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The Symbol of Love: Origin of the Heart

One of my earliest memories was learning how to draw a heart. I agonized over the double curves, focusing deeply on the point at the bottom that they lead down to and trying my hardest to make the most special symmetrical heart ever drawn. I practiced and practiced.

With Valentines day coming up I thought I’d talk a little about love. During February it’s everywhere. On cards, balloons, dolls, candy packaging, Valentine’s Day specials galore and most of them could not do it without the heart symbol. How did this heart symbol become a part of our visual vocabulary? Although its exact explanation is still up for debate, here is a quick explanation on its roots and origins.

There are many symbols in our world of communication that are instilled in us from a very young age. You see a man on a door and you know it’s for men. Add a skirt and it’s for women. On the other hand, currency symbols vary by country and even a plus sign means different things in different parts of the world. A green plus sign in Europe represents a pharmacy and here in the States, it mostly just means addition (in any color).

The heart is extra special in that it is one of the most universal and oldest symbols that typically means the same things across the world and even through time. It can also have a couple of translations. When you see a heart, you often think of love or you might think of the physical organ in our bodies.

The debate over the heart being the organ of love has long been mused by great philosophers and great scientists alike. So, how did this symbol come to be a part of the human visual language in this way?

It is said that the heart symbol can be traced all the way back to the Ice Age as seen in pictograms. Not to say that the meaning was the same back then as what we hold today for the heart symbol, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

So, let’s dive into what Wikipedia says. It states that the heart symbol is drawn in a stylized shape that vaguely resembles a human heart.

Human heart image (Credit: Wikipedia)

It also notes that the exact origin of the heart symbol has been debated. It has even been interpreted as being various sexual human bits (use your imagination). I found on an interesting explanation that states that the symbol comes from a contraceptive from the Roman era. An extinct plant called the silphium, which had contraceptive qualities, resembled the shape of a heart. Nope not kidding folks.

There is another explanation that is plant based, in addition to the silphium’s inherent meaning. It is said that the heart symbol is derived from an ivy leaf portrayed by Greek cultures and evolved into the symbol of the heart that we have now. The ivy plant is associated with Dionysus, a goddess who represented the passionate and sensual aspects of human life. This botanic symbol is said to be found in ancient Greek and Roman art, primarily in vase paintings.

The final transformation of the green heart-shaped leaf into the red playing-card heart took place in medieval writings, predominantly in the Central-European literature of courtly love. Slowly but surely, it then transformed into the symbol that portrays the human heart in a more medical sense well.

Interesting, no? What do you believe is the correct origin?

The next time you see a heart, will you think of it in the same way? Will you think of plants or body parts, or both?


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