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The mythology of Valentine's Day
February 14, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
There's quite a mythology behind romantic Valentine's Day.
The holiday is named after St. Valentine, a third-century Christian martyr. In the Middle Ages, writers told stories about how Valentine was a kindly priest who married forbidden lovers. That made for a good story for courtly lovers, but it was most likely fictional.
According to a second century Roman novel, Cupid, the Roman god of love, has an interesting back story too. Cupid, often depicted as a chubby, winged boy who shoots arrows at people to make them fall in love, was the son of Venus, goddess of beauty and love. Venus grew jealous of a mortal girl named Psyche who was so beautiful that people started worshiping her and forgot to worship Venus. Venus ordered her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with an ugly, unsuitable man so people would scorn her. Instead, Cupid fell in love with Psyche himself.
Cupid had Psyche spirited away to a magnificent castle where, like Beauty in the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, she is served by invisible servants and is visited by her invisible husband each night. Cupid tells her never to seek to look at his face or he will have to leave her. Psyche gets lonely and persuades Cupid to let her sisters visit her. The sisters are jealous and tell Psyche that her husband must be a monster since he never lets her see his face. They tell her to kill the monster so they can find her a real husband.
Psyche is unable to kill her sleeping husband when she sees he is a handsome man and not a monster. Unfortunately for her, Cupid wakes up and is hurt and betrayed. He casts the pregnant Psyche out for her betrayal and goes home to Venus. Venus imprisons him to keep him from changing his mind and going back to that hussy Psyche.
Psyche wanders the earth in despair and eventually seeks help from Venus to win Cupid back. Venus sets her a series of impossible tasks which she completes with the help of the gods. The last task is the hardest, since it requires Psyche to retrieve a beauty potion for Venus from the underworld. Psyche is unable to resist sampling a little of it herself and falls into a coma. Luckily, Cupid breaks out of his prison and revives her with true love's kiss. All is forgiven. Psyche is made immortal and becomes the goddess of the soul. She and Cupid have a daughter named Voluptas, whose name translates into English as Pleasure or Joy, because she is the union of divine love and the human soul.
Happy Valentine's Day.
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