Why is a little winged boy shooting arrows one of the symbols of love on Valentine’s Day?
Probably because the hot naked angel™ might not lead to very loving comparisons…
In some versions of his mythology, Cupid (or Eros) could shoot with one of two arrows, the gold-tipped ones causing untamed desire and the lead ones generating aversion.
Cupid famously won an archery challenge against Apollo by shooting the other god with the gold-tipped arrow and Daphne with lead.
We know how that worked out for Apollo: to escape his attention Daphne turned herself into a tree.
But we’re not here to talk about wood nymphs and sun gods on Valentine’s Day, especially since Apollo was traditionally unlucky in love.
Today’s focus is on Cupid’s own famous love affair, a story most of us know better as “Beauty and the Beast.”
Like many stories in Greek mythology start, a goddess envies a mortal. In this case, Aphrodite (Venus) is jealous that three sisters are celebrated for their beauty. In particular, the youngest, Psyche, is hailed the next coming of Aphrodite, much to the goddess’s disgust.
So Aphrodite sends her son to teach Psyche lesson, AKA make her life a living hell because the ancient Greek gods were vindictive monsters. She wants Cupid to shoot Psyche with an arrow so that the girl falls in love with some hideous beast.
But Cupid accidentally scratches himself with his arrow and falls madly for Psyche.
Meanwhile Psyche’s father receives a prophecy that Psyche’s husband will rain death and destruction on the world. Like any rational loving parent, he decides to sacrifice his daughter by leaving her on a cliff.
A wind god transports her to a gorgeous garden on the edge of gorgeous magical manor. Hiding from her view, Cupid gives her various instructions that end up with them in a dark bedroom. He forbids her to look at his face. Night after night, they tryst in the darkness, and he leaves before dawn.
Her older sisters, who might have been jealous of Psyche’s change of fortune, recite the prophecy of the awful winged creature back to her and urge her to do something about the monster that she’s taken to her bed.
So one night, intent on seeing then killing the beast (so she’s both Belle and Gaston here), Psyche hides an oil lamp and a dagger that she takes out after Cupid falls asleep. But instead of a monster, she sees a—ahem—hot naked angel™.
She’s so shocked to find this perfect specimen of male beauty in her bed that she bumps into his quiver, wounds herself on an arrow, and is so beset by passion that she shakes the oil lamp, burning Cupid and awakening him.
And now the hot naked angel™. is full of wrath that she betrayed his trust.
So Cupid flies away and Psyche (who is now pregnant, by the way) tries to follow him, but she fails. Because, duh, she’s a mortal and can’t fly.
Cupid decides to nurse his wounds at his mother’s house, where Aphrodite finds that her son failed to punish Psyche like she originally wanted.
So the goddess takes her revenge, violently torturing Psyche before fashioning a series of trials, which Psyche completes mainly because all these random things (ants, reeds, eagles, towers) decide to help her. I guess they don’t much care for Goddess of Beauty either, and besides that, Psyche has endeared herself to some of the other gods who want to help her because she’s not actually this horrible person Aphrodite’s making her out to be.
The goddess’s final trial sends Psyche with a box to fetch some beauty from the goddess of the Underworld. When she completes the task, Psyche
—like Pandora—can’t resist opening the box to claim some of this treasure for herself.
But the box, purportedly containing beauty, actually holds the sleep of death, which makes me wonder why Persephone wanted to kill Aphrodite or, more philosophically, if death is the only way to permanently capture the memory of beauty.
Now a healed Cupid comes upon Psyche, apparently defying his mother yet again. We should totally forgive him for ignoring his lover up to now, leaving her in her time of need, and letting his mother abuse her, and suddenly remember that Psyche broke his trust and he’s the wronged one in all of this. And if none of those reasons work for you, I’ll remind you he’s a hot naked angel™ (and a spoiled ancient Greek god).
So he comes to her rescue because he was struck by own arrow, hoisted by his own petard, so to speak, and still loves Psyche.
Cupid removes the sleep from Psyche’s face (which smacks of Sleeping Beauty to me) takes her and the box to his mom, and then goes to make his case to Zeus to let him marry Psyche, make her a goddess, and protect her from further scheming by her new mother-in-law.
And they live immortally ever after.
Not sure if this makes you feel better or worse about Cupid as a symbol of Valentine’s Day, but if you don’t want to think about cherubic babies pointing sharp objects at you, you can always instead envision a hot naked angel™.