Ancient sources gave very different accounts of Eros’ parentage. According to Hesiod, Eros was one of the first beings to come into existence, emerging without parents after Chaos, Gaia, and Tartarus. But later authors sometimes thought of him as the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
Eros’ most famous symbols were the bow and arrow. With these weapons, he could produce overpowering passion in anybody—even the most powerful of the Olympian gods.
Some sources consider Eros the husband of Psyche, but this myth only appears in one work by the Roman author Apuleius; it is not found in any ancient Greek sources.
Lovely Eros personified love, passion, and procreation. He was originally imagined as a primordial god who emerged at the dawn of creation, alongside Chaos, Gaia, and Tartarus. However, he was soon reinvented as the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and was usually represented as her constant companion. Some later authors even introduced multiple “Erotes,” all of them somehow connected to Aphrodite and love.
Eros was a mischievous and unruly god who could sometimes be cruel. His arrows, which he launched from a golden bow, roused overpowering love and passion. Once pierced by these arrows, nobody—not even the all-powerful Zeus—could resist Eros. In one late story, Eros eventually fell victim to his own power when he developed a hopeless passion for the beautiful Psyche, whom he eventually married.
The name “Eros” (Greek Ἔρως, translit. Erōs) is the Greek word meaning “passion” or “romantic love.” However, the etymology of this word is unknown; it may be pre-Greek.1
Ἔρως (translit. Erōs)
/ˈɪər ɒs, ˈɛr ɒs/
Eros’ Roman counterpart was called Cupido (Cupid) or Amor.
#Titles and Epithets
Eros’ epithets include kalos (“lovely, beautiful”), kallistos (“loveliest, most beautiful”), and lysimelēs (“limb-loosening”). The poet Sappho famously described him as glykypikron (“bittersweet”).2
Eros was the god who personified love, passion, and procreation. He was also frequently connected with fertility.
Like the romantic love he embodied, Eros was full of contradictions. Early Greek poets wrote that he was sweet and warmed the heart,3 yet he could also be cunning, unruly, and even cruel.4 Anacreon imagined him pursuing lovers with an axe or whip.5
Eros flaunted the features of a beautiful young man. He was said to walk on flowers and wear a crown of roses—one of his symbols.6 Eros’ other symbols included a burning torch and his bow and arrow, with which he could produce not only love but also (according to some authors) the opposite of love—revulsion.7
Together with figures such as Himeros (“Desire”) and Pothos (“Longing”), Eros was most often found in the entourage of Aphrodite, the goddess of love (who was sometimes called his mother). Some authors imagined more than one Eros, multiplying the mischievous god into a plurality of “Erotes.”8
In the earliest Greek art, Eros was usually depicted as a winged young man—almost a boy—though he was sometimes portrayed as wingless as well. He appears both alone and with Aphrodite, carrying a lyre, a hare, or his famous bow and arrows.
During the Hellenistic period (323–31 BCE), however, Eros’ iconography began to shift: he was increasingly represented as a chubby infant, virtually inseparable from Aphrodite. This infantile Eros went on to influence depictions of the Roman Cupid and eventually turned into the cherubic figure that was so popular in European art.9
But this was not the only version of Eros’ birth. According to many sources, he was the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who gave birth to him either alone or with her lover Ares.11 Others made Eros the son of Uranus (with either Gaia or Aphrodite),12 Eileithyia,13 Zephyrus and Iris,14 Nyx and Erebus,15 Nyx and Aether,16 Chaos,17 Poros (“Plenty”) and Penia (“Poverty”),18 or Zeus and Aphrodite.19
In the cosmogonies of the Orphics, Eros may have been born from an egg laid by the primordial goddess Nyx (“Night”),20 or else may have been equated with the obscure Phanes, a son of Chronos (“Time”).21
The Roman author Apuleius made Eros the husband of Psyche and the father of Hedone (“Pleasure”).22 The Orphics, perhaps identifying Eros with their primordial god Phanes, also made him the father of Nyx.23 He was sometimes called the twin brother of Anteros (“Reciprocated Love”).24
Eros’ origins are obscure and vary depending on the source. In Hesiod’s Theogony, he is a primordial god and one of the first beings to come into existence, but many later authors made him a son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, or of some other god. Eros was thus either one of the oldest gods or one of the youngest.
