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Monday, February 10, 2014

The Heart Shape As A Valentine's Day Symbol

When wandering through the greeting card section looking for the perfect heart and verse to give your loved one, have you ever wondered about the origin of the traditional heart shape associated with love and Valentine's day?

You already know that the origins of Valentine's day itself goes back to the ancient Romans and their festival of Lupercalia , a sensuous affair where young women put their names in a big pot and young men simply drew out a name. According to Glenn Church's 2008 article, "The man did not need to ask for a date, plan a dinner setting or a movie. Just draw a name and off to fornicate."

That rite survived until the fifth century AD when Pope Gelasius I tried to get rid of the pagan festival by superimposing a religious day honoring Saint Valentine who was martyred on February 14, 269 AD.

While honoring a beheaded saint was somewhat of a buzz-kill, it didn't do away with the celebration, just toned it down. And it has nothing to do with the heart shape we use for valentines.

So off I went in search of the real story (which, of course, doesn't exist). However, there are a number of intriguing theories.

● Aristotle wrote that the human heart was the center of all human emotions, and it is certainly one of the major body parts that sends visceral signals regarding our feelings and moods. And if you've ever been in love, or heartbroken, you know you definitely feel it in your heart. That could support the connection between the heart and passion.

Unfortunately, the human heart doesn't really resemble the Valentine's day heart. In those days, at least some people knew what a human heart looked like and probably didn't associate it with love.

● Another suggestion is that the heart was the ancient symbol for Dionysus, Greek god of wine and debauchery. His sign was the leopard spot similar to a heart symbol, and people wore leopard skins in homage to the god.

I don't know. A leopard spot? I saw most resemblance to a heart shape in this plaque, but grapes were far more predominant.

● Both cupid's bow and the head of his arrows are thought by some as the origin of the valentine heart. Cupid was the Roman god of physical love making and classically shown shooting arrows at people to make them fall desperately in love...and he never misses. His name in Latin means desire.

Both a curved bow and some arrowheads do resemble a heart shape in the rough.

● Others claim the origins of the heart shape, as related to love, comes from the similarity to human body parts such as the shape of the back, the buttocks, breasts, and other parts which I won't mention in mixed company. Some of the similarities depend of which way your turn the heart. Of course, the use of an arrowhead to pierce a heart has "strong male overtones".

● Wikipedia states that the first association of the heart shape with romantic love occurs in 1250 in a miniature in a manuscript of the French Roman de la poire (National Library, France). However, I found more references than any other for the next theory, which takes us back to the seventh century BC.

● During the seventh century BC, the city-sate of Cyrene was known to trade in the rare, and now extinct, plant silphium. At that time it was a well known herb widely use in the Mediterranean area for spicing food. It grew only along the Libyan coast where the climate is now considerably drier.

So what's the connection between siphium and the heart shapes used to depict romantic love?
Well, it was also used as an abortive agent for women. The day after sex, the woman would eat the silphium plant or its seeds. And its seeds were shaped like hearts.

The plant was commemorated on Cyrene coins, such as the ones shown below. It's quite plausible that the shape of the seed pod became related to sex and love.

Indirect evidence in later literature strongly indicates it had highly abortive properties. By Nero's time, Pliny the Younger writes that it was extremely difficult to find because the Emperor had procured the total available supply.



Cara Marsi said...

Thank you, Ann. Very interesting. I especially loved the Ancient Roman tradition. Those Romans knew how to live and love!

Cara Marsi said...

Thank you, Ann. Very interesting. I especially loved the Ancient Roman tradition. Those Romans knew how to live and love!

jean hart stewart said...

Sorry, Ann, I inadvertently took over the column for a short while today, When I saw mine posted immediately e-mailed Marianne to take it down. Don't know how I screwed up like that, since I'd have sworn I hit save. You post, as always, was very interesting....

Marianne Stephens said...

Nero must have been very virile...and need the entire supply of silphium.
I never knew that Cupid meant desire...just thought he was a symbol of romance.
Thanks for the info!

Rose Anderson said...

Loved the post, Ann, very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

Sandy said...

Interesting post, Ann. My, my, abortive elements in that seed. Wow! Way before our time.

Melissa Keir said...

It's amazing that we know so much but aren't sure how the heart shape came to be. I vote on the last theory since the shape of the heart was clearly visible in their money and it sounds like that plant made them very wealthy!

Thanks for teaching us about the heart symbol and the holiday!

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