Why Is Cupid the Symbol of Valentine’s Day?

Cupid is forever linked to Valentine's Day, but how much do you know about this chubby little mythical matchmaker?

As Valentine’s Day approaches, there’s one figure you’ll probably see everywhere you look. We’re talking about that winged warrior of romance, Cupid, of course. Armed with his trusty bow and arrows, he zips around the clouds, eager to make love connections wherever he goes. But how much do you really know about this liaison of love?

Cupid’s dark origins

Today, Cupid is seen as one of the most iconic symbols of love and romance, but his journey to becoming the poster boy for Valentine’s Day was a long one, with some twists along the way. His romantic roots go way back to a time before his name was even Cupid—to ancient Greece when he was known as Eros, the god of love. According to Greek mythology, he was the son of Aphrodite, and he played with the emotions of both gods and mortals—and not always in the nicest of ways. As History.com explains, in one story, Cupid caused the god Apollo to fall in love with the nymph Daphne…then made sure the love was unrequited. In other stories, love turned dangerous.

This dark streak could perhaps be traced back to Cupid’s mother. In some variations of the legend, Aphrodite became jealous of the human woman (named Psyche) that Eros had fallen in love with and tricked Eros into putting a spell on the woman. Not surprisingly, the story doesn’t have a happy ending.

“Sometimes Eros is represented with a female figure with wings; this is Psyche,” says Catherine Connors, PhD, a professor in the Department of Classics at the University of Washington. “This Greek word for ‘soul’ is also the word for ‘butterfly,’ so we know they thought of the soul as a winged being. Images of Eros and Psyche in love are a way of expressing the idea that being in love transforms us as people.”

Cupid isn’t the only element of this lovey-dovey holiday with an unexpected origin. This is the surprisingly dark history of Valentine’s Day you never knew.

How Cupid evolved

While Eros was initially represented as a “handsome” and “irresistible” immortal, in the Hellenistic period he took on the form of the chubby child that we know and love today. So, how did that happen? “It was probably ideas about love being fleeting or capricious that are behind the representation of Eros with wings, which go back to ancient times,” says Connors. “Representing Eros as a child, and subordinate to his mother, is a way of containing or limiting the power that love was thought to have over us.”

This transformation happened around the 4th century BCE. Time further explains, “People were intimidated by this sexually powerful, controlling man, who could strike people into loving one other.” But once he was seen as acting “only on his mother’s wishes,” he suddenly wasn’t that powerful any longer. Here are 49 quotes that perfectly capture what it’s like to fall in love.

The cherub emerges

Once he was adopted by Roman culture, Eros was renamed Cupid, which stems from the word for “desire.” In the structure of Roman gods and their family tree, Cupid’s mother was now Venus, the Roman persona of Aphrodite. While his name may have changed, the Romans kept Cupid’s more recent Greek incarnation of him as the less-threatening, chubby-cheeked child.

Still, they didn’t underestimate his power. “Even when Eros or Cupid is thought of as young, the power of love is still fierce,” says Connors. “The Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses tells of Cupid having arrows—gold ones that cause people to fall in love and lead ones that cause people to reject love.” Get in the Valentine’s Day spirit with these heartwarming stories of first love.

Cupid in literature throughout the ages

While Cupid is now often associated with greeting cards, he was once the star (or at least the costar) in longer, more serious written works. “The most extended literary representation of Cupid is in a novel written in Latin about 160 CE by Apuleius, who was from North Africa,” says Connors. “A character in the novel tells the story of Psyche’s arrival at Cupid’s mysterious and luxurious house, where she is waited on by invisible servants. She doesn’t see him during the day, but they sleep together at night until, overcome with curiosity, Psyche uses a lamp to look at him and spills oil on him. She goes through many trials until they can be reunited and married.”

Cupid’s mythological soap opera inspired another literary work that serves as the root of a popular modern classic. “Cupid and Psyche were part of the inspiration for the story of Beauty and the Beast, written in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve,” says Connors. “In my view, this means that the dancing teapot and candlestick that you remember in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast goes all the way back to Cupid’s invisible servants in Apuleius’ novel.”

Cupid becomes the mascot of Valentine’s Day

For centuries, Valentine’s Day has been seen as a celebration of romance, and Cupid likely seemed to be a natural fit to represent the holiday. “The poet Chaucer, in a poem about birds, associates Valentine’s Day with love and may be drawing on earlier folk traditions,” says Connors. “Visually, the long artistic tradition of depicting Eros/Cupid with his mother, the goddess of love, persisted and was available when Valentine’s cards began to be commercially printed in the mid–19th century.”

Despite his colorful and complicated past, hopeless romantics everywhere relish the notion of a mischievous yet well-intentioned tyke (one who now uses his power for good instead of evil) floating around and matching up those who are destined to be soulmates. For your own mischievous take on the holiday, buy one of these 19 funny Valentine’s Day cards for that special someone in your life.

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Bobbi Dempsey
Bobbi Dempsey is a freelance writer, editor and content specialist whose credits include NY Times, Forbes, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping and many others. She has written both consumer-facing and B2B content for numerous companies in the technology, healthcare, education, and personal finance industries.