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Valentine’s Day special: The history of Cupid

Amid the deluge of nostalgia and romance that February invokes, and the calls for resistance to this “epidemic” of love brought about by the market forces, the story of Valentine’s Day perhaps lies somewhere in between — long, complex and deserving to be told.

Written by Deeptesh Sen |
Updated: February 15, 2022 5:41:49 pm
Come February, it is difficult to ignore the deluge of messages celebrating love that we are bombarded with, from notifications to WhatsApp messages, advertisements on billboards and the latest commercials.

The idea of associating Valentine’s Day with romance and love has over the years promoted two very compelling, contrasting, narratives — calls for celebrating passion wholeheartedly in the face of growing uncertainties posited by a supposedly bleaker world on one hand, and on the other a strong cynicism about sentimental myth-making driven by consumer capitalism.

Come February, it is difficult to ignore the deluge of messages celebrating love that we are bombarded with, from notifications to WhatsApp messages, advertisements on billboards and the latest commercials. Famous and forgotten couplets get a new lease of life, along with the ones that will perhaps be quoted and misquoted till eternity — mundane day-to-day kitsch carrying the same lines such as “My bounty is as boundless as the sea…” or “I want/To do with you what spring does with the cherry trees”. Timeless classics on love playing on loop compete for attention along with the latest arrivals on streaming services.

Amid the deluge of nostalgia and romance that February invokes, and the calls for resistance to this “epidemic” of love brought about by the market forces, the story of Valentine’s Day perhaps lies somewhere in between — long, complex and deserving to be told. And what lies at the heart of this story is the figure of Cupid, which has, like the chequered history of the day itself, undergone many transformations, but withstood the test of time.

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Why cherub became a figure of love

Among the oldest surviving Valentine’s cards is one that dates back to 1797, which was sent by one Catherine Mossday to a Mr Brown in London. Decorated with flowers and images of Cupid, the card carried the message: “Since on this ever Happy day,/All Nature’s full of Love and Play/Yet harmless still if my design,/‘Tis but to be your Valentine.”

As the practice of sending gifts and Valentine’s cards became more and more popular, the figure of Cupid became almost ubiquitous on these items. The reason behind such a choice is not difficult to imagine — by the time Valentine’s cards became an established convention, the association of love with the figure of Cupid was firmly entrenched in the popular psyche.

However, it is interesting to note that the original Cupid was never represented as a cherub. The figure can be traced back to 700 BC, when Eros — the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love — depicted desire and almost always was represented as a young man.

As the practice of sending gifts and Valentine’s cards became more and more popular, the figure of Cupid became almost ubiquitous on these items. (Wikimedia Commons)

A choral ode from ‘Antigone’, a play in Sophocles’ Theban trilogy, describes Eros as powerful and sinister: “[Eros] invincible in battle, [Eros] who falls upon men’s property, you who spend the night upon the soft cheeks of a girl, and travel over the sea and through the huts of dwellers in the wild! None among the immortals can escape you, nor any among mortal men, and he who has you is mad.”

But over time, Eros was represented as someone who could act only according to the demands of his mother Aphrodite, who became increasingly powerful. The infantalisation of Eros became complete when the Romans, while adopting from Greek mythology, chose to represent the god of love as a child called Cupid whose mother was Venus. Thus, Cupid always acted according to his mother’s wishes to make people fall in love. The representation caught on and stayed in popular imagination, disseminated across cultures by popular texts of the day.

In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ where Shakespeare makes an allusion to Valentine’s Day, there is also a reference which tries to explain why Cupid is represented as a child. Helena, unhappy with the fact that her beloved Demetrius loves Hermia, says, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,/And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind./Nor hath love’s mind of any judgement taste;/Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste./And therefore is love said to be a child/Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.”

Most representations also arm Cupid with a golden arrow in its quiver that can afflict a person with uncontrollable desire. Such descriptions abound in classical texts such as in the story of Apollo and Daphne in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’.

