Happy Valentine’s Day to all that celebrate. In the spirit of the day, we take a look at the history of the modern heart symbol, the rather grisly story behind the real St. Valentine and the heart as used in logos today..
On this, Valentine’s Day, there’s going to be a lot of cards and prezzies exchanged, and it’s pretty safe to assume that a lot of those will feature the ubiquitous love heart symbol. Thing is, the heart symbol doesn’t even vaguely resemble a human heart (which is icky, fleshy and looks like most organs) but rather a highly-stylized ideograph that represents, and has become, the universally understood depiction of a heart, love and passion. To be honest, I had no idea why before this morning, and figured now is as good a time as any to find out.
The history is a little foggy..
The heart shape, as a graphic pictograph, can be traced back to before the last Ice Age but nobody knows what it actually meant to these Cro-Magnon hunters – its use as a logo for love didn’t happen until the Middle Ages. Even then, nobody really knows the exact history of the heart symbol, but there are many different theories kicking around. A few are weird (it’s based on a pine cone.) The rest, like a lot of our cultural holidays, rituals and celebrations have to do with sexy-time, fertility and more sexy-time (explaining why the heart has become the symbol of Valentine’s Day in the fist place.) Some suggest the heart represents breasts, buttocks, male naughty bits or female naughty bits.
Others suggest the shape is derived from the shape of an arrowhead. Cupid – the ancient Roman god of sexy-time – would fire his arrow into someone that had prayed to him, and the recipient of said arrow would fall madly in love with whoever did the praying. He also shot people through the heart – the center of the body, understood very early to be the most important organ – and where the soul was thought to reside. An arrowhead is kinda pointy and viscous, so when depicting a winged Cupid in their paintings, artists tended to round-off the barbs (the pointy bits at the back of an arrowhead that prevent the arrow from being removed) into a more friendly shape. That shape would evolve into our heart symbol.
Some less romantic theories
There’s another less popular theory which involves Silphium, an ancient herb – now extinct – that was used as a spice across the Mediterranean, that also served as a precursor to “morning after” pills. The seed of the plant was heart-shaped (it was used on coins) and came to represent, for lack of a better term, “worry-free” sex. As far as the color red goes – in ancient cultures the color has always been associated with fertility (there’s a reason why people kiss under the mistletoe with its red berries, and you can probably figure out what the white ones represent.) It’s always about the shagging. Others will tell you that the red is from an ancient Roman ritual called Lupercalia that involved killing goats and dogs, slapping women with their bloody bits and then pairing them off with some randomly selected Roman dudes for a year. Not very romantic at all.
Less sex, more romance please
For others there was w-a-a-a-a-y too much sexy history in the symbol, so some more g-rated, Hallmark Card interpretations were needed. Those people will tell you that the heart is the shape created by two people kissing, two swans kissing, etc (swans are appropriate because they mate for life and will defend their loved ones with as much relish as humans do.) The heart also became a symbol for Christ – the sacred heart – and is usually depicted emitting ethereal light, and adorned with wounds or thorns.
The sacred heart began as a much more realistic depiction of a human heart (see above) before morphing into the more recognizable shape we’re familiar with today.
The bloody history of Saint Valentine’s Day
We tend to refer to February 14 as Valentine’s Day, though the full name is Saint Valentine’s Day. The holiday (though not officially a day off) began as a liturgical celebration of one or more early Christian saints named Valentinus. There are many stories – nobody has any idea which are true, made up or embellished, but most have poor old Saint Valentinus meeting a grisly end – dismemberment, beheading and burnt at the stake. One popular version is that this punishment was for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry (meant to make them better fighters.) Another legend is that just before his execution, he wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell. This became the universal phrase for love and devotion, though the celebration of Saint Valentine did not have any romantic connotations until Chaucer’s poetry about “Valentines” in the 14th century. That went something like this:
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”
That’s olde tyme english that means “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate” and was meant to celebrate the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia.
Like most things to do with Valentine’s Day, the ritual of exchanging cards has to do with sexy-time too. While cards had been around for a while, in the early 1800s there was a drop in postage rates in England. This made it possible for people to mail each other cards anonymously, and racy verses became popular during the otherwise prudishly Victorian society. Valentine’s has become commercialized over the centuries (in the 1980s, the diamond industry pushed giving their gems as a prezzie.) Religious organizations have tried to dial the consumerism back a tad, – the Anglican Church has a service for St. Valentine’s Day (the Feast of St. Valentine), which includes the optional rite of the renewal of marriage vows.
The heart as a symbol
A nicely drawn heart symbol isn’t all higgledy-piggledy, but has accepted scientific proportions. Here they are (you can download a perfect heart vector at the foot of this post)
Heart logos, art and design
Just a few heart-themed logos to trot out. There is of course, the iconic I Love New York logo, designed by Milton Glaser way back in 1977 and still in use today:
A heart has always been at the, ahm, heart of Southwest Airlines, serving as a support logo for the company for years. When they rebranded in 2014, Southwest ditched the ‘airlines’ portion of their name, but promoted the heart symbol to a prominent spot in their new logo:
As part of their new livery, the airline painted the heart logo on the belly of all their planes:
There’s rock band Greenday‘s Heart Grenade logo, probably one of the best interpretations of a heart in recent memory:
On a personal level, and even though I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the heart symbol is actually on the coat of arms of my great, great, great Scottish ancestors – The Douglas Clan – and looks something like this:
Maybe that’s why, when it came to designing a logo for a personal electronic music project a few years back, I used a heart tattoo motif:
There’s the always excellent blog – David Airey‘s Logo Design Love – and companion book of the same name:
And that just about wraps up our look at the origins of the heart symbol, except maybe for this:
Looking for a perfectly proportioned heart symbol?
In vector no less? Here ya go. A nice perfect heart vector graphic PDF to download.
Happy heart day!
In closing, let me just wish everyone that celebrates a Happy Valentine’s Day. That goes double for my lovely wife Sue.
She’s the bestest and makes me think of this: