A historical count of Cupid and why he is the symbol of Valentine’s Day
By Ed Ghost, Staff Writer
Ah, Valentine’s Day! A day known for romance, chocolate, a prohibition-era massacre, tokens of affection, the 3rd century martyrdom of its namesake, date night, cute little hearts drawn everywhere and a baby with a bow and arrow who will shoot you — thus removing any autonomy on your end when it comes to whom you will fall in love with.
Yes, I’m talking about Cupid.
Where did he come from and who gave that unsupervised cherub an enchanted weapon? Spoiler alert: it was the Romans — ‘nuff said.
Like most of our current holidays, Valentine’s Day is a concoction of another culture’s traditions with a little biblical twist and an added sprinkle of modern values thrown in for good measure. Starting around the third century BCE, Lupercalia was a Roman festival performed annually on Feb. 15 to ward off evil spirits and to promote health and fertility among the Roman people. But in practice, what this meant was men running around naked, slapping women with goat hides and hoping they would provide a baby that year.
In an effort to combat the prevalence of Pagan festivals in the late fifth Century AD, Pope Gelasius I declared it Saint Valentine’s Day instead, after one of two possible martyrs of the same name. But he might have also just been annoyed with all the male nudity.
Pope Gelasius I hardly intended for it to become a day focused around couples and fertility — the intent was to focus on sacrifice. But the Romans, among other things, are not known to have assimilated into the annals of history quietly — and Valentine is, after all, the patron saint of love.
So how did Cupid get roped into all of this?
The myth of the Roman Cupid was borrowed from the story of the Greek God Eros, which is the Greek word for “desire”. Eros, son of the goddess of love Aphrodite wasn’t a tiny little winged baby, depicted instead as a young man who was as chaotic as he was beautiful.
He had a quiver of arrows and a bow and would toy with the hearts of both the Gods and man haphazardly. As a result, he was considered dangerous, for he would sometimes maliciously make the “wrong” people fall in love for all eternity — hardly the good intentioned, somewhat clumsy little boy we know today.
Sometime around the fourth century BCE, the stories of Eros had less to do with him and his tyrannical love-binding, and evolved to him becoming a messenger for his mother, carrying out her more rational biddings and adding an aspect of romance and consent.
This association depicted him as less manly and more boyish as the years went on. When the Roman era began, they borrowed much of their mythology from the Greeks, and Eros became Cupid (which also means desire). The Romans opted to keep him in his new form — as a tiny, winged, rosy-cheeked Cherub. The depictions of him as such were solidified later on through the interpretations of the great painters of the Renaissance era in the 14th century AD.
Fast forward to the 18th century AD, when Valentine’s Day as a commercialized holiday was picking up steam. The idea of expressing love with the reminder of a bloody sacrificed man-turned-saint wasn’t a very popular idea. But, the imagery of a cute, winged baby who listens to his mom and just happens to have a weapon was a significant improvement. Don’t worry — this weapon doesn’t hurt people, it actually makes them find true love, which seemed like a much nicer association with a day centered around romance, flowers and sweets.
So, when greeting cards started to become popular — thanks to the United States Congress voting in 1850 for postage rates to go down, thus stopping the privatization of the postal service — it became easier for Americans to send and receive mail. With this, it only made sense to feature Cupid’s angelic little face on as many cards as possible. Since then, modern day marketing has taken off and Cupid has become the very face of Feb. 14, appearing in love-themed games, toys, commercials, chocolates and of course, cards.