Where does the ubiquitous Valentine's heart shape come from?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Feb. 13 2007 5:20 PM

The Shape of My Heart

Where did the ubiquitous Valentine's symbol come from?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for the Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Americans will dole out countless Valentine's Day paraphernalia today, a good portion of which will be in the shape of hearts. In an "Explainer" column printed last year and reproduced below, Keelin McDonell attempted to track down the origin of the Valentine's Day symbol and explain how it got its familiar shape.

It's Valentine's Day, and as usual, people are presenting their loved ones with heart-shaped cards, candy, and trinkets. How did the heart shape become the symbol of true love?

Advertisement

Nobody's quite sure, but it might have to do with a North African plant.  During the seventh century B.C., the city-state of Cyrene * had a lucrative trade in a rare, now-extinct plant: silphium. Although it wasmostly used for seasoning, silphium was reputed to have an off-label use as a form of birth control. The silphium was so important to Cyrene's economy that coins were minted that depicted the plant's seedpod, which looks like the heart shape we know today. The theory goes that the heart shape first became associated with sex, and eventually, with love.

The Catholic Church contends that the modern heart shape did not come along until the 17th century, when Saint Margaret Mary Alocoque had a vision of it surrounded by thorns. This symbol became known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus and was associated with love and devotion; it began popping up often in stained-glass windows and other church iconography. But while the Sacred Heart may have popularized the shape, most scholars agree that it existed much earlier than the 1600s.

Less romantic ideas about the heart-shape's origin exist as well. Some claim that the modern heart-shape simply came from botched attempts to draw an actual human heart, the organ which the ancients, including Aristotle,believed contained all human passions. One leading scholar of heart iconography claims that the philosopher's physiologically inaccurate description of the human heart—as a three-chambered organ with a rounded top and pointy bottom—may have inspired medieval artists to create what we now know as the heart shape. The medieval tradition of courtly love may have reinforced the shape's association with romance. Hearts can be found on playing cards, tapestries, and paintings.

Hearts proliferated when the exchange of Valentines gained popularity in 17th-century England. At first the notes were a simple affair, but the Victorians made the tradition more elaborate, employing the heart shape in tandem with ribbons and bows.

Bonus Explainer: Why do we single out Feb. 14 to celebrate romance? It's said to be the day St. Valentine, a Roman priest during the third century, was executed. Legends about Valentine vary. Some say he was killed for illegally marrying Roman soldiers; others claim it was for helping Christians escape punishment at the hands of the pagan emperor. Just before his death, it's believed that he sent an affectionate note to the beautiful daughter of his jailer—the very first Valentine.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Professor Eric Jager of UCLA.

Correction, Feb. 15, 2006: This piece originally misspelled the name of the ancient city-state that traded in the plant silphium. It is Cyrene, not Cylene. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 9:03 AM My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. And Then I Found Myself With Someone Like Dad.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 17 2014 10:20 AM White People Are Fine With Laws That Harm Blacks The futility of fighting criminal justice racism with statistics.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.