The figure of Cupid was a recurrent trope in the works of many Renaissance masters. For example, in ‘Primavera’, Sandro Botticelli depicts Cupid as a blindfolded child who flies over the head of maidens.

Most representations also arm Cupid with a golden arrow in its quiver that can afflict a person with uncontrollable desire. Such descriptions abound in classical texts such as in the story of Apollo and Daphne in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the hallmarks of the Italian Renaissance was the revival of the classical motif of putto—a chubby, male child, usually naked, who represented profane passions—with sculptor Donatello being widely credited for bringing back the figure in the 1420s. During the Renaissance, this found resonance in frequent depictions of the putto as Cupid (a putto representing Cupid was known as amorino, or amorini in plural).

The amorino as a figure of love became extremely popular during depictions of mythological and Biblical scenes in high Renaissance art. As in Raphael’s ‘The Voyage of Galatea’, many paintings during that period had multiple figures of amorini with arrows drawn flying over the heads of maidens.

Cupid Carving His Bow (1620s) by François Duquesnoy Cupid Carving His Bow (1620s) by François Duquesnoy (Wikimedia Commons)

But artworks with a single figure of Cupid representing multiple facets of the mother-child relationship remained equally popular, as in Raphael’s ‘Cupid Complaining to Venus’ or ‘Venus and Cupid’ by Pontormo which was based on a lost artwork by Michelangelo.

There were some startling representations as well, such as ‘Amor Victorious’ by Caravaggio where Cupid tramples upon the symbols of music, science, war and government, illustrating Virgil’s line: “love conquers all; let us all yield to love!” In a marked departure from the cherub-like figure, Caravaggio’s Cupid here is a boy meant to represent adolescent male beauty.

How Chaucer gave Cupid wings to fly

As soon as Valentine’s Day came to be celebrated as a day of love, the iconography of Cupid came to be intrinsically associated with it. The late University of Kansas English professor Jack B Oruch writes in ‘St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February’ that Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle of contemporaries, including John Gower, Oton de Grandson, and John Lydgate, were the original “mythmaker[s]” of Valentine’s Day as a holiday focused on love and fertility.

Cupid’s association with the day was present from the start, he writes, adding, “At the time of Chaucer’s death in 1400, the transformation of Valentine into an auxiliary or parallel to Cupid as sponsor of lovers was well under way. In that year the Cour amoreuse was formed in Paris on February 14 with a membership of six hundred men, including King Charles VI and most of the Burgundian faction at court; it met monthly to foster music and poetry and to hear “cases” relating to love. The following year Christine de Pizan wrote the Dit de la rose, which describes the probably imaginary foundation by Louis d’Orleans of an Order of the Rose on Valentine’s Day.”

The name Valentine was popular during the Roman empire, and many of them attained sainthood through martyrdom. It is popular practice to associate the origins of Valentine’s Day with a priest of Rome and a bishop of Terni who were both supposedly beheaded on February 14. But most of these are contesting narratives which are not historically verifiable and need to be taken with a pinch of salt — many modern-day critics have called these tales “unhistorical fiction” and attempts at myth-making.

As soon as Valentine’s Day came to be celebrated as a day of love, the iconography of Cupid came to be intrinsically associated with it. (Wikimedia Commons)

Oruch argued that there was nothing in the writings and customs of the medieval period to suggest associations were made to celebrate Valentine’s Day as a day of love. “Although many critics speak of these two works as belonging to a “Valentine tradition,” and some even discuss ways in which Chaucer makes innovations in the “Valentine convention,” no evidence has been discovered of such a tradition, either literary or in social customs, before Chaucer,” he adds.

Therefore, it is quite possible that it was Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, whose made the earliest popular reference to the day in his ‘Parlement of Foules’ (Parliament of Fowls), which became a defining moment—the allusion would find echoes in literary greats and social customs after him. Among the various references to the day Chaucer made in the poem, the one which is most-quoted reads: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day. Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make (For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day. When every bird cometh there to choose his mate).” 

