Heart Art: The Origins of the Heart Symbol

by Claire Mathieson
It would not be surprising to learn that some envision an organ composed of two lobes tapering into a point when they picture their heart beating.  The ticker of their mind may be a uniform shade of fire engine red or hot pink, or even glow as if a flame dances within.  Most of us realize that the heart inside our chest is in reality shaped more like a muscle-y blob from which veins and arteries branch out, but it is unlikely that anyone but a medical student would draw the true version if asked to sketch a heart.  Furthermore, if you typed “♥” into the comment box of your best friend’s wall and it published a tiny version of a real heart, spiky with protruding veins, it’s likely you would be pretty alarmed.  So if our heart looks nothing like the hallmark, confetti version, where did we get the idea that a depiction of a heart should be so unlike its true counterpart?

As it turns out, the exact origin of the symbol is unknown, though there are many possible sources.  The most widely accepted one comes from the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene, present-day Libya, where the now-extinct plant silphium grew wild.  A modern-day observer would immediately recognize the seed of the plant, found etched into the coins of Cyrene, to be the popular heart symbol.  The silphium seed also closely resembles the Egyptian hieroglyph for the “heart soul,” or  “ib.”  The familiar shape of the seed and its widespread use as a contraceptive are compelling evidence for the long-dead plant being the origin of the symbol we know so well.  Ironically, it’s thought that silphium may have gone extinct after attempts to domesticate it.
Many have drawn connections between the simple symbol and the body, claiming that the smooth, curved edges suggest femininity and fertility.  When turned on its head, the symbol can be said to resemble all manner of sexual body parts: the buttocks, the vulva, the testicles, and a woman’s breasts.  Others have labeled it a phallic symbol, noting the pointed end on one side and the rounded protrusions at the top. 
Whether the symbol’s inspiration was the seed of the silphium plant or a range of sexual organs, it has long been associated with romantic love and passion.  Many figures of the past, including Aristotle and the ancient Egyptians, considered the heart to be the seat of emotions and shrugged the brain off as relatively unimportant.  Even today, though we are fully aware of the importance of the brain, we set aside no day to celebrate it.  Instead, in the weeks leading up to February 14, we are surrounded on all sides by an ancient symbol for passion and are either filled with saccharine pleasure at the sight of it or avoid it at all costs. The emblem is still powerful and pulsing with life thousands of years after its birth.
Claire is a sophomore at Barnard College and features editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.   
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