The ancient Greeks had a god for everything – and sometimes they had more than one god for things! This is the case for love and sex, which are most commonly attributed to Aphrodite. However, there was another god of love, Eros. Although in modern media he has been overshadowed by his mother, Aphrodite, Eros has his own deep mythology to explore. He was even the original inspiration for Cupid. Here is everything you need to know about Eros: (the original?) god of love and sex.
Eros’s Origins? It’s Complicated.
Eros has a convoluted mess of an origin story. Ancient sources can’t agree on which generation of gods he came from. Some ancient historians painted him as one of the original gods (the protogenoi) while others attribute him to a much later generation (the Olympians).
Aphrodite and Eros, 400-350 BC, discovered in Benghazi, Iraq ( Public Domain )
Eros as a Primordial
Eros is most commonly remembered as the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and everything sexy, and Ares, the god of war and everything violent and bloody. However, according to some ancient sources, Eros actually predates his supposed parents. Even then, the sources conflict.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony from 700 BC, Eros was one of the protogenoi. The protogenoi were the original generation of gods, predating both the Olympians (like Aphrodite and Ares) and even the Titans. In this version of events, Eros was the fourth of the protogenoi following Chaos (the first), Gaia (Earth), and Tartarus (the abyss and later, hell).
On the other hand, Parmenides from 400 BC, painted Eros as the first of all the gods, predating even Chaos. The Orphic (a collection of incomplete poems that often contradict the ‘traditional’ Greek narrative) and the Eleusinian Mysteries (based on one of the oldest Greek cults) paint Eros as the son of one of the protogenoi, Nyx. In this version, he is one of the oldest gods, but not quite a protogenoi.
Eros as Son of Aphrodite and Ares
As mentioned, in later mythology Eros was depicted as the son of Aphrodite and Ares. In this version of the mythology, Eros was one of the erotes. The erotes were a group of winged gods who made up Aphrodite’s retinue. They predominantly concerned themselves with everything to do with love and sex. Compared to many of the more serious gods, the erotes were depicted as young and carefree, often playing pranks on humans and gods alike.
Eros was usually depicted as either carrying a bow and arrow or a lyre. His physical appearance was either that of a handsome, nude, young male or a mischievous nude boy. The second appearance is most often attributed to Eros’ Roman counterpart, Cupid.
Eros and Anteros with Psyche Looking at Them, Johannes Riepenhausen, 19 th century ( Public Domain )
Eros in Mythology
Compared to the other erotes, Eros has his own, fleshed-out mythology. He is also one of the more powerful Greek gods. Several myths revolve around Eros using his love arrows to make various mortals and immortals fall in love. It was believed Eros was almost omnipotent; no one was immune to the effects of his arrows. Eros appeared in many myths but there are two that best show his capabilities.
The Tragic Story of Apollo and Daphne
Eros was said to have two types of arrows. One had a sharp, gold tip that Eros could use to make mortals and immortals alike fall in love. The second type was blunt and lead-tipped. Anyone hit with one of these became immune to all love advances. Eros wielded both the poison and the cure.
The myth goes that one day Apollo, known as one of the greatest archers in the Greek pantheon, was ridiculing the archery skills of Eros. Enraged, Eros sought revenge by firing a love-tipped arrow at Apollo, forcing him to fall in love with a wood nymph named Daphne. He then fired a lead-tipped arrow at Daphne, making her immune to Apollo’s advances. Thus, Apollo was condemned to long for a love that would never be reciprocated.
Apollo chasing Daphne, painting by Francesco Albani, circa 1615 ( Public Domain )
The Love Story of Eros and Psyche
In another myth, there was a beautiful mortal princess called Psyche. Psyche was said to be so beautiful that her beauty rivaled that of Aphrodite herself. Her beauty was said to be so awe-inspiring that mortal men had begun to abandon Aphrodite’s altars, choosing to worship Psyche instead. Unsurprisingly, Aphrodite had a hard time accepting this.
The goddess sent her favorite son, Eros, to exact her revenge. She ordered the young god to strike Psyche with one of his arrows, forcing her to fall in love with the ugliest creature in all existence. Unfortunately for Eros, he himself was not immune to the effects of his arrows. Upon seeing the beautiful Psyche, Eros was so distracted he accidentally pricked himself with an arrow, immediately falling in love with the maiden.
Fearing his mother, Eros arranged to meet Psyche under cover of total darkness. The two were happy for a time, and while making love night after night, Psyche never knew the true identity of her lover. Tragically, Psyche’s happiness drew the ire of her jealous sisters. They drove her to try and uncover the identity of her mysterious suitor.
So one night, Psyche lit a candle and in doing so, discovered that her lover was none other than Eros. Eros in turn fled, feeling betrayed. Psyche was left heartbroken and began pleading with the gods for help in reuniting with her love. Eventually, Aphrodite answered Psyche’s prayers.
Aphrodite gave Psyche a series of seemingly impossible tasks, stating that if Psyche was successful in all of them she would help her. To Aphrodite’s amazement, Psyche succeeded. She was rewarded with the trust of both Aphrodite and Eros. Aphrodite made Psyche into a goddess, so that the two lovers could live happily ever after.
The marriage of Eros and Psyche, painting by Andrea Schiavone, circa 1540 ( Public Domain )
Despite being an important god in his own right, the worship of Eros never gained popularity in ancient Greece. Although he had worshippers, it was almost always under the umbrella of the cult of Aphrodite.
Although Eros is largely forgotten by western culture today, his Roman counterpart, Cupid lives on. Walk into any gift card store in the world around Valentine’s Day, and you are more likely to find multiple depictions of Eros. The story of Eros and Psyche became a popular folk story within the Greco-Roman world. If Eros teaches us anything, it is that people have always been suckers for a good love story with a happy ending.
Top image: Gold Eros, Greek god of love representation close up on middle body, bow and arrow. Source: zwiebackesser / Adobe Stock
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