What is the symbol of true love?
12 Beautiful Symbols of Love From Ancient Times & Their Meanings
When you think of love, you probably think of modern symbols of love around the world like hearts, chocolate and sparkly jewelry. Although these things are wonderful expressions of love and devotion, there are so many other unique symbols of love that represent love right from the times of history.
You might not know that love symbolism has been around for centuries . There are interesting and romantic symbols of love from throughout history and around the world.
So, what symbolizes love?
Ancient tales are filled with pages of lovers’ quests to find and keep their perfect mates. It’s no surprise that gifts were given back then as symbols of love for another . Many of these symbols still exist, but some of them have become lesser known.
These 12 symbols of love and their meanings are unique, romantic, musical and even edible!
1. The Harp
In Celtic culture, the harp is the symbolism for love as the bridge of love, connecting heaven and earth.
In Norway and Iceland, the strings of the harp are believed to form a ladder, symbolizing the ascent to higher states of love . Harps were also historically used in love songs due to their gentle sounds.
The harp is also known as an important symbol in Christianity . It is said that King David played the Harp to the Lord himself to express his undying devotion and love .
These white birds are longstanding symbols of love and can be found throughout time and across the world symbolizing love and devotion.
Swans mate for life, can often be photographed with their beaks touching, making a heart shape with their necks. They are associated as the symbol for love with the ancient Greek and Roman goddesses of love.
3. Rose Quartz
Rose quartz is found in ancient legends from Greece, Egypt and China. This pink stone is a longstanding symbol of love, signaling affection since as early as 600 B.C. !
It’s said that rose quartz, when coupled with meditation and intention work, can cultivate self-love while also attracting the kind of relationship and romantic love you’re seeking.
Some even claim rose quartz can make you a “love magnet”!
According to Crystal Therapist Alexandria Barker, rose quartz is a crystal that represents peace and unconditional love . It helps to open your heart, teaches you the true meaning of love and brings deep healing. She suggests wearing the stone to help remind you to love yourself and practice acceptance so you can attract the things you really want!
4. The Claddagh
This Celtic love symbol consisting of a crown, two hands, and a heart is from Irish folklore.
A traditional jewelry piece is the Claddagh ring that is used commonly as a wedding or engagement ring , and sometimes as a friendship ring.
In the story of Claddagh, a man named Richard is forced into slavery.
Over his many years of capture, he steals a speck of gold every day to forge a ring for his true love , Margaret. Once he collected enough gold, he crafted the ring, escaped, and gave it to Margaret! (She remained faithful all the years he was away, and accepted the ring!)
Apples as an unconditional love symbol can be found in Norse and Greek mythology and ancient Chinese culture. Apples symbolized abundance and were meant to forge a long-lasting bond between lovers.
In ancient Greece, throwing an apple at someone meant you loved them!
I throw the apple at you, and if you are willing to love me, take it and share your girlhood with me; but if your thoughts are what I pray they are not, even then take it, and consider how short-lived is beauty. — Plato, Epigram VII
Although throwing an apple at someone might not seem very romantic nowadays, baking someone an apple pie might be a great modern twist on an ancient tradition .
Cupid is often depicted in ancient Greek and Roman artwork with a bow and arrow, which he uses to pierce people’s hearts and make them fall desperately in love.
He is also sometimes shown with a blindfold to represent love’s blindness.
7. Love knot
This Celtic eternity love symbol has loops with no beginning and no end . It is meant to represent everlasting love.
8. The infinity
Similar to the Celtic love knot, the infinity as one of the symbols of love, is also composed of loops with no beginning or end.
Infinity as a symbol of love can be found in ancient Greece, Rome, India and Tibet.
Red roses are modern symbols of love and marriage around the world and were also representative of affection in ancient times as well.
In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, red roses are often attributed to beautiful goddesses.
Each rose color has a specific meaning:
Yellow: joyful love
Red: passionate love
Pink: true love
White: innocence and purit y
Shells as a symbol of love can be found in ancient Rome, Greece and India.
