Mark R. asks: Why do drawn hearts look nothing like real hearts? Who first drew them this way?
The heart symbol is one of the single most enduring and widely recognised symbols in modern culture. But where did it come from?
Something like the familiar heart symbol goes back many thousands of years. Specifically, several pieces of pottery going back as far as 3000BC clearly show the unmistakable symbol. However, in these instances, the symbol is noted to be a simplification of either a fig or ivy leaf, not a crude representation of the human heart, and seemingly, at least initially, not having anything to do with love. Fast-forwarding through history and we find many cultures using a similar symbol, such as depicted in Grecian, Cretian, Minoan, Mycean, Roman and Corinthian pottery, along with many others. In these instances, again, the symbol doesn’t appear to be representative of a heart, but of various leaves.
For example, the early vine leaf imagery in Greek culture was mostly used to represent Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and ecstasy, among other things. For a more straightforward example of the ivy leaf imagery having a double, suggestive meaning, in the city of Ephesus around fourth century A.D, the symbol was used to represent a brothel.
As ivy is quite long-lived and hardy, it was also prominently seen on early Greek and Roman graves. Interestingly, entirely independent of the Greeks and Romans, Buddhists also came to use a symbol similar to that of the drawn heart. However, in their culture, it was representative of a fig leaf, which came to symbolise enlightenment.
However, just because these very similar early symbols strongly resemble the modern symbol for the heart, doesn’t necessarily mean this is where the modern symbol came from and we, unfortunately, lack much in the way of direct evidence to trace its early lineage. As such, it has also been proposed that it derived from a different, now extinct, plant known as, “silphium“, which was used in ancient times as a very effective form of birth control, among many other uses. The trade of silphium was so lucrative that Cyrene, the town it was grown in, actually put it on their money. Along with its obvious links with a form of love, the plant’s seed pod was stylised in ancient times as what we can now recognise as akin to the heart symbol.
Whether these various leaves or seed pod had anything to do with the subsequent symbol directly, it is generally thought describing the human heart as looking like certain leaves may have had something to do with it. You see, though Arabic and other doctors of earlier periods had made leaps and bounds in anatomical study, during the middle ages, much of this was lost or suppressed by the Church. And with autopsies being outlawed, many were forced to rely on the early descriptions of these doctors and nothing else. These descriptions tended to describe the…
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