Millions of people celebrate Valentine’s Day every February 14th, which is undoubtedly one of the most popular festivities related to love. Traditionally, on this day couples express their love with all kinds of gifts, presents or romantic celebrations. But to find out a little more about the origin of this commemoration, we need to go back to mythology and more specifically to Greek or Roman mythology, in which there is a character who plays an absolute leading role: Eros or Cupid. However, we cannot forget other lesser-known figures who are also linked to this day of lovers, such as Anteros, brother of Eros, or the Lupercalia festival that was celebrated in Ancient Rome.
The connection between Cupid and Saint Valentine is very close. He is often depicted as a winged boy, often blindfolded to symbolise the blindness of love, and carrying a bow with arrows, which he shoots at couples to make them fall deeply in love. His depiction without the bow is also often used as a model for many angels.
According to Greek mythology, Eros was considered the god of love, desire and sexual attraction, and was revered as one of the deities of fertility. Eros was the son of Aphrodite and Ares, the goddess of beauty and the god of war, respectively.
Cupid carried two types of arrows on his back: one with golden-coloured dove feathers, which caused instant love, and the other with leaden owl feathers, which caused indifference.
Although little known, Eros had a brother, Anteros, with a similar appearance. He was the personification of requited love, and the avenger of unrequited love. The differences with his brother Eros are mainly twofold: firstly, his appearance. He was usually depicted as a beautiful young man with long hair and butterfly wings, and sometimes with arrows and a bow. Secondly, the most valuable, if Anteros was requited love, Eros was unrequited and one-sided love. Therefore, almost every time we refer to Eros as the god of love on a day as important as Valentine’s Day, we should really be referring to Anteros.
The Romans worshipped Cupid – son of Venus and Mars – as the god of love. Unlike his Greek counterpart, Cupid could be very cruel to some of his victims. Aware of his power, he would sometimes refuse the requests of his mother Venus and the other gods to interfere in the lives of mortals, thus causing serious problems for the gods.
Cupid and Psyche
As we have already said, Cupid had the ability to make two people fall in love with each other with his arrows, but he also experienced love in his own flesh. As Apuleius tells us in his work “The Golden Ass” in the 2nd century A.D.
From a distant land, two kings had three daughters. Psyche was the youngest and also the most beautiful and she could not find a husband because no man considered himself worthy to be with her. Psyche was so beautiful that she was even called the second Venus, provoking the jealousy of Cupid’s mother. Venus then asked her own son to shoot arrows at her to make her fall in love with the ugliest man in the universe. However, Cupid was so captivated by the sight of her that he shot his arrow into the sea.
Cupid, contravening his mother’s wishes, married Psyche but on the condition that as she was mortal, she was forbidden to look at him. They were happy, until Psyche’s curiosity, induced by the envy of her sisters, led her to bring the light close to Cupid in order to see her beloved. As punishment for her failure to comply with the condition of not looking at him, Cupid abandoned her.
Psyche then wandered around the world, pursued by the anger of Venus, who was still furious at such beauty. No god wanted to take her in and she finally fell into the hands of the goddess, who locked her in her temple and tormented her, entrusting her with impossible tasks. In one of these punishments, Psyche was to descend to the underworld in search of Persephone, queen of the underworld, to beg her to give her some of her beauty in a chest. The young woman fulfilled this task, but curiosity got the better of her again, and, attracted by the desire to please her beloved more, when she opened the vial she fell into a deep sleep.
Meanwhile, Eros suffered infinitely because he was unable to forget Psyche. When he heard that his beloved was in a deep sleep, he could bear it no longer, flew to her and woke her up with an arrow; then he went up to Olympus to beg Zeus to allow him to marry her even though she was a mortal. Zeus took pity on Eros and granted Psyche immortality, giving her butterfly wings. As a result of their marriage, the so-called three Graces were born: Castitas, Voluptas and Pulchritus.
Myth of Apollo and Daphne
In Greek mythology we can find an unhappy love story whose main characters are Apollo, Cupid and the nymph Daphne.
Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto and brother of Artemis, goddess of hunting, was considered the god of prophecy, healing, music and, in general, of harmony and the sublime. Throughout his love life he had had several affairs with mortals as well as with nymphs and goddesses.
One day the god mocked Eros, who was practising with his bow. Eros, feeling humiliated by Apollo, decided to take his revenge. When Apollo was in the forest hunting, he saw in the distance a beautiful young woman called Daphne, who was in fact a nymph.
Eros took the opportunity to shoot two arrows. The one he shot at Apollo was made of gold, which provoked passionate love. However, the one for Daphne was lead, the effect of which was exactly the opposite, feeling hatred and repulsion towards the god who had fallen madly in love with her.
Apollo then decided to follow in Daphne’s footsteps to win her love, but the nymph, under the effects of the lead arrow, fled from him. Arriving at the river Peneus, Daphne, exhausted by her flight and when Apollo was about to catch up with her, asked for help from her mother Gaea and her father Ladon, who was none other than the god of the river. The latter, feeling pity and compassion for his daughter, decided to turn her into a tree, the laurel, so that she could grow in peace and escape from the god.
When Apollo finally reached Daphne, he watched in disbelief as his beloved’s limbs stiffened, her arms became branches, her feet took root and her hair turned into leaves until her head became the top of a beautiful tree.
Affected by what had just happened and thinking of how much he loved her, he swore that this would be his symbol from then on and that the laurel leaves would crown the heads of the greatest athletes, poets, artists and warriors.
Another antecedent of what we know today as Saint Valentine’s Day has its roots in ancient Rome, where the Lupercalia festival was celebrated on 14 or 15 February. This was a fertility festival in honour of Juno, in which young men of the elite offered goats and dogs and then ran through the city, naked and smeared with oil, carrying the goat’s skin in strips and whipping with them the women they came across. The whips were soaked in the blood of the animals and it was believed that this ritual made the women more fertile.