Venus, Aphrodite and Lakshmi, the Roman, Greek and Hindu goddesses of love, are all depicted with shells. The shells are hard casing represents the protectiveness of love.
11. Maple Leaf
The maple leaf might be the most diverse of the symbols of love!
The stork uses maple branches in its nest, making this leaf a symbol that represents fertility and the excitement of welcoming a new baby.
The maple leaf is also one of the beautiful and true love symbols used in China and Japan.
North American settlers would place the leaves at the foot of their beds to ward off demons and encourage sexual pleasure .
Much like the sweetness of maple syrup, the maple leaf is also known to represent the sweetness and wonder of love.
12. The Heart
The most common symbol for unconditional love, the heart, is actually thousands of years old! The heart is one of the things that symbolize love since ancient times. It holds significance in the modern world too. It has commonly been believed to be the main force that causes people to fall in love.
The video below explains how the heart became a symbol of love. There are relics resembling the heart shape from 3000 BC. Know the journey of heart as a symbol of love below:
All the feelings that one experiences regarding love such as excitement, compassion, butterflies, and blushing, are said to be started by the heart. In earlier times, alchemists and magicians used the heart to draw up spells that were related to romance and love, or to strengthen relationships.
Consider this list of symbols that represent love the next time you’re looking to express or symbolize your love. You might just find something more meaningful than candy or diamonds.
How did the human heart become associated with love? And how did it turn into the shape we know today?
We see the familiar symbol everywhere — in text messages, signs, cakes, clothing, and more. But we also know the real heart looks nothing like it. Historian Marilyn Yalom tells us how the anatomical organ became the symbol that we all know today.
In 2011, I went to the British Museum in London to see a collection of 15th-century artifacts, which included gold coins and jewelry that were part of the Fishpool Hoard found in England in 1966. I was particularly attracted to a heart-shaped brooch (below, one of the heart brooches from the hoard).
That day, I noticed the heart’s two upper lobes and its V-shaped bottom point as if I were seeing them for the first time. It quickly dawned on me that the symmetrical shape is a far cry from the ungainly lumpish organ inside us. From that moment on, the figure of the heart pursued me. I wanted to answer two questions: “How did the human heart become transformed into the iconic form we know today?” and “How long has the heart been associated with love?”
As far back as the ancient Greeks, lyric poetry identified the heart with love in verbal conceits. Among the earliest known Greek examples, the poet Sappho agonized over her own “mad heart” quaking with love. She lived during the 7th century BC on the island of Lesbos surrounded by female disciples for whom she wrote passionate poems, now known only in fragments, like the following: Love shook my heart, Like the wind on the mountain Troubling the oak-trees.
Greek philosophers agreed, more or less, that the heart was linked to our strongest emotions, including love. Plato argued for the dominant role of the chest in love and in negative emotions of fear, anger, rage and pain. Aristotle expanded the role of the heart even further, granting it supremacy in all human processes.
Among the ancient Romans, the association between the heart and love was commonplace. Venus, the goddess of love, was credited — or blamed — for setting hearts on fire with the aid of her son Cupid, whose darts aimed at the human heart were always overpowering.
In the ancient Roman city of Cyrene — near what is now Shahhat, Libya — the coin (above) was discovered. Dating back to 510-490 BC, it’s the oldest-known image of the heart shape. However, it’s what I call the non-heart heart, because it is stamped with the outline of the seed from the silphium plant, a now-extinct species of giant fennel. Why in the world would anyone have put that on a coin? Silphium was known for its contraceptive properties, and the ancient Libyans got rich from exporting it throughout the known world. They chose to honor it by putting it on a coin.
