There are perhaps, few other dates in the calendar that arouse such contrasting emotions as that of February the fourteenth. For some a time of celebration or opportunity: for others a time of dread and despondency. Though its eponymous saint sacrificed his life for Christianity, its comparatively recent podgy poster boy very much represents the romantic and carnal facet of this thing called love. Cupid’s counterpart Eros has been around since the Greeks were mythologizing, perhaps a thousand years before the priest Valentinus was arrested for clandestinely marrying Christian couples and then beaten and beheaded for attempting to convert the Emperor Claudius. However, it was only once Chaucer’s poem Parlement of Foules made the association between St. Valentine’s day and courtship in the fourteenth century, that the cherubic Cupid began to emerge as the endearing icon of the international day of romantic love.
In Roman times, the plump pin-up was known as Cupido which translates from Latin as ‘desire’, making him the embodiment of erotic sentiment and physical attraction, unsurprising given that his mother Venus was the goddess of love and his father Mars, the god of war. We tend to think of desire as a strong and intense want or wish that is at least corporeal, quite often sexual and at times apparently uncontrollable and this is, for better or worse, quite fitting for February fourteenth as it is often a time when we set our sights on the object of our affections or a reaffirmation of the initial intensity and passion of newfound love. In today’s highly sexualised society, image and appearance are often overvalued at the expense of integrity and substance, nonetheless St. Valentine’s is a timely reminder of what is a crucial aspect of romantic relationships and lasting love.
The idea of a chubby boy, bewinged and brandishing a bow and arrow, though blindfolded is perhaps not the most convincing portrait of desire, but he is upon closer inspection, reassuringly symbolic. His youth represents the innocent, uninhibited and occasionally irrational nature of attraction. His wings to the flighty and fickle aspect of love, ungrounded and capricious. The bow and arrow he holds point to the deep and piercing wounds that love can leave, his torch to the fiery and inflammatory essence of passion and his blindfold to the somewhat random and incidental choice of targets. Though the most striking aspect of Cupid’s persona is his ability to instil this desire in the recipient of his golden-tipped arrows, be they humans or gods; they are powerless to overcome the intensity of the desire and the potency of the passion awoken within them, the spark of love’s flame.
So this Valentine’s day, whether you’re looking for love, looking to rekindle it, to keep it burning or to make it burn brighter; keep in mind that we are dealing with something precious yet volatile, something we do not understand and cannot control. It is often the case that we are too grounded and practical in our approach to romance, too specific about what we want yet not passionate and committed enough to truly seize it. We may not always know who is best for us or who is not and are perhaps more likely to find and keep our Valentine by letting Cupid, the original and ultimate matchmaker, do what he has always done. As the ancient Roman poet Virgil put it, ‘Love conquers all, and so let us surrender ourselves to Love’.