The history and nuances of Love

It is February, the month of love and the Valentine’s Day. So today we will talk about the history and nuances of love. This small analysis will focus on the phenomenon of love along with the culture behind it.

Dear reader, this article will be like a virtual journey through the history of some of the most beautiful things that exist – love! First, we will distinguish between a few different types of love following the Greek etymologies. Second, we’ll talk about mythology, gods, and correlations. Finally, we’ll figure it out why the day of love is the Valentine’s day. Let’s start!

Portrait of a Couple in a Landscape, probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa (1586-1643) and Beatrix van der Laen (1592-1639), by Frans Hals, c.1622, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The history of philia and brotherly love

For a start, let’s not forget that the word philosophy contains that word φιλία [philia] along with the σοφία [sophia], meaning wisdom. It literally means that philosophy is the love for wisdom. But what kind of love?

In Ancient Greece, philia had a meaning of commitment and loyalty. Not only it meant fondness inside a family or group of friends, but also the love for the community. This nuance of love is also the root of the word philanthropist – the one who loves humans. It is because άνθροπος [anthropos] means human).

Finally, Aristotle’s description of philia matches our modern idea of friendship. As a result, the word philia means friendship in Modern Greek. Aristotle is one of the most important philosopher in the history of the ideas about love.

One more thing: while reading this chapter, did you think of Philadelphia? With the second part, αδέλφια [adelphia] meaning brothers and sisters, the name of that American city literally means brotherly love!

Read also: Symposium, idiots, technology, and more words of Greek origin.

The History and Nuances of Love and Friendship
Many funerary monuments have motifs of philia (friendship) on them. This stela is a part of the Benaki Museum collection.

Xenia or filoxenia, it is the love for the community and people you don’t know

Iliad and Odyssey ocasionally refer to some kind of love for strangers. That phenomenon got many interpretations, as it is also widely believed to be the thing of Greek culture up to our days. Nevertheless, the idea and the word can go beyond that cultural boundary.

In Greek, ξένος [xenos] means foreign, while xenia refers to an ancient concept of guest-friendship. Interestingly, it is the exact opposite of the more widely known word xenophobia, meaning some kind of fear towards the stranger or people who are different.

I can say that I personally practiced a lot of philoxenia, even not being Greek, much less an ancient Greek (laugh). I traveled and met people. Then I was a host and other people hosted me too. We all had a relationship of guest-friends rather than friends in more specific and close, philia terms. Further, philoxenia is commonly referred as the origin of the concepts of hospitality and tourism as an industry.

Filoxenia - the history and nuances of love
Filoxenia in practice!

Filautia – the essential nuance of love

I like to say that Greek language is like a puzzle, you just compose words, put them together and then you get new meanings. This word philautia contains “auto” in it. With what do you associate it? Is it the love for automobiles – cars, or automatisation? (laugh) Well, it is definitely related to that, but more simple.

In fact, αυτό [af-to] is a mere pronoun in Greek. You know, he/she/it, that thing. In most of the complex usages it means “self”. As a result, filautia means nothing else but – self love. Is it important? What we know, is that it is so difficult to explain. I mean, we need to love and nurture ourselves in order to have some love for the others. On the other hand, it should not be selfish, as Aristotle warns in his books about ethics.

Read also: Politics, plastics, and mystical stuff – more curiosities about Greek words

Eros is the desire, meaning the physical nuance of love

As we all know, the Valentine’s Day is all about one particular kind of love. It is about the feeling of being in love. In Ancient Greek mythology, Eros was the god “responsible” for it. However, the root of the story around Eros is not that simple (laugh).

The god Eros (Cupid in Roman mythology) is the son of beautiful Aphrodite (Venus) and the warrior Ares (Mars). According to the ancient Roman poem Metamorphosis by Ovid, Aphrodite gave Eros a special task. He was told to curse beautiful Psyche (the name relates to ψυχή [psyhi] meaning soul in Greek, and obviously psychology), a mortal woman because Aphrodite didn’t like her.

