Happy Valentine’s Day! How the Heart Became the Shape of Love

Today, we at AntiquityNOW commemorate that most wondrous of all human emotions: Love. On past Valentine’s Days, we have explored how love enters through the eyes and nose, how the brain on love is a power to behold (Robert Palmer does a cameo in this one) and even offered up an ancient Thai rose salad recipe to enjoy on this holiday. But being the curious afficionados of ancient history we are, we wondered, where did the heart-shaped symbol originate?

Ancient silver coin from Cyrene
depicting a seed or fruit of silphium.

As where many ancient secrets begin, let’s look at nature. There are numerous plants with blossoms or leaves in the shape of the symbol we now see as a heart.  But the one in history that is most relevant, had multitudinous uses in ancient times and is an eternal mystery to the science of propagation is silphium. Also known as silphion, laserwort, or laser, it was widely used by Egyptians, Knossos Minoans, Greeks and Romans as a seasoning, medicine and perfume.  And in a cheeky irony by Mother Nature, it was also popular as an aphrodisiac and a reportedly effective contraceptive. It grew naturally around the North African city of Cyrene (founded as Greek city in 631 BCE at what is now Shahhat, Libya), and was such an important trade item that Cyrenian coins displayed its heart-shaped seed or fruit. It was documented as literally worth its weight in gold.[1] From this description, it certainly appears to be a cure-all:

It was said to have short, thick leaves, tiny yellow flowers, and bulky, vigorous roots. The sap that oozed from the silphium plant was particularly aromatic and medicinal, at least by ancient standards. The wonder drug of its day, silphium was said to cure such maladies as tooth decay, warts, dog bites, stomach ailments, coughs, leprosy, and anal growths. But it was more valued for its use as a contraceptive…more specifically as an abortifacient. Ancient medical texts all repeat the claim that a pessary made of silphium sap was effective at “purging the uterus” to “bring forth menstruation”, all clever euphemisms for drug-induced abortions. In a society that placed a high value on legitimate heirs …, silphium’s (sic) became highly sought after as the first “morning-after” pill.[2]

It’s no wonder silphium became so valued. Alas, silphium proved impossible to cultivate, and apparently became extinct, or at least that is the prevailing thought. No one can unravel why this extinction occurred, or whether some plants may still grow naturally somewhere today. For those fascinated by the cultivation of plants or drawn to historical factoids, find out what the silphium mystery has in common with Aristotle, poppies and World War I, and camas (product of a male camel and female llama).

Silphium’s popularity as an aphrodisiac and contraceptive along with its heart-shaped seed suggest a correlation with the symbol we use for love in modern times. The sexual association is found in ancient depictions of the plant’s shape with phallic and testicular imagery.[3]  And while the Romans mentioned silphium in their poetry, it is the works of Catullus that linked silphium to carnal pleasures.[4]

As compelling as the story of silphium is, there is a later explanation of the heart’s symbol, one embedded in human anatomy:

Scholars such as Pierre Vinken and Martin Kemp have argued that the symbol 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 ancient medical texts.[5]

With this theory in mind, let’s fast forward to the Middle Ages when the concept of romantic love found full expression in art. The earliest depiction of a heart-shaped object given as a token of love is from 1255 CE, painted in a studio in Paris:

The heart did not feature in European art until the later Middle Ages. The first illustration of a heart outside the anatomical literature occurred as late as the 13th century, in a French manuscript, written by an unknown poet and entitled Roman de la poire (Romance of the pear). This story takes its title from a scene in which the damsel offers a pear, analogous to Eve’s apple, to her sweetheart. In the tale, the suitor’s gaze is represented as an actual character called Douz Regart (Sweet Looks). In a miniature, within the calligraphic curve of a golden capital S, he is pictured kneeling before a lady and offering her the lover’s heart. The shape of this heart resembles the form of a pine cone—a shape that accords with descriptions of the heart in anatomical literature since Galen and Avicenna.[6]

So in this version of the origin of the heart shape, there is a definitive connection to romantic love.  As time went on, artists used the heart image in religious paintings and in ways showing various expressions of love. Yet it still remains the one most associated with love and with its special day of February 14th.

Love is complex and enigmatic. It can be exhilarating. It can be tragic. It’s only proper that the origins of its most visible symbol should be shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. Whether 2,500 years ago, whether in 2021, it seems romance is in our natures. Don’t you just that?



[1] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170907-the-mystery-of-the-lost-roman-herb

[2] https://insanitek.net/ancient-botanical-mystery/

[3] https://www.jstor.org/stable/4256173?seq=1

[4] Ibid

[5] Why Does the Heart Shape Symbolize Love? – HISTORY

[6] first-page-pdf (sciencedirect.com)

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