Do This High: Learn how the Heart Become the Symbol of Love


The ancient Greeks believed in at least eight different forms of love, including: romantic, familiar, enduring, self-love—and more. Despite the various forms of affection, the heart shape connotes them all.

The heart is perhaps the most iconic, enduring ideograph in human history. But, how did it come to epitomize love?

There are a few different theories as to how that happened. Some believe ivy, buttocks, or breasts inspired the shape. 

Perhaps the most compelling theory, however, centers around another plant—silphium.


An Ancient Form of Birth Control

Silphium, a species of giant fennel, is now extinct. The ancient Greeks and Romans used it as a form of birth control.

In addition to a contraceptive, they also used to flavor foods, as a cough syrup, and to soothe stomachs.  

The plant once grew rampant in the North Africa colony of Cyrene (now Libya), according to Atlas Obscura

The plant was so widely used that the Cyrenians “grew rich from silphium trade,” reports The silphium trade made the colony the richest in Africa at the time, according to Cult and the Coin by T.V. Buttrey. 

It proved so valuable, in fact, that plant was printed on Cyrene’s coins. Some of those coins featured the silphium seed pod—which undoubtedly resembles the modern day emoji of love. 

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The heart shaped seed of the extinct Silphium plant. Silver hemidrachm from Kyrene, North Africa, circa 490 BC. #ancient #greek #silver #money #coin #bullion #ancientart #ancienthistory #numismatics #kyrene #cyrene #loveheart #silphium #artancient

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The Center of all Human Emotions

Many believe the anatomy of the actual human heart inspired the heart shape. 

In the fourth century, Aristotle described the heart as having three chambers, a rounded top and a pointed bottom (sound familiar?). He deemed the organ the most important in the body, the first to form, and the center of all human passions. 

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

It’s thought that artists in the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance attempted to draw Aristotle’s description of the heart, therefore creating the earliest heart-shaped images

The Catholic Church also had it’s hand in popularizing the heart-shape too, according to Slate. The symbol was “known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus and was associated with love and devotion.” Soon, it started to appear on stained glass windows, religious art, tapestries, cards, and more.

There are, of course, other theories as to how the heart came to signify love. But, we’ll let you decide your favorite. Whatever the origin, use of the ideograph has endured to become the most ubiquitous icon of all time.

To learn more about it’s connection to romance and devotion, watch Netflix’s Sex: Explained’s episode on birth control, or read The Shape of the Heart: A Contribution to the Iconology of the Heart by Pierre Vinken.

Emerald contributor since February 2016
Melissa Hutsell, M.A., is a California-based journalist who reports on the failure of the War on Drugs. She holds a Master's degree in Global Journalism, and specializes in reporting on equity, sustainability, research, global market trends, health and wellness, and more.


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