It’s not even close to Valentine season, but as it turns out, Cupid gives meaning to far more than cheesy cards and boxes of chocolates.
It all starts with the cameo.
Though the most popular cameo style today features the profile of a woman (popularized by Queen Victoria), prior to the Victorian era, numerous other styles and themes appeared on the cameo.
In older times, these images were often thought to have a kind of magic and were often given as a love token. So it makes sense that the most powerful images portrayed Eros, or Cupid, the god of love.
Some say that whatever Cupid holds or does in the image gives a hidden message. Fun Valentine activity: give your significant other a Cupid card, tell them it contains a hidden message, and watch them sweat.
But for those who want to know what Cupid is up to, here’s your handy guide to five classic Cupid symbols:
1. Cupid with a rose means a secret love. Cupid often carries a rose in mythology, which comes from the Roman tradition of hanging a rose over a conference table as a symbol of secrecy. In legend, Cupid gives the god of silence, Harpocrates, a rose so he will keep the secrets of Venus.
2. Cupid riding a lion says love conquers all. This is one of the oldest cameo images, and it has lasted to this day. Cupid is also often shown riding a dolphin, which is possibly a metaphor for Apollo’s love for Daphne.
3. A blindfolded Cupid suggests “love is blind.”
4. Cupid in chains means “love-bound”.
5. Cupid shown with a bow in his hand means he is ready for battle in the war of love.
Bonus symbol: Cupid isn’t always used as a symbol of love. You can find him on pieces of mourning jewelry leaning against an urn or column. When someone is in mourning, people will often ask, “How are you holding up?” So it is with Cupid, literally holding himself up with the urn or column. A sorrowful Cupid is shown pensively standing in a somber pose, with a cameo background of black onyx or another dark material. The piece might also have pearls to represent tears.
Cupid has always been a popular subject of not only cameos, but also of jewelry and various other items. Archaeologists found a 2,000-year-old carving of Cupid in Jerusalem three years ago. The carving shows Cupid with an upside-down torch, possibly symbolizing the fading of life.
Next time you see Cupid on a Valentine’s Day card or a piece of jewelry, consider the picture’s details. They may mean more than you think.
And if you’re given a card with Cupid holding an upside-down torch, somebody doesn’t like you.