Eros: The God of Love
Eros, known as Cupid by the Romans, was the Greek god of love.
Armed with a quiver full of magic arrows, he shot at unsuspecting men, women, and even gods to strike them with romance.
The imagery of Valentine’s Day makes us think of this character as an innocent child, but the Greeks had a much different view of their god.
Eros was both a loyal servant of Aphrodite and a mischievous character whose arrows could cause chaos.
The personification of romance and attraction, his name was used by poets to express their most personal feelings.
So how did the god of Greece become the adorable cherub we see today? Read on to find out!
There are many different legends concerning the birth of Eros.
Early writers, such as Hesiod in the 7th century BC, claimed that Eros was older than the Olympians. In this version of his story, Eros emerged with the primordial gods at the beginning of the universe.
Hesiod and his peers saw love as a primal force, as basic to the workings of the universe as the earth and sky themselves.
A century later, Sappho claimed that Eros was slightly younger, one of the first children of Gaia. That would place him in the same generation of gods as the Titans.
These early myths of Eros fell out of favor, however. Most Greeks in the classical era associated him with Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and desire.
Aphrodite was not born from the union of two gods. Instead she came into being when the severed genitals of Uranus, the primordial god of the heavens, struck the ocean.
As Aphrodite was formed from the sea foam, some poets claimed that Eros and Himeros, Desire, followed behind her.
This was a popular scene in art. As Aphrodite emerges from the sea, held above the water by a huge shell, Eros and Himeros fly around her.
Others said that Eros was born in a much more conventional way.
Eventually she divorced her first husband and became the official consort of the god of war. They remained together and had a family.
Their children had many traits of their parents. Deimos and Phobos, terror and panic, followed their father in war.
Eros, their more famous child, took after his mother. He carried a weapon that Ares would approve of, but had power over love rather than fear.
His sister Harmonia often accompanied him. The two could be at odds though, as love did not always lead to peace and happiness.
He was still seen as a companion of his father, even if he was more closely allied with his mother. All the children of Aphrodite and Ares represented powerful, overwhelming emotions.
Love could cause fear and inspire dread. It could start wars and end them.
Eros was the most complicated of his siblings. He could be unpredictable in both his targets and the consequences he caused.
Some stories say that Eros was already born before Aphrodite and Ares began their affair, and that he was in fact the one who tricked the god of war into feeling love.
While not their son in this imagining of the story, he is intrinsically linked to the two.
Eros as the son of the deities of beauty and war became the more accepted version of his origins in later years, and is the story most commonly repeated in modern retelling of the myths.
He would be portrayed as both a servant of his mother and as a beloved, if not sometimes exacerbating, child.
In most myths of Eros, he is virtually inseparable from his mother, Aphrodite. The god of love followed the goddess of beauty and attraction, obeying her commands and working her will.
As a servant of Aphrodite, he is sometimes depicted as one of a retinue of erotes, personifications of the many aspects of love.
These winged loves included Anteros (unrequited love), Hedylogos (flattery), Pothos (longing), Hymenaeus (weddings), and Himeros (desire).
A Roman poet once described this troop of love gods gathered around Aphrodite, waiting for her command to torment men, turn gods against each other, or cause more problems for Zeus.
Aphrodite called upon Eros and his peers to do her bidding.
As the goddess of love and procreation, she could command Eros to strike men and women with his arrows as either a blessing or a curse. She could cause attraction and desire, but only her son could cause passionate, consuming love.
To win the beauty contest against Hera and Athena, for example, she promised Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Although Helen was already married to the king of Sparta, she sent Eros to pierce her with an arrow so she would love Paris instead.
In this case, Aphrodite’s command to her son sparked the Trojan War when Helen eloped with Paris and left for Troy. Eros paved the way for his father, Ares.
She could command Eros to strike the gods, as well. When she saw Hades, she implored her son to shoot him so that her power could extend over the last of the three ruling brothers of the gods.
Hades had been the only god who had avoided her to that point, but at her request Eros filled him with love for Persephone.
The only beings said to be safe from Eros were the three sworn virgins of Olympus – Athena, Artemis, and Hestia. They either avoided his arrows or, as some writers claimed, were immune.
The mother and son were often worshipped together. Altars and statues of Eros were often placed within the larger temples of Aphrodite, recognizing his subservience to her.
It is notable that, in most versions of Eros’s story, love comes after beauty. Aphrodite was the goddess of sexual attraction and pleasure who gave birth to romantic love.
To the Greeks, physical desire and even procreation itself could come before real love.
Marriages in the ancient world were often arranged, with young people having little to no say in the choosing of their partners. In this type of society attraction and desire would come first, before the newlyweds had time to get to know one another enough to feel affection.
