The Heart—Symbolism and Mythology

Updated on July 31, 2019
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Cynthia is an author who has written a series of science fantasy books. She also writes short stories and is busy writing two more novels

Heart Symbols
Heart Symbols | Source

The heart is one of the most important organs in the human body. It pumps blood through the circulatory system to provide the oxygen and nutrients our bodies need to survive. If our hearts stop beating, we die. It is that simple.

However, could this vital organ be even more than that? In the modern world we tend to see the brain as the source of our intelligence, thoughts and creativity. We believe our conscience is in our brain and it controls our actions, provides our moral compass. It may surprise you that in antiquity the heart was viewed as the source of wisdom and the organ used to choose between right and wrong.

Also, that modern science is making discoveries which back this up and could prove our distant ancestors were right. We are urged to use ‘head over heart’. Is this the best advice to follow?

Today the heart symbol is one we all recognise. We link it with romantic love, sentimentality and passion. We find hearts emblazoned on everything from lingerie to greetings cards, jewellery to tea towels. But where did the symbol come from and how did it become associated with love and romance?

Weighing the Heart in the presence of Osiris
Weighing the Heart in the presence of Osiris | Source

The Heart in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians believed the physical organ, which they called haty, was different to the metaphysical heart or ib. The ib was the source of wisdom, memories and thought, not the brain.

Whereas they removed the brain during the process of mummification, they left the heart in the body, protected by a valuable heart scarab, as an important key to entering the afterlife.

In Egyptian mythology, the ib came into being at the time of conception, forged from a single drop of blood from the mother’s heart. The ib survived the physical death of the body.

It was placed on a set of scales and weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of truth and justice, in a ceremony presided over by Osiris and a tribunal of forty-three other deities. The jackal-headed psychopomp Anubis led the deceased through the gates to the underworld and presented the deceased at the ceremony.

If the scales tipped in favour of the deceased, they became one with Osiris. However, any heart found to be heavy with sin got thrown to the monster Ammit, the ‘eater of the dead’ who devoured it along with any hope of a happy afterlife.

The ib was so important to the Ancient Egyptians they incorporated into their words, such as Awt-ib – happiness, and in people’s names. I think my favourite name is Peribsen, which means ‘hope of all hearts.’

The Heart in Ancient Greece and Rome

By the time of the Greeks and Romans, there was an understanding of how the physical heart worked. Erasistratus (304-250 BC) described this organ as a pump and wrote about the heart valves and how they worked.

Plato (427-347 BC) also wrote the heart is the organ which causes the blood to pump to all parts of the body. However, it was Aristotle who regarded the heart as the source of our power of thought.

Although nobody is certain where our modern heart symbol comes from, it could have originated in this period of classical antiquity, based on a plant called silphium, common around the Greek coastal colony of Cyrene in North Africa.

Believed to be a species of giant fennel, it produced a resin, known as laser or laserpicium, the Greeks and Romans used as a spice in their food, as an herbal remedy, an aphrodisiac and a form of birth control. It was prized throughout the classical world and became such a valuable trade good they stamped it’s image on coins minted in Cyrene.

These pictures on the coins could have been the origin of the heart symbol we know so well today. The herb’s popularity made it become rare and then extinct in Roman times, so the ancient images now cannot be compared with a living plant.

It is also from the Roman period one of the more popular heart images comes from. The Romans revered a deity called Cupid, said to be the son of the love goddess Venus and the fiery war god Mars.

Cupid was depicted as a plump male infant, carrying a bow and arrow. Legend has it the mischievous deity had two arrows, one tipped with gold and one tipped with lead.

Your heart, hit by a gold-tipped arrow, gets filled with love and desire. Hit by the lead-tipped arrow, you become revolted by the object of your affection and try to escape. In modern times, a heart pierced by an arrow, has come to represent being lovesick and heartbroken

Roman de la Poire - suitor offers his heart?
Roman de la Poire - suitor offers his heart? | Source

Medieval Courtly Love

In the Middle Ages, a new tradition arose around passion and romance, courtly love. It was a time when marriages, especially among the wealthy, were arranged for financial and dynastic reasons.

This idealistic relationship was usually formed between an unattainable lady, married and of higher status, and a much humbler suitor. The major themes of these stylised affairs were chivalry, fidelity, unrequited passion; with the man undertaking quests and tasks to prove himself worthy of his lady’s affections. He was her servant, defender and worshipped her as a saint.

‘Amour Courtois’ first arose in the Languedoc region of southern France, before spreading to Italy, Spain, then northwards. In time it became a codified etiquette; one the lovers needed to follow for the sake of their honour and the purity of their feelings.

It gave rise to medieval literature such as the 13th century allegorical poem ‘Roman de la Rose’, which spoke of the exquisite tension of always walking the tightrope between joy and despair. It was the time of the troubadours, who toured the courts of Europe, singing lyrical poems about yearning swains, beautiful, out of reach ladies and the highest expressions of romance.

It is from this time that perhaps the first image of a suitor giving his heart away to his lady comes in a mid-13th century manuscript of the ‘Roman de la Poire’

Hearts Suit on German Card Deck of 1545
Hearts Suit on German Card Deck of 1545 | Source

Hearts Suit on Playing Cards

Most of us have at least one pack of playing cards at home and are familiar with the suit of Hearts. Suited playing cards, it is believed, were first used in China in the late 13th century, before spreading to Europe, via Egypt.

These cards evolved over time to use the suits we are familiar today – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades.

The early Latin suits depicted cups, coins, clubs and swords, which led to the Germanic suits of roses, bells, acorns and shield.

The Germanic suit then was changed to hearts, bells, acorns and leaves. The French suits further adapted to retain hearts, but the bells became diamonds, acorns became clubs, and leaves became spades.

The Queen of Hearts is the court card still associated today with a woman who is both loving and well-beloved.

Victorian Valentine’s Day Cards

The Victorian Age was one of sentimentality and romance. Although the tradition of St Valentine’s Day has been around since antiquity, it was the introduction of the penny post in Britain in January 1840 and mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards that made it affordable for ordinary people.

Victorian cards were brightly coloured, highly embellished and covered in hearts! Handmade cards were also favoured and would be decorated with lace, satin bows, pressed flowers and romantic verses or jokes.

This custom has carried on until today, where now there are hundreds of different products and cards, with hearts and slogans printed on them, which you can present to your beloved on 14th February.

Heart or Brain?

We have seen the heart has been important throughout history in different ways and the symbol itself has evolved and changed over the centuries.

So, which of our organs is the seat of our conscious awareness and intelligence? The heart or the brain? The new discipline of neurocardiology explores how the heart and the brain interact.

It shows the heart is a sensory organ, which receives and decodes information. There is a ‘heart brain’, which can make decisions, remember and learn. The heart sends signals to the brain, affecting brain functions such as perception, solving problems and memory.

At HeartMath, their research shows that when we feel negative emotions, such as fear or anger, the rhythm of the heart becomes unstable, sending signals to the brain to curb higher cognitive functions.

It’s why we make poorer decisions when we are stressed and afraid. In dangerous, challenging situations we feel the negative emotions in our hearts; they gallop and race. We do not feel it in the brain.

Thoughts and memories alone can trigger changes to our heart rhythms, which is why practices such as positive thinking, meditation and regular physical exercise can be so beneficial to our health.

So maybe we need a new heart ideograph for the modern age? One which shows there is more to this vital organ than a simple pump for moving blood around our bodies or a symbol of romance?

Is Your Heart or Your Brain the Seat of Your Intelligence and Moral Compass?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 CMHypno

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