Will You Be My Valentine?

A history of Cupid

Cupid in a Tree, Jean-Jacque-François le Barbier, 1795, oil on canvas

The image of a flying infant, armed with a bow and arrows, represents the hope and celebration of love on Valentine’s Day. Everyone knows Cupid, but where did he come from?

Originating with the Greeks, Eros was the god of physical desire and love, the young son of Aphrodite. To the Romans, who changed his name to Cupid, he was the son of Mercury, the winged messengers of the gods, and Venus, the goddess of love. Regardless of his lineage, he is depicted with his magic bow and arrow in tow, indiscriminately playing with the emotions of both gods and mortals.

His golden arrows are known to arouse desire in his victims, but he also possesses leaden arrows to provoke aversion, aiding in his mischievous antics. He is often also portrayed in armor, drawing an ironic parallel between love, romance and war, but nevertheless symbolizing the invincibility that love holds. Whether his wounds inspire passion or repugnance, no one is safe from his matchmaking powers, or the strong power of love itself.

But how did this winged infant become the symbol of Valentine’s Day? The word valentine means “worthy, strong or powerful one,” and some say it is a reference to the martyred Christian leader Saint Valentine, while others say the Greek god Eros was the mighty, strong and athletic young hunter that “valentine” refers to. 

Valentine’s Day has roots in the ancient Catholic church. Saint Valentine was imprisoned, tortured and killed for defying the Roman Emperor, Claudius II, in order to protect love and continue marrying young couples, despite the Emperor’s decree. Some claim actual Valentine’s Day as the anniversary of his death, while others believe it was strategically placed the day before the pagan celebration Lupercalia to Christianize and overshadow the tradition of animal sacrifice for assurance in fertility and ease of childbirth.

Legend has it that the first valentine greeting was sent during Saint Valentine’s time in prison to a visitor he fell in love with and which he signed “from your Valentine,” thus creating today’s special expression. Feb. 14 has hence become the day of celebrating love, and “valentine” has evolved into another word for a significant other. 

Written valentines appeared in the mid-18th century and have been sent to friends and lovers ever since. By 1900, printed cards had taken flight, adorned with the winged infant and his representation of love; Cupid’s image then translated to the symbol of Valentine’s Day and the cover of greeting cards worldwide. Today, an estimated one billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, and Cupid’s legend continues to inspire love in all.