If you happened to pick out or receive a Mother’s Day card recently, chances are you saw one of the most enduring and ubiquitous symbols of love: the heart shape. This shape is widely used for familial love on Mother’s and Father’s day (especially from children) while also being the clearest symbol for romantic love, exemplified by its appearance on cards, candy, and gifts for Valentine’s Day. However, anyone with a basic understanding of human anatomy realizes that this shape does not resemble the human heart very closely. So how did this symbol originate and why do we use it so much today?
The heart shape has been very popular for a few hundred years, but its origins probably date back much further. As with many traditions that extend back beyond a few centuries, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the heart shape as we know it today. While there are a number of theories about how and where the shape began, no definitive explanation exists. In a 2007 article for news website Slate, Keelin McDonell raises many of the following theories about the origin of the heart.
One notion, coming from the Catholic Church, is that the popularization of the heart shape is directly related to the “Sacred Heart,” a term for the holy heart of Christ, which was pierced during the Crucifixion. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque claimed to have a number of visions in the 1670s in which she dreamed of the heart shape covered in thorns, similar to the crown of thorns Christ was forced to wear on his head during the Crucifixion. She claimed that Christ wanted her to spread the word of her experience. To her, the heart and thorns demonstrated Christ’s sacrifice for humanity and, therefore, his extraordinary love. The Sacred Heart soon became a powerful and popular religious symbol in Christianity and remains one to this day. However, evidence suggests that the unique shape itself existed before the Sacred Heart.
Many believe, though, that the heart shape predates the 17th century by many hundreds of years. Another popular and very different theory is that the symbol goes all the way back to the 7th century B.C. and a city-state in North Africa called Cyrene. This sovereignty was very successful mainly due to a now-extinct plant called Silphium. A relative of fennel, Silphium was rare but highly sought due to its perceived birth control traits. Silphium was so crucial to the economy of Cyrene that their coins had a picture of the seed pods of the plants on it. The simple drawing of the pods bears an uncanny resemblance to the modern symbol of the heart. Still, how would a plant come to represent the heart? Perhaps if the shape was routinely associated with sex and romance, it would eventually become associated with love. This theory does raise another question, though: why isn’t there more evidence of a link between this origin and much later uses of the heart shape?
There are a few other origin theories that have a reasonable link to the heart shape but not very much historical documentation. Some believe that medieval artists purposefully or accidentally drew a more stylized version of the heart to represent its essence, painting it red to show both the blood and passion associated with it. A related notion is that artists used animal hearts as models, which are somewhat different in shape compared to humans. Still others believe that the heart shape is connected to the curvy female form and notions of fertility and nurturing. There is, of course, the possibility that more than one of these origins combined to inspire the heart shape, though there is also not much evidence of this. Although the precise beginning is not known, the heart shape started appearing regularly in the 16th century as one of four suits in playing cards. Eventually, it became a symbol of love when Valentine’s Day became a special occasion in the 18th century.
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