We Heart History: Ancient and Modern Significance of the Heart

The heart. It’s a symbol so old and evocative that it transcends all barriers of language and age. Anywhere in the world, this symbol can be drawn, and those who see it will know what it is. But how did the heart come to be associated with love ? Even in the infancy of modern Western medicine dating to ancient Rome, the heart was believed to be the receptacle or source of human emotion on a biological level, noting its function within the circulatory system. Its other associations though, are somewhat more surprising.

In ancient Egypt for instance, the heart was considered a very powerful and important part of the body: the physical embodiment of a person’s soul. The Egyptians believed this so completely that they never removed the heart from the body after death, and according to their legends, the gods would even weigh the heart to determine the virtue of the deceased and whether their soul would be allowed immortality. As for the symbol itself, there have been many educated assumptions to its origin, including that its a depiction of silphium seed, a plant that was used in herbal medicine as ancient birth control.

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Whether it depicts a simplified human heart organ, plant pod, or otherwise, we can all agree that popular culture has given a new meaning to the heart, with heart shaped jewelry and heart candies topping US gift sales every February. Connected by folklore to Valentine’s Day and used as a representation of love, heart shaped necklaces, rings, and body jewelry are fast becoming the romantic gift giver’s ultimate go-to. And in recent years of course, new forms of slang have also played a part in our growing fixation with the heart. From beautiful women being termed the “queen of hearts,” to philanderers being known as “ heart breakers ,” association with the destruction or “playing with” of the heart has become its own industry. Adversely there’s the direct unification of the heart symbol with the word love, as we all know that I ♥ Sparkles means interchangeably “I Heart Sparkles” or “I Love Sparkles.”

Some other heart terms to look up in your friendly urban dictionary: jar of hearts, heart on your sleeve, heart attack lever, heart freeze, heart fart, heart grenade, heart melter, and heart-a-gram.

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