One of the numerous reasons I remain interested in doing what I do is there are so many things to learn. Each and every project feels like a new opportunity to discover and create something new. There are some things that will always remain though, one of which is the pool of various symbols that have been around longer than any of us have. Take the heart shape, for example.
In western cultures, February has become the month of hearts, flowers, candy, and Valentines. (I’ve written about a bit of that history before.) The history of the heart shape goes even further back in time though: all the way to 1,000-8,000 B.C.E., before the last Ice Age, when “Cro-Magnon hunters in Europe use the symbol in pictograms, though it remains a mystery exactly what meaning it held for them.”
There are also “several pieces of pottery going back as far as 3000BC [which] clearly show the unmistakable symbol. However, in these instances, the symbol is noted to be a simplification of either a fig or ivy leaf, not a crude representation of the human heart, and seemingly, at least initially, not having anything to do with love.”
One of the earliest depictions of the heart symbol as it pertains to love and courtship is found in a 13th century French manuscript written by an unknown author, a simple romance tale called “Roman de la poire” (Romance of the pear). In it, “a man hands his heart to his lover. Its shape is likened to that of a conifer cone…”
And another theory for the symbol’s origins “is that it comes from the ancient African city-state of Cyrene, whose merchants traded in the rare, and now extinct, plant silphium. The plant was used to season food, but doubled as a contraceptive. A silphium seedpod looks like a valentine's heart, so the shape became associated with sex, and then with love.”
It’s hard to believe that the definitive origins of the symbolism are so elusive, especially in light of the fact that it’s currently one of the most recognizable symbols. It’s meaning has become synonymous with the actual human heart’s symbolism—where love is felt. And yet, the symbol has very little similarity to an actual human heart.
“While the silphium theory is certainly compelling, the true origins of the heart shape may be more straightforward. 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. In the 14th century, for example, the Italian physicist Guido da Vigevano made a series of anatomical drawings featuring a heart that closely resembles the one described by Aristotle. Since the human heart has long been associated with emotion and pleasure, the shape was eventually co-opted as a symbol of romance and medieval courtly love.”
And to this day, we artists continue to provide our depictions. Here’s a new one from me.
I hope you're able to enjoy this month of hearts even more with this bit of history. And may you find hearts everywhere, all the time, symbolically and otherwise; goodness knows this world could use a good bit more heart wisdom. It’s one of many things I love to discover, develop and share in life!