Have you ever been struck by Cupid’s arrow and deeply fallen in love with someone? Well, Cupid is just the Roman counterpart of Eros, the Greek God of love and desire.
Did you know?
In many depictions, Eros has been shown as a blindfolded child, attempting to shoot his arrows at random victims. Perhaps, this is the source of the idiom, ‘Love is blind’.
Ancient Greek pantheon has always attempted to answer fundamental questions relating to all aspects of life. Much like the other polytheistic religions, the ancient Greek religion provides us with specific divinities that we need to venerate, in order to achieve specific ends. Love is an innate feeling existing in every individual, and has been regarded by many philosophers as the very foundation of all existence. The Greek god, Eros, representing love, romance, and sexual desire, is an attempt to link human emotion of love with the divine, and thus, in a way, to bridge the gap between human sentiments, and those of the Gods.
Eros, a little boy with wings and arrows, is seen fluttering around in various scenes of love and romance throughout the ancient Greek mythology. Hovering over the lovers, he seems very cute and adorable. But, he is rather a nasty fellow at times. One can never foretell who will get shot by his arrow, as he chooses his victims randomly. The wounds caused by his arrows arouse the feelings of passion, obsession, and reckless desire in people. Though not venerated as one of the main deities of the Greek pantheon, he is definitely one of the most prominent figures in Greek mythology.
The Primeval Origin
If we look at the earlier myths pertaining to the origin of Eros, we can infer that he was perceived as a magnetic force, which attracted two virtually opposite entities towards each other, thus inspiring their union. The attraction between the electrons and the protons, the masculine and the feminine, and that of the human soul and the divine are all brought about by Eros.
Because Eros represents love, one of the fundamental aspects of life, many theories consider him to be one of the Protogenoi, the first-born divinities, from whom the entire universe came into being. According to the narration of Hesiod, a 7th century B.C. Greek poet, Eros was the fourth primordial being to have come into existence, after Chaos (cosmic void), Gaia (the Earth), and Tartarus (the Underworld). This means that Eros bore no parentage, according to Hesiod, and was born all on his own. Hesiod’s theory was partly supported by a 4th century B.C. philosopher named Parmenides, in that he agreed with the primordial origin of Eros, but considers him to be first of all the Protogenoi.
In the Orphic myth, on the other hand, Eros is one of the original deities, but not quite primordial in nature. This means that Orphism does not consider Eros to be born on his own. On the contrary, it considers him to be an offspring of Nyx, the Greek goddess of night. According to the description of Aristophanes, a 4th century B.C. Greek playwright, the primordial divinities were Chaos, Nyx, Erebus (darkness), and Tartarus. Nyx, the black-winged goddess, laid an egg in the depths of darkness, and sat on it for ages together. Then, the egg hatched, and Eros (love) came out of it. His form was pure and beautiful, and he bore golden wings that glittered in the dark. In the pit of the Tartarus, Eros copulated with Chaos, giving birth to all the animate beings, and bringing order and harmony to the universe.
It is the attraction created by Eros, that leads to their conjugal union, and gives birth to new life and energy. Eros thus becomes the source of all creation as he makes people fall in love, and arouses in them, sexual desires. This Eros, born out of primeval energy is often referred to as the Elder Eros.
Birth of Eros
With respect to the birth of Eros, there are a number of theories that have been put forth. Eros has been mentioned as the son of Aphrodite and Hermes, Aphrodite and Ouranos, and Zeus and Aphrodite. Eros thus, has no fixed parentage that has been accepted by all. But, the common factor that appears in most of the lineages, is his association with Aphrodite in some way or the other. That also explains his association with love, a human emotion that characterizes the God.
Opinions differ with regards to his parentage, and each one seems to have been grounded on a solid platform. Nevertheless, his association with love never ceases to exist.
Aphrodite with Erotes
~The most widely accepted lineage of Eros comes from Aphrodite (Goddess of beauty, lustful love, and pleasure) and Ares (God of war and bloodshed). It has also been mentioned that Eros had three more brothers from the same parents. Collectively known as the Erotes, they include, apart from Eros, Anteros (God of requited love), Pothos (God of yearning), and Himeros (God of uncontrollable desire).
