Ah, Cupid, that cherubic being who represents love and lovers everywhere. Unofficial celebrity ambassador for Valentine’s Day. Winged bearer of bow and arrows that prick the hearts of the unsuspecting and make them fall in love.
Despite his perpetually youthful appearance, Cupid is no neophyte. History shows that this veteran Valentine has been plying his trade since ancient times. Myth and legend grew over the millennia, providing him with many names and roles since his first appearance in the cradle of civilization.
Although in modern times he materializes as a putto, or winged baby, earlier art shows him as a somewhat older winged child. And in the famous tale of Cupid and Psyche (from Lucius Apuleius’s second-century Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass) he was a fully grown yet youthful adult—the son of a jealous mother and the husband of the most beautiful mortal in the world.
But don’t let his look of youthful innocence fool you. Behind that bright, angelic face hides a rather darker past.
In Roman mythology, Cupid’s mother was Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Venus and Cupid (from the Latin cupido, meaning “desire” or “lust”) were associated with Lupercalia, the pagan mid-February festival of purification and fertility that foreshadowed the modern Valentine’s Day. As part of the festivities, Luperci—nearly naked young boys smeared with the blood of sacrificed dogs and goats—ran through the streets, flailing women with whiplike thongs (februa) cut from the skin of the ill-fated goats. The piercing of the women’s skin was believed to induce fertility. In a similar vein, it was believed that Cupid could cause love or sexual desire by piercing his victims with gold-tipped arrows.
“After the conversion of the imperial city [Rome], the Christians still continued, in the month of February, the annual celebration of the Lupercalia; to which they ascribed a secret and mysterious influence on the genial powers of the animal and vegetable world.”
Tales of Cupid and his mother are intertwined throughout history, so it is impossible to do justice to a history of one without the other. The story of Cupid is therefore necessarily also the story of his mother. Each has a counterpart in Hellenistic Greek mythology, where Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty, and her son, the youngest god in the pantheon, is Eros.
Venus and Aphrodite are generally thought of as the same goddess in different guises. They share the symbols of white doves and red roses and are usually portrayed as the Queen of Heaven, with an aureole or nimbus—a halo—and a crescent moon. They often appear with an infant son—an early Madonna figure.
As for Eros, one of the earliest recorded references is found in the Theogeny of Hesiod (700 B.C.E.). Hesiod depicts Eros as one of the primeval gods, the god of fertility and sensual love, and responsible for the creation of all living things. This Eros is a much more powerful being than the one who appears later as the son of Aphrodite/Venus—the cutesy Cupid of modern Valentine’s Day cards.
But Cupid existed in still earlier incarnations. Traveling back through antiquity, we find that his previous personas were also far from helpless babes with tiny wings.
“Eros: Greek god of love, Cupid to the Romans, the son of Aphrodite. In Greek literature his cruelty to his victims is emphasized, also his omnipotence. In the Christian era ‘cupids’ became angelic beings symbolizing divine benevolence and compassion.”
Ascent of Dumuzi
When it comes to ancient pagan mythology, stories often intersect and overlap as the gods twist their way through cultures and through history as a whole. The story of Cupid and his mother is no exception. According to some ancient tales, Venus, goddess of love, was besotted with Adonis, who shares a number of commonalities with Cupid and Eros. Both Adonis and Eros worship were brought to Greece from the Near East. The name Adonis is a derivation of the Semitic word for “lord” and is believed to have come to the Greek language from a title of Dumuzi (or in Hebrew, Tammuz), one of the most famous gods of Mesopotamia and Sumeria.
Like Adonis, and later Eros and Cupid, Tammuz was a youthful god and was associated with a female deity whose symbols included white doves, red roses, a crescent moon and a sun-disc or nimbus. This Mother Goddess is known by the names Ishtar (Astarte) and Inanna, as recorded in the Sumerian Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World and the parallel Akkadian Descent of Ishtar, and she is sometimes portrayed holding a male infant.