The ancient Romans held a curious belief about the heart — that there was a vein extending from the fourth finger of the left hand directly to the heart. They called it the vena amoris. Even though this idea was based upon incorrect knowledge of the human anatomy, it persisted. In the medieval period in Salisbury, England, during the church ceremony in the liturgy, the groom was told to place a ring on the bride’s fourth finger because of that vein. Wearing a wedding ring on that finger goes back all the way to the Romans.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, the heart found a home in the feudal courts of Europe. Minstrels in France celebrated a form of love that came to be known as “fin’ amor.” Fin’ amor is impossible to translate: today we call it courtly love, but its original meaning was closer to “extreme love,” “refined love” or “perfect love.” Courtly love required the troubadour to pledge his whole heart to only one woman, with the promise that he would be true to her forever. Accompanied by his lyre or harp, he’d sing his heart out in the presence of his lady and the members of the court to which she belonged.
This explosion of song and poetry that started in France spread to Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Scandinavia, each of which created its own variations. Through them, love staked out its place not only as a literary concept but also as an important social value and an intrinsic part of being human. A yearning for amorous love seeped into the Western consciousness and has remained there since. The illustration (above) is from the German Codex Manesse, a compilation of love poems which historians place sometime between 1300 to 1340. Between the couple, a fanciful tree rises to form the outline of a heart, which carries within it a coat of arms bearing the Latin word AMOR (love.)
In 1344, the first known image of the indubitable heart icon with two lobes and a point appeared. It made its debut in a manuscript titled The Romance of Alexander, written in the French dialect of Picardy by Lambert le Tor (and, after him, finished by Alexandre de Bernay). With hundreds of exquisitely ornamented pages, Alexander is one of the great medieval picture books.
The scene containing the heart image appears in the lower border of a page decorated with sprays of foliage, perched birds and other motifs characteristic of French and Flemish illumination. On the left-hand side (above), a woman raises a heart that she has presumably received from the man facing her. She accepts the gift, while he touches his breast to indicate the place from which it has come. From this moment on, there was an explosion of heart imagery, particularly in France.
During the 15th century, the heart icon proliferated throughout Europe in a variety of unexpected ways. It was visible on the pages of manuscripts and on luxury items like brooches and pendants. The heart also turned up in coats of arms, playing cards, combs, wooden chests, sword handles, burial sites, woodcuts, engravings and printer’s marks. The heart icon was adapted to many practical and whimsical uses, with most — but not all — related to love.
Frenchman Pierre Sala contributed to the history of the amorous heart with a book titled Emblèmes et Devises d’amour, or Love Emblems and Mottos, prepared in Lyon around 1500. His collection of 12 love poems and illustrations was intended for Marguerite Bullioud, the love of his life, although she was married to another man. (She and Sala wed after her husband’s death.) Sala’s tiny book was meant to be held in the palm of one’s hand. In one of the illustrations (above), two women attempt to catch a bevy of flying hearts in a net stretched out between two trees. The winged heart, borrowing from angels, had already appeared in earlier illustrations as the sign of soaring love.
Though some people assume that Valentine’s Day is the creation of the modern greeting card industry, its history is much older — indeed, so old that its origins are clouded. Saint Valentine of Rome was added to the Catholic calendar by Pope Gelasius in 496, to be commemorated on February 14, the same day it still occupies. While there have been various theories of why St. Valentine became associated with love, it most likely developed during the late Middle Ages in the context of Anglo-French courtly love.
By the mid-17th century, the celebration of Valentine’s Day in England was customary for those who could afford its rituals. Affluent men drew lots with women’s names on them, and the man who picked a lady’s name was obliged to give her a gift. The earliest English, French and American valentines were little more than a few lines of verse handwritten on a sheet of paper, but over time, makers began embellishing them with drawings and paintings. These were folded, sealed with wax, and placed on their intended’s doorstep.
Then, the first commercial valentines appeared in England at the end of the 18th century. They were printed, engraved or made from woodcuts and sometimes colored by hand. They combined traditional symbols of love — flowers, hearts, cupids, birds — with doggerel verse of the “roses are red” variety. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards obliterated the handmade variety in England and the US. The French, too, began exploiting the commercial valentine, with cards featuring angel-like cupids surrounded by hearts (above, a French card, circa 1900).
