Eros is the ancient Greek god of love, desire, and fertility. Eros is also one of the very first gods to appear at the beginning of time. However, In Greek mythology, there are several variations of the winged love god Eros. Despite their differences or how they came into being, the constant theme in each version of the god is that he is the god of love, desire and fertility.
According to the work of the early Greek poet Hesiod, Eros is one of the primordial gods that emerged from Chaos when the world began. Eros is the primordial god of desire, erotic love, and fertility. Eros is the driving force behind the unions of the primordial gods that initiated creation.
In later tales, Eros is described as Aphrodite’s son. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, bore Eros from her union with the Olympian god of war, Ares. Eros is Aphrodite’s constant companion throughout Greek mythology.
As Aphrodite’s son and not the primordial deity, Eros is described as the mischievous winged Greek god of love, who would meddle in the love lives of others at Aphrodite’s request.
What Was Eros the God Of?
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, Eros is the Greek god of sexual attraction, known as Eros to the ancient Greeks and as Cupid in Roman mythology. Eros is both the god who smites maid’s breasts with arrows that elicit blinding feelings of love and a primordial force.
Eros, as the primordial force of love, is a personification of human lust and desire. Eros is the force that brings order to the universe, as it is love, or desire, that drives the first beings to form love bonds and enter into sacred marriage unions.
In the evolution of the god of love found within later accounts of the gods, Eros is known for being the god of love, sexual desire, and fertility. This version of Eros is portrayed as a winged male rather than a faceless primal force.
As the embodiment of sexual power, Eros could sway the desires of both gods and mortals by wounding them with one of his arrows. Eros is not only known as the god of fertility, but he is also regarded as the protector of male homosexual love.
As the god of love and sexual desire, Eros could elicit overpowering feelings of desire and love in even the most powerful gods such as Zeus. The unsuspecting receiver of one of Eros’ arrows had no choice in the matter, they would form a love bond. Hesiod describes Eros as being able to ‘loosen the limbs and weaken the minds’ of his targets.
Eros was not the only god of love found in ancient Greek mythology. Eros is often described as being with three other winged love gods, Anteros, Pothos, and Himeros. These three love gods are said to be the children of Aphrodite and Eros’ siblings.
Together the winged gods are known as the Erotes, and they represent the different forms love can take. Anteros symbolized love returned, Pothos, longing for an absent love, and Himeros, impetus love.
In the Hellenistic period (300 – 100 BCE), Eros was believed to be the god of friendship and liberty. In Crete, offerings were made to Eros before battle in the name of friendship. The belief was that survival in battle had to do with the help of the soldier, or friend, standing at your side.
The Origin of Eros
There are several different explanations found within ancient Greek mythology of how Eros came to exist. There seem to be different versions of the god of sexual desire. In early Greek poetry, Eros is an original force in the universe. Eros is mentioned in Orphic sources, but interestingly Homer does not mention him.
Eros in the Theogony
Eros as a primordial god of desire appears in Hesiod’s Greek epic and the first written cosmology of the Greek gods written by Hesiod sometime in the 7th or 8th centuries. The Theogony is a poem detailing the genealogy of the Greek gods, beginning with the creation of the universe. The very first gods in the Greek pantheon are the primordial deities.
Eros is described as one of the first gods to emerge when the world began in the Theogony. According to Hesiod, Eros is the ‘fairest among the gods,’ and was the fourth god to emerge fully formed at the beginning of the world after Gaia and Tartarus.
Hesiod describes Eros as the primordial being that is the driving force behind the creation of the universe once all beings emerged from Chaos. Eros blessed the union between the primordial goddess Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (the Sky), from whom the Titans were born.
In the Theogony, Eros begins accompanying Aphrodite from the time the goddess is born from the sea foam created by the castration of the Titan Uranus. It is believed he is described as her son in later works because he is consistently mentioned as accompanying Aphrodite.
Some scholars interpret Eros’ presence at the birth of Aphrodite in the Theogony as Eros being created from Aphrodite immediately after her own birth.
Eros in Orphic Cosmologies
Orphic sources differ from Hesiod’s version of creation. In Orphic retellings, Eros is described as being born from an egg that was placed in Gaia by the Titan god of time, Chronos.
The famous Greek poet from the Island of Lesbos, Alcaeus, wrote that Eros was the son of West Wind or Zephyrus, and Iris, the messenger of the Olympian gods.
Hesiod and Alcaeus were not the only Greek poets to detail the birth of Eros. Aristophanes, like Hesiod, writes of the creation of the universe. Aristophanes was a Greek comedic playwright who is famed for his poem, Birds.
Aristophanes attributes the creation of Eros to another primordial deity, Nyx/night. According to Aristophanes, Eros is born from a silver egg laid by the primordial goddess of night, Nyx in Erebus, the primordial god of darkness. In this version of creation, Eros emerges from the silver egg with golden wings.
Eros and the Greek Philosophers
Greek poets were not the only ones to draw inspiration from the god of love. The Greek Philosopher Plato refers to Eros as being ‘the most ancient of gods.’ Plato attributes Eros’ creation to the goddess of love but does not describe Eros as Aphrodite’s son.
Plato, in his Symposium, differs significantly from other interpretations of Eros’ parentage. Plato makes Eros the son of Poros, or Plenty, and Penia, Poverty, the pair conceived Eros on Aphrodite’s birthday.
Another Greek philosopher, Parmenides (485 BCE), similarly writes that Eros predated all the gods and was the first to emerge.
The Cult of Eros
Throughout ancient Greece, statues and altars to the god of love and procreation were found. Cults of Eros existed in pre-classical Greece, but are not as prominent. Cults of Eros were found in Athens, Megara in Megaris, Corinth, Parium on the Hellespont, and Thespiae in Boeotia.
Eros shared a very popular cult with his mother Aphrodite and he shared a sanctuary with Aphrodite at the Acropolis in Athens. The fourth day of each month was dedicated to Eros.
Eros was believed to be the fairest, and therefore, the most beautiful of the primordial gods. Eros was worshiped for his beauty because of this. Altars to Eros were placed in ancient Greek gymnasiums such as the gymnasium in Ellis and the Academy in Athens.
The placement of statues of Eros in gymnasiums indicates that male beauty was just as important in the ancient Greek world as female beauty.
The town of Thespiae in Boeotia was a cult center for the god. Here, there was a fertility cult that worshipped Eros, as they had done from the beginning. They continued to worship Eros until the beginning of the Roman Empire.
The Thespians held festivals in honor of Eros called the Erotidia. The festival occurred once every five years and took the form of athletic games and musical contests. Not much else is known about the festival, other than it was where married couples who had issues with one another settled their differences.
Eros and the Eleusinian Mysteries
The Eleusinian Mysteries were the most sacred and secret religious rites performed in Ancient Greece. The god of love is featured in the mysteries, but not as the son of Aphrodite. The Eros in Eleusinian Mysteries is the ancient primordial variation. The mysteries were held to honor the Olympian goddess of agriculture, Demeter, and her daughter, Persephone.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were held each year in the Athenian suburb of Eleusis, from roughly 600 BCE. They are believed to have prepared the initiates for the afterlife. The rites focused on the myth of Demeter’s daughter Persephone being taken to the Underworld.
Plato participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, as did many of the Greek philosophers. In the Symposium, Plato writes of initiates being entered into the rites of love, and rituals to Eros. The rites of love are referred to in the Symposium as the final and highest mystery.
Eros: the Protector of Homosexual Love
Many in the ancient Greek world believed that Eros was the protector of homosexual love. It is not uncommon in Greco-Roman mythology to see themes of homosexuality. The Erotes often had a part to play in homosexual relationships by enhancing male lovers with qualities such as beauty and strength.
There were some groups in the ancient Greek world that made offerings to Eros before going into battle. The Sacred Band of Thebes, for instance, used Eros as their patron god. The Sacred Band of Thebes was an elite fighting force that consisted of 150 pairs of homosexual men.
Eros as Aphrodite’s Son
In later mythologies, Eros is described as being the child of Aphrodite. When Eros appears in mythology as Aphrodite’s son, he is seen as her minion, meddling in the love lives of others at her request. He is no longer seen as the wise primordial force responsible for the union of the Earth and Sky, instead, he is seen as a mischievous child.
