Basically, a blog about visual culture

The Origins of the Heart Symbol

St. Valentine is coming. I decided to avoid another list of gifts for her (flowers, chocolate and a romantic location will always do the job) or him (no man will ever complain for some lace lingerie and good sex) and we opted instead for something that even those of you who won’t spend the day with a Relevant Other will appreciate.

Why do we draw hearts like we draw them and not like they really are?

The very first representations of the heart symbol date back to before the last Ice Age. It has been found in pictograms drawn by European hunters, but what they meant by using it is still unknown. What is well known, instead, is that the heart and its representation has always been associated with a powerful symbolism.

Egyptians believed the heart – the so-called ieb – was the center of life and morality. According to their mythology, once you die, your heart is taken to the Hall of Maat, goddess of justice. There, it is weighed against the Feather of Maat and, if your heart is lighter than the Feather, you’ll join Osiris in the afterlife. If your heart weighs more than the Feather, it is eaten by the demon Ammut and your soul will vanish forever. In Ancient Greece, the heart was considered the center of the soul and human heat. Scholars and physicians such as Hippocrates and Aristotle were the first to identify a connection between heart and lungs and to become aware of its pumping action.

As for the heart shape, there are mixed opinions about its origin. Around 5th or 6th Century, silphium was a well-known herb across the Mediterranean area. It was used to spice food, for medical purposes and, most of all, it was considered an abortive agent in women, a sort of birth control pill to be eaten the day after sex. The popularity of silphium was so high that this herb became a major source of income for the population of the North-African city of Cyrene, were the plants used to grow. Cyrenians even put the image of silphium seeds on their coins and – guess what – these seeds were heart-shaped. Silphium was widely used across the Roman Empire and Cyrenian coins were of course used to trade, so we can understand how the symbol spread across the Mediterranean. This, however, is just a possible explanation of why today we draw hearts like we draw them. Another theory affirms that if you look at the heart shape upside down, you’ll notice that it resembles the shape of vagina and, with a little effort of imagination, also male genitalia. In both cases, the heart symbol appears directly connected to sex and attraction.

sacred heart

In the Middle Ages, however, the image of the heart acquired a spiritual meaning, as it became very important in Christian theology: the Sacred Heart, ethereal and often wounded, was a symbol of Jesus Christ and his love. It was portrayed in artworks and mentioned in prayers and doctrine and we can easily understand how it became more and more popular as Christian religion spread all over Europe and also in the world thanks to the action of missionaries. Christian physicians were forbidden from dissecting human bodies, so the real form of the heart was still unknown. In the late Middle Ages, the heart shape began appearing in paintings of lovers and it started to be associated to the red color, symbol of love and passion. It gradually turned into an icon of romantic love and its popularization increased even more rapidly when it was included on playing cards during the 15th Century.

real heart

During Renaissance and Illuminism, medicine advanced notably, questioning the accepted views of the heart. Leonardo Da Vinci was the first artist to draw a truly accurate sketch of the heart as a real organ of the human body. Hearts were now everywhere, associated with the feelings of love, passion, fidelity, bravery. Since the 19th Century, the heart icon is associated with St. Valentines and today it has a variety of positive meanings besides romantic love, such as health and life – just imagine the “lives” of characters in video games – but also choice and approval – think about the hearts on Instagram. In 1977, it became part of the logo I ♥ NY and today “<3” is among the most popular emoticons we send and share every day through messenger apps and social networks.

Visual Nazi / Creativity Lover / Barbie Content Marketer I love old and new media, collect indie magazines, listen to hipster music, appreciate good typography, enjoy romance and thoughtful chromatic combinations. I hate: old thinking and badly filtered Instagram pics.


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