Why Does Love Hurt: Apollo's Arrows or Eros' Errands?
Shot through the hurt, but who's to blame?
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The image that besets our minds when we think of Valentine’s Day is that of a heart pierced by an arrow. Those who’ve had the misfortune of being hit by penetrating projectiles know that it hurts, especially if they puncture deep. To put it simply, it’s not to be desired. But despite the graphic violence, the image is celebrated all over the world not because it represents an injury that requires immediate medical attention nor does it endorse archery-based assaults. What it symbolises is a heart struck by Cupid’s machinations: it is a heart in love. And people the world over have, in some way or another, been struck by Cupid’s arrows.
Popular music icons The Beatles once proclaimed that All You Need is Love. They then repeated the phrase over and over again until every syllable was ingrained in the popular spirit (subliminally saying go get yourself shot by an arrow). Many agreed, with droves of people going out of their ways to invoke Cupid into action. And it’s not just toward a romantic interest that this love is aimed at. It encompasses the totality of human social networks, that love is what connects us all together. In essence, love is the glue that’s missing in our fractured and tumultuous world. Without it, things will worsen; with it, the world becomes better. It’s all we need.
For ancient physicians, this was not the case. In fact, they’d probably be aghast at the proposal. A sole emphasis on love would deprive the body of its other requirements, effectively disrupting its delicate balance. It is in this regard that they considered “lovesickness” as a real disease.
Ancient Greek medicine, the most dominant medical discipline in antiquity, was grounded on the idea of the four humours (other medical thinkers also considered other amounts, read here to know more). Inside the body are humours that have varying qualities, with each having unique effects on one's health. How these humours interact with each other inside us largely determines our health. Of paramount concern is the ratio of each and how the body reacts to restore an ideal balance between them. Too much or too little of one will offset the scales, triggering health problems and diseases. All You Need is Love only becomes sound advice when you’re ready to endanger yourself.
As the god of love, Cupid, the later transmogrification of Eros (who henceforth shall be referred as such for consistency), is the one responsible for delivering such internal disturbances. He does this by shooting his magic arrows at his chosen (and often unwilling) targets. It is in these sharp implements where the potential for emotional danger lies because the ancient Greek word for arrows, ἰός, also means poison. So what Eros actually launches are poisonous projectiles, which, if with the right potency, can cause serious devastation. Those who’ve experienced rejection, abandon, or loss know how painful its effects can be; it can sometimes lead to a fatal case of takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or the dreadful broken-heart syndrome.
The shared form between arrows and poison is of great interest to those studying the history of medicine as it embodies the ancient style of understanding diseases with the use of symbols. To understand how significant the iconography of the arrow was to ancient medicine, we need to look back at the stories that have shaped its meaning across time. We can then, by careful extrapolation, excavate experiences buried underneath these stories that we can use to correlate symbolic meaning with their material reality. By doing so, our ideas of love will hopefully be enriched by ancient attempts to understand it, and as a result, if we're able to come up with a satisfactory explanation, have a more profound appreciation—even love—for history and past stories.
To begin, it’s best that we focus our attention on the person responsible for imbuing arrows with particular powers.
Our main culprit is the god Apollo. Against him are stacks of evidence that point to his guilt as the main instigator, as the one who first contaminated arrows with divine toxins, thereby teaching proceeding generations how to do so. But he did not design arrows to be used as a vessel for romantic emotions. Arrows, for him, were solely airborne vessels that unleashed pestilence and pain from a safe distance.
The first instance of Apollo firing his noxious arrows is in Homer’s Iliad. Chryses, a priest of Apollo, had his daughter Chryseis kidnapped by Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, as part of the monarch’s war booty. Fearing for his daughter’s safety, he asked the Mycenaean warlord for her safe return in exchange for exorbitant ransom. This plea was swiftly denied as Agamemnon took a liking for Chryseis. Horrified by the rude rejection, Chryses implored his favoured god Apollo to intervene, which the god was happy to oblige. “Such prayer he made, and it was heard”, writes Homer, “The God”:
“Down from Olympus with his radiant bow
And his full quiver o’er his shoulder slung,
Marched in his anger; shaken as he moved
His rattling arrows told of his approach.
Gloomy he came as night; sat from the ships
Apart, and sent an arrow. Clang’d the cord
Dread-sounding, bounding on the silver bow.
Mules first and dogs he struck, but at themselves
Dispatching soon his bitter arrows keen,
Smote them. Death-piles on all sides always blazed.
Nine days throughout the camp his arrows flew”
Apollo’s wrath was only quelled when the invading Greeks, after an intense bickering between Agamemnon and Achilles, reluctantly returned Chryseis to her father. The barrage of arrows stopped and so too did the fatalities. Had they continued to deny Chryses his request, the onslaught would have continued—ultimately thinning out the Greek contingent—since the foremost reason why Apollo had rained his arrows down on them was their disrespectful treatment of his priest. The act of kidnapping was only subsidiary to Apollo’s wrath as the capture of women, for either sexual conquest or slavery or both, was customary in times of war. The failure to appease Apollo’s attendant, which by extension was an insult to the god, caused considerable damage to the Greeks, prompting them to quickly seek pardon.
