Stupid Question ™
Nov. 25, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Why does the symbol for a heart look nothing like a real heart?
A: Well, I’ll have to disagree with you. The heart symbol does look quite a bit like a real heart: It’s red, and it’s simply an exaggerated and more symmetrical version of the real heart’s basic inverted-pear shape.
Besides, symbols aren’t supposed to look exactly like their inspirations. By definition, a symbol is an abstraction that turns a specific item into a general concept (usually, a metaphorical meaning attached to the specific item).
The heart symbol isn’t meant to stand (at least not exclusively) for the circulatory organ. It stands for the love, passion, etc. which that organ metaphorically represents in literature and folklore—just as the skull and crossbones represent death, not the human skeleton.
The amount of meaning shifts with the degree of realism. The Catholic Sacred Heart is a heart symbol of passion and spirit, but its reduced exaggeration and added veins and blood constrains its meaning to a particular person’s (Jesus’) passion and spirit.
It’s important to distinguish the heart symbol—which carries specific meaning—with the “heart” design, which is just a collection of lines that may or may not mean anything.
The “heart” design appears widely throughout art history as far back as cave paintings. In many cases, it’s impossible to know if the design was more than decorative. In ancient Greek art, the design appears to have been related not to the heart, but to the visually similar laurel or grape leaf. And in modern Sweden, as Swedish symbologist Carl Liungman noted, the design is linked to “buttocks” and used to mark toilets.
We do know that from the early Middle Ages onward, the “heart” design in Western culture was a heart symbol. It almost certainly was inspired by direct observation of the internal organ (probably human, though most mammal hearts have a similar shape).
At that time, literature (especially the Bible) used the heart as a metaphor for life, soul and spirit—a connection of body and soul. Medicine considered the heart the literal seat of human emotion, and romantic ballads connected the heart with more profane passions.
With such meaning invested in the heart, a handy iconic symbol was a natural invention. But why choose this particular design when, say, a red circle would’ve conveyed the general idea?
A comparative study of symbols shows that the upper lobes of the heart symbol suggest the linked rings of union as well as the wavy lines that mean flight or flame in many systems. The pointy bottom suggests an inverted triangle (a symbol of balance and completion) and the whole thing is pleasingly symmetrical.
Not lost on symbologists is the breast-like appearance of the upper lobes, which took on an exaggerated aspect in illustrated romances (and playing cards) of the 1400s.