A cursory glance around the world during any recent February would seem to indicate that things have never been better for Cupid. The little guy is everywhere, from your local CVS to the fancy paperie. Centuries into his reign as a Latinate metonym, we regularly use his name as an easy stand-in for love. Recent New York Times headlines include “Even Cupid Wants to Know Your Credit Score” and “Hoping Cupid’s Quiver Contains Lots of Extra Arrows.” (His publicist must be good to get so much placement in such prime real estate!) And yet, despite his media presence, Cupid’s true status has never functionally been lower. Look at the dude. Really step back and look at him: He’s desperately posing near-nude, bloated, and cartoonish. The diaper he’s taken to wearing, only in recent years, announces to the world just how little control he has over his own bowels, much less your love life. He’s one step away from taking some Quaalludes and shooting out his television with those famous arrows. Like so many icons before him, Cupid sold out.
Although his merchandising efforts have been ramped up in recent years, Cupid has been famous for centuries—and much like Madonna, whose career has spanned a similar time frame, he’s done so via constant reinvention. In the earliest days, he was known as Eros, a Greek god and the original sex symbol. (No, really. Sorry, James Dean, maybe the next Western canon will start with you.) The Romans were bound to pay attention because of his famous parents—Venus and Mars, a tumultuous coupling to put Burton and Taylor to shame—but it was Cupid’s own love affair with the lovely Psyche that got him noticed in the tabloids of the day, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Details vary by account, but part of the appeal was that he was a disobedient rebel (again, tough luck, James Dean): His mother, jealous of Psyche, had ordered Cupid to prick her with one of his golden arrows of love (he also had lead arrows of hate in his quiver) and force her to fall in love with someone awful. Instead, stunned by her looks and not afraid of someone whose name foretold that she might be a bit of a head case, Cupid shot his arrow so that she would fall in love with him. Several twists and turns and vengeful eternal sleeping potions later, the two finally ended up together, and had a kid: Voluptas (or “pleasure”), a celebrity baby name to make Angelina Jolie jealous.
Cupid could have sold out then—and he did get famous—but instead, unlike so many child stars, he cannily managed to become associated with a number of highbrow artists and quality projects. He was a mischief-maker, a meddler. Sure, his role in the Aeneid wasn’t a big one, but look at the company! So many boldfaced names, and such staying power! Shakespeare couldn’t use him enough, even if he did draw cruel attention to Cupid’s physical disability and its effect on his performance (“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind/ And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind,” the Bard undermined expertly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) Speaking of painting, Cupid also managed to associate himself with many of the hottest and most respected artists of the millennium: Caravaggio, Velasquez, and more.
Sure, naked cherubs were a dime a dozen back then, but what Cupid had was special. Being struck with an arrow of love was a boon to a marriage, but not a requirement—and so something so unpredictable as a puckish, trigger-happy imp seemed as good a metaphor for love as any. Maybe it wasn’t actually a little guy walking around shooting arrows, but surely that sharp emotion had to mean something. Chance, fate, mischief: that was what occasioned love. Now, devotion in the face of untold options, dedication to the hard work of a relationship, and a willingness to “put oneself out there” are what midwifes romance.
Cupid must have seen the writing on the wall when we in the West began wresting control of our own romantic futures. He shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, it’s exactly what he did with Psyche—shoot that arrow on his own behalf, go after what he wanted. But Cupid was ready for another reinvention. It’s hard to know exactly what kind of backroom deal he struck with St. Valentine, already deep in the pocket of Big Greeting Card, but it soon became clear that Cupid’s new strategy was one of unrelenting ubiquity, not specialness. Love isn’t love unless it’s been declared on a card bearing his likeness and delivered on February 14.
He’s watered down his brand, too. On Amazon, one can buy a creepy set of Cupid wings in which to truss up and prop-style her baby, a “Cupid” bag designed by Rebecca Minkoff, a romance mystery called Cupid’s Cupcake, and a bobbing figurine of a little girl Cupid as the fancy strikes. One of the leading online dating sites, a supposedly math-aided morass in which people are asked to sort through the poorly-spelled dossiers of countless strangers within five miles and ten years of themselves, has coopted his name. But sarcastically: There is more than a whiff of annoyed resignation in the name “OKCupid.” OK, buddy, get off my back, I’ll check my messages. And so Cupid, to the modern dater, represents not a stroke of passion-fueled luck or forbidden desire, but rather a repository of all the weight of the centuries of tradition and pressure around romance. (Plus, in an era when fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, it’s less fun to trust a guy who holds arrows of hate as well as love.)