February 14, 2013 by Ian Goldstein
In a culture of convenience—one-night-stands, text-message-breakups, and seemingly infinite information available anytime—the one constant is a belief in love. People like the idea of love, whatever it means to them. Love isn’t tangible. We can’t’ buy it—as we’ve heard from The Beatles—and we seem to lose it often. The way we make love something real, something tangible, is through the use of a symbol, a heart. But not an actual heart—an organ with protruding veins that looks more like a greasy rock than the representation of the infinite bond between two people. That wouldn’t work. We use an image that resembles Mickey Mouse’s head instead of the vital organ that keeps us living; it’s neater, simpler.
Once on the main page of reddit.com—the self proclaimed “front page of the internet” and a site that in 2012 had 37 billion page views—a post was titled “What, you’ve never taken heart shaped naps?” It shows two kittens napping together and forming the shape of a heart. It was one of the highest rated posts of that day with a plethora of comments saying how adorable it was. Most internet users like kittens—as shown through the millions of views cat videos receive on YouTube—but the idea that they are purposely forming the symbol for which we associate love is a stretch.
The symbolic heart has connotations of happiness, warmth, bonds—mostly positive reactions. I don’t think anyone could imagine Valentine’s Day without the heart symbol or the I Love New York advertisements without the red heart in between the black letters. No, the heart symbol has become such a part of our culture that we can’t imagine love without thinking of it.
There are many theories as to how the heart symbol received its origin. One is that it came about from botched drawings of real hearts. Pierre J. Vinken, a Dutch Neurosurgeon and author said, in his book “The Shape of the Heart,” that medieval artists interpreted inaccurate descriptions of the heart by Greek philosophers as a three-chambered organ with a rounded top and pointy bottom. Keelin McDonell, of Slate magazine, says the more accepted theory of the symbol goes back to the seventh century city-state of Cyrene in North Africa. Cyrene was lucrative in trading a now extinct plant: silphium. This plant was used for seasoning mostly, and it is speculated that it was also used for birth control. John Riddle, a medical historian at North Carolina State says the plant was so highly prized because it was an herbal contraceptive. “There were a number of statements in medical works by Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides and Soranus that specify the plant was an effective contraceptive. The plant was so valuable that by the 1st century it was worth its weight in gold.” The silphium was so important to Cyrene’s economy that coins were minted to depict the plant’s seedpod, which looks like the heart shape that exists today. Since the heart shape was associated with sex, it soon became associated with love.
The Catholic Church disagrees about the origin of the symbol. It claims that the modern heart shape originated in the 17th century, when Saint Margaret Mary Alocoque had a vision of it surrounded by thorns. After the vision it became known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus and was associated with love and devotion. It soon appeared in stained-glass windows and other church iconography. This is what popularized it.
The symbol could be about oppression. Gloria Steinem, famous for her role in the feminist movement in the late ‘60s and ’70s, wrote: “the shape we call a heart—whose symmetry resembles the vulva far more than the asymmetry of the organ that shares its name—is probably a residual female genital symbol. It was reduced from power to romance by centuries of male dominance.” It has been argued that it could also represent a buttocks or female pubic mound or even a man’s scrotum.
This isn’t the only way the symbol has corrupted in some way. We form it online and through texts by combining the < (less than) symbol and a 3, forming: <3. Love is an enthusiastic grammatical choice rather than an abstract romantic idea. The heart is used so often in advertising that’s it’s become a brand. We make the shape with our fingers so we can tell someone how we feel. We see it on playing cards, greeting cards and on Facebook statuses. I’ve seen two statuses that have it in the past five minutes: One with LOLOL♥ , another of just: ♥, It’s not bad to promote this symbol, but, like the peace sign, culture becomes numb to it after years of use.
Valentine’s Day is a day where love is bought, sold, made and broken. When picturing the heart symbol, I’m not sure I can think of anything but that day. I picture a box of chocolates in the shape of a heart, the small candy hearts with demands on them—be mine—and anything in red.
In the middle ages, when courtly love began flourishing, the day originally associated with a tribute to Saint Valentine became tied to showing one’s love for each other and the heart became the emblem for the day. Soon the day spread internationally and now countries like Sweden and Philippines call the holiday Heart’s Day. According to Time Magazine the average amount a person spends on the day is $126.03 and this number is increasing gradually each year. What’s interesting is that in this same poll, 82% of people said they’d like to have an “experience” rather than a gift for the holiday, they’d like to feel love, not just see it. What a holiday like this does, though, is make love seem as though it is tangible through the use of gifts, mostly ones that use the heart as a symbol.
“[Love] doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.”
-Don Draper, Mad Men.
Sure, love is still an abstract idea we use to figure what emotions we are feeling toward someone else. But the heart symbol has become a product. Aristotle believed the heart to be the seat of thought and reason. The Roman physician Galen considered the heart to be where emotions lay. Gloria Steinem looks at it as a symbol of oppression, while our culture looks to the heart symbol as an emblem of strength, love and will. It has also become a part of pop culture in advertising and in the way we speak with one another. It may not be as cynical as how fictional adman Don Draper put it, but love and its main symbol are whatever we want it to be. Though the symbolic heart barely resembles an actual heart in any way, it still can conjure love for some, hate for others and for the rest of us, confusion.