The earliest depictions of the use of the heart symbol is believed to derive from the ancient culture of Cyrene, a North African city which was founded by the Greeks in 631 BC, and then later ruled by the Romans.
Situated beside the Mediterranean Sea in the region now known as Libya, Cyrene was a hub for merchants, and one of the main trades was a now extinct plant known as silphium. It’s no wonder this plant was highly sort after, as not only could it be used for seasoning food, it was also a perfume, a medicine for treating coughs, sore throats, warts, indigestion - the list goes on - and an aphrodisiac that doubled up as a contraceptive.
The seedpod of the silphium plant resembled the shape of the heart symbol, and so it is suggested that this shape was first associated with love and sex. The plant was so important to the city’s economy that the outline of the heart shaped seedpod appeared on the side of circulating silver coins.
Allegedly it was a high demand for animals that grazed on the plant that attributed to its extinction, as it was believed that the plant improved the quality of the animals meat in some way. It is said that the last known stalk of Cyrenasian silphium was given to Emperor Nero, “as a curiosity” - hmmm!
Other variants of the theory as to where the heart shape came from include Renaissance paintings of Cupid’s arrow heads, kissing swans, and various parts of the human anatomy - you can use your imagination for that one... or those ones.
It was the French who first used hearts as one of the four main suits in playing cards back in the late 15th Century. The predecessor of hearts in playing cards was the Latin suit of Cups, which came from the original playing cards of Europe, the tarot deck. Tarot cards are based on astrological themes of the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. In tarot, cups represent water, which - like astrology - equates to emotions, so it makes sense that the French made it hearts.
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