The same holds true in the modern world, although for different reasons. “Love at first sight” is still held as a romantic ideal.
As the personification of romantic love, Eros became a favorite subject of poetry and song.
The Greeks were very much like modern writers in their view of love. Even in the epic tales of heroes and legends, love was described in very poetic terms.
The Greek language had many forms of love to choose from.
Storge was the familial love between parents and children. Philia was the love felt in friendship.
But the love that would inspire poetry and art was eros.
Poets often described themselves as being pierced by Eros’s arrows or attempting to flee from his shot.
One poem from the 5th century BC describes an attempt to avoid falling in love as if it were a great contest or game:
Eros urged me to love, but I was a fool and was not persuaded. So he immediately took up his bow and golden quiver and challenged me to a fight. I hung my corslet from my shoulders, like Achilles, and took my spears and ox-hide shield and began fighting with Eros. He shot and I ran; when he had no arrows left, he was distressed; then he hurled himself for a javelin, pierced the middle of my heart and loosened my limbs. My shield and spears and corslet are useless: why hurl weapons from me when the fight is within me?
-The Anacreontea, Fragment 13 (trans. Campbell)
In Greek poetry, falling in love was not a choice and the actions taken by someone in love were not entirely in their control. Romantic love was in the hands of a god.
In the 6th century BC, Anacreon depicted the feelings caused by both Eros and Aphrodite. Eros brought about love, but Aphrodite made the bonds of love harsh.
According to Ovid, Eros also had the power to end the love between two people. With a blunt, lead-tipped arrow he could cause someone to fall out of love as easily as they fell into it.
Eros to the Greek poets was the literal personification of love. They gave credit, or fault, to him for all their passions, heartaches, and the foolish things they did in the name of romance.
Eros was not the only god to personify a powerful emotion or force in the Greek world. While the gods of Olympus ruled over a variety of domains, many of the lesser gods were associated so closely with a specific power that their name was interchangeable with it.
Of the personifications, though, Eros was one of the most frequently attested to. This can be largely attributed to the fact that love plays such an important role in many of the Greek myths, in addition to the world of the poets and artists who invoked him.
Seneca took a dim view of this personification of love and lust. Eros and Aphrodite, he once said, were the creations of debased and sinful men who sought to blame another for their madness.
Eros, he said, was the least of gods who shot men down with “wanton weapons in his boyish hands.”
While love could bring great joy and pleasure, it could also create problems.
The gods knew this all too well. Zeus and the other Olympians had been pierced by Eros’s weapon often enough to know the complications that could arise from passionate romantic love.
The Roman poet Seneca described the other gods as being frequent targets of the “ruthless” god of love.
Often, Eros targeted his fellow gods on the bidding of his mother. But, just as often, there seemed to be no reason for them to fall in love.
Eros, it appeared, simply liked making his fellow Olympians fall madly in love with nymphs, mortals, and one another.
Zeus, in particular, seemed to be a constant target of Eros’s attacks. His many love affairs formed a constant theme in Greek mythology, as did the strife it caused with his wife, Hera.
In the 5th century, Nonnus described Eros as flying after Zeus with a quiver full of arrows. Each had a verse inscribed on it detailing the affair with a mortal woman it would bring about.
The loves Eros caused Zeus according to Nonnus were:
- Io – Turned into a cow to disguise her from Hera, Nonnus describes her as “heifer-fronted.” Although she tried to hide from both Zeus and his angry wife, she was unsuccessful.
- Europa – Zeus abducted her to Crete in the form of a white bull. Their son Minos gave his name to the Minoan culture, which is attested in archaeology to have featured bulls in their religion.
- Plouto – She became the mother of Tantalus.
- Danae – The mother of Perseus, Zeus appeared to her as a golden shower when her father locked her in a bronze cell.
- Semele – Pregnant with Dionysus, she was burned to death when Hera tricked her into seeing Zeus in his true form.
- Aegina – The god transformed himself into a giant eagle and carried her away.
- Antiope – Zeus took her by force, but disguised himself as a satyr to do so. Her son Amphion founded Thebes.
- Leda – She was seduced in the form of a swan. She hatched four children from eggs of which two, Helen of Troy and Pollux, were children of Zeus.
- Dia – Zeus took the form of a stallion to seduce her.
- Alcmene – She is one of the most well-known of Zeus’s consorts because their son together was the great hero Heracles. The god disguised himself as her husband to trick the faithful woman into sleeping with him.
- Laodamia – Sometimes known as Hippodamia, she was the daughter of the hero Bellerophon.
- Olympias – This later addition to the mythology asserts that Zeus, rather than Philip of Macedon, was the father of Alexander the Great. There is evidence that the historical ruler himself made this claim.
