Shakespeare's Myths

Isidore of Seville.  Etymologies (7th century), VIII, xi, 80:

They say that Cupid is so called because of love (amor cf. cupido, ‘desire’), for he is the demon of fornication. He is pictured with wings because nothing more fleeting, nothing more changeable is found than lovers. He is pictured as a youth because love is foolish and irrational. He is imagined to hold an arrow and a torch; an arrow because love wounds the heart, and a torch because it inflames. [trans. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 2006 (see General Bibliography)]


Giovanni Boccaccio.  Genealogia (1350-1374, 1472), in particular Books I and IX:

[Boccaccio offers various interpretations of Cupid’s origins, including that he was based on a particularly beautiful boy, and that he is a personification of sexual desire, considered to be the son of Venus and Mars because the influence of those planets produces lust. Boccaccio also discusses Cupid’s iconography. He is a boy because love makes men childish; his blindfold signifies that men are led by desire rather than reason and so cannot see where they are going; wings signify the flightiness of love; the burning torch is the ardour of lovers; griffon feet represent love’s tenacity. The only instance where Boccaccio imagines Cupid as a god is in his influential account of “Cupid and Psyche”.


Marsilio Ficino.  De amore (1469, pub. 1484), Speech II, Chapter vii:

According to Plato, Pausanias says that Cupid is the companion of Venus. And he thinks that there must necessarily be as many Cupids as there are Venuses. He mentions two Venuses, whom twin Cupids likewise accompany. One Venus he certainly calls Heavenly, but the other Vulgar. That Heavenly Venus was born of Uranus, without any mother. The Vulgar Venus was born of Jupiter and Dione…

Venus is twofold. One is certainly that intelligence which we have located in the Angelic Mind. The other is the power of procreation attributed to the World Soul. Each Venus has as her companion a love like herself. For the former Venus is entranced by an innate love for understanding the Beauty of god. The latter likewise is entranced by her love for procreating that same beauty in bodies. The former Venus first embraces the splendor of divinity in herself; then she transfers it to the second Venus. The latter Venus transfers sparks of that splendor into the Matter of the world. Because of the presence of these sparks, all of the bodies of the world seem beautiful according to the receptivity of their nature. The beauty of these bodies the human soul perceives through the eyes. The soul again possesses twin powers. It certainly has the power of understanding, and it has the power of procreation. These twin powers are two Venuses in us, accompanied by twin loves. [Translated by Sears Jayne, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love (Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications, 1985)]    


Natale Conti.  Mythologia (1567), IV, xiv:

There is considerable question among the writers about who Cupid’s parents were because some felt there was only one Cupid while others said there were several. Plato in his Symposium has Phaedrus speak of Cupid’s origins:

Cupid is a great God, astonishing to men and Gods and very often experienced even now as such both in a range of things as well as in those things that relate particularly to his origins. Nor is the idea lost on me that he is distinguished as being the oldest of Gods. Cupid has no parents, and no man, citizen or poet, has said who they were. [Plato, Symposium, 178 A-B]

Hesiod in his Theogony seems to think that Love or Cupid was born before all things from the disorganised matter the poet calls Chaos. He writes this way:

Before all, Chaos was born and the almighty heaven

Of the Gods, from which earth was spread wide,

Then black Tartarus among the bowels of the earth,

Deep and deadly abyss; then rose the sweet God,

Most beautiful of all Gods, yea, sweet comfort

To Gods and men equal in their thanks, Cupid,

Tamer of hearts and fierce minds.

[Hesiod, Theogony, 116-22]

[Conti goes on to quote Orpheus, Plato again, Theocritus, Pausanias and Cicero on Cupid’s parentage and then discusses his iconography, including his associations with drunkenness and lust]

This fabled Cupid, then, originally brought forth to deter men from all villainy, the common people took for a God, not knowing the true God of love, the sole creator of kindness, generosity, temperance, all probity and humanity, while Cupid, this God of the vulgar, had ever in his company Warfare, Riots, Strifes, Trickery, Abuses, and the loss of honor and means of living. And this is why a Greek poet wrote this way:

What mortal first said Love was divine?

