Shakespeare's Myths

Cupid, Also Cupide, Cupido


Related entries
Adonis, Apollo, Ceres, Cupid and Psyche, Diana, Dido, Hymen, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Pluto, Proserpine, Phoebus, Venus, Vulcan


Cupid is the god of love, descended from the Ancient Greek Eros and the Roman Amor, who afflicts mortals and deities alike with erotic passion. He inherits a complex genealogy from his classical past: Hesiod’s Theogony insisted that Eros was an ancient cosmogonic force, born out of Chaos, alongside Earth, Tartarus, Erebus and Night, whilst Plato’s Symposium made him the offspring of Penia (Penury) and Poros (Plenty) at a feast to celebrate the birthday of Aphrodite. The Cupid most familiar to the Renaissance is the son of Venus, goddess of love, whom he accompanies and whose commands he generally obeys in directing his arrows. His relationship with her is defined by passion, often both sadistic and incestuous, and entirely overshadows the question of his paternity—his father is Vulcan, Mars or Mercury. In some narratives, he also has a younger brother, representative of reciprocal or virtuous love, named Anteros. In the only classical instance of Cupid as a victim of love, he marries Psyche and they have a child called Pleasure.


Cupid is usually imagined as a boy (though his age varies from the infant through to the adolescent), who is blind (suggested by his blindfold) and winged. He carries a burning brand or torch with which he enflames his victim, but he is more famous as an archer, firing golden arrows which impose love and leaden ones which quench desire and inspire aversion. His other most famous attribute is his nakedness, which may indicate his minor status among the gods but also allows for the display of his beauty, itself a kind of erotic weapon exploited to the full by Italian Renaissance painters. Other iconographical attributes of the profane Cupid include a chaplet of roses on his head, hearts pierced by an arrow (sometimes worn strung on a belt) and sparrows or hares at his feet. His triumph over mankind is signified by his driving a chariot pulled by lions, illustrative of the Virgilian maxim “Amor vincit omnia” (“Love conquers all”). His Lucretian domination over the world through the impulse to procreate is signified by his carrying neither bow nor arrow, but standing on a globe, holding a fish and a flower. Finally, the Neoplatonic conception of Cupid dispenses with the blindfold and has him bearing laurel wreaths or being crowned with laurel, suggesting love’s power to inspire virtue, poetry and ambition. 


Unlike the rest of the pagan gods, Cupid’s iconography in the Renaissance was more influential than any single narrative in which he appeared. He functions as the catalyst for desire, often imposed as a punishment by Venus against her enemies, but he rarely stays to watch the action unfold or to participate in it further. With the exception of the narrative of Cupid and Psyche, very little happens to him. However, this sense of his role being underwritten may explain why Cupid was such a literary and artistic success in early modern Europe. Certainly, the contradictions in his iconography, for example, his blindness and yet his accuracy as an archer, his youth and his power to tyrannise over the gods, his nakedness and his deceitfulness, fascinated poets and dramatists and were endlessly debated. Nevertheless, there were a number of brief narratives or scenarios which underpinned this iconography, and which would provide the plots for Renaissance plays and masques featuring Cupid. For example, the theme of Runaway Cupid (and Venus’ pursuit of her son, often called The Hue and Cry After Cupid) derives from Moschus’ first Ode, though it can also be found in Apuleius’ Cupid and Psyche. Venus laments the absence of Cupid and issues a description of him, promising that whoever brings information will be rewarded with a kiss and anyone who brings him back as a captive will receive a more carnal reward. In some versions, Venus goes in search of Cupid herself and finds evidence of him in palaces, towns and in the countryside where he is roundly cursed as the cause of misery and betrayal. This same narrative was sometimes retold from Cupid’s perspective, for example in the prologue to Tasso’s Aminta. Here, he explains the necessity of escaping Venus’ domineering behaviour and asserts his status as the god of love, possessor of the arrows of desire and hence more powerful than Venus. As further evidence, Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book X relates how Cupid accidentally wounded Venus with one of his arrows when he leaned in for a kiss, thereby causing the goddess’s tragic infatuation with Adonis.


