The language of Symbols: Love

The shady history of the symbol of love


In a previous article, we wrote about the misconceptions about the symbol of medicine and how a simple mistake mixed with a little bit of ego could lead to confusion that outlives a generation. While it was easy to trace the source of this misconception and shine the light of facts on its shady face, some symbols have misconceptions that have remained in the dark and transcended generations.

One of such symbols with a shady history is the symbol of love. It might interest you to know that the red shape with two lobes and a pointed tip that you used to torment the single people on Valentine’s Day did not always represent love. Most people do not think much of it as they send them as emojis on Whatsapp, sometimes having us wonder if it was necessary to send that many at once. The consensus is that it is modelled after the human heart and consequently, symbolizes emotions – love and everything in between. Although some like me may pose a counterargument that the brain and not the heart is the source of emotions, I would not want to have poets, and the several others who have built their livelihood on that concept, come for my head. Nonetheless, a closer look at the past of this famed symbol of love reveals some dark history that is very difficult to reconcile with the present meaning of the symbol.

To the Ancient Romans, it was Natural Durex
Silphium Plant
Credit: Wikipedia

The Durex company that produces condoms might have claimed the hearts of people with their witty ads on birth control in recent years but apparently, they were not the first in the game. Within the first century, the Romans used the Silphium plant for birth control. The leaf of this plant is shaped like a heart symbol. It got so popular that it was imprinted on the money spent in Cyrene where the plant was found in abundance. They made a lot of money from its sales but unfortunately, the plant went into extinction due to over-exploitation. 

To the Ancient Greeks, it was Vibes on Wine
Attic Red-Figure Kantharoid Skyphos, Aison, Greek (Attic), active 425 – 400 BC (Credit: BBC)

The ancient Greeks used the heart symbol as engravings on artefacts such as pots and vases. It was however used in reference to the wreath of ivy that Dionysus, the god of wine, wore on his head. Some also say it is a representation of a time in the traumatic childhood of Dionysus, when the Titans ate him up, sparing just his heart which was salvaged by Zeus. 

The Current Interpretation Came from the Dark Ages (no surprises)

The Dark Ages also known as the Medieval times was the period between the 5th and 15th centuries, and it was the period when the current interpretation of the heart shape came to be. This can be tied to the blossoming of religion and how it inspired arts and literature. During this period, paintings of saints were usually made with the heart symbol to depict purity. This version of interpretation only spread further with the belief that the heart is the house for love and affection. Of course, it got fueled by the wide acceptance and celebration of Valentine’s Day. Some theories suggest it garnered support as a depiction of the actual human heart (Well, probably if you cut it in half).

Another thing that may have popularized this current interpretation of the heart symbol is the use of the deck of cards, which is currently a household item (Does JACKPOT ring a bell?). The heart was given a superior hierarchy based on the belief that it stands for priestly attributes. 

Whatever it was that took the light in the dark ages, the history of the evolution of the meaning of the heart symbol would perhaps have been preserved if they had the internet. As they say, the internet does not forget. The absence of this powerful invention during the dark ages may be the reason why the tracks of the love symbol across generations might stay shrouded in mystery forever. Regardless of the foregoing, you are certainly free to send your beloved a heart emoji after reading this article. While we may judge you a little, we would certainly not object.

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