Have you ever wondered why we use the heart shape as a symbol of love? Anyone who has ever seen a real heart can tell you that this doesn't really look like this ♥.
So what is the history behind this iconic Valentine's Day symbol?
It all started in the ancient Greek city of Cyrene which is now part of modern-day Libya.
Cyrene was a beautiful and wealthy city; whose prosperity came from the cultivation of the medicinal herb silphium. The seeds of this plant had the shape of what we know as a heart, like, but not related to, that of the lamprocapnos spectabilis plant depicted below. Lamprocapnos spectabilis is not extinct, and can be seen in gardens today.
Below are dried silphium perfoliatum seeds, photographed by K.R. Robertson, Illinois Natural History Survey.
The plant had many uses, the most popular of which was as one of the earliest forms of birth control and abortion induction. It was one of the first known "morning after pills," referred to by the Roman poet Catullus as the cure for "the madness of love."
The popularity of and demand for the silphium made Cyrene wealthy. It was so important to their local economy, that they began printing it on their money. Archaeologists have found silver coins from the 6th century B.C.E. like these, which depict the heart-shaped seed:
There are also various depictions of happy Greek women holding what appears to be little hearts, but they were really the silphium seeds that allowed them to control their own fertility. With the export of silphium, the “free love” movement spread to other cultures who would later associate the heart symbol with sex and romantic love. The plant, which is related to fennel, became extinct due to over cultivation.
Don’t you just ♥ history?
For more on the origin of Valentine’s Day, check out this post.