A French Duke and Ophelia’s song

Among the three times Valentine’s Day is referred to by William Shakespeare in his plays, the most heart-rending reference is in ‘Hamlet’, when a lovelorn Ophelia, slipping into bouts of insanity, sings: “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day, /All in the morning betime, /And I a maid at your window,/To be your Valentine…”

Shakespeare also refers to Valentine’s Day in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when Theseus, the Duke of Athens, compares sleeping lovers to mating birds: “Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past. Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?”

Eros Statue of Eros sleeping; 3rd–2nd century BC (Wikimedia Commons)

A collection of letters from 1422 to 1509 written to and by the Paston family, members of the Norfolk gentry, also refers to the popular practice of Valentines being chosen by lot from among a group of friends. Subsequently, these friends brought gifts for their Valentine.

Later in the 17th century, the custom is also referred to by Michael Drayton in His Poem to His Valentine (1619): “Let’s laugh at them that choose/Their valentines by lot./To wear their names that use,/Whom idly they have got;/Such poor choice we refuse,/Saint Valentine befriend;/We thus this morn may spend,/Else, Muse, awake her not.”

Among the oldest surviving valentine’s letters is one dating back to 1415 and attributed to Charles, the Duke of Orléans in France. Captured during the Battle of Agincourt and imprisoned in the Tower of London for 25 years, the Duke wrote many love letters to his wife, including one, which when translated into English verse, reads: “My very gentle Valentine,/Since for me you were born too soon,/And I for you was born too late./God forgives him who has estranged/Me from you for the whole year./I am already sick of love,/My very gentle Valentine.”

The oldest Valentine’s letter in the English language dates back to 1477 in which one Margery Brews writing to her fiancé John Paston calls him “right well-beloved Valentine”.

A information sign about Valentine’s day is seen outside of a grocery store in Buffalo Grove, Ill., Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. (AP)

An ‘epidemic’ of love

Till the late 17th century, the term “valentine” was generally used for a person or a relationship, but in the 19th century, amid changing cultural practices driven by the commercial revolution, these courtly traditions were transformed. The term by then had come to mean “preeminently an object of exchange — a fancy lace-paper card or colorful lithographed sheet for which one went shopping”, writes critic Leigh Eric Schmidt in the essay ‘The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday’. This tale of transformation, he states, is a “complicated bit of cultural history—one that entails a rich interplay of commerce, gender ritual, and material culture”.

He adds: “As an early exemplar of how an emergent consumer culture transformed traditional holidays, the reconfiguration of St. Valentine’s Day suggests the reshaping of popular ritual in terms of vast markets, private exchanges, and standardized commodities. The proliferation of mass-produced, shrewdly marketed valentine greetings increasingly raised romantic concerns about the loss of sincerity, authenticity, and self-expression in a culture of consumer capitalism. The holiday was a harbinger of the possibilities and sardonicisms that arose out of allying commerce with celebration and mass production with deep-felt sentiment.”

And what set the ball rolling in this journey were commercially produced valentine greetings, which got a fillip from printers and booksellers after the rise of the print culture, in Victorian England.

With a record number of letters coming in and greetings cards being circulated, this created a “general mania” for valentines around that time. Apart from the cards, people also started exchanging gifts in the form of love tokens, mementos, puzzle purses, fancy cutwork with hearts, birds, and flowers. In most of these early greetings cards, red hearts or the figure of Cupid were almost ubiquitous. From 1913, Hallmark Cards started producing Valentine’s greetings cards, which provided the final big push.

In the mid-1800s, newspaper advertising was also an important conduit for the promotion of valentines. These were advertisements used by shopkeepers to reach out to potential customers. For instance, a self-styled Cupid’s Headquarters promoted itself thus: “And those you buy at other places/ Will never win the ladies’ graces;/ For Peterson has all the best/ Don’t give a penny for the rest.”

