The heart symbol, or heart emoji as the kids call it, does not look like an actual heart. Where did the symbol come from? There are lots of theories, including ones about how the heart symbol looks like a woman’s private parts, or even a man’s, but those are more coincidental than anything else. What is more likely is that the heart symbol evolved from a long tradition of religious and romantic imagery based on nature and medical ignorance.
In North Africa, a giant fennel plant once grew. It was called silphium, and it was used for birth control. Cyrene, a city that took advantage of the plant to become rich, put silphium on their money. Poets and writers raved about the plant, and it was so widely-used, it actually went extinct by the 1st century A.D. From drawings, we can see that the seedpod of the fennel looks a lot like the heart emoji. Was this the beginning of that shape’s association with love?
Another theory originates with Aristotle, who wrote that the heart has three chambers with a dent. With just this description, people may have tried to draw it, and ended up with something like the heart emoji. It was only a matter of time before that symbol spread beyond medical texts and drawings. In the 13th century, an unknown poet wrote a story called “The Romance of the Pear,” which featured an illustration of a lovestruck man handing his heart to his girlfriend. The heart was very similar to what the medical community described, and more artists started using the symbol metaphorically instead of just scientifically.
During the Renaissance, the heart symbol popped up everywhere, especially in religious art. The Sacred Heart of Christ was a very common image, and looks quite similar to the modern emoji, though the heart was also wrapped in thorns or on fire. Since religious art was so abundant, pretty much everyone would be familiar with that symbol, and knew it represented love. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the heart symbol was being used in letters between lovers, and the tradition as we know it was born.