Cupid in Roman Mythology: Birth Story, Symbols, Powers and Abilities

Cupid in Roman mythology

In Roman mythology, Cupid is the god of love. He is the son of the Roman god Mercury and the goddess Venus. According the myth, Cupid gets around using his wings. This feature of his allowed him to serve as the messenger of the gods. A winged-deity of love, Cupid was often depicted by the Romans as a handsome youth or an infant with a bow and a quiver of golden-tipped or lead-tipped arrows. Cupid’s golden-tipped arrow, upon hitting or scraping a ‘victim’, was believed to ignite an uncontrollable passion or love in the person or god. In the Greek pantheon, Cupid’s equivalent is the primordial god of love Eros.

Birth story

Much of the myths and beliefs that the ancient Romans had about Cupid came from the artworks and stories of Eros in Greek mythology and religion. However, the Romans reinterpreted them to suit their beliefs. For example, the Romans saw Cupid as the offspring of the goddess of love Venus (Aphrodite in Greek religion) and the god of war Mars (Ares in Greek religion). Perhaps the message that they were sending was that love could emerge out of two very contradictory things as war and love. This Cupid is generally termed as the Classical Cupid. In the Greek pantheon, however, Cupid, also known as Eros, was one of the four primordial deities that emerged at the dawn of time. The other three were Chaos, Gaia, and Tartarus.

In another myth, according to Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, Cupid is seen as the son of Roman god of forges Vulcan (Hephaestus in Greek mythology) and his wife Venus.

On the other hand, Roman statesman, poet and philosopher Cicero (also known as Marcus Tullius Cicero), believed that there exists three kinds of Cupids. The Roman statesman believed the first Cupid is the son of the goddess Diana (Artemis in Greek mythology) and the god Mercury (Hermes in Greek mythology). Cicero’s second Cupid is the son of Venus, and the third Cupid is the son of Venus and Mars. Interestingly, the third Cupid is more or less the opposite of the classical Cupid. That Cupid is considered the equivalent of Anteros (god of requited love), one of the Erotes in Greek mythology.

Read More: Greek gods and goddesses and their equivalents in Roman mythology

Meaning

Cupid god

Cupid Riding on a Dolphin (1630) by Erasmus Quellinus II

Like his Greek counterpart Eros’ name, Cupid’s name evokes a meaning of love. His name is said to have been derived from the Latin word cupiō or cupiere, which means “to desire” or “to love”.

Depiction and symbols

Regardless of the kind of Cupid, the first obvious features of the god are his wings. The use of wings to depict love is quite an interesting one, as since the era of the ancient Greeks, authors have considered love as something of flighty nature. Love is an ever-changing phenomenon, often hopping from one place to another in a twinkle of an eye.

With regard to his depiction as an infant or a slim youth, the Romans, as well as the Greeks, used this is an allegory to explain the irrational part of love.

The next common symbols of Cupid are his bow and arrows. According to the myth, those weapons are what make Cupid a very powerful Roman deity. Cupid’s bow is believed to have the ability to ignite in the people and gods that it strikes an overwhelming dose of love, attraction, and sexual desire. Another point worth mentioning is that no mortal or god was impervious to the power of Cupid’s bow. It is very interesting that the Romans and Greeks would decide to place such a powerful weapon in the hands of an infant so to speak.

To make matters worse, Cupid is sometimes depicted in the literature as a blindfolded deity. This feature of his is an attempt by authors to explain how love often times need not be ignited by the mind or the eyes, but simply by the heart. This theme has featured in many works over the years, famous among them are Sandro Botticelli’s panel painting Allegory of Spring (1482), William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595/6), and Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s “The Beauty and the Beast” (La Belle et la Bête) (1740).

The torch is also another important symbol that often gets associated with Cupid. For millennia, authors have described how love not only hurts but also engulfs the heart it touches with an unquenchable flame. It therefore makes perfect sense why torch or fire was seen as a symbol of Cupid.

Other symbols of Cupid include dolphin and lyre. The former is considered his mount. Dolphins are known for being very friendly to people at sea. This probably explains why dolphins were associated with Cupid. On the flip side, the use of dolphin, a fast moving sea animal, could be seen as a symbolism to explain the sometime fleeting and turbulent nature of love.

Cupid and Aeneas

In Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic that follows the events just after the end of the Trojan War, Trojan hero Aeneas, son of Venus, flees the burning city of Troy to embark on a journey that culminates in him founding Rome. Cupid takes the form of Iulus (Ascanius), the son of Aeneas, to charm Queen Dido of Carthage. As a result Dido warmly receives Aeneas and his followers from Troy. To Dido’s disappointment, however, Aeneas does not stay too long in Carthage, as he has to actualize his destiny of founding Rome.

According to the myth, Iulus was one of the mythical ancestors of Rome’s Julian family, which is famous for producing Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar.

Cupid’s arrows

Cupid in Roman mythology | Cupid breaking his bow (c. 1635) by Jean Ducamps

As stated above, the most powerful weapon in Cupid’s arsenal is his arrow. According to Roman poet Ovid, the Roman god Cupid has two different kinds of arrows in his quiver. The first kind of arrow has a golden tip at the end. That arrow is responsible for inflaming the heart with an overpowering love and affection.

On the other hand, the second kind of arrow has a lead tip that does the exact opposite of the golden-tipped arrow. Cupid’s lead-tipped arrow makes the person that it strikes feel strong aversion, causing him or her to avoid love.

