If you've ever seen an anatomical heart, you may wonder how on earth humans came up with the common love heart symbol we know so well. The truth is, no one really knows ... but there are some fascinating theories.

Some believe the iconic heart symbol derives from the shape of ivy leaves, which were a symbol of fidelity in ancient times, while others think it was inspired by various parts of the human anatomy - think breasts and buttocks.

A particularly fascinating theory involves silphium, a giant fennel plant that once grew along the North African coast near the Greek colony of Cyrene. The ancient Greeks and Romans revered silphium for its culinary and medicinal properties, especially as a form of birth control. Silphium's seedpod bore a striking resemblance to the modern heart symbol, and its association with love and sexuality may have helped popularise the heart shape. So vital was silphium to Cyrene that its heart-shaped seed pods even appeared on their coins (see picture from wikipedia below), symbolising the city's wealth and the plant's value.

Ancient silver coin from Cyrene, Libya depicting the heart-shaped 'seed' (actually fruit) of silphium.

However, the origins of the heart shape might also be found in medieval anatomical drawings. Scholars like Pierre Vinken and Martin Kemp suggest that the heart symbol traces back to the works of Galen and Aristotle, who described the human heart with three chambers and a central indentation. Medieval artists, attempting to illustrate these ancient texts, may have inadvertently created the heart shape we recognise today. Notably, Italian physicist Guido da Vigevano's 14th-century anatomical drawings depict a heart strikingly similar to the modern symbol (pictured below).

Guido da Vigevano's 14th-century anatomical drawing

Initially depicted upside down until the 15th century, the heart symbol gradually evolved to its current form and found its way onto playing cards. As the human heart has long been associated with emotions and love, the heart shape naturally became a symbol of romance. Its popularity surged during the Renaissance, where it featured prominently in religious art and depictions of the Sacred Heart of Christ.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, the heart shape had firmly entrenched itself as a motif in love notes and Valentine’s Day cards. 

So next time you see a heart, remember it's not just a symbol of love, but a sneak peek into the intriguing past of human perception, expression and creativity.