#Eros and the Loves of Gods and Mortals
Eros had almost no myths of his own, yet he was ubiquitous in the myths of other gods and mortals. As early as the Homeric poems, the irresistible power of eros played a key role in Greek mythology as the force pulling Paris to Helen, Zeus to Hera, and the suitors to Penelope (though Homer never actually personified the concept of eros as the god Eros).25
Later poets saw Eros everywhere:
Love [Eros], the unconquered in battle, Love, you who descend upon riches, and watch the night through on a girl's soft cheek, you roam over the sea and among the homes of men in the wilds. Neither can any immortal escape you, nor any man whose life lasts for a day. He who has known you is driven to madness.26
Any Greek myth that involved love or lust became, in a sense, a myth about Eros. It was Eros who, at the behest of his mother Aphrodite, caused Hades to fall in love with Persephone;27 when Apollo mocked Eros’ weapons, Eros taught him a lesson by causing him to fall in love with the nymph Daphne while at the same time causing Daphne to be repulsed by him;28 Aphrodite fell in love with the mortal Adonis when she grazed her finger on one of Eros’ golden arrows;29 and all of Zeus’ loves—from Io to Olympias—were, of course, Eros’ doing.30
But Eros wreaked havoc upon mortals as well as gods.31 In his Argonautica, Apollonius of Rhodes describes in detail how Hera wanted to help Jason get the Golden Fleece from the Colchian king Aeetes; thus, she had Aphrodite send Eros to make Aeetes’ daughter Medea fall in love with Jason.32 Eros’ arrival and effects are colorfully described as follows:
Eros passed unseen through the grey mist, causing confusion...And quickly beneath the lintel in the porch he strung his bow and took from the quiver an arrow unshot before, messenger of pain. And with swift feet unmarked he passed the threshold and keenly glanced around; and gliding close by Aeson’s son [Jason] he laid the arrow-notch on the cord in the centre, and drawing wide apart with both hands he shot at Medea; and speechless amazement seized her soul. But the god himself flashed back again from the high-roofed hall, laughing loud; and the bolt burnt deep down in the maiden’s heart like a flame; and ever she kept darting bright glances straight up at Aeson’s son, and within her breast her heart panted fast through anguish, all remembrance left her, and her soul melted with the sweet pain. And as a poor woman heaps dry twigs round a blazing brand—a daughter of toil, whose task is the spinning of wool, that she may kindle a blaze at night beneath her roof, when she has waked very early—and the flame waxing wondrous great from the small brand consumes all the twigs together; so, coiling round her heart, burnt secretly Love the destroyer; and the hue of her soft cheeks went and came, now pale, now red, in her soul’s distraction.33
#Eros and Psyche
Perhaps the most famous myth about Eros is narrated in only one source, and a late one at that—a late second-century CE novel by the Roman author Apuleius, commonly known today as the Golden Ass (its correct title is actually the Metamorphoses).34
The story tells of the princess Psyche (meaning “soul” in Greek), whose beauty had earned her the jealousy of Aphrodite.35 In her envy, Aphrodite sent her son Eros36 to cause Psyche to fall in love with a hideous monster.
But when Eros glimpsed Psyche, he fell in love with her himself. Disobeying his mother, he carried Psyche off to a hidden palace, where he became her lover. But though Eros visited Psyche every night, he did not tell her who he was and forbade her from seeing his face.
For a time, Eros and Psyche were happy together. But Psyche’s envious sisters started looking for ways to sow discord in the new relationship. At their urging, Psyche finally gazed at Eros’ face and discovered who he was. Eros subsequently abandoned Psyche, hurt by what he viewed as a violation of trust.
Psyche wandered the world for some time, seeking her divine lover. Aphrodite, who had discovered Psyche’s relationship with her son, tormented her viciously. But in the end, Psyche was reunited with Eros, won his (and Aphrodite’s) forgiveness, married him, and became a goddess.