Cupid and the hive of bees

In one of the myths, Cupid gets stung by a bee as he tries to steal some mouth-watering honey from a bee hive. Writhing in excruciating pain, Cupid runs off to his mother Venus and complains about how such a tiny creature as a bee could deliver pain as severe as the one he was suffering. Venus replies to Cupid’s inquest by stating that Cupid experienced poetic justice; that is, even though he, Cupid, was an infant, he still could cause mighty warriors and powerful gods to be struck by an emotion as powerful as love.

How Cupid used his arrows to wreak havoc in the lives of Apollo and the nymph Daphne

Following a confrontation between Apollo and Cupid over who was the better archer, the Roman god of love sought to upend the life of Apollo by shooting him with his gold-tipped arrow. This creates an overpowering love in Apollo’s heart. Cupid then shoots the nymph Daphne with his lead-tipped arrow, causing her to be averse to all manner of love advances from the god Apollo. An unrelenting Apollo pursues Daphne everywhere she went. Tired of Apollo’s advances, Daphne begs her father the river god Peneus to turn her into a laurel. This story explains why the laurel came to be a sacred symbol of Apollo, the Roman god of music, poetry and medicine.

Cupid and Psyche

Overtaking by doubt, Psyche holds a lamp over the body of Cupid, revealing his true godly form. Image: Psyché et l’amour (1626–29) by French painter Simon Vouet (1590-1649)

Borrowing a great deal from ancient Greek art and stories, Latin writer and Platonist philosopher Apuleius penned the Latin novel Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass). The novel contains a story that follows Roman god Cupid and his love affair with the beautiful mortal Psyche.

In the story, Venus seeks to exact a severe punishment on Psyche because the latter’s beauty begins to rival Venus’ beauty. People from all over the land gather in front of Psyche’s house to catch a glimpse of her. Bursting with raw jealousy, Venus commands her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in with the ugliest of creature in the land.

As fate would have it, Cupid instead falls in love with Psyche. The two then run off to live their lives together. Influenced by her jealous sisters who claim that Cupid is a hideous creature, Psyche one day shines a lamp on a sleeping Cupid so as to discover his real form. Struck by Cupid’s godly beauty, Psyche is oblivious to the hot oil that drips from the lamp onto the skin of Cupid, who immediately wakes up abandons Psyche.

Heartbroken by Cupid’s absence, Psyche roams the world looking for her lover. The exhausted Psyche then approaches Venus and pleads with the goddess to help her find Cupid. Venus agrees to help so long as Psyche is able to complete a series of arduous tasks. Psyche sails through all those tasks and is finally reunited with Cupid. For her unwavering love, Psyche is made immortal by Cupid, and the two live happily ever after.

Personality

Image – Cupid in a Tree (1795-1805) by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier

Typical traits of Cupid in Roman mythology include mischief, recklessness, irrationality and in some cases, especially in the literature, an uncaring attitude. Often times, he directs the mischief at his mother Venus and other Roman deities. However, in the myth, he was seen as very benevolent, one that enjoyed spreading love among humans and the gods, with a slight of mischief sometimes.

Association

Cupid

Cupids playing with a lyre, Roman fresco from Herculaneum

Several Roman deities were associated with Cupid in various myths, including Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek mythology) and Venus.

In ancient Greek pantheon, Cupid is the equivalent of Eros, a primordial god of love. In Latin, Cupid is known as Amor, which means love.

Cupid and Diana

Cupid being the deity of desire and love, it came as no surprise that Roman poet Ovid juxtaposes him to Roman maiden deity Diana (Artemis in Greek mythology). Like Cupid, Diana, Roman goddess of the moon and the hunt, carries a bow. Unlike Cupid, Diana is a big advocate of remaining chaste. She is one of the three chaste goddesses in Roman mythology; the other two deities are Vesta (Hestia) and Minerva (Athena).

Michelangelo’s Sleeping Cupid

In 1496, Renaissance artist Michelangelo, one of the most famous artists of all time, produced a sculpture called Sleeping Cupid. The Italian artist used acidic earth in order to make it appear more ancient so that it could fetch a better price. Upon discovering the mischief, buyer Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio asked for his money back. Since the late 17th century, the whereabouts of Michelangelo’s the Sleeping Cupid has been unknown. Some art historians have stated that the sculpture likely got destroyed during  the Great fire in the Palace of Whithall, London in 1698.

Read More: Everything that you need to know about Michelangelo

More Cupid Facts

A Valentine Day greeting card (1909)

  • In literature and art, Cupid is sometimes depicted in multiple forms known as the Cupides or Amores or erotes (or pothos).
  • According to Latin poet Ovid, Cupid frowned against chastity.
  • Medieval artists and writers associated Cupid with earthly and heavenly love.
  • The Romans sometimes associated “desire” with power. This explains why they had terms like cupido gloriae, which means “desire for glory”, and cupido imperii, which means “desire for ruling”
  • In addition to the goddess Venus, Cupid was often associated with the god of wine Bacchus.
  • In the early Christian period of Rome, the image of Cupid was sometimes seen as one associated with fornication. His mischievous side didn’t help this negative image he had with those group of people. With time that imagery changed, and many Christians came to accept him as a representation of love.
  • The Romans did not erect any temples in honor of Cupid. Neither was there any specially dedicated religious practice to honor the god. In some rare cares, he was revered in association with the goddess Venus.
  • In ancient Greece, however, there was a cult center of Eros. Compared to the Romans, the Greeks worshiped him more, often times along with the goddess Aphrodite. In ancient Greece, the fourth day of every month was Eros’s sacred day.
  • In some depictions, Cupid is shown donning battle armor. The armor Cupid wears is almost similar to the one Mars, Roman god of war, wears. This is another juxtaposition of love and war. The armor is perhaps a reference to the invincibility of love.
  • In the modern era, his images and portraits abound in popular culture, especially on Valentine’s Day.

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