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The Original Cupid Was a Sociopath

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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"Jupiter and Antiope" by Anthony Van Dyck, c. 1620

“Winged Cupid, rash and hardy, who by his evil manners, contemning all public justice and law, armed with fire and arrows, running up and down in the nights from house to house, and corrupting lawful marriages of every person, doth nothing but evil.” —Lucius Apuleius, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche (late second century A.D.)

I didn’t fear Cupid when I was a child, but little did I know he was a malevolent demon. By the time I first came to know him in the 1970s, Cupid’s dark side was unrecognizable, having long since been painted over with baby fat and giggles by Hallmark and other great cultural bowdlerizers. This dramatic transformation of evil Cupid into a jubilant cherub, pink as a piglet’s bottom and sweet as a lamb, who spies you each approaching Valentine’s Day with twinkling eyes from the greeting-card display of your local pharmacy, who twirls with his arrow drawn ever so gently in the form of a paper mobile pinned to the ceilings of third-grade classrooms, bears faint resemblance to his original manifestation. He still strikes me as a bit cheeky, but the real Cupid was a genuine sociopath.

It was the Roman writer Lucius Apuleius who brought Cupid to life in his ancient book of fables, The Golden Ass. Apuleius’s Cupid was no mischievous toddler with hummingbird wings but an impulsive god who rejoiced in causing sexual havoc for all earthly creatures. Even the fearless Apollo refers to Cupid as “serpent dire and fierce”:

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 love be subject to his might.

The rivers black and deadly floods of pain

And darkness eke as thrall to him remain.

Apuleius’s story reads like a second-century black comedy. Cupid’s mother, Venus, is jealous of a mortal girl named Psyche whose beauty surpasses even her own. Seeking vengeance, Venus recruits her son, this bringer of misplaced desire, to shoot one of his fearsome poisoned arrows into the young maiden so that she’ll forever covet the first reproachful thing she sets eyes upon, thereby punishing Psyche’s “disobedient beauty” with a shameful attraction. “I pray thee without delay,” says Venus pleadingly to her son Cupid, “that she may fall in love with the most miserable creature living, the most poor, the most crooked, and the most vile, that there may be none found in all the world of like wretchedness.”

Cupid breaks into Psyche’s house one night and fully intends to do just this for his mother, but he becomes so smitten with Psyche that he accidentally pricks himself with his own poisoned arrow while watching her sleep. This forever binds the two and leads to Psyche’s entry by marriage into the Roman pantheon—and, to put it mildly, a rather tense relationship with her new mother-in-law.

Love may have saved him in the end, but Apuleius’s Cupid wasn’t so much a romantic matchmaker as a devil subjecting hapless people to a toxic lust, one that blinded them with hypersexual urges. This allegory of a capricious god who pierces mortal hearts only to burden them with some scandalous attraction out of sheer boredom or as favors to other gods is reminiscent of nature’s cold mindlessness when it comes to human sexuality. Individuals with the most deviant desires have similarly found themselves at the whim of a terrible randomness. To learn more about the science of “erotic outliers,” read my new book Perv. [EXCERPT].


Jesse Bering About the Author: Jesse Bering is Associate Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and Perv (2013). To learn more about Jesse's work, visit or add him on Facebook ( Follow on Twitter @JesseBering.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tuned 12:07 pm 02/15/2014

    Love is nothing more than a genetic hormonal chemical reaction.
    That makes it so predictable on a large scale that it has always been the go to source for emptying accounts and for power plays.

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  2. 2. Manir788 9:47 pm 02/15/2014

    Was The Original Cupid in the first time of earth? If yes, This is real and exact. You can learn about Natural Harmonious with human body. Always try to become healthy. Thanks.

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  3. 3. plex 7:25 pm 02/18/2014

    This reflects arranged marriages. Love was always associated with extra-martial affairs, not with marriage, and therefore it was viewed as being dangerous. Words like ‘paramour’, meaning ‘through love’ designate an extra-marital partner.

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  4. 4. hkraznodar 12:24 pm 02/28/2014

    @Manir788 – What? The was no “first time” of Earth. The Earth has been around for billions of years. This is about stories educated people of the time made up to explain what they didn’t understand and to provide a moral compass like modern religions do. Plex has a much better grasp of the subject.

    @plex – Well said but not all cultures embraced arranged marriages at the time.

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  5. 5. SJCrum 7:48 pm 05/11/2014

    Just so you know the real facts that exist in this world, the God of Creation created love as the most enormously lovely thing that could ever occur in life, and which can be, and is, the most sexually yummy thing that anyone in the entire universe could ever experience, or know.
    On the other hand, Satan, who does factually exist, if you could actually call the crap existence he exists in, anything but nothing more than the worst total crap that anyone could actually ever know, he has tried ENDLESSLY to totally destroy every single lovely thing that God has ever made. And, love and females, are the two greatest total successes for God, and the worst failures for Satan.
    So, …. with that, I am not surprised even in the slightest that the mythical Cupid was originally described EXACTLY as described. AND, that version od Cupid was anything but accidental. You can bet your damned bippies that Satan was as fully involved in making love look EXACTLY as evilly bad as could ever be described in billions of years.
    On the good side, and TOTALLY RIIIIIGHT, BY FARRRR, God has made the ultra-fantastically thrilling emotional feelings of love to be the most TOTALLY-OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD ULTRA-THRILLING thing that could ever be imagined in zillions of zillions of years.
    In the human soul, it is made with three parts. One is the part that has emotional feelings in it, a second is the part that has the ability to have intelligent thinking and analysis, and the last is one that has strong feelings about survival. In the one with emotional feelings, the greatest feeling by far is that of love. And, even more, also the far greater type of love that involves the most yummilly, ultra-thrilling type of lusciously yummy lovemaking.
    The point of this is that it is TOTALLY IMPOSSIBLE to find anything in the entire world that even comes close to the ultra-fantastic thrill of the greatest type of love that can exist. Any other attempts are totally impossible. And, Satan hates that fact like wildfire. And, he can’t do a single damned thing about it.
    So, Satan might have done his total crap thing about Cupid, in his farcical attempts of perverting, but all it does is to show how enormously ignorant he is, and a total failure as well.
    By the way also, if anyone else says that love is sinful or you cannot truly love love, AND LOVEMAKING, don’t believe it because it’s just a total load of crap. And tell them God Himself has said so, because He FACTUALLY has said so. Love-filled love is NOT sin even in the slightest. Instead, it is the most fantastically beautiful thing in the entire world. And, it is a fact also, that the God of All Creation made every single deliciously lovely and totally luscious female in the world EXACTLY AS THEY ARE. NAKEDLY SCRUMPTIOUS, every single delicious inch of THEM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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