Origins of the Love Heart Symbol
The Heart a Symbol of Romantic Love
The shape we call a love heart that represents love, romance and affection is one of the most recognised and widely used symbols in the world. Yet this two lobed shape that comes to a point at the base bears no resemblance to the human heart at all.
The use of the love heart symbol to express romantic love can be traced back hundreds of years. How it came into existence is not known for certain. There are however many theories.
One explanation about the origin of the love heart that has attracted considerable attention comes from the heart-shaped seeds of the silphium plant.
Native to the ancient Greek city of Cyrene (modern-day Libya) silphium was prized for its medicinal properties. It was also used as a perfume, a herb, an aphrodisiac and for birth control.
This may also be the reason why the love heart symbol became synonymous with romantic love.
The huge demand for silphium put enormous pressure on the supply chain and by the second century A.D the plant was extinct.
The earliest known depiction of a love heart being used to represent love can be seen in the French poem Le Roman De La Poire (Romance of the Pear).
Written around 1255 it features a man giving a damsel a love heart.
During the Middle Ages a pine-cone shaped object was used to depict the heart when being used as a symbol of love. Interestingly the narrow end faced upwards which is how the human heart is positioned.
Some articles online claim the pine cone shape comes from descriptions of the heart in early anatomical literature. I can find no factual evidence to support that but did find the following text which comes from a fairly trustworthy source;
"During the 14th century a handful of scholars described the heart as being an inverted pinecone with its tip pointing downwards"
Pine cones have been used symbolically in various cultures throughout history. In ancient Rome they were associated with the God Dionysus and were often used as decorations in public places and at religious ceremonies.
Pine cones have also been used as a symbol of fertility and eternal life.
The shape of the love heart symbol changed during the early part of the 14th century. The tapestry known as “Le Don du Coeur” (The Gift of the Heart) features a well dressed gentleman presenting a love heart to his beloved as a token of his love. Not only is it the two lobed shape we use today but it's also red.
The tapestry which is on display in the Louvre is dated 1400 - 1410.
This image from a historical manuscript depicts a woman giving a love heart to a man whilst he covers his heart with his hand.
You may ask were people even aware of the shape of the human heart at this period in time?
The study of human anatomy is known to have started in ancient Egypt. There is some evidence to suggest it may have been as early as 2500 BC.
The Edwin Smith papyrus was written around 1600 B.C. It's the oldest surviving medical text from ancient Egypt.
The ancient Greeks also performed post-mortem examinations in order to understand the cause of death.
The ancient Egyptians had a sophisticated understanding of the human body including the heart. This knowledge is reflected in their art and literature. The heart was believed to be the centre of the body and the source of emotions, intelligence and memory. It was also seen as the seat of the soul.
During mummification the heart was the only organ to be left in the body because they believed it determined a person's fate after they died.
There are many examples of the heart being depicted in hieroglyphs. It was often used in inscriptions and tombs. They believed it was responsible for circulation and the distribution of life force throughout the body.
They recognised the heart and knew blood vessels emanated from it.
The first known reference to a post mortem was 1286 but the first formal account was not recorded until fourteen years later. Both were conducted in Italy.
A detailed account of a post-mortem examination was also recorded by Spanish physician Mondino de Liuzzi in his book Anathomia published in 1300.
The earliest drawing of the heart symbol dates back approximately 15,000 years to a painting in the Pindal Cavern in Spain. It confirms Palaeolithic man was aware the heart had to be struck in order to kill.
Many scholars believe the love heart symbol is more likely to come from the writings of Galen.
Galen of Pergamon (modern day Turkey) was a Greek physician and philosopher who practiced and taught in Rome in the 2nd century AD. He's considered one of the greatest figures in the history of medicine.
He believed the heart was the organ most closely related to the soul and that blood contained "vital spirits". He claimed these were released into the heart by the brain.
Through the vivisection of animals Galen showed arteries carried blood and not air as was commonly believed. He understood the value of the pulse in making a diagnosis but incorrectly believed blood was continuously being produced and used up.He observed many of the heart's physical properties and described it as having three compartments or "cavities". He claimed they were connected to the liver, lungs and brain.
He also believed the heart was the body's "natural furnace" responsible for generating heat and maintaining temperature.
Many of Galen's theories were later proven to be incorrect but his contribution to anatomy and physiology has had a lasting impact on the field of medicine.
In recent years countless articles have tried to explain how the love heart symbol came about. One theory from a professor of psychology who studied the symbolism, origin and history of Valentine's Day said it could be inspired by the shape of female buttocks as they appear from behind.
He went on to say "any interpretation of this kind of material is purely speculative".
Whilst it's unlikely we'll ever know for certain the origins of this bright red symbol, the heart is known to have been associated with emotion for thousands of years.This ancient Egyptian poem was translated from hieroglyphs;
My beloved stirs my heart with his voice,
He causes illness to seize me
My mother is right in commanding me:
“Avoid seeing him.”
But, my heart is smitten by his memory,
My love for him has seized me.
Look, he is a fool
But I am just like him.
He does not know my desire to embrace him,
He does (not) send word to my mother.
Oh, my beloved! I am destined for you,
By the Golden (Goddess) of Women.
Reference- Rose quartz heart-shaped carving from our collection (clickable image)
- Cyrenean Silver Tetradrachm 6th Century BC (clickable - redirects to the original article by the Penn Museum)
- Le Don du Coeur (The Gift of the Heart) tapestry in the Louvre (clickable - redirects to the Louvre)
- Image courtesy of Bodleian Library (clickable - redirects to original reference)
- Cave painting in the Pindal Cavern (clickable - redirects to original reference published in 1957)
- Natural heart-shaped flowers of the Bleeding Heart plant (Lamprocapnos)
- Natural heart-shape in an Ajoba Jasper pendant from our collection (clickable)
- The poem is courtesy of Ancient Egyptian Love Poetry