It is clear from the opening lines of the Iliad that what Apollo sent to the Greeks was a wave of plague carried forth metaphorically by his arrows, a clear example of how ἰός can simultaneously be an arrow and poison. “Against the King [Agamemnon], a foul contagion raised/ In all the host, and multitudes destroy’d”. There is no doubt that Apollo would've caused far greater devastation had he chosen to, for the power of his arrows was not only limited to inflicting death to mortals, but it also terrorised the divine. In Aeschylus’ Eumenides, Apollo orders the Furies to exit his temple “Lest thy lot be to take into thy breast/ Speeds hissing as a snake,-lest, pierced and thrilled/ With agony”. Apollo’s threat surely held weight since the Furies heeded it, and this despite their reckless reputation to cause injury for the redress of vengeance. They knew that Apollo’s arrows could cause them significant harm, or even death, and their divine states, even more archaic than the Olympians, did not grant them any immunity.
In the two examples above, Apollo’s menacing arrows elicited a range of emotions culminating in two superlative measures: the Greeks must have surely felt regret for their impudence towards Apollo and the Furies certainly experienced a rush of fear after the god issued his threat. Try as we might, it’s difficult to exhume the emotion of love in these scenarios. If any, the arrows signified an end to it. Agamemnon probably loved Chryseis (or the prospect of subduing her by his will) but the storm of arrows put his prospects to rest. The Furies loved to enact the spirit of revenge but the peril posed by the arrows prevented them from accomplishing their mission. Nowhere is the later attachment of love and similar emotions found in Apollo’s missiles.
What we do find in his arrows are ancient attempts to illustrate the invisible threats of nature. Since arrows can be launched from a distance or from the safety of shadows, death from it can be hardly attributed to a definite source. It’s difficult to pinpoint the sole suspect in the death of a single soldier when a thousand archers launched their missiles in his direction. Pestilence must have seemed to the Greeks like arrows shot by invisible archers, it was difficult to know who was shooting and who was to be hit next. A more convenient way to go about this problem was to attribute this havoc to divine beings who were invisible to human eyes. Infectious and viral diseases were thus placed at the quiver of Apollo who was more than happy to launch them from his safe vantage spot in Olympus.
A convenience offered by arrows is their handiness and lightness. An ordinary archer can fit a sizable amount of arrows in their quiver, which can result in high casualties if all end up deposited in other people’s bodies. No heavy lifting of iron and heavy metal weaponry needed to inflict death. This, on the other hand, also poses problems. Arrows can be easily taken and stolen. Perhaps that was the case with Apollo and his preferred weapon.
Another Olympian feared for their arrows was, surprisingly, Aphrodite. We’ve come to know her from popular retelling as the scheming goddess of love who mostly outsources her bidding to her son, Eros. But while the tales of childhood serve as a great introduction to the world of Greek mythology, they fail to prepare us for the subsequent chronological problem caused by a wider reading of the catalogue.
Some of the earliest ancient Greek writers failed to reach a consensus when it came to establishing Aphrodite and Eros' exact relationship with each other. Were they indeed mother and son? Hesiod’s Theogony (c. 700 BCE), the oldest source at our disposal, does not draw a conclusive parental line from Aphrodite to Eros. In fact, he describes Eros as one of the first four divinities to have emerged alongside Chaos, Tartarus, and Gaia; appearing at an even earlier period than his supposed mother who only surfaced after the castration of Uranus by his son Cronos. This order is affirmed by the late 6th century BCE Greek writer Parmenides who wrote in On Nature that Eros was the first god to have been formed. This also means that Eros is far older than Apollo. Could it be that Eros was the original archer and Apollo only learned from him?
Whatever the real reason may be, a reversal and adoption occurred where Eros became Aphrodite’s son. This turn of events was instrumental in the association of Eros with arrows.
Owing to their portable form, Aphrodite may have easily gotten herself some of Apollo’s arrows and infused them with her powers; or, having seen their powerful capabilities, independently designed some for herself. At some point she may have surpassed Apollo in the craft, as Pindar describes her in his 5th century BCE Pythian Odes as the “queen of sharpest arrows.” However deadly her missiles were, the goddess found no beauty in the bow, so she assigned her son Eros to wield the implements for her.
