Valentine’s Day is once again upon us. In 2006, Keelin McDonell attempted to track down the origin of the holiday’s heart-symbol to explain how it got its familiar shape. Her article is reprinted below.*
It’s Valentine’s Day, and as usual, people are presenting their loved ones with heart-shaped cards, candy, and trinkets. How did the heart shape become the symbol of true love?
Nobody’s quite sure, but it might have to do with a North African plant. During the seventh century B.C., the city-state of Cyrene had a lucrative trade in a rare, now-extinct plant: silphium.* Although it was mostly used for seasoning, silphium was reputed to have an off-label use as a form of birth control. The silphium was so important to Cyrene’s economy that coins were minted that depicted the plant’s seedpod, which looks like the heart shape we know today. The theory goes that the heart shape first became associated with sex, and eventually, with love.
The Catholic Church contends that the modern heart shape did not come along until the 17th century, when St. Margaret Mary Alocoque had a vision of it surrounded by thorns. This symbol became known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus and was associated with love and devotion; it began popping up often in stained-glass windows and other church iconography. But while the Sacred Heart may have popularized the shape, most scholars agree that it existed much earlier than the 1600s.
Less romantic ideas about the heart-shape’s origin exist as well. Some claim that the modern heart-shape simply came from botched attempts to draw an actual human heart, the organ which the ancients, including Aristotle, believed contained all human passions. One leading scholar of heart iconography claims that the philosopher’s physiologically inaccurate description of the human heart—as a three-chambered organ with a rounded top and pointy bottom—may have inspired medieval artists to create what we now know as the heart shape. The medieval tradition of courtly love may have reinforced the shape’s association with romance. Hearts can be found on playing cards, tapestries, and paintings.
Hearts proliferated when the exchange of Valentines gained popularity in 17th-century England. At first the notes were a simple affair, but the Victorians made the tradition more elaborate, employing the heart shape in tandem with ribbons and bows.
Bonus Explainer: Why do we single out Feb. 14 to celebrate romance? It’s said to be the day St. Valentine, a Roman priest during the third century, was executed. Legends about Valentine vary. Some say he was killed for illegally marrying Roman soldiers; others claim it was for helping Christians escape punishment at the hands of the pagan emperor. Just before his death, it’s believed that he sent an affectionate note to the beautiful daughter of his jailer—the very first Valentine.
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Correction, Feb. 15, 2012: This piece originally misspelled the name of the ancient city-state that traded in the plant silphium. It is Cyrene, not Cylene.
Correction, Feb. 13, 2019: Due to an editing error, the note introducing this piece originally misgendered the author.