While the heart symbol is a universal emblem of sexuality, love, and emotion, it often raises suspicion because of how dissimilar it is to the shape of an actual heart. However this icon far precedes our modern usage of it and may in fact be traced back to a long-extinct plant of the classical era. The reason that this seemingly irrelevant herb has remained synonymous with love a millennia after its disappearance is simple. It was a prized contraceptive of the ancient world, and its name was silphium.
A long time ago, in a coast far away
Silphium may be traced to the ancient land of Cyrenaica, modern day Libya. Throughout the classical age, Cyrenaica was one of the greatest intellectual and artistic centres of the ancient world, famous for its medical schools, academies, and architecture. Although the land produced a multitude of goods, it was renowned for being the only area where silphium grew natively.
The herb was used in cooking, as well as for a variety of medicinal purposes such as treating coughs, sore throat, fever, and indigestion. However most intriguing was its use as a contraceptive. Indeed, the silphium pods appear almost identical to the heart ideogram, and given its use with regards to sexuality, the reason becomes apparent. What better a symbol for love than a commodity that allows for birth-control?
In fact it was connected to passion and sexuality to such a degree, that Gaius Valerius Catullus, a Roman composer of love poems wrote the following to his lover, over two thousand years ago:
How many of your kisses are enough and more than enough for me. As big a number as the Libyan grains of sand that lie at silphium producing Cyrene
Of course such a produce would have had great significance, as the human condition with regards to love and contraception is, in a way, a catch-22. On the one hand, sexuality is an indispensable need for the overwhelming majority of people. On the other hand however, being sexually active in heterosexual relations naturally means to engage in reproduction, whether ready or not. This underlying principle not only leads to a whole new level of responsibility, regardless of a person's ability to cope, but is also particularly gendered. That is to say the burden and the dangers involved with pregnancy fall, generally speaking, on women. Therefore, a way to love without fear of unwanted pregnancy is understandably valuable, as well as liberating.
Indeed, according to the Roman author Pliny the Elder, who lived in the 1st century AD, the value of silphium was such, that it was recorded being sold at the same rate as silver. In addition, it was so popular and widespread, that coins depicting the pod survive to this day. The portrayal of the silphium pod on the coinage is identical to the heart or love ideogram used today. Given the relation between the herb and sexual liberation, the reasoning behind the use of this symbol to mean love is apparent.
Path to extinction
However, as is often the case, human greed and short-sightedness caught up with the environment's ability to cope. The plant itself was not particularly suitable to domestication and Pliny notes it was
'in general wild and stubborn... if attempted to be cultivated, will leave the spot where it has been sown quite desolate and barren.'
As a result, after considerable overconsumption and overgrazing by livestock, combined with the desertification of the land, Silphium disappeared from Cyrenaica. It is noted that it was thereafter encountered in the lands of Persis, Media, and Armenia, although in much inferior quality. Distressingly, mentions of silphium grown outside Cyrenaica began to dwindle, and in the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire, silphium began to be considered altogether extinct.
Alarming though the disappearance of such a unique plant may be, hope perseveres in the face of all odds. There has been a rediscovery of sorts in Libya, in the form of silfer. Though not the same plant, silfer is closely related to the Ferula species of plants, to which silphium is thought to have belonged. Moreover, a current hypothesis holds that silphium itself was a hybrid plant, and in itself sterile, which explains some of the difficulty in cultivating it.
The mistakes of the past are being repeated today, in the form of overconsumption; a problem further exacerbated by climate change. However the resurgence of silfer, combined with efforts to halt and reverse environmental damage, may very well mean that the original source for the symbol we use to say "I love you" is not forever gone.