Euripides, a contemporary of Pindar, was the first (at least in the extant records) to describe the schemes of mother and son and their deliberate use of love imbued arrows in Hippolytus. According to Euripides, Aphrodite wanted to punish Hippolytus for choosing Artemis over her. To exact the perfect penalty, she ordered her son Eros to shoot his arrows at Phaedra and make her fall in love with Hippolytus. Eros was happy to comply and love shortly blossomed. Problem was, Phaedra was Hippolytus’ stepmother. By Aphrodite’s calculations, this would lead to severe internal strife within the family as Phaedra would be consumed by her desire for her stepson, leading to potential conflict between Hippolytus and his father. The chorus of women who echoed their foreboding throughout the play panics for Phaedra’s fate because they knew that “the shafts neither of fire nor of the stars exceed the shaft of Aphrodite, which Eros, Zeus’s son, hurls forth from his hand.” Their fears were soon justified as things quickly turned tragic. Consumed by love and an insatiable desire to be with her stepson, Phaedra committed suicide. The arrows of love had taken their first prominent victim.
Aside from having the earliest example of Eros’ bowmanship, Hippolytus also bears the oldest surviving account of “lovesickness'' as a “disease'' with real physical symptoms. The violent, conflicting flux of shame and desire weighed heavily on Phaedra’s soul, causing tremendous stress. Love urged her to satisfy her craving for her stepson, but duty and honour shamed her for having such yearnings. Lost and desperate, she starved herself for three days, wanting nothing but to waste away and be rid of life. Love, in Phaedra’s case, was a miserable affliction that corrupted the soul, affecting both mind and body at the same time. This account elevated lovesickness to the level of disease, completing the synthesis of Apollo’s poisonous missiles with Aprhodite’s enchantment.
The sudden and erratic arrival of love may have inspired the ancients to associate it with arrows, as both deliver unpredictable pangs of pain. It is easy to see in this association how Eros would’ve been the perfect candidate to hold and wield the bow.
When Love and Hate Collide
While Eros is popularly depicted as a winged cherub, it would be a mistake to assume that his youth deprives him of autonomy in mind and action, particularly in shooting arrows. Nowhere is this best exemplified than in the story between the two archers, Apollo and Eros themselves.
In the Roman retelling of the story, Ovid writes in Metamorphoses that Apollo once admonished Eros for using arrows, a dangerous implement not to be toyed with by a mere child. “Thou lascivious boy,/ Are arms like these for children to employ?” To emphasise his point, Apollo reminded Eros that he is the master archer, that with his bow he had slain a dreadful serpent, and, surely, such a dangerous weapon should not be so easily handled by young boys. But Eros was not to be perturbed. He drew two bolts of arrows from his reserve: one tipped with gold that inspires love, another tipped with lead that stirs contempt. With his bow ready, he set his sights on Apollo and shot him with the gold arrow. As it landed on Apollo’s breast, his heart was filled with love for the naiad Daphne. After inflicting the desired effect, Eros then aimed his bow at Daphne and launched the lead arrow, rousing in her heart a disdain for Apollo. One was to love, another was to hate; both were trapped in an unending sequence of attraction and repulsion. In glorious irony, by the power of love, Apollo was now plagued by the very same instruments he used to effect plague.
It is in this tale’s twist where we find the best explanation for the arrow as an effective medical metaphor. As explained above, ancient doctors must have found a similarity between the silent and sudden hit of arrows with the rapid onset of diseases. The absence of microscopes in ancient times made it impossible back then to see the microscopic agents of disease, leaving doctors with no choice but to use other mental constructs to explain etiology. Invisible missiles from the bows of gods was a sensible substitute for a germ theory of disease: both describe difficult to see entities that trigger inflammation and other diseases in the body once they get a chance to enter it.
Arrows become an even more powerful metaphor when used to explain love. The poisonous element of Apollo’s arrows is still there, but the effects are less toxic and more magic. Ancient doctors understood that love had the capacity to inspire and/or injure. This dual capacity is found in the gold and lead arrows of Eros, which even the gods could neither evade nor parry. Coupled with his erratic nature, to be hit by Eros’ missiles was a scary prospect because you could never tell right away which tip was used, and it is only later when it has fully spread its blight that you can discern. To be in a hopeless love, like Phaedra, was a slow death sentence, comparable to other wasting diseases. This explanation goes well with ancient diagnoses of lovesickness as doctors could not pinpoint the exact agents that caused it, but could only tell the specific moments when its symptoms manifested, or when the arrow’s wounds hurt most (read my other essay here for an example).
Modern science has largely usurped mythology as the dominant mode of explanation. Arrows have lost their place in the epidemiological quiver and in their place rest bacteria and viruses, ready to cause chaos. Eros has been freed of culpability and love is now seen as a complex interplay of emotional experience and internal biochemistry. However, science, like mythology, is still susceptible to the blessing and bane of metaphors. No one launches pathogens from bows, but the threat of bioweapons are very real. Pandemics aren’t caused by a band of errant archers, but they also strike fast and unseen much like arrows. Humans are a storytelling species and metaphors play an important role in the way we tell our tales. The story of science and medicine also have their fair share of metaphors, equally enriching and enervating to their overall development. To better appreciate their place in our legacy as humans, we could either follow Apollo or Eros. Like Apollo, we can assert ourselves over things beyond our comprehension. Like Eros, we can simply discern which things to shoot with our gold and lead arrows: be able to distinguish what to love and what to hate.
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