~Plato, in his 4th B.C. work, Symposium, describes Eros as the son of Porus (Spirit of abundance) and Penia (Goddess of poverty). Plato details an incident, wherein after finishing the birthday feast of Aphrodite, Porus retires to the orchard of Zeus for some nectar, and falls fast asleep. At the same time, Penia, who has come at the door of Aphrodite to beg for food, plots to have a child with Porus, and lies down beside him. From this scandalous union, she conceives Eros, who becomes the attendant and follower of Aphrodite.
~Yet another myth tells us of the birth of Eros from the union of Gaia (the Earth) and Ouranos (the Heaven). Sappho, the 6th century B.C. poetess of ancient Greece, wrote that Eros was the first among the children of Gaia and Ouranos, who aroused sexual desire in the living beings, and this accelerated the process of reproduction and procreation in the universe.
~Similarly, in another myth, he is the son of Zephyros (west wind) and Iris (rainbow). Alcaeus, an ancient Greek poet postulates this probable parentage of Eros in one of his poems. He says that Iris, who wore ‘fair sandals’, laid with ‘golden-haired’ Zephyros, and this union led to the birth of Eros.
~Eileithyia was a Greek Goddess, borrowed from the Minoan tradition as a deity presiding over childbirth and midwifery. Olen of Lykia, the legendary early Greek poet, in one of his ancient Greek hymns to Eileithyia, says that Eros was born to her.
Eros and Psyche
The tale of Eros and Psyche seems like a fairy tale, at first instance. However, only if one delves deeper into the personalities of Eros and Psyche, can he notice the inner symbolism that the myth bears. It is not a story of two individuals in love; rather it is a tale symbolizing the interconnection between love and human soul, Psyche being the Greek word for soul. Psyche, in Greek, also means a butterfly and so, she is often depicted with butterfly wings.
The earliest surviving version of the myth has been found in a Latin novel, The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, a 2nd century A.D. author. It is in the form of a digression, a story within a story, narrated by an old woman.
Psyche is a mortal princess, so beautiful that people consider her to be divine and begin to worship her. This makes Aphrodite extremely jealous of Psyche, and she orders her son Eros to injure her with his arrow and to make her fall in love with some ugly-looking guy. Though Eros does not quite like his mother’s idea, he accepts her order quite reluctantly. So, he flies to her palace during the night, and plans to strike her with his arrow while she is asleep. When he reaches her bedside and sees her face, he is overwhelmed by her beauty and instantly falls in love with her. The moment he pulls the string of his bow to shoot an arrow, Psyche wakes up and startles him. Leaving his task incomplete, he is forced to return to the realm of Gods.
In the meantime, Psyche’s parents are worried about her future. Her unparalleled beauty seems to be the main hurdle in finding suitors for her, because nobody dares to propose to her. The oracle of Apollo asks them to make her ready for marriage, and then, to abandon her. They do as instructed, and take her in a royal procession to the top of a cliff, and then abandon her. While she is alone on the cliff, a miracle takes place, and she reaches a lush green forest, in the center of which, is a beautiful palace. This palace becomes her new home, where she is accompanied by invisible spirits, which are at her service every time. Here, she even has a lover who visits her every night, and whom she is not allowed to look at. So, though she is deeply in love with this mysterious guy, she does not know who he is.
Amidst all this, Psyche can hear her sisters’ voices, who seem to miss her a lot. Owing to this, she goes back home to meet her sisters, who become very jealous on hearing about her invisible lover. Their comments, such as, “He might be a monster”, make her overly suspicious about the ‘mystery man’, and she decides to see his face, and returns to the palace. In the middle of the night, while her lover is sleeping, she lights an oil lamp, and sees the beautiful place of Eros. However, the sudden light in the dark of the night awakes Eros, who pushes the lamp aside, only to injure himself by spilling some of the hot oil from the lamp. After this incident, he feels betrayed, and leaves Psyche and returns to the realm of Gods.
