By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Valentine’s Day, also known as the Feast of Saint Valentine, is celebrated every year on February 14th all over the world. The history of this annual holiday of love and romance is disputed and mysterious, and many of the possible origins of Valentine’s Day are actually disturbingly dark. The Feast of Saint Valentine was officially established by the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Gelasius I in 496 A.D. in honor of a certain Saint Valentine. In the third century A.D., it is said that Emperor Claudius II executed two men, both with the name Valentine, on February 14th of different years. Their martyrdoms were honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of Valentine’s Day. It was not for centuries afterwards that Valentine’s Day came to be associated with the notions of courtly love. Commercial and popular Valentine’s Day symbols often include romantic greeting cards depicting the figure of a winged Cupid, the Ancient Greek god of desire, attraction, and affection. Although Valentine’s Day undoubtedly has its own solid roots in the Catholic tradition, it is interesting (and a quite common theme of my articles) to take a look back at history to discover whether some of the modern constituents of the holiday may actually have first come about in ancient times.
To begin, it is important to note the relevancy of Cupid in the modern celebrations of Valentine’s day and, in turn, his relations to the ancient goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite. Cupid, or “Eros” in Greek myth, is commonly thought by Classicists and those versed in mythology to be the son of Aphrodite. The young god is seldom depicted without his bow and arrow, his claim to fame. It is said that one of Cupid’s powers is that, using his bow and arrow, he could force someone to fall in love (one of the most well-known stories where Cupid does this is the myth of Apollo and Daphne). Cupid is often a character whose main purpose is to set the plot in motion; however, there is one tale where he serves as the main character who is afflicted with the trials and tribulations of love.
This story begins with a human woman called Psyche. Psyche was so utterly beautiful that men from all over the ancient world began to worship her, slowly forgetting and neglecting Aphrodite’s beauty and her altar. Aphrodite was blinded by rage and was in disbelief that a mortal girl could have more of an effect on the minds of men than she could. The goddess called upon her son to curse Psyche, asking that he use his bow and arrow to make her fall in love with the ugliest being he could find. However, when Cupid journeyed down to enact the curse, he ended up falling in love with the mortal girl.
Cupid ultimately decided to go against his mother’s wishes, taking Psyche as his wife, but with one condition: he told her that she would never be able to look at him, for fear that his identity could be revealed not only to the girl, but to Aphrodite. Psyche agreed, even though she was completely unaware of who he was. Cupid hid her in a beautiful palace and gave her everything she could need, but only went to visit her in the dark, when his face would be obscured. Eventually, Psyche’s curiosity got the better of her, and she betrayed Cupid by shining a lamp on him while he slept. When he found out she had discovered his identity, he abandoned her, and Psyche was left to wander the earth in search of him. Unfortunately, she fell prey to Aphrodite who, instead of taking pity and reuniting Psyche with her son, decided to torture her with four impossible tasks. Eventually, Cupid discovered what Aphrodite was doing, and having enlisted the help of Zeus, was able to rescue Psyche from the terrible situation. Unwilling to let any other evils befall her, Cupid decided to bring Psyche back to Mount Olympus where she was bestowed immortality as his wife. Cupid and Psyche serve as one of the very few examples of lovers who were finally able to find a happy ending in Greek mythology. It is a story that has survived throughout the millennia, transcending countless empires and alterations in order to be a part of our modern world of romance.
The next time you see a chubby Cupid with a bow and arrow surrounded by hearts and glitter, remember the story of Cupid and Psyche. No matter how or with whom you may be celebrating Valentine’s Day this year, remember to take a moment to tell the people closest to your heart that you love them.