Ever wonder why the heart symbol (♥) looks the way it does? As any socially awkward anatomist will tell you come Valentine’s Day, the human heart looks more like a pear, or maybe a loose bag, not ♥ (perhaps that’s why they’re so lonely).
No one really knows why that particular symbol gained popularity, but there are a few theories. Most of the theories think it’s a simplistic depiction of different female body parts including the breasts, buttocks, stomach, vulva, groin or, well, just about any sexually interesting area. One theory goes that the symbol originated in the brothels of old Pompeii as a kind of crude trademark.
There’s another theory, however, that the ♥ symbol isn’t based off any kind of anatomy – at least, not animal. This coin comes from the ancient city of Cyrene, in what is now present-day Libya. Cyrene was a Greek settlement that was later taken over by the Romans and was famous for exporting one particular substance – a tall, fennel-like herb called silphium. It was so important to the local economy that they even put it on their money. The image to the right isn’t meant to be a heart, it’s a silphium seedpod.
So could a seedpod have come to be associated with love and sex? The answer lies in silphium‘s medical properties. In one of Pliny the Elder’s texts he recommends the use of a silphium pessary to “promote the menstrual discharge”. In layman’s terms? As an herbal contraceptive.
The idea is that the herb, widely used throughout the Mediterranean since antiquity, had through these properties come to be associated with sex and love, especially in Rome. Science seems to back up these claims. Many plants in the same supposed family have contraceptive properties. Wild carrot and Queen Anne’s lace are still sometimes used today.
There’s a bit more to this story, however. You’ll notice I said “supposed” family. We’re not completely sure what species of plant silphium was. However, we do know that it was extremely popular and that it was extremely persnickety. It absolutely refused to grow on cultivated land and had to be harvested wild from the rocky uplands that surrounded Cyrene, giving the city a virtual monopoly on silphium production. Great for trade, not so great for sustainability.
It’s believed that the plant went extinct sometime around 50 AD, the victim of overgrazing, overharvesting, and desertification. Pliny reported that the last stalk was given to Emperor Nero, who reportedly ate it out of curiosity.