Following this, Psyche becomes very depressed, and goes back to her parents in a miserable condition. She goes to every possible temple and makes numerous sacrifices to various gods and goddesses in order to get her lover back, but nothing seems to work. Then, one day, her prayers seem to be answered by none other than goddess Aphrodite. On knowing that she is Eros’ mother, Psyche begs her to help her win his heart back. Aphrodite agrees on a condition that Psyche successfully completes a series of arduous labors, including a journey into the Underworld. Psyche accepts and succeeds in the tasks, though with divine assistance. In fact, Eros himself guides her during her last labor.
Psyche’s successful completion of all the labors and her determination to win Eros back, impresses Aphrodite who, with the intervention of Zeus, arranges for their official wedding. Zeus then, bestows Psyche with immortality as she marries Eros, and lives with him in the realm of gods, happily ever after.
There are numerous other versions of the story, which developed with the passage of time. Even today, the tale of Eros and Psyche is deeply rooted in the traditional folklores, spread through the word of mouth.
Eros and the Virgin Goddesses
Though Eros was the God of love and sexual desire and could make anyone fall in love, he notably could not use his tricks on the three virgin goddesses viz., Artemis, Athena, and Hestia. In fact, his arrows made no effect on these three goddesses. There are several references that speak of the resistance that these goddesses possessed with regards to love.
~Homer, in one of his hymns dedicated to Aphrodite, writes that the goddesses Artemis, Athena, and Hestia are immune to love and sexual desires.
~In another instance, Sappho, the poetess writes that though the arrows of Eros bear an ability to make one fall miserably in love, Artemis remains unaffected by them. Further, she says that Eros can never approach Artemis in order to target her with his arrows.
~Apollonius of Rhodes, a 3rd century B.C. author, writes about Athena’s immunity to Eros’ arrows. Athena says that the boy (Eros) can never charm her with his arrows, because they never seem to cause her any sort of wounds. Apollonius says that since Athena was born out of Zeus’ head, she is sexless and hence, love never affects her.
There is a very interesting instance, wherein there is a battle between Eros (love) and Chastity. Chastity emerges victorious in the end, and Eros is captured in chains and bound to her feet. This sheds light on the importance that the ancient Greek gave to chastity or purity of a woman. Hence, also probably was the concept of the virgin goddesses.
For Eros, matchmaking was a sport, and his favorite pastime too. He shot his arrows at anybody and at any time, and once wounded, the victim was bound to fall in love. Nobody could escape his charms (except the virgin goddesses), but sometimes, he could be really nasty. Eros has two kinds of arrows viz., gold-tipped and lead-tipped. The gold-tipped ones made one fall in love with the first person he/she saw. On the contrary, the lead-tipped ones infused hatred.
~Seneca, a 1st century A.D. philosopher and playwright, writes about the ‘unquenched fire’ that is caused by the arrows of Eros. He says that all the gods including Zeus, Ares, Hephaestus, and Apollo are his victims. Further, Seneca states that Eros’ arrows make the gods so lustful for the earthly maidens that they are forced to leave Mount Olympus and reside in the mortal world, in other guises.
~Ovid, the 1st century B.C. poet, beautifully narrates an incident, wherein Eros is insulted by Apollo, and thus decides to take revenge. He wounds Apollo with his gold-tipped arrow, and makes him fall for Daphne, a water nymph. On the other hand, he injures Daphne with his lead-tipped arrow, and makes her hate all men, especially Apollo. She becomes extremely irritated of Apollo as he continuously chases her, begging for her love and attention. Finally, after days of continuous running, when there is no more strength left in her body, Daphne prays to her father Peneus (the God of the rivers), and asks him to either destroy her beauty or her life. Peneus then transforms her into a laurel tree. Apollo blesses the tree with eternal youth and immortality. This episode has been interpreted by some scholars as a combat between lust and chastity, where lust (male) and chastity (female) are shown fighting each other.
