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The ring was carved in nicolo, a type of onyx, and set in gold.

1,700-Year-Old Ancient Gold and Onyx Ring Depicts Cupid, God of Love

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An exquisite onyx and gold ring from about the 300s AD depicting the god of love Cupid, found by a metal detectorist, will go on display in an English museum. Eros or Cupid was regarded by some ancients as a primordial force that preceded the other gods. A later myth is told of Cupid’s love and rescue of Psyche, a strikingly beautiful woman who became immortal when their marriage was celebrated on Olympus.

An adolescent, winged Cupid, also known as Eros, is shown naked on the nicolo (a type of onyx) stone engraving, leaning on a column and holding a torch. The short wings growing from the figure’s shoulders identified him as cupid, Sally Worrell of the Portable Antiquities Scheme wrote in the journal Britannia. The ring could have been worn by either a man or a woman.

A metal detectorist found the ring near Tangley, England, and reported it to antiquities authorities per law, says Live Science in an article about the find. The ring will be displayed in the Andover Museum in Andover after the Hampshire Museums Service acquired it.

Several other rings showing Cupid are known to researchers. This ring’s design was what made Worrell and her co-author and colleague, John Pearce of King’s College London, conclude it was made around the fourth century AD.

The amateur with the metal detector found the ring in 2013, Live Science says. He reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Amateurs may use metal detectors to search the earth for valuable artifacts as long as they are not working at sanctioned archaeological sites and they report finds of precious metal.

The painting “A Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros,” 1880, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

The painting “A Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros,” 1880, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (Wikimedia Commons)

Early on Eros was deemed one of the elemental, or perhaps the elemental force in the universe, though he was not among the 12 Olympian ruling gods and was said to predate them. The god of love (“Eros” means love) was said by some ancients to come before all others. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote of Eros in Symposium:

‘All right then,’ said Aristophanes, ‘I’m going to talk about Eros in a different way. It seems to me that nobody has the slightest idea about his power. If they did, they would give him the biggest altars and temples and feasts—not like now, when they do nothing of the sort, as they damn well ought to. Does any god do more for people than Eros? He’s the god who cares most for us; he’s the one who most looks after us; he’s the best doctor there is, especially if you’ve caught something whose cure is the best luck a man can have.’

Robert Graves wrote in his book The Greek Myths that some ancients said Eros hatched from the world egg and was the first god “since, without him, none of the rest could have been born; they make him coeval with Mother Earth and Tartarus, and deny that he had any mother for father, unless it were Eileithyia, Goddess of Childbirth.”

The New Larousse Encyclopedia says Eros was unknown in the time of Homer and first made an appearance in Hesiod’s Theogeny. “His role was to coordinate the elements which constitute the universe. It is he who ‘brings harmony to chaos’ and permits life to develop.” The encyclopedia calls him a primitive deity, “a semi-abstract personification of cosmic force,” that had little resemblance to the Cupid of later times. In other words, the Roman ring of the fourth century discovered in England is a much later representation.

Sometime after Eros arose in the literature of the Greeks, Cupid became a winged youth shooting arrows of desire and love “whose prick stirred the fires of passion in all hearts,” Larousse says.

Cupid and Psyche, an 18th century statue by Frenchmen Claude Michel; note the putti or little winged angels that were inspired by representations of Cupid.

Cupid and Psyche , an 18 th century statue by Frenchmen Claude Michel; note the putti or little winged angels that were inspired by representations of Cupid. (Photo by Barry Green/Wikimedia Commons)

While some say he was born of Mother Night or hatched from the world egg, others said that he was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, hence he was an hermaphrodite, one of the three original sexes—men, women and creatures that combined aspects of both men and women. Still others said he was the child of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Zeus or Ares. To coin a title, he was Love, son of Love.

Originally he was simply depicted as a phallus or herm, like his reputed father Hermes. Later stories say he rescued Psyche, whose name means “soul,” from a promontory upon which she had been abandoned by order of the goddess of beauty Aphrodite, jealous of Psyche’s celebrated beauty. There on the mountain’s summit Aphrodite meant for a monster to prey upon Psyche. But Zephyrus, who was also identified as Eros’ father, carried her to a magnificent palace. There she was visited in the dark of night by a mysterious being who told her he was to be her husband. “She could not see his features, but his voice was soft and his conversations full of tenderness,” Larousse says. He made her vow never to look at him. But when her sisters, smitten with envy, told Psyche her visitor was likely a hideous monster, she looked at him with a lamp one night to reveal “the most charming person in the world.” She accidentally awakened him dripping hot oil on his arm.

Cupid chastised her for lack of faith and placed her on the mountain summit again. She tried to kill herself by throwing herself into a river but failed when the waters carried her gently to shore. When Aphrodite multiplied Psyche’s torments and subjected her to terrible ordeals, a mysterious power helped her survive them. Eros, who still loved and protected her, was touched by her repentance and implored Zeus to allow them to be joined again. Zeus agreed and made Psyche immortal. The two were married on Olympus amid rejoicing, celebrating gods.

Featured image: The ring was carved in nicolo, a type of onyx, and set in gold. (Photo by Hampshire Cultural Trust)

By: Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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