Category Archives: Holidays

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?

 

Related

 

 

[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)

 

Happy Mother’s Day!

Mother's Day Graphic 2014 copy

Kneeling mother holding a child. Pre-Columbian. 600-900 CE.

Ancient Olympic Games: Celebrating Rio 2016!

Rio_2016_logo.svgTonight, the world will watch as the Games of the XXXI Olympiad open in Rio. In the opening ceremony, we will enjoy stunning displays of modern technology and in the games that follow we’ll witness fascinating feats of modern sport. It is incredible to see how far we’ve come in our athletic pursuits, but it is important to remember when all of this began. Check out our posts below on the history of the Olympics and get ready to watch the world unite in Rio!

It’s Christmas in July! Free Gifts for Everyone from AntiquityNOW

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Are you yearning for carols? Are you longing for tinsel and ornaments? Is there not enough cheer in your life? We’ve got the cure for the July blues. It’s Christmas time!

First, learn about the history of Christmas in July by reading this insightful and fun-filled post from last year: Happy Christmas in July!

Next, check out all of the free gifts we have to offer: Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! A Healthy and Ancient Ramadan

Ramadan mealRamadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, a month of prayer and fasting, began last week and ends on July 5th. If you are observing Ramadan, you know that planning the Iftar and Suhur meals is key. While Ramadan has ancient roots, today many households are mixing their modern habits into the month. Health is a top priority for many families. Perhaps this year you’re trying to be a bit healthier in your observance and plan meals that are delicious and nutritious. It is important for these meals to provide all of the nutrition you need for the long days of fasting. For a list of healthy ideas, check out Nestle Family’s Healthy Ramadan Recipes.

And for a history of Ramadan as well as some ancient ingredients and recipes, look no further than our AntiquityNOW Ramadan posts below. Don’t miss the bonus post about the ways in which professional athletes observe Ramadan.

 

Celebrate Earth Day!

The photo was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on their way to the Moon. Antarctica, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Madagascar, and part of Asia are visible.

The photo was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on their way to the Moon. Antarctica, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Madagascar, and part of Asia are visible.

Today is Earth Day. It’s a time to celebrate the glorious bounty of this planet, which despite hurtling through a hostile and unforgiving universe, has nonetheless fostered an abundance of life for millions of years. Quite an accomplishment. Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! National Noodle Month

zucchini noodlesDid you know that March is National Noodle Month? Neither did we! We almost missed out on celebrating this ancient and fantastic food! In our humble opinion, noodles may be one of the world’s most perfect foods. They are the base for recipes from China to Italy and can be savory, sweet, salty and more. Today you can find noodles to suit every taste and inclination. There are zucchini noodles, gluten free noodles, cellophane noodles, flat noodles, thin noodles, long noodles, short noodles, so many noodles! Read our Ancient Noodle post below to learn about the noodle’s fascinating history and scroll down for a yummy zucchini noodle recipe. Continue reading

Have a Historic Valentine’s Day!

valentines-day-1171148_960_720Happy Valentine’s Day from AntiquityNOW! Check out the links below to put an ancient spin on this day of love.

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Ancient Thai Rose Salad

Thai Rose SaladIn preparation for Valentine’s Day, today we are celebrating the rose. You may not think of the rose as a food, but we assure you it is an ancient culinary treat. In fact, the rose has been cultivated since ancient times as a source of food, medicine and for perfume. In some cultures, rose gardens were considered important croplands, much like orchards.[1] Read our post, The Rose in History: Power, Beauty and the Sweet Smell of Success, for a fascinating history of this beautiful, fragrant and delicious flower. And once you’ve learned all about the rose’s past, you’re going to want to indulge in some rose cuisine. Look no further! We’re bringing you an exotic and delightful recipe for an ancient Thai Rose Salad. This Valentine’s Day, don’t just shower your love with a bouquet of roses. Serve up this dish redolent with flavor and flair! Continue reading

Happy Mardi Gras from AntiquityNOW!

mardis grasIt’s Mardi Gras time! Break out the beads and get ready to party. But first, enrich your festival experience by learning about the history of the holiday in our blog post, Music, Color, Costumes and Beads—It’s Mardi Gras Time!

And take a walk down memory line in this slideshow of vintage Mardi Gras photos: A Brief History of Mardi Gras. Laissez les bons temps rouler!