Those rascally Greek gods and goddesses were a love-maddened, incestuous, philandering bunch. Take the love goddess Aphrodite, for instance. With Mercury or maybe Mars, possibly Hephaestus or even with her dad Zeus, she had a son called Eros (Cupid to the Romans), who became the demi-god of sexual passion. A wild boy, he never broke into the Olympian elite but remained a delinquent, firing barbed arrows at random and setting unauthorized fires to unsuspecting hearts.
As her son matured, Aphrodite asked her nosy, never-miss-a-trick offspring to keep mum about her own sexual indiscretions. As a reminder, she gave Eros a rose, a Greek symbol of secrecy. As teens will do, Eros promptly looked around for someone else to do the job, and handed off the rose to another deity the Greeks called Harpocrates. The supposed god of silence, Harpocrates was virtually unknown. And for good reason. He represented the Egyptian god Horus as a child, and “child” is what his finger-to-mouth gesture meant—in Egyptian hieroglyphs, of course.
The god of love, Eros to the Greeks and Cupid to the Romans, was the lead deity of sexual passion. His names live on in words like “erotic.” Or “cupidity,” originally meaning “strong desire” but now signifying “desire for wealth.”
The Greeks, however, read that gesture as “silence” or “secrecy.” This whole borrowing business was further tweaked by another error from a historian named Varro. Thanks to all these misunderstandings, the rose and the finger-to-mouth gesture, meaning silence, became a widespread symbol among the Greeks.
Later the Romans took it up. In Latin, they called it sub rosa, “beneath the rose,” which meant secrecy, discretion, and confidentiality. Thus Roman banquet rooms, palace dining halls, and other sites where elite partygo-ers gathered often featured ceilings painted with roses. They were there to remind everyone that while sub vino, “under the influence,” revelers needed to keep it sub rosa. We might call it an earlier, more poetic version of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
There were occasional “oops” moments. Nero, Elagabalus, and other fun-loving emperors held orgiastic free-for-alls in which masses of real rose petals were hung in nets above the partygoers. At times (perhaps deliberately) the netting broke, literally smothering the humans below. Online and in museums you can catch a wonderful portrayal of a Roman “death by roses” orgy, painted by famed Dutch artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who specialized in such subject matter from the late 1800s on.
Aphrodite, who sprang from the ancient mother goddess tradition of Ishtar and Astarte, may have also had a progenitor in the sea goddess of Minoan Crete. Once the Romans took her into their bosoms as their love queen Venus, her popularity rose even further.
Eros, on the other hand, was a tangle of contradictions. Called a love god by Hesiod and the earliest Greek poets, Eros was thought be among the oldest of deities. When spoken of by mystics and philosophers, Eros and the uniting power of love became one of the fundamental causes of the formation of the world. Later poets, especially the ones scribbling erotic and epigrammatic verse, described Eros as a boy-god, the youngest of deities.
When the Romans popularized him as Cupid, the god infantilized further, becoming a rosy toddler, equipped with wings, bow, and arrows, and often accompanied by his “love posse,” the erotes, described in the next entry.
At a certain point in the first few centuries A.D., cupid images became commonplace on coffins as a symbol of life after death. That notion was eagerly adopted by early Christians, who preferred to call them cherubs instead.