It’s Cupid’s busiest day. The chubby cherub is now the ubiquitous symbol of Valentine’s Day, but in the Hellenistic period, Cupid was a handsome youth and a minor deity who only had one feature myth: the tale of Cupid and Psyche in which the god of love is brought down by his own amorous arrow. The legend, found in the Latin novel Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass) by Apuleuis, begins in fairy tale fashion with a king who has three beautiful daughters. The youngest daughter, Psyche, is in fact so ravishing that the people began to worship her instead of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Becoming jealous (as Hellenistic gods are wont), Venus asks her son, Cupid, to make Psyche fall in love with a hideous monster, but upon seeing Psyche’s beauty, he drops the arrow meant for her and pricks himself instead, falling in love with her.
Meanwhile in the mortal realm, in spite of (or perhaps because of) her great beauty nobody wishes to marry Psyche. When her parents consult an oracle, they are told that Psyche is destined to marry a monster and that they should carry her to a mountain top and leave her there. From the mountaintop, Zephyr, the West Wind, transports her to a beautiful palace where invisible servants serve her and feasts present themselves. Every night, her invisible husband visits her and while Psyche finds him kind, she is lonely and persuades him to allow her sisters to visit. When the sisters see the splendor of her life, they become jealous and persuade her that her husband is the prophesied monster and that she must kill him before he kills her. So one night, bearing a dagger and a lamp, Psyche approaches a sleeping Cupid. As the light falls upon him, she sees the beauty of her husband and is startled, pricking herself on his arrows and dripping hot wax on him.
Upon waking, Cupid flees the scene and a passion-fueled Psyche pursues him to no avail. After many wanderings, a desperate Psyche approaches Cupid’s mother, Venus who, still bitter, sets her various impossible tasks, including a quest to the underworld itself. The last task leaves her in an immovable sleep. Just in time, Cupid having recovered from his wounds, escapes his mother’s house, finds and wakes Psyche, and takes their troubles to Jupiter, king of the gods. Jupiter orders Venus to leave off her persecution of Psyche and gives the girl ambrosia, the drink of immortality, after which Psyche and Cupid are formally married at a wedding banquet, immortal equals at last. Eventually a child is born to them: Voluptas, which translates to “Pleasure.” Since its inception, the tale of Cupid, which means “Desire” or “Love,” and Psyche, which means “Soul” or “Breath of Life” has been celebrated throughout art history as the great allegory of love.