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Saturday, February 10, 2018


Posted by Author R. Ann Siracusa

When wandering through the greeting card section looking for the perfect card to give your loved one for Valentine’s Day, have you ever wondered about the origin of the traditional heart shape associated with love … and, therefore, Valentine’s Day?
The heart shape itself has been around forever. It appears in the cave-wall drawings of cro-magnon hunters, as far back as the ice age. Also, the shape itself is frequently seen in nature, so the question isn’t where the shape came from, but how it became the symbol of love and Valentine’s Day.
    Ivy Leaf             
The origins of Saint Valentine's day are rooted in the ancient Romans and their fertility festival of Lupercalia on the Ides of February (the fifteenth day), dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture.

It was 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."

The rites of Lupercalia survived until the fifth century AD when Pope Gelasius I saw fit to outlaw the pagan festival and superimposed a religious day honoring Saint Valentine.
The Pope’s action did, indeed, tone down the festivities but, according to scholar Noel Lenski at the University of Colorado, “It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on. That didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love.”
Ah-ha! So the connection to love (fertility rites, anyway) wasn’t related to St. Valentine, but the pagan festival his name day superseded. Or was it?
Actually, no one knows for sure, but historians agree there was nothing romantic in any of the histories of the three early-Christian martyrs (Saints) named Valentine. To complicate things, two of the Saint Valentines were executed on February 14 but in different years of the third century.                              Saint Valentine of Rome
However, Saint Valentine of Rome was imprisoned by the Emperor Claudius II allegedly for ministering to Christians and performing wedding ceremonies for soldiers who were forbidden by the emperor to marry.

Apparently, records of these events, if there were any, have been destroyed and references to the Saint and his legend come in documents written much later than the third century. It is true, however, that Valentine of Rome was executed by the emperor between 269 and 273 (references vary), and is most likely the Saint Valentine being honored.
Whether or not the legends are true, who knows?                               
Getting back to the point, when did the heart shape become identified with love. I went in search of the real answer which, of course, doesn't exist … or at least no one agrees on the subject, but there are a number of intriguing theories.
Dionysus and the Leopard’s Spots
Chronologically speaking, the first theory is the heart shape originated as the symbol of Dionysus, Greek god of grapes, wine, and debauchery, and champion of sexual orgies. The god and the Cult of Dionysus are depicted among Mycenaean artifacts the end of the Bronze Age (1600-1100 BC).
By the seventh century BC, Dionysus was well established in the beliefs of the time. His symbols include the bull, serpent, and tiger, as well as grapes, wine, and ivy. He is often depicted riding a leopard, wearing a leopard skin, and carrying the thyrsus -- a long stick or wand topped with a pinecone -- and wearing an ivy crown.
There is a clear connection between the god Dionysus and sexuality, but where does the heart shape come in?
In my opinion, this theory is a real stretch. Supposedly, the god’s favorite leopard skin had a spot which was the exact shape of a heart. I’m going to cross this one off the books. If anything, it was the crown of ivy he wore that associated him with the heart shape.

The Abortive Qualities of Silphium
At about the same time, the seventh century BC, the city-state of Cyrene (a Greek, and later Roman) city near present-day Shahhat, Lybia was known to trade in the rare, and now extinct, plant silphium.                                            Surviving relative of the silphium plant
Silphium 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. It was also widely used as an abortive agent for women. The day after sex, the woman would eat the silphium plant or its seeds and usually abort. And guess what? Its seeds were shaped like hearts.
The plant was commemorated on Cyrene coins, such as the ones shown below, because of its economic importance to the city- state. It's quite plausible the shape of the seed pod became related to sexuality and love because of this major use as an abortive.

The Real Shape of the Human Heart
We move to the third century BC for the next theory. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) wrote that the human heart was the center of all human emotions. It is certainly one of the major body parts which sends visceral signals regarding our feelings and moods. 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.              

       The real human heart           The not-so-real heart
A couple of centuries later, Claudius Galenus (known as Galen of Pergamon), a noted Greek physician, surgeon, and philosopher, wrote texts about many areas of medicine. These included anatomical reports and drawings based mainly on dissection of monkeys and pigs, which remained unchallenged until 1543 and served as the mainstay of medieval medicine.
Scholars such as Pierre Vinken, author of an entire book on the shape of the heart early in the twentieth century, suggests the symbolic heart shape might have originated in the writings of Galen and Aristotle.
Le Roman de la Poire: The Romance of the Pear
Fast forward to the middle ages. The first verifiable association of the heart shape as a symbol of romantic love occurred in 1250 in a French romance (Le Roman de la Poire: The Romance of the Pear) written by Thibaut.

The manuscript was illustrated and in the drawing below “The kneeling man is an allegory of Doux Regard [or sweet gaze] handing the damsel the lover’s heart. This is the earliest known depiction of the human heart in a metaphorical context signifying romantic love, which over the next two centuries would give rise to the now-familiar heart symbol.”

Similarity to Lady Parts
Ah, yes. We can't forget this one. The final theory is that the heart shape depicts the female body, specifically the buttocks, breasts, vulva, back, and possibly the female pelvis. That certainly relates to sexuality.
Also, author and editor Amy Cunningham suggest that because the females give birth to life could be another tie between the heart shape and love.

    Buttocks       heart shaped baby bump        Oh, my!

Knowing men, this connection probably had an early beginning. I doubt it took as long as medieval times to notice the similarity. Of course, the use of an arrowhead to pierce a heart has "strong male overtones".







Melissa Keir said...

Very informative. So much history behind the date and the shape!

jean hart stewart said...

Simply love all the wonderful research you do for your columns. Since I was bor a Hart I'm doubly interested. Thanks!!!!!!

R. Ann Siracusa said...

Jean, Your kind of "hart" is different. I believe don't anything I wrote applies, unless you're heart shaped. LOL. Now I'm curious why a deer is called a "hart." Thanks for always commenting. Ann

R. Ann Siracusa said...

Jean, I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, in medieval hunting terms, a stag in its first year was called a "calf" or "calfe", in its second a "brocket", in its third a "spayed", "spade", or "spayard", in its fourth a "staggerd" or "staggard", and in its fifth a "stag", or a "great stag".To be a "hart" was its fully mature state. Since it is your maiden name, you probably know all this. I didn't.

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