I mean that his wings were enormous and heavy, almost like bronze shields. There was nothing soft or feminine or childlike about this ancient god. He was a virile, masculine young man (usually depicted as naked) with the power to grant you true love or to make your life a living hell.

In 440 BC, the playwright Sophocles described Eros in a choral ode to Antigone. This description, transcribed below, reveals a more narcissistic profile (almost creepy) of Eros.

Eros invincible in battle,

Eros who falls upon men’s property,

you who spend the night upon the soft cheeks of a girl,

and travel over the sea and through the huts of dwellers in the wild!

None among the immortals can escape, you, nor any among mortal men,

and he who has you is mad.

People even believed that if you displeased Eros, he would make you fall in love with the wrong person. A tragic situation that mere mortals were helpless to prevent. So how did we get from this impetuous, powerful, warrior god to the cherubs who dance on our Valentines? Some of whom wear diapers?

As the Roman Empire rose and began to fall, and they changed Eros’ name to Cupid, people began to infantilize him in order to strip him of his powers which many felt were derived from his virility and physical prowess. Whereas the Greek Eros was not controlled by his mother Aphrodite, in the Roman pantheon he was controlled by his mother Venus (also the goddess of love). In these later Roman stories, Cupid could only do as his mother bade him. Centuries later, during the Renaissance, famous painters like Caravaggio portrayed Cupid as a cherub in his work. While he was still nude, his wings were much smaller, as was his bow and arrow. He was no longer the threatening man, but a small child who bounced around making people happy by making sure they found their true loves and were loaded down with chocolate.

In the 17th Century, a devotion to St. Valentine–and to Valentine’s Day–spread across Europe. By the beginning of the 19th Century, the holiday was firmly entrenched and stationers began making stationary and post cards for people to give each other. Many of these cards had images of a mischievous cherub with a small bow and arrow, inspired the great Renaissance painters.

In the 1850s, when the U.S. Postal Service was almost privatized, Congress lowered the cost of stamps. Suddenly, sending and receiving mail was something everyone could do, and greeting card manufacturers jumped in with cards for all seasons, including Valentine’s Day. As companies, like Hallmark (founded in 1910), increased their greeting card production, most of the Valentine images were of cherubs surrounded by flowers and hearts. And the image of Cupid is the same today.

While in the ancient world, the image of Cupid was potentially dangerous, today he’s mischievous and light-hearted. Today his purpose is to spread love and joy and to bring people together who may not know they’re right for each other. And to deliver chocolate. Because above all, this holiday–and entire month–now is really all about chocolate.


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