Elsewhere, Cupid’s transgressive violence is more deliberate. In Book V of the Metamorphoses, Venus is eager to demonstrate love’s power over the underworld. At her command, Cupid fires an arrow at Pluto who becomes enamoured of Ceres’ daughter, Proserpine―to whose abduction and rape Cupid becomes an accessory. In Book I, he has a contention with Apollo when that other beautiful boy and skilled archer casts aspersions on Cupid’s masculinity and scorns his choice of amorous over military subjects. Cupid takes his revenge by forcing Apollo to become enamoured of Daphne, whom he has infused with contempt for the god by piercing her with his leaden dart. Jupiter’s metamorphoses in order to seduce the objects of his desire, such as Europa, Danae and Leda, are often blamed on Cupid, being emblematic of the transformations wrought by love. But Cupid is also famously the enemy of Mars. In Lucian’s Dialogues of the Gods XXIII he is described as having conquered and disarmed that god, a theme that was also extended to Hercules whose club Cupid was sometimes imagined carving to make his bow.


Whilst these narratives of Love’s tyranny were often comic, there was increasing scope in the Renaissance for a tragic reading of Cupid. Dramatists rediscovered his enmity against women in the tragedies of Phaedra and Medea. Moreover, Cupid’s transformation into Ascanius in Book I of the Aeneid, though it brings Dido considerable pleasure, is the means of an erotic infatuation for Aeneas which inspires her suicide. A more recent Renaissance innovation was the identification of Cupid with Death himself. Popularised through the emblem tradition, the narrative of “De Morte & Amore” draws a visual similarity between the deities as both blindfolded, winged and wielding bow and arrows. In its account of them accidentally exchanging arrows, it renders Cupid the enemy and destroyer of young lovers.


In order to avoid such a tragic outcome, scenes of Cupid’s education and punishment became popular. His childishness (reflective of love’s wilfulness and lack of conscience) inspires the theme of Cupid’s instruction in archery by Mars and in book-learning by Mercury, but he also receives a moral lesson from Venus in the narrative of Cupid and the Bee (found in Theocritus’ Idylls X). Here, his attempt to steal honeycomb leads to him being stung, but on crying to his mother Cupid is told that such stings are far less painful than the wounds he inflicts. More extreme are the scenes of his vengeful punishment, specifically by women. Petrarch’s Trionfi made famous Cupid’s defeat by Chastity where he is taken prisoner and has his bow and arrows broken and the feathers plucked from his wings by Penelope and Lucrece. A more violent punishment is exacted by wronged nymphs and Venus herself in Ausonius’ poem, “Cupid Crucified”, where he is tied to a tree and beaten with roses until he bleeds. 


Nevertheless, the virtuous and spiritual interpretation of Love did not dispense entirely with Cupid’s erotic history. Existing in classical art for centuries, Cupid and Psyche was first written down by Lucius Apuleius in the second century AD as part of his Roman novel, The Golden Ass. Jealous over Psyche’s beauty, Venus tells Cupid to make her fall in love with a monster but he becomes enamoured of Psyche himself and takes her as his bride. Her passion for him leads directly to Psyche’s immortality, yet the profane Cupid coexists for long periods with the spiritually-ennobling power of Love. Another legend which allows for the same uneasy truce is the confrontation between Cupid and Anteros. According to Cicero and Pausanias, Cupid had a brother, born after him to the same parents: Venus and Mars. Anteros is sometimes viewed as Cupid’s enemy, representing spiritual rather than carnal love, and featured contending for victory by struggling over a palm. Yet he was more commonly identified as Reciprocal or Virtuous love, and his encounter with Cupid associated with the celebration of marriage, which required both Loves to prove fruitful and fulfilling.

How to cite

Jane Kingsley-Smith. “Cupid.”  2011.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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