The lovers’ heart is carved into trees and printed on millions of valentines cards every year. In one sense, the meaning of any symbol is what most people believe it means. Still, to truly understand something, it’s often worth looking beyond the obvious. What the heart shape actually means is the subject of some debate. Let’s explore the heart symbol origin.
What it doesn’t do is represent the form of an actual human heart which is fist-shaped and quite unpleasant in appearance. Also, a real human heart is not something the average person sees very often. Why would humans choose such an ugly organ to represent their deepest, most passionate love? Well, it would seem that they didn’t.
The truth seems to be that the origin of the heart-shape or “Lovers Heart” was a stylisation of a ladies VJ and the inverted head of a man’s pocket rocket*1. So, when “hearts become entwined” it means much more than just love.
Love Heart Symbol Found in Ancient Rome
How can this be true? There have been claims that it first appeared in Neolithic times but there’s no hard evidence of this. It does appear in the Roman period and can be seen in 2,000-year-old Roman graffiti in the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii – occasionally on the walls of brothels where it features more detail than the modern version.
There is no question that sex in ancient Rome and other great cities of the time was much more “liberal” than now but, even then, there were restrictions. (Pliny the Elder) One theory is that it was a secret symbol that a man would give to a woman to indicate that he wanted to make love to her – especially if there was a restriction on them being together – perhaps a difference in social status. A woman might do the same thing. The heart symbol seems to have first represented lust before it became associated with love. Think how similar it is today and how many cards are signed, “From your secret valentine”.
Something that ties in with this theory is the Silphium drug. During the emergence of the Roman Empire, it seems that there existed a plant known as Silphium (a form of Fennel). It is believed that this important plant grew only in the area surrounding the city of Cyrene in North Africa. Its importance is that it acted as a contraceptive and the seed was perfectly “heart-shaped”. It was considered so important that it was imprinted on the coins of the time. The demand for this plant was so great that it was “used” to extinction. It’s interesting to note that Silphium has similarities to the word Sylph – meaning a desirable woman.
The Heart Symbol Origin
So how did the word Heart become associated with the shape? The answer has more to do with connotation than design and the clues can be found in the way we use it in language today. Think of these expressions: “It is the heart of the life”, “He left me heartbroken never to be whole again”, “His love stabbed my heart”, “He made my heart throb” (not beat but throb – and that is a very old word indeed – meaning to pulse and contract – possibly Anglo Saxon), “My heart shuddered with desire”, “She surrendered her heart”.
The innuendo is obvious. The word heart once meant centre or deep inside. We still use it today when we refer to ‘heartwood’ which is the wood deep inside a tree. Whether it was slang or whether it came from a change in meaning the similarities are simply too overwhelming to be ignored.
Again, the medieval period was far more licentious than we like to admit. Nude dinner parties while in a bath were not uncommon. It wasn’t until the arrival of various nasty diseases that people started being a lot more cautious about casual bonking. They also stopped bathing together because it too could spread disease. This lack of bathing also helped reduce the desire for bonking.
Proof Lies in the Design
There is much more history that can be cited but the real proof lies in the design. Viewed from the front the symbol clearly depicts a female’s mound. There’s no doubt that this is a much more realistic interpretation than that of the human heart. Equally, another version of the symbol may signify the lady bits viewed from behind. A design from the 15th century (La Blessure) depicts the female symbol (Venus) inverted and superimposed on the heart shape.
It is also common to see a heart “pierced” by an arrow with tiny droplets of blood. This is cupid’s arrow – the arrow of desire and love. Some even suggest that droplets of blood represent the loss of virginity. The arrow is also the definitive phallic component of the Male symbol – Mars – the erect arrow. We still use the word shaft to mean the shaft of a man’s best bit and the shaft of an arrow.
So how did it become so widely spread? One theory is that the Church adopted and sanitised it. They certainly used this strategy to overwhelm many other pagan and pre-pagan beliefs and symbols.
Easter was once a celebration of fertility – that’s why we still give Easter Eggs. The very name comes from the pagan Goddess Eostre whose sacred animal was the rabbit – Easter Bunny (ever wondered why?).
This wasn’t the only conversion. The names of most of the weekdays are actually named after Nordic or Roman Gods, Thor – Thursday, Frija – Friday, Woden – Wednesday, Saturn – Saturday. Mayday is actual a fertility rite, Lent was the pagan lean month when food stocks needed to be conserved and the halo – or rays of light from the head of the deity – were actual a representation of the Egyptian Sun God Ra.
The symbol above is another depiction of the Love Heart symbol. It allegedly dates from the Romano-Greek period and was reproduced in both Spain and England c 1700. The Word “Tergo” seen written in the circle can be translated from Latin as “From behind” or “The Rear”. In this version of the symbol the lines of the heart extend beyond the normal shape associated with the heart. The words “Connubialis Pectus Pectoris” seem to mean lustful heart. The words “Connubialis Tripudiam” appear to mean happiness. The inverted female symbol of Venus is integrated into the design and a smaller heart links the circle and the cross.
The cross itself is enclosed by four smaller hearts of excellent geometrical precision which in themselves make up the shape of the “lucky” four leafed clover symbol.
A little more than one hundred years ago, the modern love heart symbol was popularized by yet another restrained society, the Victorian’s. They adored the romantic heart shape and just like their historic counterparts used it as a secret symbol for physical desire. It was during this time that the erotic book “The Pearl” was written by an anonymous author. Like the Love Heart Symbol, The Pearl was another Victorian “code” for a lady’s happy bean.
When it comes to the heart symbol origin it is possible to cite example-after-example. Literature is literally littered with them. You don’t have to go looking for them – once you understand what you are looking for the examples leap out at you.
*1 (Editor’s note: sorry for the use of so many euphemisms but search engines do get so odd about certain words.)