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Cupid Falls in Love.

Cupid seems to pop up everywhere as Valentine’s Day approaches. Often, we see him as a cherub with a bow and arrow. But who is he, where did he come from and what happened when he fell in love?1

Cupid’s Origins. As with most legends, Cupid’s origin itself is a mystery. Most say he is the son of Venus, or Aphrodite if you prefer her Greek name. His father is Mars, the god of war, although Zeus and Mercury have been known to lay claim as well.

In ancient Greece, Cupid was known as Eros, which is where the word “erotic” comes from. Aphrodite’s name gives us “aphrodisiac” and “amorous” comes from Amor, another Latin name for Cupid. So, the language of love truly can be said to be inspired by the gods.

Cupid with arrow.

It might seem odd for a chubby, child-like character to be a god of sensual love. But that image of Cupid is relatively recent, at least for someone who has been around for millennia. Originally Cupid or Eros appeared as the kind of handsome young man one would expect. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that he began to be seen as a child.2

Like most of the ancient gods, Cupid was a troublemaker, although he usually did the right thing in the end. That brings us to a story appropriate for Valentine’s Day, that of Psyche, said to be the most beautiful woman in the world.

Cupid carrying Psyche to his palace.
Cupid carries Psyche to His Palace.3

Introducing Psyche. The tale begins with jealousy. Cupid’s mother, Venus, had difficulty dealing with women whose beauty rivaled her own. She once bribed the Trojan prince Paris to choose her over two other goddesses in a beauty contest. His reward was the Greek beauty Helen. Unfortunately, Helen was already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta. When Paris took Helen to Troy, a thousand Greek ships set sail to bring her back, launching the Trojan War.

With Psyche there wasn’t even a beauty contest, Venus was just jealous of her looks and the attention they drew from her own followers. Venus sent her son Cupid to make Psyche’s life miserable by having her fall in love with a terrible monster. Cupid set out on this mission, but upon seeing Psyche he was so overtaken by passion that he accidentally pricked himself with one of his love-inducing arrows. Immediately, he abandoned his mother’s mission and reversed the harm he has already inflicted. Eventually Cupid took Psyche to live in luxury in a palace, where he visits her every night.

Cupid’s Secret Revealed. Psyche’s idyllic life had a strange condition — she had promised never to look upon Cupid’s face. Psyche’s jealous sisters convinced her that her unseen lover might be a monster waiting to devour her some day. They advised Psyche to find out who he was before it was too late.

Psyche awakens Cupid when hot oil from her lamp drips onto him.
Psyche Awakens Cupid.4

Following this advice, Psyche one night concealed a knife in her bedchamber. After she was sure Cupid was asleep, she lit a lamp to see who he was. But rather than the monster her sisters had warned about, Psyche saw a most handsome god. As she bent over for a closer look, hot oil dripped onto Cupid. Startled, he awoke and, upset his identity had been revealed, got up and flew out of the window. Psyche followed, but not having wings like her lover, fell to the ground.

Psyche’s Trials. Psyche searched in vain for Cupid. Seeing her plight, the goddess Ceres took pity and suggested she try to make peace with Venus.

Psyche was anxious for reconciliation and went to Venus, but the goddess seemed intent on vengeance and gave Psyche seemingly impossible tasks. Sympathetic gods took pity and advised her how to complete them.

Animation showing how clicking a cell inserts its address in a formula.
Cupid Revives Psyche with a Kiss.5

The last task was to bring Venus a box containing some of the beauty of Prosperine, the goddess of springtime and wife of Pluto, god of the underworld. Prosperine gave her the box and warned her not to open it. But curiosity got the better of Psyche again and, on her way back to Venus, she opened the box. Rather than finding beauty inside, she discovered it contained the sleep of darkness, which swiftly emerged and put her into a deep sleep.

Cupid found Psyche and woke her with a kiss. Psyche then completed her mission by delivering the box to Venus, while Cupid undertook to end the conflict.

A Happy Ending. Cupid took Psyche’s case directly to Jupiter, king of the gods, and persuaded him to help. Jupiter convinced Venus to leave Psyche alone and then dispatched Mercury, messenger of the Gods, to bring her to Olympus. Psyche was granted immortality so she could marry Cupid as an equal and live with him among the gods.

Psyche became the goddess of the soul. She and Cupid had a daughter named Hedone (Voluptas in Latin), who became the goddess of pleasure. If these names sound familiar, it is because they have come into our language as the words “psyche,” “psychology,” “hedonistic” and “voluptuous.”

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Fortunately for us mortals, matters of the heart don’t usually involve a jealous goddess. So however and with whomever you celebrate Valentine’s Day, may Cupid’s aim be true and his arrow work its magic.

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  1. Information for this article comes from: Robert Grave, The Greek Myths, Folio Society (1955) and D. L. Ashliman, Cupid and Psyche, Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts (last updated Feb. 24, 2015).
  2. Whitney Hopler, “The Differences Between Cherubs, Cupids, and Other Angels in Art,” ThoughtCo. web-site (April 17, 2018).
  3. William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Abduction of Psyche (1895). Private collection. For more information, see Sharrell E. Gibson, Cupid and Psyche (Jan. 1, 2001) on ARC web site.
  4. Louis Lagrenée, Psyché surprend l’amour endormi (1768). Painting is in the collection of the Louvre, Item R.F. 1983-76. See Louvre web site.
  5. Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1787). Painting is in the collection of the Louvre, Item M.R. 1777. See Louvre web site. Image posted by user @lavieimiitelart on Twitter.

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Updated February 11, 2019.