In 1977, the heart icon underwent yet another transformation when it became a verb. The “I ❤ NY” logo was created to boost morale for a city in crisis. Trash piled up on the streets, the crime rate spiked, and it was near bankruptcy. Hired to design an image that would increase tourism, graphic designer Milton Glaser created the famous logo (above) that has since become a cliché and a meme. With the logo, Glaser extended the heart’s meaning beyond romantic love to embrace the realm of civic feelings and thereby opened the gateway to new uses. Once it became a verb, ❤ could connect a person with any other person, place or thing.
Twenty-two years later, a new graphic form appeared that brought the heart into a whole new realm. In 1999, Japanese provider NTT DoCoMo released the first emojis made for mobile communication. In the original set of 176 symbols, there were five concerning the heart. One was colored completely red, one included white blank spots to suggest 3-D depth, another had jagged white blanks at its center signifying a broken heart, one looked as if it were in flight, and one had two small hearts sailing off together.
Now there are more 30 different emojis containing a heart, and I suspect the heart image will keep evolving in unknown ways for centuries to come. While the heart may be only a metaphor, it serves us well, for love itself is impossible to define. Throughout the ages, men and women have tried to put into words the various shades of love they’ve experienced — fondness, affection, infatuation, attachment, endearment, romance, desire or “true love.” But when words fail us, we fall back on signs. We add ❤ to our emails, texts and notes. We send valentines adorned with ❤ to those dear to us. We give gifts with❤ patterns. We make ❤ -shaped cookies for children. The continued global popularity of the heart as a symbol for love offers us a small dose of hope, serving as a reminder of the ageless assumption that love can save us.
This story was adapted from Marilyn Yalom’s TEDx talk and from her book The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love, with the permission of Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © Marilyn Yalom 2018.
Watch her TEDxPaloAlto talk here:
About the author
Marilyn Yalom is a senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, and the author of «A History of the Wife» and «How the French Invented Love,» among other books.
What Is the Origin of the Heart Symbol?
History offers various explanations from an ancient species of giant fennel to anatomical drawings in medieval texts.
Updated: January 3, 2019 | Original: February 8, 2016
The heart shape is recognized the world over as a symbol of romantic love and affection, but its historical origins are difficult to pin down. Some believe the iconic pictogram is derived from the shape of ivy leaves, which are associated with fidelity, while others contend it was modeled after breasts, buttocks or other parts of the human anatomy.
A Heart-Shaped Plant Used as Birth Control
Perhaps the most unusual theory concerns silphium, a species of giant fennel that once grew on the North African coastline near the Greek colony of Cyrene. The ancient Greeks and Romans used silphium as both a food flavoring and a medicine—it supposedly worked wonders as a cough syrup—but it was most famous as an early form of birth control.
Ancient writers and poets hailed the plant for its contraceptive powers, and it became so popular that it was cultivated into extinction by the first century A.D. (legend has it that the Roman Emperor Nero was presented with the last surviving stalk). Silphium’s seedpod bore a striking resemblance to the modern Valentine’s heart, leading many to speculate that the herb’s associations with love and sex may have been what first helped popularize the symbol. The ancient city of Cyrene, which grew rich from the silphium trade, even put the heart shape on its money.
Medieval Anatomical Drawings Featured Heart Shape
While the silphium theory is compelling, the true origins of the heart shape may be more straightforward. Scholars such as Pierre Vinken and Martin Kemp have argued that the symbol has its roots in the writings of Galen and the philosopher Aristotle, who described the human heart as having three chambers with a small dent in the middle.
According to this theory, the heart shape may have been born when artists and scientists from the Middle Ages attempted to draw representations of ancient medical texts. In the 14th century, for example, the Italian physicist Guido da Vigevano made a series of anatomical drawings featuring a heart that closely resembles the one described by Aristotle.
Since the human heart has long been associated with emotion and pleasure, the shape was eventually co-opted as a symbol of romance and medieval courtly love. It grew especially popular during the Renaissance, when it was used in religious art depicting the Sacred Heart of Christ and as one of the four suits in playing cards. By the 18th and 19th centuries, meanwhile, it had become a recurring motif in love notes and Valentine’s Day cards.