Heart symbolisms abound in almost every culture. The heart has been the center of almost every civilization, and assigned the epicentre of physical emotional and spiritual life. In ancient cultures the brain was mostly ignored and its many functions were attributed to the heart. Despite new knowledge, many of the ancient cultural concepts remain ingrained in the religion, the psyche, language, literature, poetry, and art of modern civilization.
In the West, the heart has evolved as a symbol of love, in both romantic and religious spheres. In the East, it is seen as a symbol of wisdom and spirituality.
Heart Symbolisms in History
Ancient belief in almost every major culture put the heart and heart symbolisms at the centre of the body and soul . Life with all its emotions, thoughts and beliefs centered around the heart.
The iconic heart symbol was identified in the culture of the Cro Magnon hunters of Europe before the last Ice Age (10,000-8000 BCE). The inference of the icon to the hunters remains a mystery.
The ancient Egyptians (3500BC-1000 BC) believed the heart controlled the mind and soul, and that it was the center of morality. It was also considered the source of memory, emotions, and personality. They believed that God spoke to individuals through the heart. There was concern among Egyptians that after death, that the heart might testify against the deceased; to prevent this, the ancient Egyptians often wrapped a heart scarab within the bandages to prevent the heart from speaking. They also preserved the heart during mummification so it would not be weighed during judgement after death.
The 5000 year old ancient Chinese culture believes that the heart is the root of the body, mind and soul of life. Additionally it controls joy, reflects facial expression, and has important roles in the psyche.
The Jewish culture goes back 5000 years as well. The Old testament, originated around 1500 BC, and references to the heart abound . It is viewed as the organ of conscience, the origin of human action, imagination, determination, emotion, love, virtue and vice, good and evil, humility and pride. The heart is revealed as the “inner” person:
“the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” [Samuel 16:7].
Also among many other references
“it grieved him (God) at his heart.”
The word “heart” appears 725 times in the Old testament,
Art in the Clouds, Love, and Prayer
Love and Prayer …… a cloud in the sky that says it all… or at least some of it… The art piece is a collection of different modes of prayer with the same goal in mind ie to connect with a higher power. An idea of a central God may not necessarily fit with all religions,. The central “God” therefore in this piece relates to a central focus of core beliefs.
In Hinduism, a culture that started around 1750 BCE, teaches that the heart is the center of life, action, emotion, consciousness, and the soul. The belief is that it nourishes the organs and supplies energy for the formation of semen. Similar to Egyptian belief, it has importance in connecting heaven and earth. It also is the organ where the love of God is experienced.
In ancient Greece, Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century B.C., described the heart as the most important organ of the body. He considered it the seat of intelligence, motion, sensation and vitality.
In Christianity the heart reflects love, piety, and charity. In the art of the middle ages and thereafter, the flaming heart reflects religious passionate fervor. A flaming heart pierced by an arrow symbolizes faith despite trial, and repentance. The New Testament started in the middle of the 1st century AD. Jesus repeatedly uses “pure of heart”
“that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith;” [Ephesians 3:3].
The word “heart” appears 105 times in the New Testament.
In the 1st millennium AD in ancient Mexico, the Teotihuacan culture believed that the the teyolia – the spiritual force of the heart, was responsible for life.
Galen who lived in the second century A. D., reaffirmed the Greek concepts of the heart and promoted it as the organ most closely related to the soul.
The Heart of Galen – Creator of the Vital Spirit
The AiA rendering shows the body according to Galen. Heat plays a central role in his theory. He believed the heart was closely related to the soul and the source of the body’s heat . The liver, he taught was the primary source of the humors that controlled the body, and that the heart played a subordinate role.
At the beginning of the eleventh century, the Persian, Avicenna (980-1037 AD), authored “The Book of Healing” that included medical and philosophical content. Avicenna describes the heart as the source of life.
The Aztecs a nomadic tribe of northern Mexico, arrived in Mesoamerica in the 13th century and reached their pinnacle in the 15th century. They believed that the heart, or the yollotli, was the seat of life and the soul. Before cremation a green jewel was placed in the mouth of the dead person to represent the heart. The culture also believed that human sacrifice for the offering of the heart to the Gods was required for ongoing prosperity. It was a ritual performed at the highest level and required to honour the gods. Interestingly the yollotli was also a standard of measurement from the mid chest to the tip of the outstretched arm, equivalent to about 3 feet.