He loved bloodshed, the holy gift from his God.

Couldn’t keep the blade sharp in his hands?

Behold so many murders, so many votives.

[Phocylides, IX, 157, 1-4]

Likewise, Apollonius of Rhodes thought Cupid the source and origin of all evil because lasciviousness breeds contempt of justice and thus leads to all abuses, as he writes in Book 4 of his Argonautica:

Hard hearted Love, cruel to the hopes of men,

Father of strife, broils of war, tears and pain.

[Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, IV, 445-46]

[Natale Conti’s Mythologies: A Select Translation by Anthony DiMatteo (New York and London: Garland Pub., 1994), p. 244-45. The references to Conti’s quotations have been added.]


William Adlington.  The Golden Asse…with an excellent narration of the Mariage of Cupide and Psiches [Trans. Apuleius] (London, 1566) (STC 718), 44r:

And by and by [Venus] called her winged son, Cupid, rash enough and hardy, who by his evil manners, contemning all public justice and law, armed with fire & arrows, running up and down in the nights from house to house, and corrupting the lawful marriages of every person, doth nothing but that which is evil, who although that he were of his own proper nature sufficient prone to work mischief, yet she egged him forward with words…


William Adlington.  The Golden Asse…with an excellent narration of the Mariage of Cupide and Psiches [Trans. Apuleius] (London, 1566) (STC 718), 45r:

The Oracle of Apollo:

Let Psyche’s corpse be clad in mourning weed

And set on rock of yonder hill aloft;

Her husband is no wight of human seed,

But serpent dire and fierce as may be thought

Who flies with wings above in starry skies

And doth subdue each thing with fiery flight.

The gods themselves and powers that seem so wise

With mighty Jove be subject to his might

The rivers black and deadly floods of pain

And darkness eke as thrall to him remain.


William Adlington.  The Golden Asse…with an excellent narration of the Mariage of Cupide and Psiches [Trans. Apuleius] (London, 1566) (STC 718), 52v:

Psyche’s discovery of Cupid:

But when she took the lamp and came to the bedside, she saw the most meek and sweetest beast of all beasts, even fair Cupid couched fairly, at whose sight the very lamp increased his light for joy, and the razor turned his edge. But when Psyche saw so glorious a body, she greatly feared, and (amazed in mind, with a pale countenance, all trembling) fell on her knees, and thought to hide the razor yea verily in her own heart, which she had undoubtedly done, had it not (through fear of so great an enterprise) fallen out of her hand. And when she saw and beheld the beauty of his divine visage, she was well recreated in her mind, she saw his hairs of gold, that yielded out a sweet savour: his neck more white than milk, his purple cheeks, his hair hanging comely behind and before, the brightness whereof did darken the light of the lamp, his tender plume feathers dispersed upon his shoulders like shining flowers, and trembling hither and thither, and his other parts of his body so smooth and soft that it did not repent Venus to bear such a child: at the bed’s feet lay his bow, quiver, and arrows, that be the weapons of so great a god.


Arthur Golding.  Metamorphoses (1567) I, 545-72 [Apollo and Daphne]:

Peneian Daphne was the first where Phoebus set his love,

Which not blind chance but Cupid’s fierce and cruel wrath did move.

The Delian god but late before surprised with passing pride

For killing of the monstrous worm, the god of love espied,

With bow in hand already bent and letting arrows go:

To whom he said, and what hast thou thou wanton baby so

With warlike weapons for to toy? It were a better sight,

To see this kind of furniture on my two shoulders bright:

Who when we list with steadfast hand both man and beast can wound,

Who t’other day with arrows keen, have nailèd to the ground

The serpent Python so forswollen, whose filthy womb did hide

So many acres of the ground in which he did abide.

Content thyself son, sorry loves to kindle with thy brand,

For these our praises to attain thou must not take in hand.

