Thursday, February 14 at 2:00 pm

Why we love the heart symbol

You might think that the heart symbol ❤ and romantic love have always been bedfellows. But you'd be wrong. At times, the symbol was just a decoration. At others, it meant spiritual, chaste love. At still others, romantic and carnal. Marilyn Yalom is the author of The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love. In it, she traces the astonishing, centuries-long journey of how the symbol took on all the meanings it has today.

Marilyn Yalom is a senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She's also a believer in love, as she's been married for over 60 years. So maybe it's no surprise that the notion of writing The Amorous Heart was kind of like love at first sight.

"A 'eureka' moment at the British Museum in 2011 gave birth to this book. I was attending an exhibition of medieval artifacts… Suddenly, an exquisite heart-shaped broach seized my attention: I noticed the heart's two lobes at the top and its V-shaped point at the bottom as if I were seeing them for the first time. Then, for a brief moment, all the hearts I had grown up with — on Valentine cards and candy boxes, posters and balloons, bracelets and perfume ads — flashed into my mind.

It quickly dawned on me that the perfectly bi-lobed symmetrical 'heart' is a far cry from the ungainly lumpish organ we carry inside us. How had the human heart become transformed into such a whimsical icon? – Marilyn Yalom, The Amorous Heart

That transformation was a long time coming.  And its origins weren't exactly filled with passion:

"When the bi-lobed figure we now call a heart first appeared some 2,500 years ago, it was merely a decorative item with no meaning at all. Indeed, it probably evolved from the shapes found in nature, such as leaves and seed pods, and acted as pure embellishment. The first hearts symbolizing love were shaped like pinecones, eggplants, or pears. – Marilyn Yalom, The Amorous Heart

Eggplants and pears aren't exactly heart-stopping imagery. But the ancient Greeks, Persians, Romans and Arabs all saw the heart as emblematic of our innermost self. It wasn't until the middle ages that the classic heart shape — with its contours suggesting breasts and buttocks — converged with ideas about love. Finally, the symbol and its present meanings had found each other.

And now, with millions of cards — both paper and digital — sent around the globe each Valentine's Day, with the ❤ emoji on text messages and T-shirts, heart-shaped boxes of edible oil products disguised as chocolate, and trite love songs still dominating popular culture, it's easy — perhaps even appropriate — to be a little cynical about the ideal of finding and cherishing that one, perfect, true love.

But Marilyn Yalom is disarmingly candid. She's now in her mid-80s, and she still thinks that the idea of romantic love is a powerful one.

"Even if we no longer believe there is only one predestined heart for each of us, we still want to feel our hearts 'flutter' at the approach of the loved one.

Because we live much longer than people in the past, it may be possible to fall in love several times — as adolescents and young adults, and even in middle and old age. Some of us are lucky enough to find a partner to love to for a lifetime.

But no matter how many times we fall in and out of love, there is always the hope that this time it will be for real, this time it will last, this time the heart and brain, the body and soul will all be satisfied. – Marilyn Yalom, The Amorous Heart

The Amorous Heart: The Unconventional History of Love is published by Basic Books (2018).

To listen to the audio of “Why we love the heart symbol” on IDEAS From The CBC online, please click HERE.