Whether you doodled them around the names and pictures of people you had a childhood crush on, crafted the out of construction paper to give to parents during school assignments or even bought jewelry to give to someone you cherish, just about everyone is well-acquainted with the “traditional” shape of a heart. Despite this initial introduction to one of the most vital muscles in the human body, everyone eventually wonders where this shape came from once they start to learn about what our organs actually look like.
The long history of the heart
Drawings of the heart go back quite a ways. The earliest instances of anything resembling a heart can be dated back to pottery from 3,000 BCE. The distinction back then was that the artists were not drawing them to indicate affection for other people. You may wonder why this was the case. Simply put, the shape we recognize as a traditional heart had no connotations of love or romance that far into the past. The common understanding is that this symbol was to represent either ivy or a fig leaf, both plants with significant cultural symbolism.
So what do the leaves mean?
Ivy and fig leaves have had several specific meanings across multiple cultures. The Greeks regarded vine leaves as icons of Dionysus, meaning that they symbolized wine, fertility, rapturous enjoyment and so on. Come the 4th Century in Greece CE, ivy leaves were a common symbol of brothels and bordellos. On the other side of the world you have the fig, which developed associations with enlightenment among Buddhists.
There are other hypotheses as to why drawn hearts barely resemble anatomical hearts but these are only educated guesses; no one is currently alive to ask and receive a definitive answer. Among these heart hypotheses is the notion that the shape is traced back to Cyrene, a settlement whose remains can be found within Libya that was well known for engaging in the trade of silphium. While silphium was commonly used to add a bit of seasoning to food, its most common application was as a form of birth control. You see, the seeds of the silphium plant greatly resemble the traditional heart shape that children draw for Valentine’s Day assignments today. The seeds of this particular plant were so vital to Cyrene’s coffers that its coins began to feature these seeds as early as the 6th Century BCE.
Matters of faith
Believe it or not, there are still other theories as to why this disconnect remains. The Catholic Church has its own explanation for why hearts are drawn the traditional way that goes back to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun and mystic from the 17th Century. This particular saint claimed to have a vision that the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” manifested before her, albeit appearing in the traditional shape. Unfortunately, there are conflicting reports about this claim as the heart shape was already a known symbol prior to her vision.
At the end of the day, people understand that the heart that beats within their chests may not resemble the traditional symbol of love in the modern world but the best we can do in terms of explaining this discrepancy is for each person pick his preferred explanation and assume that is what works best for him.
Other matters of the heart
While it is possible to sort of overlay the traditional heart shape atop a sketch of the human heart, a person would have to tilt the heart a bit and ignore the various arteries and veins that connect to the heart from above. While many Greeks understood that the human heart was vital to the production and transfer of blood throughout the body, the philosophers Aristotle believed that it was also the source of thought, logic and emotions; he considered the brain to be completely pointless and irrelevant to such matters.