To him quoth Venus’ son again, well Phoebus I agree

Thy bow to shoot at every beast, and so shall mine at thee.

And look how far that under God each beast is put by kind,

So much thy glory less than ours in shooting shalt thou find.

This said, with drift of feathered wings in broken air he flew,

And up the forked and shady top of Mount Parnassus drew.

There from his quiver full of shafts two arrows did he take

Of sundry works: t’one causeth Love, the t’other doth it slake.

That causeth love is all of gold with point full sharp and bright,

That chaseth love is blunt, whose steel with leaden head is dight.

The god this firèd in the nymph Peneis for the nonce

The t’other pierced Apollo’s heart and overraft his bones.

Immediately in smouldering heat of Love the t’one did swelt,

Again t'other in her heart no spark nor motion felt.


Arthur Golding.  Metamorphoses (1567), V, 458-74, 478-84 [Pluto and Proserpine]:

As carelessly [Pluto] ranged abroad, he chanced to be seen

Of Venus sitting on her hill: who taking straight between

Her arms her winged Cupid, said: my son, mine only stay,

My hand, mine honour and my might, go take without delay

Those tools which all wights do subdue, and strike them in the heart

Of that same god that of the world enjoys the lowest part.

The gods of heaven, and Jove himself, the power of sea and land

And he that rules the powers on earth obey thy mighty hand:

And wherefore then should only hell still unsubdued stand?

Thy mother’s empire and thine own why dost thou not advance?

The third part of all the world now hangs in doubtful chance.

And yet in heaven too now, their deeds thou seest me fain to bear.

We are despised: the strength of love with me away doth wear.

Seest not the darter Diane and Dame Pallas have already

Exempted them from my behests? And now of late so heady

Is Ceres’ daughter too, that if we let her have her will,

She will continue all her life a maid unwedded still ...


No sooner had she told

These words, but Cupid opening straight his quiver chose therefro

One arrow (as his mother bade) among a thousand mo.

But such a one it was, as none more sharper was than it,

Nor none went straighter from the bow the armed mark to hit.

He set his knee against his bow and bent it out of hand,

And made his forked arrows steal in Pluto's heart to stand.


Arthur Golding.  Metamorphoses (1567), X, 590-95, 603-10 [Venus and Adonis]:

[Description of Adonis:]

His face was such, as spite

Must needs have praised. For such he was in all conditions right,

As are the naked Cupids that in tables pictured be.

But to th’intent he may with them in every point agree,

Let either him be furnished with wings and quiver light,

Or from the Cupids take their wings and bows and arrows quite. 


Arthur Golding.  Metamorphoses (1567), X, 590-95, 603-10 [Venus and Adonis]:

[Venus’ Infatuation:]

Anon a stripling he became, and by and by a man,

And every day more beautiful than other he became.

That in the end Dame Venus fell in love with him: whereby

He did revenge the outrage of his mother’s villainy.

For as the armed Cupid kissed Dame Venus, unbeware

An arrow sticking out did raze her breast upon the bare.

The Goddess being wounded, thrust away her son. The wound

Appeared not to be so deep as afterward was found.

It did deceive her at the first.


Stephen Batman.  The Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes (1577) (STC 1583), p. 14:

Cupid was figured, under the shape of a blind boy, having wings at his shoulders, and a bow in his hand, pressed to shoot.


By Cupid, love is signified, and likened to a child, because it is not able to resist affection: also because love maketh old men, sometime foolish as boys, in which foolishness they become more ignorant than children, his wings betoken the swiftness of love, that although the body be stayed by force, yet is the mind void of victory: by his being blind, the fond affections of foolish lovers; for that also love is as fond in choosing, as self-will unadvised in delivering: If it proceed of the man, then is beauty preferred before honesty: If of the woman, then vain bravery, before civil modesty. For as a foul whore, delighteth in a personable man, so likewise a foul knave taketh pleasure in a fair whore. When the darts of such love proceedeth, it manifestly proveth, that Cupid of cupio is blind in deed.

