Have you ever wondered why the heart symbol is equated with love? After all, it bears no physical resemblance to an actual human heart. There have been many explanations put forth regarding this association, mostly dealing with parts of the female anatomy, but one hypothesis is quite intriguing and, if anything else, makes for a pretty great tale.
It all starts with the Romans. They were known for a plethora of accomplishments and advancements in technology as well as some serious tribalism, but one thing is for certain, they were an amorous lot! The Romans enjoyed love making and indeed were some of the first people to use certain forms of contraceptives. There was one method of birth control that the Romans really seemed to prefer - silphium.
We aren’t really sure what exactly silphium was but what we do know is that it is most likely a close relative of fennel. This puts it in the carrot family. The reason we don’t know what it was for certain is because it is believed to be extinct. The Romans quite literally fornicated it out of existence. Because it is no longer extant, we cannot speak to the efficacy of its contraceptive properties but the Romans sure believed in it. It became so popular that it was worth its weight in silver. The thing that made it so coveted was that it didn’t seem to be able to grow anywhere but a narrow swath of land along the Mediterranean Sea. It was so rare and so highly sought after that poaching was a regular theme. On top of that, cattle that grazed on it were said to have delectably flavored meat. These factors coupled with desertification of its habitat were too much for a plant with such a narrow range. It was pushed over the edge into the bottomless pit of extinction.
So, what does this plant have to do with the heart symbol? By examining Roman illustrations of the plant it was discovered that the seeds were heart shaped. They believe the Romans began to associate the shape of the seed with the ability to have lots of sex without the risk of child birth. It became such a powerful symbol that they even went as far as to stamp it on their currency (pictured here). Whether or not all of these facts represent the true story is up for a lot of debate. I am, after all, no historian. What can’t be denied is the popularity of silphium during this period in Roman history. Think about that the next time a relative sends you a heart shaped Valentines Day card!
Photo Credit: Expedition magazine Vol. 34, Nos. 1-2, 1992 om p. 62 and Ruben0568 (Wikimedia Commons)