As the list compiled by Nonnus represents only a fraction of the affairs of Zeus, it’s clear that Eros struck the king of the gods many times through the years.
Eros could be spiteful with the use of his arrows. When Apollo chastised him for being a less-skilled archer, Eros got revenge by causing his tragic love of Daphne.
The version of Eros portrayed in Aesop’s fables very often uses love to mischievous ends.
For example, Eros caused a weasel to fall in love with a man. Aphrodite took pity on the animal and turned it into a human woman, but Eros laughed when she instinctively chased a mouse at their wedding feast.
Even Aphrodite acknowledged her son’s propensity for mischief. In the Argonautica, she addressed Eros like a naughty child who disobeyed her and even threatened to shoot her with an arrow when he was angry.
In this story, Aphrodite was so tired of the troubles caused by her willful son that she claimed to be almost ready to break his arrows herself.
While the gods enjoyed their trysts, they often caused trouble in the long run. Many ended in tragedy. Others, particularly for Zeus, caused strife between the Olympians themselves.
Zeus would one day call on Eros to target his mother with one of his infamous arrows. Bearing a mortal son, the king hoped, would expose her to the pain she caused him and his peers when she caused them to fall in love with humans.
Her love of Anchisus and the birth of Aeneas showed the goddess the heartache of loving a short-lived mortal. She ended her commands to strike the gods with love’s arrows, but it would take another great love to keep Eros from continuing his mischief.
Eros’s service to Aphrodite would eventually put an end to the worst of his mischief.
The story of Eros’s marriage was a later addition into the mythology, but became one of the god’s best-known stories.
Psyche was a mortal princess who was known far and wide for her great beauty. Eventually, people began to say that the girl was a new goddess who could rival Aphrodite.
The goddess, like many Olympians, was prone to jealousy. Although Psyche herself made no claims to greatness, Aphrodite still determined that she should be punished.
Aphrodite’s plan was to make the beautiful princess fall madly in love with the most hideous man on earth. Having been unhappily married to Hephaestus, she believed that such a match would bring the girl great sorrow.
Unfortunately for Aphrodite, this would be the time Eros failed in his service to her. As he readied the arrow to shoot at Psyche, he grazed his own finger.
Eros, the god of love, fell in love with his target.
Meanwhile, Psyche’s father had consulted an oracle because he was confused as to why his most beautiful daughter had no offers of marriage. The oracle claimed that her groom was waiting for her in a cave on top of a nearby mountain, but that he was a horrible monster who would destroy the lovely princess.
Her parents were terribly saddened but didn’t dare question the prophecy. They led Psyche to the mountain in a procession of sad mourning instead of a happy wedding.
Alone in the cave, however, Psyche found a lavish palace. Surrounded by riches, she was attended to by invisible servants.
Eros made himself invisible and warned her to never try to see his face. Great misfortune would befall them both if she discovered his identity.
Even though Psyche could not see her husband’s face or learned his name, she was fond of her new husband. The comfortable life she enjoyed was far different than the monster she had come to expect.
Her marriage was also happier than those of her sisters.
Although happy in her marriage, Psyche was lonely. She asked to be able to visit her two older sisters.
Eros agreed to summon them, but warned her that her sisters might try to plot against her. Unhappy in their own marriages, he feared they would try to scheme against his wife out of jealousy.
Eros was right to doubt his sisters-in-law. They were so jealous that they insisted that the reason Psyche had not seen her husband’s face much be because he truly was a horrible monster.
That night, Psyche gave in to the doubts her sisters had planted in her mind. After her husband had fallen asleep next to her, she lit a lamp so that she could see his face.
She also armed herself with a razor blade, prepared to kill the terrible monster she was now convinced she would see.
Instead of a monster, she saw a god with perfect features. She was so amazed at the sight that she leaned in closer, causing a single drop of lamp oil to spill onto his bare shoulder.
The burning oil awoke the god, and he was furious. Not only had his wife disregarded his command to not look at his face, but she had been prepared to kill him in his sleep.
Injured and infuriated, Eros left her. He fled to his mother’s palace on Olympus, where his burn could be seen to by her attendants.
When Aphrodite learned that her son had been playing husband not to a nymph, but to the very woman she had ordered him to destroy, she was furious.
He had been disobedient to her, not only as his mother but also as his superior in the hierarchy of Olympus. She threatened to strip him of his powers expel him from the company of gods, saying a servant would be a better son and companion.
Aphrodite’s drew the attention of Demeter and Hera who, although reluctant to cross their fellow goddess, felt pity for the human girl.
