Ah, Valentine’s Day…that chocolate-slathered holy day where romantic or erotic love is extolled as the epitome – or even the only form – of love, in the language of diamonds and roses. Don’t get me wrong: as a person with a romantic partner, Valentine’s Day is a fine and fun holiday to observe, and i’ve got no problem with love in general. (More than that, i think it’s the most powerful thing our universe has got going for it. i personally recommend the 2011 documentary I AM if you have both a heart and a brain.)
But one thing you’re guaranteed to see a lot of today is what we recognize as a classical heart shape, that appears on the right in the image above. Have you ever wondered how that shape came to represent the organ of the heart, or the concept of “love”? Several theories present themselves:
Cow Hearts & Bad Drawings
This theory holds that the heart shape actually did derive from the actual anatomical organ of the heart…but may have been the cow heart, which it more slightly resembles than the human heart, and which was also more readily available in medieval times when the shape was developed. Whichever heart was used, this theory also suggests that simple exaggeration and/or inaccuracy in those early anatomical drawings may have developed into the non-organic shape we use today.
Human Female AnatomyAnother possible origin of the heart shape is as a representation of various parts of human female anatomy: namely the breasts, buttocks, vulva, or even internal pelvic structure. This seems awfully objectifying on first blush, but the theory suggests that this may have been a tribute to the female role as life-giver, which brings in the association with love. Another anatomical parallel may be the human face. Yet another, more conceptual, idea is the merging of the iconic symbols for “male” and “female”.
A third idea is that our heart shape is modeled directly from the now-extinct Silphium seed, which was found in the North African city of Cyrene in the 7th century BC and was used widely in Egypt as both a seasoning and a contraceptive. This association eventually led to the shape’s identity as a symbol of sexuality and romantic love.
Are there other shapes or symbols which you associate with Valentines Day or romantic love? Do you know any from other cultures?