In summary the heart was central to the body mind of soul in so many cultures that it pervaded day to day life, and therefore became central to the emotional aspects of most, if not all cultures. The innate need to represent these emotions in all facets of life including religion, philosophy, literature, poetry, music, and art was a natural outcome.
The History of the Icon
History of the Shape of the Heart Icon
The collage reveals the symbols that contributed to the shape of the heart icon as we know it. The shape of the heart became familiar to cultures who hunted or sacrificed animals (image top left). The heart shaped leaves and seeds had parallel emotional connections. The silphium seed for example (seen as golden heart shaped structure above) , was used by ancient Greeks for contraception and was reproduced on their coins. Organs relating to the nitty gritty of romance including breasts, mons pubis, buttocks and scrotum have rotund shape that has parallels in the icon of the heart . It is no wonder that the the shape gained popularity and application to the romantic elements of life.
This art piece was adapted and modified from public domain photograph by Frank Eugene, taken 1898, called Adam and Eve and published in Camera Work no. 30,1910
Art and the Heart – A History
History of Heart Symbolism
The earliest use of the heart as a symbol of love is found in an art piece in the middle of the 13th century. The collage depicts, romantic, religious, devotion, emotion, bravery, heraldry, mathematics, geometry, botany, card games, Valentine’s day, and finally and central in the art piece – the traditional emoticon.
Literature and the Heart
Shakespeare and the Heart
From the late Middle Ages onward, literature and poetry romanticize the heart. The above art piece used information from the Oxford Shakespeare Concordance and identifies the frequency of the word heart and heart related words (eg heartless and heartily). More than 1100 instances were found.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante (1265-1321) refers to
Love, which is quickly kindled in the gentle heart,
seized this man for the fair form that was
taken from me, and the manner still hurts me.
Pride, Envy, and Avarice are
the three sparks that have set these hearts on fire.
Valentine’s day itself first became associated with romance during the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400).
Literature in which the word “heart” appears in the title from the late 18th, 19th and early 20th century include among many; Heart of the Midlothian – Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), The Heart of Man by Erich Fromm (1900-1980), Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1917-1967), Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown (1908 – 2002)
Poetry and the Heart
The association of the heart and love abound in poetry.
Charles d’Orlean was a member of the French Royal family who lived in the 15th century. While captive in England he wrote love poems such as the one translated below
Because I cannot see you,
My heart complains day and night,
Lovely lady, peerless one of France,
And has charged me to write you
That he does not have all he desires
In the Prison of Discontent.
by Charles d’Orlean and translated by David A. Fein
Some famous poems of the the late 19th and early 20th century which include the word heart in the title; My Heart and I by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Never Give All The Heart, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Flame Heart Claude McKay (1889-1948), The Trusting Heart, Dorithy Parker (1893 -1967), I Carry Your Heart with Me – EE Cummings (1894-1962), The Laughing Heart Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)
Music and the Heart
Middle Ages Music, Heart and Love
AiA combined two art pieces that are in the public domain; Heart shaped musical score of Baude Cordier is an offering of love to a lady. Christian and Muslim playing Lutes from the Canticles of Holy Mary during the reign of Alfonso X El Sabio (1221–1284)
Recent Music and the Heart
The Heart in Modern Song
Song ..another emotional outlet for the expression of love romance, and spirituality in culture. Between 1956 and 1978, 15 artists used the word “HEART” in the title of their song and each sold more than a million copy of their records.
Evolving Use of Heart Symbolisms
Valentines Day is a classical example of the persistent use of the symbol of the heart as a symbol of love and romance and it appears on all types of commercial products. The icon of the heart for communication on the web, in emails, electronic messaging, graffiti, in all sorts of arts and crafts abound almost adnauseum.
We seem to be returning to the world of hieroglyphics – and the icon of the heart almost always sends a positive message – and so … that is always good!
Jager Eric – Reading the Book of the heart from the Middle Ages to the twenty First Century; University of Chicago Press