Undoubtedly Eros had many lines of descent, being most often regarded as the child of Aphrodite and Hermes. Plato, in his Symposium, says that he has a twofold nature depending upon whether he is the child of Aphrodite Pandemos, the goddess of brute lust, or of Aphrodite Urania, the goddess of spiritual love. In the symbolic sense, he may also be born of the marriage of Poros (Expediency) and Penia (Poverty), since love is never satisfied, is always seeking the object of its desires and is full of tricks to achieve its ends. Love is generally depicted as a child or youth, naked and winged, ‘because he embodies a longing which has no use for intermediaries and cannot be concealed’.
The fact that Love should be a child undoubtedly symbolizes the eternal youthfulness of all deep-seated love, but also a degree of irresponsibility as well. Love toys with the mortals whom he hunts, sometimes without even seeing them, and whom he blinds or burns, his bow, arrows, quiver, blindfold and other attributes being his symbols in all cultures. The orb which he sometimes holds suggests his universal and sovereign power. However much the poets may prettify him, Love remains foremost among the gods since it is he ‘who ensures not only the continuity of the species but the internal cohesion of the Cosmos’.
Love also derives from the overall symbolism of the marriage of opposites. He is the libido, the individual’s fundamental driving force, motivating all beings to express themselves in action. He realizes the individual’s potential. However, this passage to action is only effected by contact with another individual and following on from physical, sensual or spiritual encounters which are so many confrontations. Love tends to overcome these conflicts, to assimilate different forces and to integrate them into a single structure. In this context it is symbolized by the cross, a synthesis of horizontal and vertical streams, and by the Chinese yin-yang binomial. From the cosmic viewpoint, single being first fragments into multiple being and love is the force which empowers the return to oneness, the reintegration of the universe marked by the passing from the unconscious oneness of primeval chaos to the conscious unity of a definitive order. The libido shines out of the conscious state in which it may become a spiritual force for moral and mystic progress. The individual ego develops along the same lines as the universe, love being a search for a centre which will allow the dynamic synthesis of the individual's potential. Two individuals who give and surrender themselves to each other then discover themselves in each other, but raised to a higher level of being, provided that their surrender has been total and not simply confined to one level of their being, more often than not that of the flesh. Love is an ontological well-spring of progress in so far as it is truly union and not confiscation. When depraved, instead of being the long-sought centre of unification, it becomes a principle of division and death. Its depravity comprises the destruction of the quality of the other person in an attempt selfishly to exploit that person instead of joint selfenrichment by mutually and unstintingly giving of oneself, so that each becomes both greater and more individual. Love is the soul of the symbol and is the realization of the symbol since the latter is the welding together of two separated parts of knowledge and being. The major error of Love is taking one part for the whole.
The famous mythical drama of Psyche and Eros is an illustration of the conflict between soul and love. Although the maiden Psyche surpassed all others in beauty, she could not find a husband, since her very loveliness set up a barrier. In their despair, her parents consulted the oracle and were told that they were to dress her in bridal clothes, lead her to a mountain and leave her alone on a cliff-top, where a monster would come to take her for its bride. She was accordingly led in funeral procession and abandoned at the place commanded. Soon a gentle breeze lifted her into the air and carried her to the floor of a deep valley. There stood a magnificent palace in which voices proffered their service to her like so many slaves. That night she felt a presence at her side, but did not know who it was. This was the husband of whom the oracle had spoken. He did not tell her who he was, simply warning her that if she ever saw him she would lose him for ever. Days and nights passed in this way in the palace, but although Psyche was happy, she wanted to see her parents again and was allowed to spend a few days with them. Her jealous sisters awoke her misgivings and, on her return to the palace, by lamplight she found a handsome youth sleeping at her side. Unfortunately Psyche’s hand shook and a drop of hot oil fell upon Eros. Thus Love was revealed and fled away. Now Psyche’s misfortunes began. Aphrodite made her the victim of her anger, setting ever more difficult tasks to fulfil as punishment. Eros, however, could no more forget Psyche than she him. He obtained permission from Zeus to marry her: Psyche became his wife and was reconciled to Aphrodite.
In this myth Eros symbolizes love and more particularly the longing for physical satisfaction, while Psyche personifies the soul, tempted to experience this love. Her parents stand for reason which provides the requisite framework. The palace is an epitome of images of luxury and physical enjoyment, all the product of dreams. Darkness, agreement not to look at the lover and the feeling of a presence all denote the resignation of spirit and consciousness to overweening longing and imagination, a blind surrender to the unknown. The return to the parents’ home is the awakening of the rational faculty: the sisters’ questions are those of the unsure and inquisitive spirit. Consciousness still slumbers, these are merely doubts and curiosity aroused once the senses have been sated. On her return to the palace, Psyche wants to see her lover and she snatches up a torch. This is still the smoky and flickering light of a spirit hesitant to break the bargain and obtain the truth. At the sight of this lovely and splendid body the soul intuitively knows that it clothes something monstrous at this dim level of reality. Love flees when he is exposed. Enlightened but tormented, Psyche wanders through the world hunted down by Aphrodite, doubly jealous, as a woman of Psyche’s beauty and as a mother of the love which the girl has aroused in her son, Eros. The Soul (psyche) experiences even the abyss of Hell where Persephone, nevertheless, gives her a flask containing the water of youth, the principle of renewal after expiation. Psyche falls asleep and is awakened by an arrow shot by Eros who has also been searching desperately for her everywhere - this represents the survival in her of desire. However, this time permission to marry is sought from Zeus - this means that Psyche and Eros will no longer come together simply upon the level of carnal lust, but in accordance with the spirit. With love thus deified, Psyche and Aphrodite, two aspects of the soul, desire and consciousness, are reconciled. Eros no longer appears as a solely physical presence and is no longer dreaded as a monster: love is integrated into life. ‘Psyche weds the sublime image of physical love: she becomes the bride of Eros: the soul rediscovers the capacity to unite’.
Baudelaire in his study of Richard Wagner demonstrates the striking similarity of this myth with the legend of Lohengrin. Elsa pays heed to the witch, Ortrude, just as Psyche listened to her sisters and Eve obeyed the serpent. Elsa fell ‘victim to the diabolical impulse of curiosity and, unwilling to respect her divine husband’s incognito, lost all happiness when unveiling the mystery... The eternal Eve had fallen into the eternal trap.’