The heart shape or symbol has been widely recognized as a symbol for affection or love. Open any type of social media, and there you are- the symbol is used by people all over the world to denote love. Recognized as the universal symbol of love, it’s hard to think that the heart symbol isn’t something that has been around forever. In fact, the symbol we have today is the result of evolution over centuries. Though we see the heart symbol everywhere today and little kids know its meaning, do we know how it came to be?
So how did the heart, an organ that pumps blood throughout our bodies, end up having the meaning of love? Where did the idea originate? And why does the symbol look like it does-resembling an actual heart or not? How do different cultures represent the symbol? Let’s explore these questions in this blog.
Evolution and representation of the heart symbol
At different periods of time across different cultures, the heart symbol has represented a variety of meanings. They ranged from genitalia to cosmic wisdom. The heart has been an enigmatic organ for the better part of history. It is believed that its biological function wasn’t understood until 1628. As for the emotions of love, while being associated more with flesh rather than of the mind or spirit, it was equally linked to the head, eyes, and liver as to the heart.
The story of how the heart, the heart symbol and love came to be looped together is a long tale. It was influenced by many matters, such as heraldry, herbalism, breast, phallus and buttock worship, ancient philosophers, the devotions of the Roman Catholic Church, the introduction of the penny post and fashion in confectionary and cards. In geometric terms, the heart shape is cardioid and common in nature. It appears in the flowers and leaves of many plants, is formed when swans touch beaks and when doves unfold their wings. It is formed when cherries, strawberries and beetroots are in cross-section.
Our most ancient ancestors did paint the heart symbol on the walls of caves. But it is unknown as to what the symbol meant to them. The ancient Egyptians were the first civilization who left us some theory as to the purpose of the heart. According to them, it was the part of the body where the intellect and soul of the person rests. And unlike the other organs which were removed during the process of mummification, the heart was left as it was. This was so that the Goddess Ma’at could weigh it against the feather of truth in the afterlife and punish the mean-hearted. In Egyptian visual art, the heart was portrayed as a dung beetle or a scarab.
As for the ancient Greeks, the heart was identified with love by the lyric poets in their use of verbal conceits. This was further cemented by the Greek philosophers, who, more or less, agreed that the heart was indeed linked to our strongest feelings, including love.
The link between the heart and love was quite commonplace amongst the ancient Romans. Venus, the goddess of love, and her son Cupid were credited or blamed for setting the heart on fire. Another curious belief that the ancient Romans had regarding the heart was that the fourth finger of the left hand had a vein that was connected directly to the heart. They called the vein vena amoris. Even though the concept was an incorrect knowledge of human anatomy, it nevertheless persisted. And it is believed that the practice of wearing one’s wedding ring on that finger arose because of the Romans’ belief.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, the heart symbol was deeply rooted in the feudal courts of Europe. In France, the minstrels celebrated a form of love that came to be called “fin’ amor.” While the word is impossible to translate, it was what is known today as courtly love. But the original meaning was closer to ‘refined love,’ ‘extreme love,’ or ‘perfect love.’ Courtly love required the minstrel to pledge his heart to one and only one woman, with the promise that his love would last forever. Armed with his harp or lyre, he would sing his heart out in the presence of the lady, including the members of the court to which she belonged.
This popularity of poetry and song that emerged in France soon spread to Portugal, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Germany and Scandinavia. And each of these places created its own variations. Through them, love grew not just into a literary concept, but also as one of the key social values and an important part of being human. A yearning for passionate love entered the Western consciousness and has remained there till now.
The emergence of the heart symbol
It was in 1344 that the first known concrete image of the heart symbol, with two lobes and a point, appeared. It appeared in a manuscript written in the French dialect of Picardy by Lambert le Tor, titled The Romance of Alexander. The book was finished by Alexandre de Bernay. The book was one of the great medieval picture books, with hundreds of exquisitely decorated pages.
The scene depicting the heart symbol appears on the lower border of a page with other decorations, including sprays of foliage and birds perched on them. Other decorations include motifs typical of French and Flemish illumination. The illustration above shows a page from the book, depicting a woman raising a heart which was presumably given to her by the man facing her. She accepts it, while the man touches his breast, indicating the place from which he took it. With the arrival of the book and its heart imagery, there was an explosion of the heart symbol and imagery, especially in France.
The proliferation of the heart symbol
The 15th century saw the proliferation of the heart symbol throughout Europe in a myriad of unexpected ways. The heart symbol was everywhere- on the pages of manuscripts and on luxury items like pendants and brooches. The icon also turned up on combs, coats of arms, sword handles, playing cards, wooden chests, woodcuts, burial sites, engravings and printer’s marks. The heart symbol was adapted to many whimsical and practical uses, with most of them being related to love.
