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Why's a Heart Represent Love, Anyway?

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Alamy
Alamy

On Valentine's Day, men and women around the world celebrate those closest to them with extravagant acts of love. Cards, chocolates, and other gifts are exchanged, all of them bedazzled with or designed in the form of traditional hearts. But how did this shape, ostensibly modeled after the internal organ, emerge as the universal symbol for the emotion of love?

Although the heart symbol can be traced back many generations, nobody is really sure how it took on its current meaning. A leading theory contends that during the seventh century B.C., the silphium plant was used as a form of birth control in the city-state of Cyrene. Legend has it that the plant was so important to the local economy that "coins were minted that depicted the plant's seedpod, which looks like the heart shape we know today," according to Slate.

The silphium plant isn't the only element of nature that resembles the heart shape. From flowers to fruit to birds, when positioned correctly, nature's multitude of living beings showcase the commonality of the shape if you look for it. Others argue that the shape stemmed from the shape of leaves. Leaves appear in many paintings dating back to The Middle Ages that illustrate a romantic love between men and women and the spiritual love between mankind and God.

For a long time before the common era, hunters reportedly scrawled the symbol on cave walls, though its meaning to those early people is unclear. Ancient Egyptians, for instance, believed that the heart epitomized life and morality. The Greeks held that it controlled reason, thought and emotion. It's possible that the Greek association of ivy with the god Dionysus (the god of sensual things) led to the heart being identified with romantic love. Once the heart surfaced as a mark for sex, it's not a large leap to understand how it came to connote love, too. And, in time, eternal love.

It was around the Middle Ages that the heart symbol took on its current meaning. At that time, according to Christian theology, it was meant to represent Jesus Christ and his love. Devout Christians began to inject the icon into art and literature from that era. When Valentine's Day originated in England in the 1600s, the heart symbol was the obvious choice for symbol to reflect the new holiday.

During the same period, medical professionals were making great discoveries and advances in understanding the function of the human heart and diagramming a sketch of the organ. Even after scientists proved that the human heart didn't exactly line up with people's conception of it, the people "still preferred to associate the pounding muscle beneath their ribs with the emotion that made it sprint, or stagger," reported Lapham's Quarterly.

When you text a heart emoticon to a deserving party, it means more than just your devotion to another. The heart's evolution and endurance has enabled people to communicate their feelings effectively since the beginning. There's a deeper connection than you may realize.

This post originally ran on Shutterstock's blog.