On Valentine's day, February 14, schoolchildren coyly exchange cards bearing the picture of a heart pierced with an arrow and the message, "Will you be my Valentine?" while lovers proffer flowers and elaborate boxes of candy to their idol. The origin of St. Valentine's day is obscure, but we still perpetuate in this celebration of love an ancient, very sacred concept, one which stems from the most profound of mysteries. True, the little cupid with his bow is a far cry from the majestic Eros of the earliest myths; nevertheless that is his illustrious origin.
Long, long ago Eros was worshiped as the power of love at Thespiae in Boeotia and Parion on the Hellespont. In the 8th century B.C. the poet Hesiod called him the "fairest of the deathless gods." He represented immortal love, first emanation of Chaos, and he preceded all divinities and therefore all of Cosmos which was their creation. One step only from the inexpressible essence of Non-being, this primal urge-to-manifest was little understood and could be only dimly suggested, for it is a concept which eludes the grasp of mind. The idea of a divine urge so powerful that it brings universes out of the abstract unknown into cognizable existence forces our thought to reach beyond the commonplace and endeavor to embrace infinity.
In time Eros became associated with creative forces on a lesser scale, as the impulse that had brought cosmos into being was seen to apply to particular life forms as well. The divine power was then personified as a comely youth, son of heaven and earth, and frequent companion of Aphrodite. In some versions Eros is the son of Aphrodite (beauty) and variously said to be fathered by Zeus (power), or by Hermes (messenger of Zeus), or by Ares (god of war and struggle who was associated with the constellation Aries, herald of births and beginnings). This Eros is featured in a beautiful story relating the trials and progress of the human soul and its blossoming under the influence of divine love [cf. "Cupid and Psyche, An Ancient Mystery Tale," by Eloise Hart, p. 67]. All the emblematic alternatives of his parentage are completely reasonable if we penetrate the symbolism that veils the message within the myths.
By the 4th century B.C. reverence for the mystery of existence had already become tarnished and later still the god of love became reduced to the sometimes blindfolded chubby cherub armed with a bow and a quiver of arrows that even now adorns greeting cards. Dwarfed in meaning as well as in stature, the divine desire for life had come to denote mere sentimentality or even carnal lust. The Romans further degraded their Cupid to denote avarice, sensuality, and greed — cupidity.
In its original purity few symbols merit such true religious awe as the yearning that brought the earliest gods to birth. Plato gives us his insight into the mystery of Eros by putting into the mouth of Phaedrus the words: "Love is a mighty god, and wonderful among gods and men, but especially wonderful is his birth. For he is the eldest of the gods" [Symposium, Jowett trans., § 178], while to Agathon Plato ascribes the pronouncement: "His greatest glory is that he can neither do nor suffer wrong to or from any god or any man; . . . force comes not near him, neither when he acts does he act by force. For all men in all things serve him of their own free will . . . And not only is he just but exceedingly temperate, for Temperance is the acknowledged ruler of the pleasures and desires, and no pleasure ever masters Love." He further states that "he whom Love touches not walks in darkness" [ibid., § 196-7].
Eros occurs on every level of the cosmos. While on the loftiest plane love emanates the divine powers which initiate the formation of worlds and move the celestial spheres in their courses, it also brings to birth — and death — every form of existence in space and time. It is the power that attracts souls to birth and it likewise is the magnet that draws them to sweet rest when life is done. In the Vedas Eros is Kama, first emanation from Space, the abstract All. In the Rg Veda "Kama (desire) first arose in IT." Like the Eros of Hesiod, it is the supreme Deity and Creator of the Atharva Veda. Called variously the unborn, the self-existent, or the water-born (as he emanated out of the primeval "waters of space"), Kama is said to be the child of Dharma (cosmic law), sprung from the heart of Brahma.
When this Yearning-to-be first arose in the unimaginable deep, a divine sigh vibrated through the space where for untold ages cold had reigned immobile. From the profound note struck by that initial motion reverberated aeons-long vibrations in series of ever closer harmonics: overtones that even today continue to multiply as sound and light. The mighty breath contained implicit the desire, the plan, and the will that would fashion a universe, and from them burst forth radiance such as is still being emitted by every living star, impelled by its celestial power, while mother-matter nourishes and sustains it. And all these vibrant energies of life emanated from the Unmanifest One through the power of divine Eros-Kama.
Divinity yearning for existence thus brought universes into play, their spheres comprising endlessly varied life types that evolve in timely order, gaining experience in worlds of many kinds. We human earthlings are participants in that great unfolding drama: autonomous within our human sphere we guide our ways of growth, and every instant something new accrues. We are unfinished beings. Yet the heart of us, our inmost self, so very little known by our pedestrian ego, is not severed from that divine source which gave rise to the gods. We are not alien from any atom or from any world, for all are united at the fountainhead in cosmic Eros, of whom even bright Apollo is a disciple.
The paramount power of love is applied in many ways: there is small resemblance between the procreation of earthly organisms and the unfoldment of worlds, yet all stem from a like motive urge. As the drawing power of gravitation, gentle and persistent, causes stars to group into galaxies and galaxies to cluster and combine; so do the nuclei of atoms cohere, and by the strongest force we know. Both exemplify Eros. The creativity which brought the gods to birth is also ours. We too create by love and we can direct our arrows of desire wherever we choose: if we aim for worthless goals, or if we aspire toward sacred truth, we hamper or we aid the world's progress — and with it our own. The direction of our evolution lies in our own hands, and we are free to obstruct our road or smooth it. Natural law would seem to enjoin us to comprehend ever larger spheres of understanding, for experiences accumulate and lessons learned are never wholly lost. We learn and grow by sympathy, which is expansive and enlarges the sphere of our awareness, aided by wisdom, which combines the treasures of consciousness born of experience with understanding born of love. But however we may grow, we cannot ever turn back. The vector of time is irreversible. Like the arrow in the heart we must enter ever more deeply into the core of reality which is the heart of universal love.
Perhaps the children's Valentines hit home more truly than we suppose.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1986; copyright © 1986 Theosophical University Press)