The heart shape (♥) is an ideograph used to express the idea of the ‘heart’ in its metaphorical or symbolic sense as the center of emotion, including affection and love, especially romantic love. Far from resembling an anatomical heart, how did this popular symbol get its shape? The stylized, symmetrical heart symbols we see today date back to at least the 6th century BC, in the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene, North Africa.
They are in fact seeds or pods from an extinct plant known as silphium. Silphium was not just any ordinary plant. The seeds were in high demand in the ancient world and were worth their weight in silver. The little ‘heart shaped’ seeds were prized for their effectiveness as a contraceptive, supplying the entire Mediterranean world and thus connected with sexuality and love. The plant was extremely difficult to domesticate and grew in only in a few locations in North Africa. The ancient coastal city of Cyrene was very well known for growing local silphium and many of the city’s coins boasted images of this prized plant’s seeds. The plant is now extinct and has been since the 2nd-3rd century BC, likely from over-harvesting.
Cyrene/Kyrene (Lybia) drachm coin (520-480 BC) from ancient silphium trade. The coin’s design is one of the few surviving images of a heart shaped seedpod of the extinct silphium plant.