In the imagination of the ancient Greeks all human love was inspired by the goddess Aphrodite, Venus, aided by her son, the little archer Cupid. It was Cupid's office to shoot the arrows of affection. Being a mischievous fellow, he took delight in aiming his shafts at the unsuspecting. Often his victims were so oddly chosen that it seemed as if the marksman had shot at random. Some believed that he did his work blindfolded.

The poets describe Cupid as a beautiful winged boy carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows, and sometimes a torch. He flew at will through the wide universe, but he loved best the island of Cyprus, which was his mother's first home. "His head has goodly curls," wrote Moschus,[36] "but impudent is the face he wears; his little hands are tiny, 'tis true, yet they shoot far.... Small is his arrow, yet it carries even to the sky.... He is naked indeed, so far as his body is concerned, but his mind is shrouded. And being winged as a bird he flies upon now one party of men and women and now another, and settles on their inmost hearts."

[36] In the first idyl, translated by J. Bank.

The mingled pain and delight caused by a wound of love is explained by the fact that Cupid's arrows were tipped with gall and honey. The way in which they were fashioned is variously described by the poets. Anacreon has it that they were made at the forge of Vulcan, the husband of Venus, and the blacksmith of the gods. One of this poet's odes relates how—

"In the Lemnian caves of fire
The mate of her who nursed Desire
Moulded the glowing steel to form
Arrows for Cupid thrilling warm;
While Venus every barb imbues
With droppings of her honeyed dews;
And Love (alas the victim heart)
Tinges with gall the burning dart."[37]

[37] In Moore's translation.

A slightly different explanation is given by the Latin poet Claudian:—

"In Cyprus' isle two rippling fountains fall
And one with honey flows, and one with gall;
In these, if we may take the tale from fame,
The son of Venus dips his darts of flame."

However the story may run, there is but one ending. The victim of the love-god's arrow confesses that "loving is a painful thrill," but "not to love, more painful still."

Borghese Gallery, Rome

So bold was the little archer that the mightiest could not withstand his arts. The war-god Mars, bringing his spear one day to Vulcan's forge, smiled contemptuously at the light shafts of Cupid. "Try it," said little Love, handing him one. Whereupon the foolish fellow cried out in an agony of pain, and begged Cupid to take the arrow back. Apollo, the archer of the sun, was equally imprudent, and was richly punished for his sneers. An arrow from the fatal quiver made him mad with unrequited love for the nymph Daphne. A being who could give so much pain and pleasure was at once to be loved and feared. Hence all paid homage—

"To Love, for heaven and earth adore him
And gods and mortals bow before him."

In our picture, Cupid looks just as the poets have described him, a beautiful baby boy with wings and "goodly curls." Only the milk and honey of Cyprus could have made the little body so plump. A deep crease marks the line of his wrist, a soft fold of flesh the neck. The full quiver lies on the table beside him, and he is sharpening one of the darts.[38] A little companion helps him hold the whetstone steady while he presses the arrow tip upon its surface. Some lines of Horace come to mind describing—

"Cupid sharpening all his fiery darts
Upon a whetstone stained with blood of hearts."

[38] Vasari says that Cupid is trying the arrow on a stone.

Cupid's companion is as like him as a twin, save that he has no wings. He may be a human playfellow of the little god, or one of the brood of loves with which the poets have peopled Cyprus. While the original myth told of only one Cupid, imagination has multiplied his kind. We read of the "playful rout of Cupids" attendant upon the love-god, who rules as sovereign among them.

The two children of the picture are intent upon their task. The very seriousness of their manner argues some mischief in view. Evidently they are preparing for a great conquest. The arrow must not fail of its work, but must be sharp enough to carry the sweet poison straight to the victim's heart.

Both of the chubby fellows have rather large heads with clustering ringlets. The wingless boy has the high, full forehead which marks an active mind. Cupid seems to have the more energetic temperament of the two, while his comrade is a bit of a dreamer.