Cupid, Roman God of Love and perhaps the most famous of all Valentine symbols, has always played a role in the celebration of romance. As the son of Venus, he is often depicted as a mischievous, winged child whose arrows pierce the hearts of his victims, causing them to fall in love. Cupid is derived from the Latin word cupido, which means "desire." His Greek counterpart is Eros (from whom comes the word "erotic"), young son of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty, and Ares, God of War. In Greek mythology, Eros has a brother named Anteros, sometimes represented as the Avenger of Slighted Love and sometimes depicted as the symbol of Reciprocal Affection.
According to legend, Cupid's arrows come in two varieties: the Golden Arrow, which generally signifies true love, and the Leaden Arrow, which represents wanton and sensual passion. He is also known to sometimes carry a torch with which to inflame desire between men and women. Cupid is not always successful in his endeavors, however. Sometimes his arrows turn people away from those who fall in love with them. In some mythological tales, Venus was scratched by one of Cupid's arrows while playing with her son, the result being that the Godddess fell instantly in love with Adonis...the first man she saw after receiving the wound.
According to some sources, Cupid (as Eros) arose out of Chaos, along with Tartarus and Earth (making him one of the oldest Gods), only later becoming associated with Aphrodite as her winged son. The mingling of Eros (who, in this instance, was considered to have no parents) with Chaos is said to have created the race of birds. In certain mythological tales, it is stated that there was no race of immortals before Eros caused all things to mingle. Other legends maintain that Eros hatched from an egg laid by Nyx, also known as Night. Cherubs are also believed to be descendants of Cupid. Depicted as loveable little winged creatures devoid of either arrows or quivers, cherubs are typically not mischievous, as is their infamous alleged ancestor.
The most well-known legend concerning Eros details his love for the mortal princess, Psyche, who was so beautiful that people began paying homage to her...homage that was due only to Aphrodite. The Goddess of Love soon found her altars deserted while men turned their devotion to Psyche, the young virgin. Calling upon her winged son, Eros, Aphrodite instructed him to cause Psyche to fall in with the ugliest creature he could find. But, when Eros set eyes upon Psyche, he himself fell in love and forgot his mother's command. They became lovers...although Eros forbade Psyche ever to look upon him.
Psyche was happy until her two sisters persuaded her to unmask the identity of this mysterious sweetheart. Eros, fearing what Aphrodite might do to him now that his secret was out in the open, departed from Psyche...their lovely castle and gardens vanishing with him...and Psyche found herself alone in an open field.
As she wandered in search of her love, Psyche came upon the Temple of Aphrodite. Wishing to destroy her, the Goddess of Love gave Psyche a series of tasks, each harder and more dangerous than the one before. For her last task, Psyche was given a little box and told to take it to the Underworld, where she was to obtain some of the beauty of Persephone, the wife of Hades, and put it in the box.
During her journeys, Psyche had been given advice on avoiding the dangers to be found in the Realm of the Dead and also cautioned not to open the box, but temptation overcome her and she ignored the warnings. Instead of finding beauty, however, Psyche found deadly slumber. When Eros discovered his beloved lying lifeless upon the ground, he gathered the perpetual sleep from Psyche's body and returned it to the box.
Aphrodite was persuaded to forgive Psyche and Zeus, moved by Psyche's love for Eros, made her immortal, agreeing that the lovers could be united for all eternity. In due time, a daughter was born to them and they named her Volupta, which means "Pleasure."
The fable of Eros and Psyche is usually considered allegorical. The Greek name for a butterfly is "psyche" and the same word means the "soul." Thus, Psyche represents the human soul which, purified by sufferings and misfortunes, is prepared for the enjoyment of true and pure happiness. In works of art, Psyche is often depicted as a maiden with the wings of a butterfly.