The Mighty and Mischievous God Cupid

Cupid and Psyche image
Cupid and Psyche – painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905). Image from ‘W. Bouguereau’ by Marius Vachon (1850–1928)

Allow me now to introduce you to the first of our patron deities. He’s the eponymous patron god of Cupid’s School … and, indeed, the first cause of it all. That’s the mighty and mischievous Cupid.

“Let thy bow shoot all things, Phœbus [Apollo]; my bow shall shoot thee; and as much as all animals fall short of thee, so much is thy glory less than mine.”

– Ovid, ‘Metamorphoses’ I, transl. Henry T. Riley

In classical mythology, Cupid, also known sometimes as Amor, was the Roman god of love and erotic desire. He was Roman the equivalent then of Eros from Greek mythology.

Cupid’s birth or origins, meanwhile, are variously accounted for. According to the earliest accounts, he was a primordial god. According to Ovid, others, and popular tradition, though, he was a son and loyal companion of the goddess Venus (Aphrodite).

Cupid’s usually represented as a beautiful naked boy, or youth, with wings on his back and either lightly armed with a bow and a quiver of arrows or otherwise brandishing a flaming torch. He’s sometimes represented as blindfolded too. All in all, though, this pint-sized winged god is usually portrayed as playful, or mischievous and unruly, frequently bitter-sweet, and sometimes rather cruel.

Girl defending herself against Cupid image
‘Girl defending herself against Cupid’, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), in the Getty Center, Los Angeles

Cupid’s conquering darts

According to Ovid in his Metamorphoses (Transformations) then, translated here by Frank Justus Miller, Cupid’s quiver contains two contrary types of arrow:

There he took from his quiver two darts of opposite effect: one puts to flight, the other kindles the flame of love. The one which kindles love is of gold and has a sharp, gleaming point; the other is blunt and tipped with lead.

Thus then the mischievous god could pierce a hapless lover with one of his sharp golden arrows of desire, whilst smiting the beloved too with a blunt leaden dart of scorn.

What’s more, even most of the gods were not immune to Cupid’s conquering darts. Thus sings the chorus then in the Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca‘s (Lucius Annaeus Seneca) play Phaedra (also known sometimes as Hippolytus), translated here by Frank Justus Miller:

He kindles the fierce flames of youth and in worn-out age he wakes again the extinguished fires; he smites maids’ breasts with unknown heat, and bids the very gods leave heaven and dwell on earth in borrowed forms.

Cupid attended by ladies image
‘Offering to Love’, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905). Image from ‘W. Bouguereau’ by Marius Vachon (1850–1928)

The mighty Cupid’s realm

Despite his baby-faced, and somewhat misleadingly puny and artless appearance, the elfin Cupid then was a remarkably potent god. And, as Ovid has Venus declare in the fifth book of his Metamorphoses, translated here by Frank Justus Miller, he was the source of his mother’s power:

Then Venus Erycina saw him [Pluto] wandering to and fro, as she was seated on her sacred mountain, and embracing her winged son, she exclaimed: “O son, both arms and hands to me, and source of all my power, take now those shafts, Cupid, with which you conquer all, and shoot your swift arrows into the heart of that god to whom the final lot of the triple kingdom fell. You rule the gods, and Jove himself; you conquer and control the deities of the sea, and the very king that rules the deities of the sea. Why does Tartarus hold back? Why do you not extend your mother’s empire and your own? The third part of the world is at stake

All but the most frigid and haughty then proved susceptible to Cupid’s conquering darts, as Ovid then has Venus go on to say:

And yet in heaven, such is our long-suffering, we are despised, and with my own, the power of love is weakening. Do you not see that Pallas [Minerva] and huntress Diana have revolted against me? And Ceres‘ daughter [Proserpine], too, will remain a virgin if we suffer it; for she aspires to be like them. But do you, in behalf of our joint sovereignty, if you take any pride in that, join the goddess to her uncle in the bonds of love.” So Venus spoke. The god of love loosed his quiver at his mother’s bidding and selected from his thousand arrows one, the sharpest and the surest and the most obedient to the bow. Then he bent the pliant bow across his knee and with his barbed arrow smote Dis [Pluto] through the heart.

Thus it all started then with a wound …

And so, likewise then, it was one of Cupid’s conquering darts that pierced Ovid’s breast and thus inspired his amorous works … and thence, over 2000 years later now, the Cupid’s School Classic Love Seduction Project.

As Ovid declares at the start of his earliest volume of poems Amores (Loves), translated here by John Dryden, our patron poet had set out at first to sing on the theme of war:

For mighty wars I thought to tune my lute,
And make my measures to my subject suit.
Six feet for ev’ry verse the Muse design’d,
But Cupid, laughing, when he saw my mind,
From ev’ry second verse a foot purloin’d¹.

It was the mighty Cupid then, no less, who, with the sure shot of a carefully chosen arrow, laid Ovid low and famously drove him instead to his amorous theme:

Thus I complain’d; his bow the stripling² bent,
And chose an arrow fit for his intent.
The shaft his purpose fatally pursues;
“Now, poet, there’s a subject for thy Muse,”
He said: (too well, alas! he knows his trade);
For in my breast a mortal wound he made.
Far hence, ye proud hexameters, remove,
My verse is pac’d, and trammell’d into love.
With myrtle wreaths my thoughtful brows enclose,
While in unequal verse I sing my woes.

And now, the rest then, as they say, is history. Although that, I think, is not quite finished yet …

  1. Stole
  2. Youth