The poets feign that Cupid’s bow signified the attempts of love. And the arrow, the force of loving: and the piercing to the heart: the full consent, of the same. Also that Cupid was Venus’ son, who taking upon him the shape of Iulus, so enflamed the heart of Dido with Aeneas his love, that for grief of Aeneas’ departure, she slew herself.


Geoffrey Whitney.  A Choice of Emblemes (1586):

Potentissimus affectus, amor [Love, a most powerful passion], p. 63:

The lions grim, behold, do not resist,

But yield themselves, and Cupid’s chariot draw,

And with one hand, he guides them where he list,

With th’other hand, he keeps them still in awe:

   They couch, and draw, and do the whip abide,

   And lay their fierce and cruel minds aside.


If Cupid, then, be of such mighty force,

That creatures fierce and brutish kind he tames:

Oh mighty Jove, vouchsafe to show remorse.

Help feeble man, and pity tender dames.

   Let Afric wild this tyrant’s force endure,

   If not, alas, how can poor man be sure?


Geoffrey Whitney.  A Choice of Emblemes (1586):

De Morte & Amore [Death and Love], p. 132:

While furious Mors from place to place did fly,

And here and there her fatal darts did throw,

At length she met with Cupid passing by,

Who likewise had been busy with his bow.

   Within one Inn, they both together stayed;

   And for one night, away their shooting laid.

The morrow next they both away do haste,

And each, by chance, the other’s quiver takes.

The frozen darts on Cupid’s back were placed,

The fiery darts the lean virago shakes;

   Whereby ensued such alteration strange,

   As all the world did wonder at the change.

For gallant youths whom Cupid thought to wound

Of love and life did make an end at once.

And aged men whom death would bring to ground

Began again to love, with sighs and groans.

   Thus nature’s laws this chance infringed so,

   That age did love and youth to grave did go.

Till at the last, as Cupid drew his bow,

Before he shot a youngling thus did cry,

“Oh, Venus’ son, thy darts thou dost not know,

They pierce too deep: for all thou hits do die!

   Oh spare our age, who honoured thee of old,

   These darts are bone, take thou the darts of gold.”

Which being said, awhile did Cupid stay,

And saw how youth was almost clean extinct,

And age did dote, with garlands fresh and gay,

And heads all bald were new in wedlock linked.

   Wherefore he showed this error unto Mors

   Who, miscontent, did change again perforce.

Yet so, as both some darts away conveyed

Which were not theirs, yet unto neither known

Some bony darts in Cupid’s quiver stayed,

Some golden darts had Mors amongst her own.

   Then when we see untimely death appear,

   Or wanton age, it was this chance you hear.


Geoffrey Whitney.  A Choice of Emblemes (1586):

Potentia Amoris [The power of Love], p. 182:

Here naked love doth sit, with smiling cheer,

No bended bow nor quiver he doth bear:

One hand a fish, the other holds a flower,

Of sea and land to show that he hath power.


Angel DayDaphnis and Chloe (1587) (STC 6400) [Trans. Jacques Amyot, 1559, itself a translation of Longus’s poem], sigs. E3v-F1v:

[The old shepherd Philetas reveals the existence of the boy-god Cupid to Daphnis and Chloe, presenting him as a force of nature that rules over lovers and the whole world, favouring clear streams, successful crops and harmony.]

[Philetus] “I have perceived tripping in the shade, under my myrtle trees and pomegranates, a fair young boy holding in each hand pomegranates and myrts [myrtles]. His shape white as the colour of milk, another time red as the glowing fire, his skin pure, neat and clean, as if even now he were come forth of some pleasant river, naked is he always in show, and ever alone, and without company. … nimble is he in his flight … do what I could, I might never attain unto him, no, when sometimes he hath almost seemed to be under my hands. … Hereupon the gentle lad began to laugh right heartily and apace, and with a gay and pleasant cheer, filled with all kind of delight that might be, he tendered unto my hearing a sound so sweet, amiable and well pleasing, as there is no nightingale; … and in the delivery thereof he said to me:

‘… I am not, as thou deemest, a child, albeit in my shape there is at all not other appearance, but for my offspring are more ancient than old Saturn, or any ancientry [ancientness] itself. … notwithstanding nor she [thy fair Amaryllis] nor thou could ever perceive me, yet was I still in the middle of your loves, near, and evermore here and there about you. … I also in like charge two imps of the same kind, sacred from their infancy to the Nymphs, and honouring in their shepherds’ habits both the pastures and downs, Daphnis and Chloe, darlings unto beauty’s self, and unto whose affections hath Pan and the Satyrs become chary. … washing my shape in the fountains [I] do do solace my self round about the same, which is the cause, Philetas, why all thy plants and herbs do grow with so great success, and are in their prime so fair and seemly to show, for that by the sameself spring wherein my loving limbs are bathed, thy flowers and plants be watered.’

… in the end mounting to the very top of the tree, I there perceived his bow, his arrows, his quiver and wings at his back, in the beholding and admiring whereof, he suddenly vanished away, and I beheld him no more. … then dare I assure unto you both, that you be chary unto Love, and that the respect and special disposition of your actions are wholly devoted unto his godhead.” Daphnis and Chloe … began earnestly to demand of him what manner of thing it might be, that so was termed and called by the name of Love, if it were an infant, a bird, or what other thing else that might be conceived, and what was the power and force, and in what manner is swayed. Whereupon old Philetas answered them again: “Love, he said, is a god, young, fair and beautiful to behold, feathered also with wings, by reason whereof his appearance is sudden, and taketh pleasure to be conversant with young folks, he searcheth favours, and maketh the hearts of men to fly as it were with wings. His power is mightier than that of Jupiter, he ruleth over the elements and stars, and over those also who are gods as himself. Your selves have not so great sovereignty over your flocks as he hath power over the world. The flowers, herbs and trees are the labours of Love, by him the waters cool and the winds do blow.”


Abraham Fraunce.  The Third part of the Countess of Pembrokes Ivychurch (1592) (STC 11341, sig. Mv:

Myrrha, the father’s whore, and brother’s mother, a mirror

Of most monstrous lust, was late transformed to a myrrh-tree:

O how could sweet myrrh come from so sinful a Myrrha?

Myrrha made myrrh-tree, brought forth incestuous offspring,

And yet most delicate, most sweet, most beautiful offspring,

Dame Nature's darling, heaven’s joy, world’s wonder, Adonis.


Either take wings, bow, and shafts from lovely Cupido,

Or give bow and shafts, and wings to the loved Adonis;

And let lovely Cupid stand hard by loved Adonis

Either on other’s side, and ask, who list, the beholders,

Which is lovely Cupid, which is this loved Adonis;

Every man will swear, that both are lovely Cupidos,

Both are lords of love, and neither loved Adonis,

So like every way were love and loved Adonis.

Yea such grace, such face, such eyes had loved Adonis,

That very Envy’s eyes must needs praise loved Adonis. 


Thomas Combe.  The Theater of Fine Devices (1593?), trans. of Guillaume de la Perrière, Le Théâtre des Bons Engins (1539), E.62:

Where Cupid list to play the knave,

He makes the Ass to brag and brave.

When Cupid’s stroke tickles the inward veins,

Oh what a power he hath to change the mind!

He makes the niggard careless of his gains,

The clown a courtier, and the currish kind.

Briefly, his wondrous graces where he reigns,

In Cymon out of Boccas you may find; [The tale of Cimon and Iphigenia, in Boccaccio’s Decameron, 5, 1]

The little lad, his lute can finger so,

Would make an ass to turn upon the toe. 


Thomas Combe.  The Theater of Fine Devices (1593?), trans. of Guillaume de la Perrière, Le Théâtre des Bons Engins (1539), E.79:

A thousand dangers daily grow,

Of foolish Love, as lovers know.