Eros appears in many Greek myths as either Aphrodite’s son or accompanying Aphrodite. He makes an appearance in the tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece, in which he uses one of his arrows to make an enchantress and daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, Medea fall in love with the great hero Jason.
With a nick from one of his gold-tipped arrows, Eros could make an unsuspecting mortal or god fall in love. Eros is often regarded as a cunning trickster who could be cruel with his aim. The power contained in the arrows of Eros was so strong it could drive its victim mad with lust. The powers of Eros could drive the very gods from Mount Olympus and force them to roam the earth in the name of love.
Eros often meddled in the affairs of gods and mortals causing much drama for all involved. Eros carried two types of unavoidable arrows. One set of arrows were the gold-tipped love-inducing arrows, and the other was led tipped and made the receiver immune to romantic advances.
Eros and Apollo
Eros demonstrated the effects of his two arrows on the Olympian god Apollo. The Roman Poet Ovid interprets the myth of Apollo and Daphne, which shows that Eros’ power was so potent, that it could overcome the senses of even the strongest gods.
In the myth, Apollo mocked Eros’ ability as an archer. In response, Eros wounded Apollo with one of his gold-tipped arrows and shot Apollos’ love interest, the wood nymph Daphne, with a lead-tipped arrow.
While Apollo pursued Daphne, she refuted his advances as Eros’ arrow had made the nymph regard Apollo with disgust. The tale of Apollo and Daphne does not have a happy ending, showing the crueler side of the beautiful god of love.
Who was Eros in Love With?
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the tale of Eros and his love interest, Psyche (ancient Greek for the soul), is one of the oldest love stories. The story was written first by the Roman writer Apuleius. His picaresque Roman style novel, titled the Golden Ass, was written in the 2nd century.
The Golden Ass, and Greek oral traditions before that, detail the relationship between the Greek god of desire, Eros, and Psyche, a beautiful mortal princess. The tale of Eros’ relationship with princess Psyche is one of the most well-known myths involving Eros. The story of Eros and Psyche begins with jealousy, as all great tales so often do.
Eros and Psyche
Aphrodite was jealous of a beautiful mortal princess. The beauty of this mere mortal woman was said to rival that of the goddess of love. The mortal men were leaving the goddess of love and beauty’s altars barren. While artists seemingly forgot the goddess of love had been one of their favorite subjects.
Instead of the goddess of love, the mortals were worshiping a mere human woman, Princess Psyche. Men would come from all over the ancient world to marvel at the beauty of the princess. They gave her the divine rites reserved for Aphrodite while she was a mere human woman.
Psyche was the youngest of three children and, by all accounts, the most beautiful and graceful of the siblings. Aphrodite was jealous of Psyche’s beauty, and the attention she was receiving. Aphrodite decided to send her son Eros to use one of his arrows to make Psyche fall in love with the ugliest creature in all the world.
Eros and Psyche Fall in love
Psyche, because of her beauty was feared by mortal men. They presumed the maiden princess was a child of Aphrodite and feared marrying her. Psyche’s father consulted one of Apollo’s oracles, who advised the king to leave Psyche on top of a mountain. It would be there Psyche would meet her husband.
The husband the oracle predicted would come for Psyche turned out to be none other than the winged god of love and desire, Eros. Eros fell deeply in love with the mortal princess Psyche upon meeting her. Whether his feelings were on his own accord or that of one of his arrows is debated.
Instead of fulfilling his mother’s wish, Eros transported Psyche to his heavenly palace with the help of the West Wind. Eros had made Psyche promise she would never look upon his face. The god was to remain unknown to Psyche, despite their relationship. Psyche agreed to this and the pair lived happily for a time.
The couple’s happiness is shattered by the arrival of Psyche’s jealous sisters. Psyche missed her sisters terribly and begged her husband to let them visit her. Eros allowed the visit, and at first, the family reunion was a happy occasion. Soon, however, the sisters became jealous of Psyche’s life in the heavenly palace of Eros.
To sabotage the relationship, Psyche’s jealous sisters convinced Psyche that she was married to a hideous monster. They persuaded the princess to betray her promise to Eros, and to look upon him when he was sleeping, and kill him.