Retailers of valentine “combined romance, sentimentalism, and consumerism” to use innovative advertising, marketing Valentine’s Day as ‘Cupid’s Grand Carnival’. An 1850 advertisement of Fisher and Brother ordained February 14 as a “FAST DAY OF LOVE AND MATRIMONY”, and all citizens were asked “to fast for fast partners, for a fast life,” and to go “fast unto FISHER & BROTHER’S Fast Temple of Heart Fastenings”.

By the 1850s, depictions of Valentine’s Day advertisements and messages overwhelmingly put women at the forefront, essentially “feminising” the holiday.  “Valentines will make your stores look lively, while the presence of the ladies will make them look lovely,” goes a Fisher and Brother ad from 1852.

Thus, a post-industrial market economy, riding on the back of an ebullient print culture and advertising, created a construct of Valentine’s Day being a “love epidemic” which was alluring and irresistible.

This was best portrayed perhaps in “Kate’s Valentine,” a short story published in Godey’s in 1850. In the story, Kate had successfully resisted the “Valentine epidemic” and the “costly, delicate, and refined” goods. But the temptation ultimately proved to be too much as she was ultimately swayed by the emotions after receiving a missive containing a piece of jewelry.

Merchants also created “juvenile valentines” during this period, Schmidt writes, adding, “This was very much a new image for the holiday. A sentimental devotion to the child characterized nineteenth-century middle-class culture, and merchants increasingly reflected the piety of the angelic youngster in a wide range of Valentine’s Day cards. A refashioned image of Cupid as an innocent cherub indicated a redirection toward children and familial devotion. Merchants helped create a darling infant Cupid who bore only a faint resemblance to the often capricious Roman Cupid.”

From sentimental to satiric

In a marked departure from the portrayals promoting mushy sentimentalism, satiric valentines were also a rage in the 19th century. These represented “mock valentines” which were grotesque and carnivalesque caricatures, promoting lewdness and insult.

A passage in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1848 states, “The practice of sending comic Valentines, is an innovation which has lately been introduced, and which tends to lessen the pleasures which ought legitimately to hallow the festival.”

These representations lampooned people, presented sexist or racist stereotypes, and were often filled with crass, phallic innuendos. For instance, comic greetings cards were shared with lines such as: “Who will marry such a termagant wife,/The plague of her own poor husband’s life?/ Who distorts all her features with anger and rage…/To others I such charms resign,/You ne’er can be my Valentine.”

Racist caricatures depicting cannibals preparing their loved ones for the pot or cowboy imagery were also circulated during this time. They also contained dark undertones, such as one Hallmark card from the 1950s in which the sender threatens suicide with the message, “I’ll be sunk if you won’t be my valentine”. 

But the figure of Cupid remained a constant presence, not just in cards, messages and advertisements but also in the verses of Valentine writers. A good example is the ‘Sentimental Valentine Writer for Both Sexes’, published by a Philadelphia stationer and engraver in 1845, which carried verses such as: “Fly Cupid, fly, and wing thy way, /To the youth, (maid,) I long have given my heart, /Show him (her) how in wreaths of flowrets gay, /United—we could never part.”

Cupid’s journey did not end there. Riding the winds of change, the winged cherub has now found space in the digital domain. In fact, Cupid is now omnipresent on digital merchandises, dating apps and NFTs. From the sentimental to the satiric to now being the harbinger of new hope, promising us a ticket to the metaverse if we swipe right or buy the next emerging cryptocurrency. More than ever, love now has a price.

Further reading:

  • Jack B Oruch, ‘St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February,’ in Speculum (Vol 3), The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

  • Leigh Eric Schmidt, ‘The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day, 1840-1870’, in Winterthur Portfolio (vol 4), The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

  • Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (London: Penguin Books Limited, 1955)

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