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Why the heart? – Valentine symbols

February is the shortest month of the year, but probably filled with the most love and romance.  Valentine’s Day is celebrated by all ages whether you are decorating a shoebox to collect cards from friends or buying flowers for your sweetheart.  And you can’t deny that the holiday has a lot of popular symbols associated with it. How did an actual human organ become a cutesy symbol of love? Why do we focus on a naked baby wearing wings? Here are just a few of the symbols we associate with Valentine’s Day.


The Heart
You can’t say “Valentine’s Day” without thinking immediately about hearts. How did we get our cartoonish heart from what is really a very bloody organ? The heart didn’t become associated with love until the 13th or 14th century as the idea of romantic love started to develop. People believed the heart contained memory and had the names of their beloved written inside of them. Most research prior to the 13th century had been conducted on reptile and bird hearts, which look more similar to the heart symbol we know today. A picture accompanying the Italian poem Documenti d’amore by Francesco Barberino featured a horse wearing a wreath of “scalloped hearts.” This version of the heart continued to be depicted in books and other writings over the next several decades, leading to the mass popularity of the classic heart symbol!


Cupid
Cupid did not start out as the adorable figure we know today. Cupid began as Eros, the Greek god of love (Greek mythology). He was known to wreak havoc on the love lives of gods and mortals, often at the request of his mother Aphrodite. Once the Greeks realized Eros was primarily a puppet of his mother, they began depicting him as the less threatening cherub we know. The Romans adopted this god into their lineup and named him Cupid. Cupid has been associated with love for decades, so when Valentine’s Day began to grow in commercial popularity, including Cupid on cards made sense. Card companies capitalized on the focus that 19th century families had on their children by depicting Cupid as a cute baby that helped bring couples together. That image has stuck around through modern Valentine celebrations.


Love Birds
I had to include love birds because their link to Valentine’s Day is a literary one! Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules  is considered the first Valentine’s Day poem.  There is a lot of Valentine symbolism in this poem, but the mention of all of the birds gathering to choose their mates on “Valentynes day” is where the idea of the love bird originated. Additionally, the actual lovebird, a type of parrot, demonstrates several of the behaviors we associate with a very affectionate couple in love, including monogamy, pining for their mate, and feeding each other.


The many symbols we associate with Valentine’s Day have some interesting stories behind their connection to February 14 which has made it so easy over the years for greeting card companies to get creative. And the best part – there’s heart-shaped chocolate we can enjoy!

Kelsey Shackelford is the Community Events Liaison for Boone County Public Library.

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