The short answer? Nobody really knows. However, theories abound and the familiar stylized heart shape has a long history as symbol of love.
Does your heart flutter when you speak to someone you love? Science proves that love does affect your heart, even though your heart is not where love begins. It is the human brain where love endorphins are released, and you spend time ruminating about the cute guy or lady you bumped into at the grocery store. Nonetheless, the heart, not the brain, represents love when you’re penning childhood love in your notebooks.
A myriad of possible scenarios exist as to how the heart shape came to be known as the symbol for love. At its most basic, the heart shape is an ideograph (a graphic symbol), which is most often used to express the emotions of love and affection. But why is the heart shape the general symbol for love? Where did it come from?
Looking at the Heart Symbol
If you take a look at the human heart in an anatomy book and the heart symbol, with a little suspension of disbelief you can see where the simplistic heart drawing has some small resemblance to the real thing. A larger top leading to a more slender bottom. The indent at the top of the heart symbol may come from the ancient belief that the heart had a dent in it. In fact, it’s believed that Aristotle described the heart as having three separate chambers and that dent. Of course, thousands of years ago, the only way to see a human heart was to cut it out of someone, and not everyone had that opportunity.
Theories abound about how certain plants and seeds may have inspired the heart symbol. From the ancient silphium plant, whose seed resembled the heart shape to the leaves of ivy and water lilies. Silphium was an early form of birth control, so equating it with love seems a little bit of a stretch.
Some people believe that the heart shape resembles some other human anatomy which may more resemble the look. Is the heart fashioned after breasts or rear? It’s a possibility, as there are plenty of people in the world who love those parts of the human body.
Hearts in Arts
Seen as art as far back as the 1000s, the heart can be found in Christian artwork as illustrated in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Our ancestors likely depicted this organ, one that can actually break and kill us when a loved one dies, as something similar to the shape seen now as the symbol of love. While it has changed some in shape and size over the millennia, it still remains an almost universal symbol.
You can find hearts on decks of cards dating back to the 14th century. A suit that’s still used in modern card decks, it might have been used as early as the 12th century in China. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the heart started to appear on Valentine’s Day cards. Of course, Valentine’s Day itself was around long before then.
There’s no definitive answer as to where the heart shape originated or why we use it as a symbol of love. Maybe it just makes sense as our hearts go a-flutter when we touch someone we passionately love. Perhaps it’s because we hold dear our memories of platonic, familial, and romantic love within our hearts, not just our minds.