The heart sign is one of the only most endures and widely familiar symbols in modern world civilization. But where did it come from?
The heart shape is known the world over as a sign of loving and care, but its historical beginning are hard to pin down. Some believe the iconic sign is derived from the shape of ivy leaf, which are related with loyalty, but on the other hand it was modeled after breasts, buttocks or other parts of the human structure. Possibly the most unusual theory concerns silphium, a group of giant fennel that once grew on the North African coastline near the Greek colony of Cyrene. The ancient Greeks and Romans used silphium as eat in food flavor and use it in medicine—it worked for wonders as a cough syrup—but it was most famous as an early form of birth control. Earliest writers and poets hailed the plant for its contraceptive powers, and it became so trendy that it was cultivated into extinction by the first century A.D. (legend has it that the Roman Emperor Nero was presented with the last surviving stalk). Silphium’s seedpod bore a striking semblance to the modern Valentine’s heart, leading many to speculate that the herb’s associations with love and sex may have been what first helped popularize the sign. The ancient city of Cyrene, which grew rich from the silphium trade, even put the heart shape on its money.
While the silphium theory is certainly strong, the true origins of the heart shape may be more simple. Scholars such as Pierre Vinken and Martin Kemp have argued that the heart sign has its roots in the writings of Galen and the philosopher Aristotle, who described the human heart as having three chambers with a small dent in the middle. According to this theory, the heart shape may have been born when artists and scientists from the Middle Ages attempted to draw representations of early medical texts. In the 14th century, for example, the Italian physicist Guido da Vigevano made a series of anatomical drawings featuring a heart that very much resembles the one described by Aristotle. Since the human heart has long been associated with feeling and delight, the shape was finally co-opted as a symbol of love and romance. It grew especially popular during the Renaissance, when it was used in religious art depicting the Sacred Heart of Christ and as one of the four suits in playing cards. By the 18th and 19th centuries, meanwhile, it had become a frequent shape in love notes and Valentine’s Day cards.
Religious pressure on the medical world waned in later centuries and anatomical knowledge was finally spread far and wide, the total amount of artistic, poetic and commercial attention given to the iconic heart symbol not only saw it survive, but bloom as symbol for both the human heart and love. Despite that love doesn’t originate in, nor does the symbol look much like, the human heart, from the looks of things, the drawn heart representing these things is not about to change anytime soon.