Psyche roamed the world searching for the husband who had left her. Some stories said that when she had looked upon Eros in his sleep she had grazed one of his arrows, causing her to fall as deeply in love as he had.
She eventually met both Demeter and Hera. Although they would not interfere, they warned her that Aphrodite was searching for her.
Hermes finally found her and dragged her to Aphrodite’s temple to face the goddess’s wrath.
Aphrodite forced the girl to complete a series of gruelling tasks to punish her. In every chore, Psyche received help from the spirits of nature.
On her final task, Psyche faltered. She had been sent to the underworld with a box of beauty products for Persephone.
The path through Tartarus was treacherous and frightening. She reasoned that there was no reason to put herself through all that.
She would simply use the makeup of the goddesses to make herself so irresistibly beautiful that Eros would no longer avoid her.
Eros, however, had already forgiven his wife and regretted his hasty anger. Recovered from his burn and feeling guilty, he set out to find her.
Psyche opened the box meant for Persephone, just as Aphrodite knew she would. Inside was not beauty creams, but a magic sleep that hit the girl instantly.
Eros found his wife in the underworld just as magical sleep took her. He awoke Psyche and vowed to end his mother’s campaign against her.
He took his appeal to Zeus, who as the king had the final say in matters of justice among the gods.
Aphrodite argued that a mortal could never be a good enough match for her divine son, and their professed love was an insult to her and all the gods.
Zeus sided with the younger couple, but his motives were not entirely altruistic. He had frequently been on the receiving end of Eros’s arrows, falling in love with dozens of women and nymphs, and hoped that marriage and family life would help to calm the mischievous god.
Zeus allowed Eros and Psyche to stay together, and to pacify Aphrodite he elevated Psyche to godhood. She became the goddess of the soul.
At the time of her trials by Aphrodite, Psyche was already pregnant. She gave birth to Eros’s daughter Hedone, the goddess of physical pleasure.
Hedone, the only child of Eros named in mythology, lives on as the namesake of hedonism. Love brought forth a wild abandonment to pleasure that could, in the teachings of the Stoics, was against all teachings and reason.
The story of Eros and Psyche may not have been known through most of Greek history, but it quickly earned a place in the popular imagination.
In early Greek poetry and art, Eros was a strong and handsome young god. As a beautiful young man, he embodied the attraction and allure he created.
Later poets, writing satire, portrayed him as a blind child. This humorous version of the god shot wildly without knowledge or regard for his target.
This was the Eros shown in Argonautica – a naughty and mischievous boy who had to be bribed with toys by his mother.
He even played like a child. In this scene, he was a playmate of Ganymede who won at dice by cheating the less experienced boy.
The child Eros treated love as a game.
In time, the child-like portrayal of Eros became more standard in both art and literature. He was depicted more often as a mischievous boy than a handsome young man.
Eros, as the Roman Cupid, became even younger during the Renaissance.
As Roman art and culture surged in popularity after the Middle Ages, artists looked to classical works for inspiration.
Cupid, they saw, was a young man or child depicted with feathery wings. This was similar to another, younger figure in Roman iconography – the putto.
The putto was a way for Roman artists to represent a spirit or feeling in visual works. Shown as young children or babies, they flew on delicate white wings.
These playful figures had no fixed names or meanings, unlike Cupid. But the visual similarities were enough for Renaissance artists to associate the two.
Influenced by the popular writings of later Roman poets, who were more likely to portray the child-like and mischievous deity, artists of the Renaissance conflated Cupid/Eros with the unidentifiable putti.
They further associated the form with the angelic cherub.
The cherubim in the Bible were protective angels that had traditionally been shown as awe-inspiring creatures with multiple wings and the faces of many creatures.
With the influence of Roman art, they were transformed into a much less threatening form. This coincided with a general movement toward showing angels as kinder beings than the avenging protectors of the Old Testament.
Today Cupid, cherubim, and putti are interchangeable. As a symbol of love, Cupid and his arrows are used in the iconography of Valentine’s Day in a non-threatening, endearing personification of romance.
Today, the image of Roman Cupid as a cherubic putto is so prevalent that Eros is almost forgotten.
Love is no longer handsome and powerful. It’s innocent, playful, and non-threatening.
The personification of romantic love has shifted from being the offspring of sexual attraction and violence to a much safer, tamer being.
Cupid more closely reflects our modern ideals. Violent, overpowering love is no longer accepted as the norm.
We prefer an endearing force to one that incites madness.
Eros lives on in one primary sense in the modern world. His name gives us the word “erotic.”
In this word, we remember the god of love.
Love, to the ancient Greeks, was not charming and sweet. It was erotic, tied to physical attraction and desire more than compatibility or personality.