Eros and Lost Love
Upon seeing the sleeping face of the beautiful god, and the bow and arrows placed next to him, Psyche realized she had married Eros, god of love and desire. Eros woke up while Psyche stared at him and disappeared, as he promised he would should she ever betray him.
In the process of looking at her slumbering husband, Psyche had pricked herself with one of Eros’ arrows causing her to fall even more in love with him than she already was. Abandoned Psyche wanders the earth looking for her lost love, Eros, but never finds him.
Left with no choice, Psyche approaches Aphrodite for help. Aphrodite shows the heartbroken princess no mercy and only agrees to help her if she completes are series of trials.
After completing the many trails set by the goddess of love, with the help of her lost love Eros, Psyche was granted immortality. Psyche drank the nectar of the gods, ambrosia, and was able to live with Eros as an immortal on Mount Olympus.
Together they had a daughter, Hedone or Voluptas, ancient Greek for bliss. As a goddess. Psyche represented the human soul as her name is the ancient Greek word for soul or spirit. Psyche was portrayed in ancient mosaics as having butterfly wings, as Psyche also means butterfly or animating force.
Eros and Psyche is a myth that has inspired many sculptures. The pair were a favorite subject for ancient Greek and Roman sculptures.
Eros and Dionysus
Eros features in two myths that center around the Greek god of wine and fertility, Dionysus. The first myth is a tale of unrequited love. Eros strikes a young shepherd named Hymnus with one of his golden-tipped arrows. The strike from Eros’ arrow makes the shepherd fall in love with a water spirit called Nicaea.
Nicaea did not return the affection of the shepherd. The shepherd’s unrequited love for Nicaea made him so miserable he asked Nicaea to kill him. The spirit obliged, but the act angered Eros. In his anger, Eros struck Dionysus with a love-inducing arrow, making him fall in love with Nicaea.
As predicted, Nicaea rejected the advances of the god. Dionysus turned the water the spirit drank into wine and made her drunk. Dionysus had his way with her and left, leaving Nicaea to search for him to exact her revenge.
Eros, Dionysus, and Aura
A second myth that involves Eros and Dionysus revolves around Dionysus and his all-consuming desire for a maiden nymph called Aura. Aura, whose name means breeze, is the daughter of the Titan Lelantos.
Aura had insulted the goddess Artemis, who then asked the goddess of revenge, Nemesis to punish Aura. Nemesis asked Eros to make Dionysus fall in love with the nymph. Eros once again strikes Dionysus with one of his gold-tipped arrows. Eros drove Dionysus mad with lust for Aura, who like Nicaea, had no feelings of love or lust for Dionysus.
Driven mad with lust for Aura, the god roamed the land, searching for the object of his desire. Eventually, Dionysus makes Aura drunk and the story of Aura and Dionysus ends in a similar manner to that of Nicaea and the god.
Eros in Greek Art
The winged god of love appears frequently in Greek poetry and was a favorite subject of ancient Greek artists. In Greek art, Eros is portrayed as being the embodiment of sexual power, love, and athleticism. As such he was shown as a beautiful youthful male. Eros is often found fluttering above the scene of a wedding, or with the three other winged gods, the Erotes.
Eros is often depicted in vase paintings from ancient Greece as a beautiful youth or as a child. The god of love and sexual attraction always appears with wings.
From the 4th century onwards, Eros is usually shown carrying a bow and arrow. Sometimes the god is shown holding a Lyre or a burning torch because his arrows could ignite the flame of love and burning desire.
The birth of Aphrodite or Venus (Roman) was a favorite subject of ancient art. In the scene Eros and another winged god, Himeros, are present. In later satirical works, Eros is often depicted as a beautiful blindfolded boy. By the Hellenistic period (323 BCE), Eros is portrayed as being a mischievous beautiful boy.
Eros in Roman Mythology
Eros is the inspiration behind the Roman god Cupid and his famed arrows. The beautiful and youthful Greek god of desire becomes the chubby winged infant and god of love in all its forms, Cupid. Like Eros, Cupid is the son of Venus, whose Greek counterpart is Aphrodite. Cupid, like Eros carries with him a bow and quiver of arrows.