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The Valentine Day’s Mashup

Updated on February 1, 2012

The supermarkets, petrol stations and corner shops are full of shiny pink boxes of chocolates, gaudy greetings cards and bouquets of stunted roses, all at exorbitant prices. Ah yes, we must be nearing Valentine's Day.

A time of mixed feelings and a range of different experiences: A wonderful celebratory ritual for those in happy, fulfilling relationships. A sense of anticlimax for those who receive a cursory card. A painful nostalgia for those whose relationships have ended. A deep emptiness of heart for those who have no-one who cares. A soul-stab for those whose partner has died. At times of socially significant events, it's hard to be unaffected. I can't do justice to so many different experiences in one simple blog. At such emotionally-heightened times we find it hard to relate to anyone else's present experience, so I'm not even going to try. Whether you're high or low, I know how it feels.

What has caught my eye is the symbolism associated with Valentine's Day.

Lots of red & pink, representing passion and femininity - check.

Lots of hearts, representing love - check.

Lots of cherubic Cupids flitting round firing arrows, representing the inspiration of love - check.


Now that is interesting.

Take a look at Cupid. Chances are you're looking at a young, chubby little fellow. He probably looks like a toddler, and is almost certainly portrayed as no more than 7 years old. In an age when we're concerned about paedophiles and the sexualisation of children (remember the furore about Primark's padded bras for little girls?) why are we using a toddler as the symbol of erotic adult love?

According to the Greek poet Hesiod, the first gods to manifest out of the primordial chaos were Eros (love) and Gaia (Earth). As one of the first gods, and the deity of sexual love, Eros would not have been portrayed as a toddler. The Greeks had a huge cultural impact on the Romans, who borrowed much of their mythology from them, and Eros, in the Roman pantheon of gods, became Cupid. In Roman myth, Eros was the son of the Venus, the goddess of love. He is generally portrayed as a young man, and was certainly old enough to fall in love with the mortal woman, Psyche. (The Eros and Psyche myth is a fascinating subject for reflection, but not here, not now...)

Somewhere during the Italian Renaissance, symbolisms got mixed up. Artists (starting with Donatello) began using images of 'putti' - frolicking pre-pubescent children that were originally used as decorations on children's tombs in Roman times. Most people will be familiar with the putti depicted by Raphael:

Many people call these figures 'cherubs' - although, strictly speaking, cherubs are high-ranking angels in Jewish and Christian belief; according to the prophet Ezekiel there are four of them, with the heads of an ox, a lion, an eagle and a man.

Somehow, somewhere, some weird mashup took place: Cupid, the post-pubescent son of Venus, goddess of love, culturally descended from Eros, the god of sexual love and the creative urge, gets mixed up with innocent toddlers from Roman tombs, who get called by the name 'cherubs,' which are in fact animal-headed Biblical angels... And the distilled essence goes on our Valentine cards.

Isn't it fascinating what goes into the cultural melting-pot?


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