~Ovid narrates another instance wherein, Aphrodite, while caressing Eros, gets wounded by his gold-tipped arrow. Though she pushes him aside instantly, the wound is deep enough. She immediately falls in love with the first man she then comes across, who is Adonis, the God of feminine beauty and desire.
~Ovid also details a scene in which Eros is ordered by Aphrodite to shoot an arrow in the heart of Hades, the God of the Underworld. Eros obeys his mother’s orders, and makes Hades fall in love with Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (the Goddess of harvest). Later, Hades abducts Persephone, takes her to the Underworld, and marries her.
~Nonnus, a 4th century A.D. Greek poet, has chronicled a tale of Dionysus (the God of wine, merrymaking, and ecstasy), who gets shot by Eros’ arrow and falls in love with Aura (the personification of breeze). Eros also advises him to marry Aura, while she is asleep.
There are several myths that tell us about the effects of Eros’ arrows on the mortal heroes as well. The classic example is the episode in which Paris, the prince of Troy abducts Helen, the Queen of Sparta. The 6th century B.C. Greek poet, Theognis of Megara, narrates this episode and says that it was ‘cruel Eros’, who was responsible for the Trojan war.
Iconography and Cult
Eros bears a very vivid and an elaborate iconography much like the other gods and goddesses in the ancient Greek tradition. What makes him distinct, however, is a sudden metamorphosis that his personality undergoes from a primordial god to a small, naughty child, and finally into a grown-up youth. The Romans adopted the earlier ‘boyish’ depictions in Cupid, their God of love.
~Eros invariably bears wings, irrespective of whether he is a primordial divinity or an Olympian God.
~When he is a primordial God, he is shown emerging out of the world egg. He is winged, and holds a staff in his left hand and a torch in his right. His body is encircled by a snake, thus signifying immortality and infiniteness of the universe.
~Early depictions of Eros portray his close association with Aphrodite. In fact, he became an important aspect of Aphrodite’s iconography in the Classical period. He is often depicted as a cute, mischievous child with wings, either seated, standing or playing at the feet of the goddess. Sometimes, he is also shown in Aphrodite’s arms or in a flying pose near her shoulder. He holds a bow in one of his hands.
~In later times, when the idea behind his primordial avatar was deciphered as a connecting link between amorous ambition and reproduction, he came to be represented alone, as a youth holding a bow and arrow, and sometimes, a lighted torch.
The cult of Eros was prevalent in pre-Classical Greece as well, but then, he was a minor deity. However, in the Classical period, the God rose to prominence and began to be worshiped on a much larger scale.
~In the Greek city of Thespiae, there existed a fertility cult that worshiped Eros. According to Pausanias, a 2nd century A.D. Greek geographer, the Thespians worshiped him in the form of anunwrought stone. Later on, a sculptor named Lysippos, made a bronze idol for them.
~Eros was equally venerated by the people of Parion on the Hellespont, where his cult was larger than that of any other deity.
~In Athens, there was an altar dedicated to Eros, with an inscription bearing the name of the dedicator. Here, the fourth day of each month was considered to be sacred to the God.
~In Megara, Eros seemed to be a minor deity, and his statues, along with the other Erotes, were installed in temples dedicated to Aphrodite.
~At Leuktra in southern Greece, there is said to have been a temple and a grove dedicated to Eros.
~Erotidia was the festival that was held after every five years in Thespiae in honor of Eros. Sources tell us that several gymnastics and music competitions were held during the festival, and married couples worshiped the God during this period, in order to resolve their disputes. This shows how prominent the cult of Eros might have been in Thespiae.
Eros encompasses a mysterious energy, which is the essence of all creation. Love, here, has been given spiritual connotation, and has been regarded as a sentiment that can transform the human psyche, and Eros acts as a guiding force in the process. In the Greek mythology, Eros is not only ‘love’ personified; but he is also a catalyst, who liberates human desires and activates the creative process of the mind. In a nutshell, he is the very crux of each and every creative process that takes place in the universe. Thus, whether he is a primordial God or an Olympian deity, the creation of new energy in the universe, continues to remain his main function.