Teddy Bears and chocolate are lining store shelves, bouquets are on full display, and love is in the air; the pink, red and purple hearts that sprinkle the dorm halls have reminded all of us on campus that it’s the season of love. Every February 14th, we celebrate Valentine’s day, a tribute to Saint Valentine, a 3rd century Roman Priest who was martyred after defying the Roman Emperor Claudius the Cruel by marrying young lovers in secret after the emperor’s ban on marriages and engagements in an effort to draft more young men into the armed forces. The history of the holiday is far more gruesome than the construction paper cards and candy that we recognize today, but it’s not the only game of telephone that history has played with the figures we associate with “Le jour d’amour”; Cupid, the fluttering baby of love, has been infantilized in order to better fit with the bubbly holiday of affection.
When the Roman era began, they took many aspects of Greek culture and adopted it for themselves, including their mythology. Aphrodite became Venus, both Goddesses of Love, and both mothers. Aphrodite was the mother of many, but most notably, Eros, the God of Love and Sex. Eros was a fearsome young man, creating mayhem by causing both God and mortal alike to fall in love. The Romans, wanting to soften his character, infantilized him and made him dependent on his mother, Venus. Unlike his Greek counterpart, who carried both golden arrows of desire and leaden arrows of aversion, and used them of his own volition, Cupid followed the orders of his mother and only shot his arrows to create relationships.
Valentine’s Day wasn’t celebrated during the Roman era, however, as it was officially observed in the year 496 C.E., 20 years after the fall of the Romans. In fact, Valentines, as we know it today, didn’t come about until the holiday’s popularization in the 1850s, when Congress voted to decrease postage rates to avoid privatization of the postal service. This allowed people to start sending mail, just in time for the invention of the printing press, which allowed companies to mass-produce things like cards. By 1910, Hallmark had been established, and by 1916, they began manufacturing Valentine’s Day cards; Cupid became associated with the day as thousands sent and received cards glittered with his angelic form to and from their loved ones. As of today, Cupid is still often viewed as a cherubic figure, but with the boom of the romance and sci-fi genres in creative media, he has taken many forms, from the comedic relief in The Santa Clause movies to portrayals closer to Eros in television shows such as Charmed (1998). Although Cupid continues to shape-shift throughout history, the bones of his story remain unchanged; he’s still a godlike figure who’s the driving force behind partnerships, romance, and love.