But her infant son, Tammuz, was also her brother and/or consort. (Such a confused, incestuous relationship was not unusual among the ancient mythological deities.) Extant liturgies and poems to the two are often explicit and overtly sexual in nature.
The late Assyriologist Stephen H. Langdon included a translation of a telling liturgy to Tammuz in his 1914 book, Tammuz and Ishtar: A Monograph Upon Babylonian Religion and Theology, to illustrate the relationship between the two:
“O brother fruit of my eyes, lifting up of my eyes, Who is thy sister? I am thy sister. Who is thy mother? I am thy mother. In the sunrise when thou risest, rise! At the dawn when thou appearest, appear!” “The queen of Eanna who cries, ‘Alas! my husband, alas! my son’.”
Eanna was the temple of Ishtar in the city of Erech; so according to this religious text, the Queen of Eanna was Ishtar, and her brother/son/husband was Tammuz.
The Son Also Rises
In some tales, Tammuz is killed by a wild boar (not unlike Adonis in later myth). In Inanna’s [Ishtar’s] Descent, Tammuz is forced to descend into the underworld. While he is away, vegetation dies and procreation on earth ceases. Ishtar, torn with grief, agrees to take his place in the underworld for half of each year, temporarily releasing him to the land above. When Tammuz makes his annual return to earth, fertility is restored and life begins anew.
The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary describes the tale’s meaning for Sumerians: “The relationship between Inanna-Ishtar and Dumuzi-Tammuz was ritualized in Mesopotamian cult with the sacred marriage: the mating of the king with a sacred temple prostitute renewed the generative forces in nature. The seasonal cycle was seen as a mirror of Dumuzi’s yearly descent into and ascent from the underworld, a religious element that wends its way even to the temple courtyard in Jerusalem (see Ezek 8:14).”
After a time of mourning, or “weeping for Tammuz,” and bowing to the rising sun in the east (a practice lamented by the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 8:14–16), devotees celebrated the resurrection of the sun god—the youthful shepherd-god of vegetation and fertility—with cakes for the Queen of Heaven, eggs, and the sacrifice and consumption of a goat or a pig, as well as with fertility rituals assuring the restoration of procreation and the renewal of all living things.
Ancient fertility ceremonies, vegetation rites and sun worship were common in many cultures, as Sumerians, Mesopotamians, Babylonians and others all believed that the rising sun was connected to rebirth and renewal. In the symbolism of the ancients, arrows were a male symbol associated with both sun gods and fertility gods. The familiar stylized heart, on the other hand, is often viewed as a female symbol (having nothing to do with an actual physiological heart) and is thus also closely linked with fertility. Although traditions and theories on the origins of various symbols vary, it is no accident that hearts and arrows have come down through the ages inextricably tied to the eternally youthful fertility god we know as Cupid today.
Death—and Rebirith—on the Nile
But the history of Cupid extends even beyond Tammuz. In his 1915 book, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, Donald A. Mackenzie explained: “Among the gods of Babylonia none achieved wider and more enduring fame than Tammuz, who was loved by Ishtar, the amorous Queen of Heaven—the beautiful youth who died and was mourned for and came to life again.” He noted further, “The Babylonian myth of Tammuz, the dying god, bears a close resemblance to the Greek myth of Adonis. It also links with the myth of Osiris.”
Osiris is an Egyptian counterpart to Tammuz. Both, like Cupid, are youthful gods of fertility. Both are associated with death and rebirth, with a powerful mother/sister/consort goddess, and with many of the same symbols.
Ishtar, Venus and Aphrodite have their Egyptian parallel in the goddess Isis. Apuleius, a devotee of Isis, addressed her nature and her various names in Metamorphoses. This tale of a man-turned-beast chronicles his quest to return to his human form, which is finally accomplished through prayer to Isis—whom he addresses as “Blessed Queen of Heaven”—and through his consuming a garland of her sacred roses (“rosary”).