The history of the amorous heart was further enriched by the contribution of Frenchman Pierre Sala. He authored the book, Emblèmes et Devises d’amour (Love Emblems and Mottos). The book was prepared around 1500 in Lyon. It was a collection of 12 love poems and illustrations, dedicated to the love of his life, Marguerite Bullioud. But at the time, she was married to another man. She and Sala would go on to marry after her husband’s death. The book was tiny, and Sala intended it to be tiny so that it would fit into one’s palm. In one of the illustrations of the book, two women are seen attempting to catch a flock of flying hearts with a net stretched between two trees. The winged heart was something that had already appeared in earlier illustrations, denoting soaring love.
Pope Gelasius added Saint Valentine of Rome to the Catholic calendar in 496, to be honoured on February 14th. There are endless theories as to why St. Valentine came to be connected with love. The most likely one emerged during the late Middle Ages, within the context of Anglo-French courtly love.
By the middle of the 17th century, celebrating Valentine’s Day became customary in England, at least for those who could afford its rituals. Men hailing from affluent families drew lots with women’s names on them. It was obligatory for the man who picked a woman’s name to gift her something. The earliest French, American and English valentines were a few lines of handwritten verses on a sheet of paper. As time went on, makers began aggrandising them with elaborate drawings and paintings. After folding and sealing them with wax, they were left on the doorstep of the intended person.
It was in the 18th century that the first commercial valentines were introduced, in England. They were either printed, engraved or made from woodcuts, sometimes coloured by hand. These items combined the traditional symbols of love- hearts, flowers, birds and Cupid-along with verses of the ‘roses are red’ variety.
With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, the handmade valentines in England and the US were obliterated by mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards. In France too, the commercial valentines proved to be popular, with cards depicting angel-like cupids surrounded by throngs of hearts.
The heart symbol: Final transformation
The heart symbol underwent another transformation in 1977 when it became a verb. The logo, “I ❤ NY”, was created to boost morale for a city in crisis. Garbage and trash were dumped in the streets, the crime rate shot up, and it was almost bankrupt. Milton Glaser, a graphic designer, was hired to design a travel logo to bring in tourism. The result was the I ❤ NY logo that has since taken the world by storm, becoming a cliché and a meme. With the creation of the logo, the meaning of the heart was extended beyond just romantic love. It embraced the realm of civic feelings and opened the possibility of new meanings of the heart. Once it became a verb, the heart symbol ❤ came to connect a person with another person, thing or place.
More than two decades later, a new graphic form of the heart was created that took it to another realm. In 1999, NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese provider, released the first emojis created for mobile communication. The original set contained 176 symbols, out of which 5 were of the heart. They were: the heart coloured completely red, the broken heart, one with white blank spots to suggest 3-D depth, one as if in flight, and the last one had two tiny hearts sailing off together.
Other representations of the heart symbol
The heart symbol now represents the emotional, moral, spiritual and sometimes even the intellect of a person. And since the heart is mostly equated with love and desire, let’s see what other objects represent the heart, or what other meaning the heart stands for.
Cupid (Roman) or Eros (Greek) was the god of love. As we know, Cupid is always depicted with a bow and arrow, which, when it strikes someone, makes them head over heels in love. To this day, the bow and arrow stand for love, desire and passion. In Latin, Cupid was called Amor (love) and was sometimes represented with a blindfold, to show that love is blind.
The heart often stands for honesty and truth. In Roman Catholicism, the Sacred Heart stood for God’s love and his saving grace. A heart with an arrow piercing it is said to denote heartache born out of unrequited love. During the past, alchemists and other people who dealt with the supernatural and magic used the heart symbol for spells, chants and summons on issues regarding love, romance and sexual attractions. Rituals always made use of the heart symbol to bolster relationships. Such rituals would even force an unwilling person to fall blindly in love with the enchanter or enchantress.
When viewing the heart in a geometrical way, we notice that the heart looks similar to an inverted triangle. It serves as a receptacle for pouring out and receiving love. The inverted triangle also stands, in a rather cryptic manner, for something feminine or feminine power.
In Roman and Greek mythology, the apple stands for love, ecstasy, fertility and abundance. In ancient Greek history, it was a vital part of courtship and the rites of marriage. Greek mythology narrates the tale of how Dionysus, the god of love, gave Aphrodite apples to lure her to fall in love with him. In Celtic tradition, apple-bobbing was observed to determine one’s spouse. In ancient times, some traditions involved throwing apples at the newlyweds instead of rice.
The heart symbol we have now is the result of centuries’ worth of evolution. The symbol we have today embodies beliefs starting from ancient times to the twenty-first century. Amongst the numerous symbols that are now part of everyday usage, the symbol of the heart is one of the most universally comprehended. It is a universal representation of love, joy, courage and devotion. Today, there are more than 30 different emojis of the heart. We add the heart image to texts, emails and notes. Valentines are adorned with hearts. From public art to emoticons, the heart icon is one of the most immediately recognized symbols across the globe.