Tag Archives: valentine’s day

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)

 

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.

5 Ways to Celebrate an Ancient Valentine’s Day, Courtesy of AntiquityNOW

BigPinkHeartIt’s the most romantic day of the year and you’re not quite sure how to show your one true love that you’ll love him or her for a thousand years…. We have the answer. Give a Valentine’s Day inspired by the ancient past and remind your one and only that no matter how many years pass, your love is as timeless as the Mona Lisa and as enduring as the pyramids. Continue reading

Happy Valentine’s Day! The Power of Love (Pssst—It’s All in the Eyes and Nose)

393px-Red_roseRed roses are synonymous with love, and have been for centuries.  But there’s an interesting story behind the tales of starry-eyed lovers and their proclamations of everlasting romance.  The red rose it seems, has as much to do with our eyes and nose as it has to do with affairs of the heart.

First, let’s take a look at the flower that started it all:  the beauteous and aromatic rose. Roses can be traced back 35 million years according to fossil evidence.  Roses were growing wild in many places as diverse as Persia and in what is now Colorado in the United States.  As early as the 11th century BCE the Chinese were cultivating flowers of all sorts.  In fact, China has incredible biodiversity and boasts 93 species and 144 varieties of roses that are native to its habitats.[1]  China became the dominant breeder and purveyor of roses until around 300 years ago, when Europe took the lead in cultivation and breeding.[2] Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Celebrate an Olympic-Sized Love with Ancient Cheesecake

SavillumIt’s that time of year again. Love is in the air as candied hearts and boxes of chocolates pack the shelves. This year Valentine’s Day falls in the middle of the Winter Olympics.  Maybe you and your sweetheart are looking to celebrate love as you continue to cheer on the international athletes. We have the perfect dessert for you! Continue reading

It’s the Power of Love: St. Valentine and the Romantic Brain

valentine stitchIt’s Valentine’s Day.  Moonlight and roses, chocolate and Hallmark cards… ahhh, the power of love.  But why do we love?  What is that irresistible draw to the heart and soul of another human being?

For such a popular holiday, Valentine’s Day is marked by an interesting historical fact—we’re not really sure of its true origins.  The actual St. Valentine is a martyred figure associated with three stories from the early Christian Church.   In one, St. Valentine was a Christian priest thrown into a Roman prison for preaching his beliefs.  On February 14, he was beheaded not only for disputing Roman deities but also for allegedly curing the jailer’s daughter of blindness—a miracle not looked kindly upon by the Romans trying to suppress the upstart religion.  His farewell letter to the jailer’s daughter, signed “From your Valentine,” and the letters he received and sent from jail to the friends who cared for him supposedly began the exchange of notes of affection for this holiday. Continue reading