He was supposed to make her fall in love with some ugly man, but Eros ended up being in love with her. After that, he stabbed himself with his own arrows, resulting in the popular arrow icon that describes falling in love. The story ended with a happily ever after as it became inspiration to some fairly tale such as Cinderella.

On the other hand, the term and meaning of Eros has had different meaning in different books and theories. For instance, Plato described eros as a desire for ideal beauty in ideas and art.

However, eros as a desire became mostly translated into a sexual desire in our contemporary popular culture. In turn, the Modern Greek word έρωτας [erotas] means that feeling of being in love, the feeling that brings two people together due to a sexual urge. Some would say that it is the urge for procreation, but we know that such a desire happens between same-sex couples as well as to heterosexual women who are past their childbearing age.

The History and Nuances of Love - Eros and Psyche
Francois Gerard: Cupid and Psyche, 1798, Louvre Museum

Agape is the deepest and the most universal nuance of love

Although the Valentine’s Day is primarily associated to the feeling of being in love and the dream of the early days of a romantic relationship, it also implies a dream of a long-term love. Αγάπη [agapi in modern pronunciation] is the most universal and general Greek word for love.

Ancient texts mostly refer to agape as the deep feeling between the spouses and the universal parents’ love for their children. After that, the word appeared in Christian texts as a love the (Christian) god has for his believers. Sometimes the meaning of agape also applies to charity and the desire to help those who need it.

In any case, agape is the word you will hear most in contemporary Greek songs. The verbal form is the way to say I love you in Modern Greek – σε αγαπάω [se agapao].

A complex history and nuances of love - is this one of them?
A black-figured Skyphos with an ancient motif of male / female courtship. National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Inside the family, you feel storge for each other

The word στοργή [storge, modern storgi] exists in English and in Modern Greek, and it almost always refers to family bonds. In fact, it is all about compassion and understanding the other. For that reason it mostly appears in family context. Unlike more general and community oriented philia, store was rarely mentioned by ancient or later writers. For that reason, I couldn’t find much information about the history of that nuance of love, other than some confirmation from native Greek speakers and a Wikipedia article.

Why are we celebrating the Saint Valentine’s Day and what nuance of love did the saint support?

Saint Valentine’s Day is one of many Christian festivities, although the meanings of it have varied through times and places. Similarly to winter holidays and Christmas, this day has seen a social change that gave it the meaning we know today. It is one of the most iconic days to talk about in that long and complicated history of love.

Valentine was a Christian bishop in the times of Roman Empire and later a martyr – the victim of the regime. When the Roman Emperor Claudius II prohibited soldiers to marry because he believed it would harm their military performance, the bishop offered to give them wedding ceremonies in secret. He was imprisoned as soon as the emperor knew about it.

According to a myth, he performed a miracle in the prison, as he healed his guards daughter’s blindness, making her see for the first time in her life. As a result he was released, however both him and the guard were condemned to death and beheaded afterwards.

So, the martyr Saint Valentine became a miracle healer and the figure of the history of love, but also a patron of people with epilepsy. A kind of similar to the humanitarian Saint Nicholas, Valentine is another figure of Christian belief in universal love, most notably the agape. Again, nowadays the nuance of love we mostly think about on the Valentine’s day is the love between the two partners that unites the concepts of agape and erotas.

Give our history some philia and philoxenia, the beautiful ancient nuances of love

Finally, that love arrow can have meanings beyond Eros, only if we take different interpretations of it. For instance, you can display some nuance of philia or philoxenia to Fun Museum community by subscribing to our newsletter. As a reward for that love, you will receive your free copy of my first Art of Discovery illustrated book.

Photo by Denise Johnson on Unsplash

Get some further reading on the history and nuances of love

Philosophy of Love – The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – on February 10, 2021

Relationship Status: It’s Complicated – Virtual Exhibition from Staatliche Museum zu Berlin – retrieved on February 11, 2021 (Cool online exhibition, but too stringent copyright rules prevented me from using the image of their artwork to illustrate my article.)

The Odyssey – be our guest with xenia – on February 11, 2021

The meaning of storge – on February 12, 2021

The true meaning of philoxenia – on February 12, 2021

The story of Saint Valentine – on February 12, 2021

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