The gods and myths of ancient Greece are well-known to many people today. But often what we know is only part of the story.
Unlike Rome, Greece was never unified. There was no single version of the culture or its religion.
This meant that over time and in different areas, the gods were sometimes seen in very different ways.
Eros was a Greek god whose image, story, and worship varied greatly throughout the ancient world. While the most well-known story is that he was the son of Aphrodite, others believed he had different origins.
As Aphrodite’s mischievous son, Eros was one of the youngest Greek gods. Some people, however, believed that he was actually one of the oldest beings in creation.
The most common version of the story of Eros was that he was the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. He and the Erotes, the gods of love, were her faithful servants.
Some traditions gave a different origin for the god of romantic love, though. They were not satisfied with the explanation that he was the son of one of the Olympians.
According to an alternate view, Eros was one of the primordial gods. This made him not only much older than Aphrodite, but also more ancient than even the Titans.
This idea was not a late one in Greek mythology. The poet Hesiod, who wrote in the 7th or 8th century BC, made this claim in his Theogony.
Hesiod wrote that Eros came into being just after Gaia, the goddess of the earth, and Tartaros, the dark pit beneath her.
The idea also persisted throughout Greek history. As late as the 5th century AD, writers described Eros as the oldest of the Greek gods and one that had power over all the others.
These descriptions often made Eros seem like a much more powerful and fearsome god than he was shown as when he was Aphrodite’s son.
As one of the Erotes, he was often portrayed as playful, mischievous, and youthful. When Nonnus described the primeval Eros, however, the god of love was a “fiery god” and “the All-Vanquisher.”
These versions of Eros fit into the mainstream Greek cosmology, simply offering a different view of an established god. The idea of Eros as a primordial god was also an important part of an alternative religion in ancient Greece.
The Orphic cults largely worshiped the same gods as other Greek people did, but their cosmology and myths were very different. These mystery cults put a far greater emphasis on the afterlife and the role of the gods, even those not thought of as related to death by other Greeks, in the Underworld.
According to surviving writings from followers of this religion, Eros was one of the oldest of the gods. They associated him with Creation, or Themis, and Phanes, “The Bringer of Light.”
According to Orphic mythology, Phanes was brought forth from a mystical world-egg that had been created by Chronos, the god of time, who they believed was an incarnation of Heracles.
This egg contained all the elemental building blocks of creation. When it broke apart, primordial beings like Gaia and Ouranos were formed from its pieces.
Eros was formed at this time as well, according to the Orphic cults. They believed that he was the first king of the gods.
Under the name Phanes, followers of the Orphic mysteries saw the god of love as the creator of all of the other gods and of mankind. He was the father of the night goddess Nyx who, in turn, gave birth to Ouranos.
Both stories that thought of Eros as a primordial god had him, in some way, give his powers to Zeus. Nonnus claimed that Eros lent Zeus the powers of his arrows, while the Orphic poets believed that Zeus had consumed Phanes to absorb his strength.
The view that Eros was one of the earliest gods was more prevalent in ancient Greece than many people think. So why did so many people believe that Eros was one of the first Greek gods?
Many Greeks had a very simple justification for thinking that Eros had to be one of the oldest gods.
As the Greek god of romantic love, Eros played a necessary role in marriage and procreation. Most Greeks believed that his powers attracted people to one another.
If Eros was seen as the cause of sexual attraction, some people thought that it did not make sense for him to be one of the youngest Greek gods. How could the older gods have had children if Eros had not existed to make them attractive to one another?
Even in stories in which Eros is Aphrodite’s son, this contradiction was seen. Some Greek writers questioned how Ares and Aphrodite could have fallen in love if the personification of that emotion had not yet been born.
Some Greeks therefore believed that Eros had to be older than Aphrodite. He had to have even been older than the Titans, since they had been born for the great desire Ouranos had for Gaia.
It stood to reason, then, that Eros had to be one of the primordial gods. Rather than being a young deity, he was one of the oldest forces in existence.
In this view, Eros was created spontaneously. Like the other primordial gods, he came into existence without having parents.
This meant that all births afterward were as a result of his influence. While other Greeks believed in a mischievous Eros, those who thought of him as a primordial deity saw him as a central force in creation.
This Eros was not only a god of romantic attraction, but also of harmony. Just as he brought lovers together, he also brought the fundamental elements of creation together to bring order out of Chaos.
The two different views of Eros, as a primordial Greek god and a youthful one, were very different. But some writers seemed to show that belief in the two was not always mutually exclusive.
Hesiod, for example, referred to Eros as a powerful primordial god. He also mentioned, however, that the god of love came after Aphrodite when she was born from sea foam.
A similar contradiction was made several hundred years later by Nonnus. In various passages, Eros was said to be the “primeval founder of marriage,” born immediately after Aphrodite emerged from the sea, and the result of Aphrodite and Ares’ affair.
The attributes that Nonnus gave Eros also combined the different traditions. While his Eros was powerful and regal, he also wielded the bow and arrows that were more typically linked to the son of Aphrodite.
It is likely that Nonnus was familiar with different versions of Eros; one said that he was a primordial god while others claimed he was Aphrodite’s son. Whether intentionally or because of an oversight, he included elements of both stories in his writing.
While Nonnus wrote very late in Greek history, however, Hesiod seemed to combine different legends as early as the 8th century BC. This would seem to show that the conflicting tales of Eros’ origins were both well-known by his time.
Some people seem to have interpreted this as evidence not of a mistake on the part of the writers, but of a rebirth of the god of love.
The primordial version of Eros was often said to be the father of Ouranos. Eros was the first king of the gods, but his son took his position.
Although the story was never told in full, some Greeks seemed to believe that Ouranos had taken the powers of Eros when he became the king of the gods. When Aphrodite was born from Ouranos’ severed genitals, she carried the rebirth of Eros within her.
A similar tradition existed, particularly in the mystery cults, that Dionysus had been born in at least two incarnations. The idea of an older god being reborn in another form was a simple way to reconcile legends that were contradictory.
This idea reconciled the two different versions of Eros. In his first incarnation he was a primordial king, while in his second he was youthful and subservient to Aphrodite.
Most people are familiar with the story that Eros, the Greek god of love, was the son of the goddess of beauty Aphrodite. This was only one version of the god’s story, though.
Other traditions held that, rather than being one of the youngest Greek gods, Eros was actually one of the oldest. Throughout ancient history, many people believed that Eros was one of the primordial gods.
These elemental forces were the first beings to come into existence. As the god of attraction, Eros caused the primordial gods to become the parents of the first beings who were born through reproduction.
This made Eros the foundation for all life, both of the gods and of men. Those who believed that he was a primordial god often believed he was the first king of the cosmos.
This was at odds with the most well-known story of Eros as the son of Aphrodite. Both could be seen as logical, however.
Eros could be the son of Aphrodite because the feelings of attraction and love he personified were caused by feminine beauty. Without Eros, however, the first gods would not have loved one another and procreated.
Many Greek writers appear to have been familiar with both of these traditions. They sometimes combined elements of the two or gave multiple accounts of Eros’ origins even in the same work.
This led to an interpretation by some that Eros had been reborn. He had been a primordial god who was later reborn to Aphrodite as a young and mischievous god of romantic love.