On Valentine’s Day, men and women around the world celebrate those closest to them with extravagant acts of love. Cards, chocolates, and other gifts are exchanged, all of them bedazzled with or designed in the form of traditional hearts. But how did this shape, ostensibly modeled after the internal organ, emerge as the universal symbol for the emotion of love?
Although the heart symbol can be traced back many generations, nobody is really sure how it took on its current meaning. A leading theory contends that during the seventh century B.C., the silphium plant was used as a form of birth control in the city-state of Cyrene. Legend has it that the plant was so important to the local economy that coins were minted that depicted the plant’s seedpod, which looks like the heart shape we know today.
The silphium plant isn’t the only element of nature that resembles the heart shape. From flowers to fruit to birds, when positioned correctly, nature’s multitude of living beings showcase the commonality of the shape if you look for it. Others argue that the shape stemmed from the shape of leaves. Leaves appear in many paintings dating back to The Middle Ages that illustrate a romantic love between men and women and the spiritual love between mankind and God.
For a long time before the common era, hunters reportedly scrawled the symbol on cave walls, though its meaning to those early people is unclear. Ancient Egyptians, for instance, believed that the heart epitomized life and morality. The Greeks held that it controlled reason, thought and emotion. It’s possible that the Greek association of ivy with the god Dionysus (the god of sensual things) led to the heart being identified with romantic love. Once the heart surfaced as a mark for sex, it’s not a large leap to understand how it came to connote love, too. And, in time, eternal love.