Eros was worshipped throughout the Greek world. His statue was commonly erected in gymnasia (public exercise complexes), alongside the herms of the god Hermes.
Eros’ most prominent cult center may have been Thespiae, in the central Greek region of Boeotia. His cult statue there, which was aniconic (that is, a symbolic representation rather than a literal one), was said to have been very ancient.37 The cult of Eros was also important in other parts of Boeotia, such as Thebes, where the god was worshipped in connection with the Sacred Band (an elite military unit made up of 150 pairs of male lovers).38
Eros also had an important cult center in Athens. The remains of a temple he shared with Aphrodite have been discovered on the slopes of the Acropolis. He was also said to have had an altar in Athens that was first erected by the lover of the sixth-century BCE tyrant Hippias.39 Altars of Eros (such as the one in the Academy of Athens and the gymnasium of Elis) were sometimes grouped together with altars of Anteros.40
Eros was also worshipped at other sites, including Leuctra, Velia, and Parium.
Eros was honored with festivals at several sites, including Thespiae and Athens. At Thespiae, his festival was called the Erotidia and included artistic as well as athletic contests.41
Eros is best known in modern pop culture through the figure of Cupid, his Roman equivalent. He continues to be represented as a young boy, usually an infant or toddler, with a bow and arrows (which, in more cartoonish representations, are complete with heart-shaped tips). He also appears in adaptations of Greek mythology, such as the TV shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess (where he is played by Karl Urban).
Hesiod: In the Theogony (seventh century BCE), Eros is named as one of the primordial gods, emerging at the beginning of the cosmos together with Chaos, Gaia, and Tartarus.
Aristophanes: The parodic (or semi-parodic) cosmogony in the comedy Birds (414 BCE) makes Eros the son of Nyx and the father of the birds.
Plato: Several of Plato’s philosophical dialogues, especially the Symposium (fourth century BCE), treat the subject of eros and describe myths about the god and his origins.
Apollonius of Rhodes: Eros appears in Book 3 of the Argonautica (third century BCE) in a famous scene where he causes Medea to fall in love with Jason.
Theocritus: There are references to Eros in several of the Idylls (third century BCE), especially the twenty-third.
Orphic Hymns: The fifty-seventh Orphic Hymn (composed between the third century BCE and second century CE) is dedicated to Eros.
Strabo: Eros is mentioned a few times in the Geography, a late first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.
Pausanias: Eros and his cult centers are mentioned in the Description of Greece, a second-century CE travelogue and, like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.
Nonnus: Eros appears a few times in the Dionysiaca (fifth century CE) as the mischievous god of erotic love.
Virgil: In Book 1 of the Aeneid (29 BCE), Venus (the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite) sends Cupid (the Roman equivalent of Eros) to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas.
Ovid: As Cupid or Amor, Eros appears in many of Ovid’s poems and is especially prominent throughout the Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE).
Hyginus: The Fabulae, a Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE), mentions the origins of Eros.
Valerius Flaccus: In Book 8 of the Argonautica (first century CE), Eros/Cupid guides Medea to fall in love with Jason.
Apuleius: A character in the Golden Ass (late second century CE) reports the story of Eros/Cupid and Psyche.
Breitenberger, Barbara. Aphrodite and Eros: The Development of Erotic Mythology in Early Greek Poetry and Cult. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Carson, Anne. Eros the Bittersweet. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Graf, Fritz, and A. R. Birley. “Eros.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e401810.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.
Hanfmann, George, John Pollard, and Karim Arafat. “Eros.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 536. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Hermary, Antoine, Hélène Cassimatis, and Rainer Vollkommer. “Eros.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 3, 850–942. Zurich: Artemis, 1986.
Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.
Rosenmeyer, T. G. “Eros-Erotes.” Phoenix 5 (1951): 11–22.
Smith, William. “Eros.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed October 21, 2021. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aentry%3Deros-bio-1.
Theoi Project. “Eros.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Eros.html.
Theoi Project. “Eros (Protogenos).” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Protogenos/Eros.html.