Alas that men should follow Venus’ trace,

And take delight to play on Cupid’s bits,

Who casteth down from high estate to base,

And makes men counted wise, to lose their wits.

None but unhappy wretches void of grace,

Do ever fall into such frantic fits:

Upon repentance fire he puts the still

And blows the coals, where nought but tears distil.


Cesare Ripa.  Iconologia, or Moral Emblemes (1593):

Amor di Virtù [Love of Virtue], p. 13:

Un fanciullo ignudo, [alato], in tre altre nelle mani, perche trà tutti gl’altri amori. [l’amor] della virtù tutti gli altri supera di nobiltà (…) l’amor dessa non è corruttibile, anzi come l’alloro sempre verdeggia.

[A naked youth, winged, with four garlands of laurel; one on his head and three others in his hands; because that of virtue surpasses all other loves. (…) and that the love of it is incorruptible, and never fading.]


Cesare Ripa.  Iconologia, or Moral Emblemes (1593):

Forza d’Amore [Force of Love], p. 95-96:

Cupido, con l’ali alle spalle, con l’arco, e le saetto in mano, e con la faretra al flanco, la mano sinistra alzata verso il cielo, donde scendono alcune fiamme di fuoco insieme con molte saette spezzate, che gli piovano d’intorno da tutto le bande, mostrandosé cosí che Amore può tanto, che rompe la forza di Giove, et con le sue fiamme arde, et incende tuto il Mundo. Così è dipinto dall’Alciati in uno Emblema, ad imitatione, odero l’autorità de gli Antichi Greci: Per significare questo medesimo, l’istesso Autore descrive Amore in un Carro tirato da Leoni, come si vede nell’l’istesso luogo.

[A naked stripling resembling Cupid smiling, with wings on his shoulders, holding a dolphin in one hand; and a garland of flowers in the another; to show the power of love both by sea and land, through the universe; for the empire of Cupid is sometimes intimated by his sitting in a chariot, drawn by a couple of lions, with his hand held up towards heaven, from whence fall arrows and flames, that give place to none, for Jupiter is not exempt from them.]


Otto Van Veen (Vaenius).  Amorum Emblemata (Antwerp, 1608):

Telorum silva pectus [The heart is a forest of arrows], p. 224:

Without ceasing.

Behold a wood of shafts in the heart-placed side,

Which Cupid there hath shot and ceaseth not to shoot,

Each day new dolour breeds, and plaining doth not boot,

Yet all this, and yet more, will constant love abide.


Otto Van Veen (Vaenius).  Amorum Emblemata (Antwerp, 1608):

Grata belli causa [A pleasant cause of war], p. 10:

Contending increaseth love.

Cupid and Anteros do strive the palm to have,

Loving and being loved together do contend,

The victory doth most on loving best depend,

Which either rightly deems his truest love may crave.


George SandysOvid’s Metamorphoses Englished (1632) (STC 18966, I, p. 10-11:

Peneian Daphne was his [Apollo’s] first beloved,

Not chance, but Cupid’s wrath, that fury moved.

Whom Delius (proud of his late conquest) saw,

As he his pliant bow began to draw,

And said: Lascivious boy, how ill agree

Thou and these arms! too manly far for thee.

Such suit our shoulders; whose strong arm confounds

Both man and beast, with never-missing wounds;

That Python, bristled with thick arrows, quelled,

Who o’er so many poisoned acres swelled.

Be thou content to kindle with thy flame

Desires we know not; nor our praises claim.

Then, Venus’ son; self-praised ever be:

All may thy bow transfix, as mine shall thee.

So far as gods exceed all earthly powers;

So much thy glory is excelled by ours.

With that, he breaks the air with nimble wings,

And to Parnassus’ shady summit springs;

Two different arrows from his quiver draws:

One, hate of love; the other love doth cause.

What caused was sharp, and had a golden head:

But what repulsed was blunt, and tipped with lead.


How to cite

Jane Kingsley-Smith. “Cupid.”  2011.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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