Isis responds: “I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. . . . Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me.
“The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me Cecropian Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am Paphian Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna; for the trilingual Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and for the Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn.
“Some know me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia, but both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis.”
Origin of the Divinities
With different names in different locations at different times, it is not surprising that variations of each god and goddess myth abound. Some historians maintain that such myths have origins in human history, but that the tales enlarge and expand with time. As an example, in some tales Cupid’s arrows were made by his father Vulcan, the god of fire. The name Vulcan is thought to come from Bel-Cain or Tubal-cain, “an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron” (Genesis 4:22) and a descendant of Cain.
In like manner, the humans Nimrod and Semiramis have been connected with Isis and Osiris, Ishtar and Tammuz, and other parallel deities. Tradition holds that Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah, married Semiramis, the ambitious wife of a general in Nimrod’s Babylonian army.
Semiramis and Nimrod (sometimes called Ninus) grew in power and corruption. The book of Genesis says Nimrod became the first man of such power, a mighty hunter who built cities. It is said that he also built walls to keep out wild animals and thus protect the inhabitants. Though he gained a great following, Genesis speaks of his rebellion against God, and most believe he was the force behind the building of the Tower of Babel. Nimrod was eventually killed, after which he came to be worshiped as the sun god Marduk (Bel or Baal).
Following Nimrod’s death, Semiramis carried on alone, establishing more cities, conquering new territories, and thus building her empire. Legends surrounding her grew to show that she, too, had divine roots. She had allegedly been fed by doves after being abandoned by her mother, a fish goddess; instead of dying, she assumed the form of a dove and flew to heaven.
When the widowed Semiramis became pregnant, she claimed that it was a divine conception; the baby, she declared, was Nimrod himself, reborn as a god to be worshiped. The child was called Tammuz.
Sir James G. Frazer, in his classic work The Golden Bough, compares the exploits of the legendary Semiramis to those of the goddess Ishtar: “It is not merely that the myth of Ishtar thus tallies with the legend of Semiramis. . . . We can hardly doubt that the mythical Semiramis is substantially a form of Ishtar or Astarte, the great Semitic goddess of love and fertility.”
As with Ishtar and her various incarnations, doves play an important role in the legends surrounding Semiramis, and she, too, is known as the Queen of Heaven and Mother of the Gods. A spouse reborn, doves, crescent moon below and stars or nimbus above, the image of the mother and child—as we have seen, these icons reappear frequently throughout history.
The King James Version Study Bible notes that “much of the world’s idolatry can be traced back to historical Babylon (cf. Gen. 11:1–9), including the mother-child cult of Semiramis-Tammuz (cf. Jer. 44:16–19; Ezek. 8:9, 14), which entered other cultures as Ashtaroth-Baal, Aphrodite-Eros, Venus-Cupid, and even Madonna-Child.”
During Cupid’s transformation in myth and legend from the illegitimate son of a corrupt queen to a mischievous little love-inducing cherub, he has had many names and roles. Other Cupid cognates from around the world include Attis, Bacchus, Dionysius, Amor, Phanes, Protogonos, Liber and Kama. Through the ensuing millennia and across multiple cultures, the names and stories are conflated and confounded, culminating in the innocent-looking Cupid of today’s Valentine’s Day celebrations.
From a lusty shepherd-king who died annually, causing weeping of women throughout the known world, to the incestuous sun god who is the bringer of life, his tales span eons and outlive entire civilizations with variations in names and lore. This intertwined history of Cupid and his mother, the traditional mother/son/spouse deities of sexual love and desire, may be somewhat hidden today; thus few who pay homage to Cupid with contemporary Valentine rituals comprehend that they are continuing customs and traditions that have come down to us from ancient pagan worship rites. And although the character of the ancient Mother Goddess, the Queen of Heaven, may not be so obvious today, she and her symbols clearly played a key role in Cupid’s many incarnations throughout history.