History of the Heart Symbol

The History of the Heart Symbol

There are a few ancient symbols that recur through the ages. One of these symbols - the heart - means many things to many people. Just how did the stylized heart shape become the icon for love and the human soul? Let's work our way back in history:

The heart symbol as we know it today, was popularized in the Victorian era over a hundred years ago. They loved the romantic heart shape and embellished it in many ways; but they didn't invent it. Where did it come from?

Inspired Vision

The Catholic church claims that the symbol of the heart (Sacred Heart) began when Saint Margaret Marie Alacoque had a vision in the late 17th century. She saw a heart shape surrounded by a crown of thorns.

There is evidence that it is still older. Centuries earlier than Saint Alacoque, the heart symbol was incorporated in a number of stained glass windows and cloister decorations. Basically, the heart symbol, in Christian iconography was a stand in for the soul of Jesus. The Centurion who pierced Jesus' heart at the crucifixion with a lance was the first reference to the sacred heart in the scriptures - John 19:34

Egyptian Myth

Getting closer to the source, the Egyptian ab, or "heart soul", apparently bears a remarkable resemblance to the stained glass Christian iconographs. The story of the ab was that one of the Egyptian's seven souls came directly from the mother's heart, in the form of holy lunar blood and would descend to the womb and take the shape of her child.

Ancient African Origins

The most intriguing explanation for the heart symbol is linked to erotic love - and lies within the ruins of a classical city in North Africa. In the 7th century BC, in the city-state of Cyrene, there was a valuable plant called Silphium. The commercial trade of this now extinct species of fennel made Cyrene one of the richest cities in Africa until the founding of Alexandria. We are only now coming to understand why the Silphium plant was so highly valued that it was harvested to extinction.

Silphium grew only in the small, upland, ecological zones surrounding the city of Cyrene in North Africa. Trade based on this now extinct species of Giant Fennel was of great commercial importance to Cyrene. Just what was so special about this plant?

"Cultural bias and societal hubris have long clouded the vision of scholars, rendering most unwilling to even consider - never mind acknowledge - that ancient cultures possessed the means and the knowledge to do what until very recently was beyond the capabilities of "modern" medicine. As a result, for centuries scholars dismissed ancient accounts of certain plants that provided an effective means of birth control."

"Silphium has left its mark in modern society in a way that has not previously been recognized. Have you ever wondered why the human heart - the repository and the embodiment of romantic love - is always drawn stylized instead of in the natural shape of the human heart organ? The answer is rooted in the ancient function of Silphium! And the connection between this artistic convention and Silphium is found in the coinage of Cyrene, which features a seed pod of the revered plant."

1. Emilio N Favority and Kurt Baty. The Celator, Vol 9, No.2