The History of the Heart

I found my true love when I was in kindergarten. The transition to first grade was rocky, but we lasted nonetheless. Everything changed, however, on Valentine’s Day 1996. The night before, I painstakingly scribbled my name on my Pocahontas Valentines, setting aside the two special half-page ones for my teacher and my beloved.

When I looked up sample elementary school lesson plans for Valentine’s Day, I saw a common theme. 123child.com’s Activity Idea message board offers these suggestions for the Valentine’s Day curriculum: heart hands pyramid, glue hearts, popsicle heart frame, heart shaped potato prints, heart necklace and heart shaped sponge print. Looking at this list, I can’t help but wonder how on earth the heart became such a central image in the Valentine’s Day canon, and even more how the conceptual shape of the heart even came to be in the first place.

It makes sense when you think about it. Reaching far back into ancient times, the heart was believed to have been the home of the soul, emotions, thought and reason. In ancient Egypt, the heart not only housed emotion and thought, it was also the home of intentions. In Egyptian mythology, the dead are judged by having the heart weighed against the feather of Ma’at (symbol of Truth). Galen, a Roman physician from antiquity, theorized that the heart was the seat of emotion because of its placement in the circulatory system. The heart is also an important symbol throughout Christianity: The Book of Genesis declares that evil is found in the heart of men (and women).

Now that’s fine and dandy, but how did we go from that fleshy, vein-like thing in our chest to the shape of a Valentine? There are three different theories.

The first that I uncovered was that the stylized version of the heart is closer in shape to the heart of a cow, which people were exposed to far more often than the human heart. I can safely say that there’s a reason why I’m not a pre-med — I’m not a fan of seeing organs inside or outside of the body.  Besides that, I suppose it is a little bit closer in shape.

The second theory I found was that the stylized shape of the heart is actually the same shape as the seed of the silphium plant. The silphium plant was a sort of cure-all for people in ancient times. It was basically Advil, Metamucil and Neosporin all in one. It was also used as a contraceptive. What’s not to love? Its use as a contraceptive immediately ties it to sex, much like how the mere suggestion of a condom makes us think of sex. The silphium plant is even mentioned in ancient Roman ballads. However, they loved this plant so much that it went extinct.

Now for the last theory, and I must be blunt with you: perhaps the symbol of the heart derives from lady parts. Use your imagination.

So this Valentine’s Day, remember that the thing you have been doodling in your notes and signing your handwritten notes with may or may not be based off of female genitalia. I dare you not to think of that next time you bite into a heart-shaped piece of candy this week.