Cupid: You may know him as that cute, cherubic, winged baby who shoots arrows that make people fall in love.
Beloved by couples and hated by singles, this little fella is the unofficial symbol not only of Valentine’s Day, but of the entire concept of love itself.
But who is he, exactly?
You may be aware of Cupid’s mythological origins as a Roman god, but what about how medieval Christians rebranded him from a mischievous pro-fornication demon to a symbol of romance?
Or his close association to the Hindu god of love, who also just so happens to also be a boyish, bow and arrow-wielding god?
This is the secret religious history of Cupid.
Cupid’s Origin Story
Cupid is the ancient Roman god of love and desire, and counterpart to the Greek god Eros (from whom we draw the word "erotic").
Eros was more beefcake than baby: young, handsome, and with more abs than you can shake an arrow at. When the Roman era began – and the Romans began reinterpreting Greek myths to fit their own culture – artists began portraying the god of love as an innocent, chubby, winged little boy, rather than a young man with rippling physique.
Cupid was the son of Venus and Mars, and originally represented the intersection of love and war… but the wee lad was always a mama’s boy. He followed mom’s lead, buzzing around, shooting would-be lovers with his arrows, injecting them with rampant physical and emotional desire.
In other words, he was a playful cherub bringing lovers together – hardly a malicious figure. But that later changed.
Demon of Fornication?
As Christianity took hold in Europe, Cupid went through several artistic interpretations. During the Middle Ages, Cupid was viewed by some religious scholars as a “demon of fornication” – a deceptive, evil little nymph who poisons the minds of good people with depraved, lustful thoughts of carnal desires.
This interpretation is often attributed to Theodulf of Orleans, bishop of Orleans and prominent writer and poet during Charlemagne’s reign. In his “De libris quos legere solebam,” he describes Cupid as "terrible and wicked," a "demon of fornication" who wields "the devil's force."
As Theodulf viewed him, Cupid's quiver was a symbol of his "depraved mind," his bow a symbol of "trickery," and his arrows a symbol of the "poison" of lust.
It’s quite the rebranding: Where once a playful symbol of love existed, now Cupid was a sex-crazed demon for a moralistic Christian age.
Meanwhile, in India, Hindus had a remarkably similar love god of their own: Kamadeva. The figure of Kamadeva actually predates Cupid/Eros by several centuries, so it would be more accurate to say the Greeks and Romans have their own version of Kamadeva.
Like Cupid, he shoots love darts from a bow. But physically, Kamadeva is closer to Eros than Cupid: young and hunky, as opposed to young and chunky. Kamadeva rides a parrot named Suka, according to legend, and with a bow of sugarcane and arrows made of flowers, he evokes the sweetness of young love in early spring.
Unlike his western counterpart, nobody every accused Kamadeva of being a demon, though.
A Valentine’s Mascot
Okay, back to Cupid and his troublesome rebrand.
Fast-forward several centuries, and mythology-obsessed Renaissance artists decided to reject the demonic interpretation of medieval Christians – restoring Cupid to his playful, cherubic roots.
Where once there was a single Cupid, Renaissance artists often included numerous versions in a single canvas. And not just in mythological paintings; Cupid had a tendency to sneak into biblical paintings as well.
As Valentine’s Day exploded in popularity in the 19th century, greeting card advertisers looked to Renaissance art for inspiration. Lo and behold, there was Cupid: a popular symbol of love, now free of the lusty, demonic baggage he carried in centuries past.
The cards were a hit! Adorable, chubby Cupid resonated with couples who wanted a cutesy, innocent representation of their affection.
And the rest is history. Far removed from his rocky religious past, Cupid is now a universal – and secular – symbol of Valentine’s Day.