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Origins of the Heart Shape: Found in Ecology, Textiles, and the World

Origins of the Heart Shape: Found in Ecology, Textiles, and the World February 18, 2021
The heart shape has a strange history.  Supposedly it goes back to the year 1250 in French literature. It’s an illustration of a French guy handing a woman a heart shape.  Presumably, this is the prototype for all things heart-shaped.
Heart shape in medieval history
By Atelier du Maître de Bari – MS fr 2186 fol. 41v; immediate source: univ-montp3.fr, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25283099
So romantic, right?
The heart made its way onto decks of cards as one of the four suits by the 15th century, cementing itself in European iconography and fortune-telling.  Eventually, I’d love to read this book on the topic, and really delve into the history of cards.  Today however I’m only going to brush the surface of the deck and move onward to other ideas.

The Heart Shape’s Greek Origin

There’s another train of thought that argues the heart shape originally comes from the Greeks, in the form of imitation of the shape of the seed of a plant named silphium.  It was native to Northern Africa, and was used as a contraceptive at the time.  It was literally worth it’s weight in silver, and there are silver coins with the heart shape stamped on it.
heart shape in ancient Greece.
By T. V. Buttrey, via K. Baty. See User talk:Kurt Baty, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4074434
 The image of a heart shape stamped on a coin, a symbol of the ability to have sex without concern for having children, is one likely the essence of the heart.  However, I don’t want to stop there.  The heart has become ubiquitous in our society. It’s everywhere, in emojis, teeshirts, logos, and strewn across checkout lanes and end caps for the entire month of February.   We may not have a ton of evidence for the heart shape in ancient times, but we sure have a lot of evidence for modern use.

Animism and the Heart Shape

As an animist, I want to know where in the world the heart shape lives?  Where does it emerge from the forms of nature and matter?  We are allowed to work both ways with our knowledge. We can seek answers in the lore of the ancients, but there are other sources of knowledge.
The experiential world around us is a valid source of understanding.  Everything doesn’t have to be an ancient Norse tale to have meaning.  Meaning is everywhere, surrounding us every day.  As a post-modern white human, I am stuck with the reality that my culture is one of colonialism, my ancestors were WASPs and my ethics and ideals are mostly self-created.
As an animist, I look to the natural world, including the worlds of human creation for my inspiration.  Having said that, here’s some of what I’ve learned about that odd bifurcated symmetry we call “the heart shape”.

The Heart Shape in Ecology

The heart shape is basically two inward spirals coming from a single point of origin. Where do we get spirals?  Air and water turbulence.

Turbulent flow and Vortex Shedding.  Not what you thought you’d read about today, right? But actually, those fancy names are fairly simple concepts of water and airflow.   When there’s something flowing, as long as nothing gets in the way it goes straight, but as soon as there’s something in the way, there’s turbulence.   Turbulence creates an interesting pattern of fluid dynamics and in particular, something interesting happens in the process of vortex shedding.

heart shape in turbulent flow
By Bob Cahalan, NASA GSFC – http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=3328 (original JPEG), Public Domain

So basically what happens is when water or air moves around a pillar or column shape it creates alternating spiraling patterns.  (You see these patterns in a lot of Celtic swirls too) When they move farther away from the origin of the source, eventually they create matching inward-turning double vortices, which is exactly what a heart shape is.

Swan Courting Patterns. It’s so sappy it’s almost ridiculous to mention, and yet, there is it, we all know that a heart shape is formed when two swans bump heads.  You can find adorable grandma-y cross-stitch patterns on this motif, but did you know that swans have been associated with marriage for a very long time? The swan is almost trite these days, but in mythology, it was a common symbol for purity and love throughout the Eurasian continent.

Leaf and Seed Shapes. All sorts of seeds and leaves are heart-shaped.  Off the top of my head I can name: the violet leaf, the catalpa tree leaf, and the linden tree leaf.  Seeds also have heart shapes.  The most famous is the Sea Heart, the seed of the South American vine Entada gigas. This seed has all kinds of interesting lore. It is called the Sea Heart because the vines drop their seeds into the sea, where they float vast distances to other places.

The heart symbol doesn’t just emerge from nowhere in 13th century France.  Our understanding of reality is rooted in the physical surroundings that we find ourselves in.  All our mythology, lore, and history is rooted in the land and the species that surround us.  Take some time to see how symbols and motifs emerge in your own life, from the species around you.

The Heart Shape in Embroidery and Textiles

 I bring this up because when I was studying Central Asian history with my kids for their homeschool. (it was a thing, we were sick of European history) I noticed something.  Hearts emerge from textile patterns.  Specifically, when looking at embroidery and ikat patterns you see things that look like hearts All The Time.  Interestingly, it seemed these patterns were especially shown on women’s garments and on wedding clothes….
heart shape
This is ikat. The thread is dyed before it’s woven. check out the hearts!

 

heart shape
This is a traditional tent decoration. Note how the swirls create a negative heart shape.
Obviously, I’m not an academic. I’m just some lady who likes researching weird stuff. I certainly don’t have the data points to prove anything, nor do I have the money to travel to central Asia and eastern Europe to study garment patterns. I hope someone does.
traditional women’s garments, both ikat patterns. Note how the heart shape emerges in the dress on the left.
These are fake ikat, printed in Russia to imitate traditional ikat patterns. I love how the fake stuff shows hearts too!
It’s seen particularly on women’s robes and wedding garments, possibly because of the connection of women and a swirling pattern.  I can’t say with certainty that the heart shapes on women’s and wedding garments were connected with love. I can say the heart is a traditional shape in central Asian culture.  It’s not just some random shape thing that emerged from France in the middle ages.

Relating to the Heart Shape Today

The heart is both ancient and emergent as an ongoing symbol.  It’s not going anywhere.  Modern pagans and reconstructionists often disdain using symbolism that wasn’t carved on some ancient rock, and yet, I believe Freyja would deeply understand the value of the heart symbol.  Aphrodite would understand the importance of a box of chocolates shaped like two swirling vortexes pulling from a single source.
The heart is a negative shape, a void into which life pours.  It is the aching, seeking, need for the other. It is the pairing of swirling shapes, the flow of water, and the essence of more than one. When one views the heart in this manner, the fact that the Suit of Cups and the Suit of Hearts both embody emotions makes perfect sense. We see the heart in water, in water birds, in women’s garments, and in the plant shapes of leaf and seed.  We can look at the heart shape and build modern meaning that is rooted in the world around us as well as the culture of the past.  
How do you work with the symbol of the heart? Where do you see it emerging in your work and in the world around you?  Don’t take my word on the heart as a living animistic symbol of the world.  Find out where it lives in your own life.
If you’d like to learn more about my work and what I do, or if you’d like to support my researches and an insatiable need to purchase strange books on textiles and swans, sign up here at my Patreon. 

Resources:

Silk and Cotton Textiles from the Central Asia that Was by Susan Meller
Swan in the Grail by Sue Holloway Ph. D.

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