In Ancient Greek culture and mythology Eros was the god associated with physical attraction and love, capable of making divine or mortal individuals fall in love with his enchanted arrows. In most ancient theogonies Eros was thought to have been born from primitive chaos, and was considered a solemn and primordial god, often associated to the mother earth goddess, Gaia. The most common and popular tradition, however, has Eros being born form Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
Eros in Classical and Hellenistic Traditions
Early Greek art depicted Eros as a slender, nude adult male embodying sexual power. Eros’ cult was partially marginalized from the religion in Classical Greece, regaining prominence in the Hellenistic period. The Hellenistic Eros was softer and chubbier, and his presentation as a winged toddler eventually became the norm. This notably youthful image of Eros carried over into that of Cupid in Roman religion, not only in representations of the god himself but also in mythological or genre scenes depicting multiple erotes or putti, popular in later Renaissance and Baroque art. The innumerable Hellenistic and Roman figures of erotes or cupids are often visual representations of the soul in the afterlife. This symbolism was tightly connected with the myth of Love and Psyche, narrated by Apuleius in the Metamorphoses and destined for a singular fortune in literature and art.
Eros in Greek and Roman Art
In Greek and Roman figurative art, Eros or Cupid appears depicted in many different ways, each baring a specific meaning. The deity is sometimes blindfolded to remember that love is blind. He is also portrayed while sleeping under a tree, meaning that the love is unhappy and that passion cannot have a positive outlet. Cupid can also be portrayed while holding an unlit or inverted torch and a globe. The torch symbolizes the brevity of earthly pleasures, while the globe refers to the universal character of love.
Eros with a Goose
The love deity appears in Greek and Roman artistic tradition with a goose as a companion. The connection between Cupid and the goose also stems from Greek art, where Eros was depicted on vases as giving geese as a gift to Aphrodite. Both Aphrodite and Eros are shown holding or even riding a goose on vases and terracotta sculptures. The geese were considered sacred animals of Aphrodite. Aristophanes notes that many youths have indeed succumbed to their desires and have been ‘led away led away by the gift of a quail, a waterfowl, a goose, or a cock’. Cupid feeding a goose is a metaphor for hard to tame love or stubborn love, which is here represented by the goose.
Eros Riding a Dolphin
The motif of Eros riding a dolphin is known in Greek art from the middle of the 6th century BC, especially in ceramics and decorative arts, as an allegory of love. Eros riding a dolphin doesn’t seem to be connected to a specific myth and it appears to have been used only for decorative purposes. In Ancient Greek and Roman culture and mythology dolphins were associated with the sea and with the sphere of sensual love, bearing an amatory symbolism. Because of the assonance between the ancient Greek word delphis (δελφίς), meaning dolphin, and the word delphus (δελφύς), meaning womb, dolphins were considered animals sacred to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, fertility and desire.
Cupid and the Club of Hercules
The Roman god of love and desire appears represented in oil lamps, jewellery and other everyday items, leaning or holding the club of the famous Greco-Roman hero Hercules. This symbolic representation was popular in the first centuries of the Roman Empire and shows that love can overcome and subdue even the greatest hero. Cupid, a personification of love, has rendered Hercules useless, his club a metaphor for the hero’s strength and force.