It isn’t Cupid, stupid: A brief history of the heart | brunch$feature | Hindustan Times
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It isn’t Cupid, stupid: A brief history of the heart

How did the artery-laden medical heart evolve into a cute red heart icon ?

brunch Updated: Sep 24, 2016 20:19 IST
Shovon Chowdhury
Shovon Chowdhury

An actual heart is hardly as pretty as its pictorial representation

The red, cartoon symbol of the heart, with or without arrows in it, is part of a Western conspiracy. Like most Western conspiracies, it involves us giving them our money. We do this by buying I (heart) NY T-shirts, and heart-shaped boxes of candy.

Over the years, though, local businessmen have cashed in as well, and today heart-shaped boxes of Mysore Pak and kaju barfi are also quite common. So while the origins of this symbol may have been Western, it now contributes handsomely to the local economy. According to sources, one out of every three items sold at Archies has a heart symbol on it. The heart is a symbol of great power. Great power has to be used responsibly. Hence it is important for us to understand: where and how did this symbol evolve?

As a pictorial representation, the heart symbol is not very accurate. An actual heart is not quite as pretty. It glistens and throbs and is covered in veins. The symbol, on the other hand, is sanitised and geometric. In fact, for those seeking a formula for love, this shape can be defined by one, (x2 + y2 – 1)3 – x2y3 = 0. Despite this inherent complexity, it is an easy symbol to draw, etched into the bark of a tree, or scrawled quickly on a bathroom wall. If we define a symbol as something visual, which conveys meaning, then this is probably the most recognised symbol in the world. Even as we speak, somewhere on the face of this planet, a six-year-old boy is shyly handing over a card with a heart drawn on it to a sceptical six-year-old girl, who thinks his drawing sucks.

There are various theories as to its origin. One theory is that it is modelled on an extinct plant, the Silphium. In the Greek town of Cyrene, from the seventh century BC, the extract of this plant was used for birth control. The shape of the seedpod was very similar to the heart symbol that we recognise today, and even appeared on coins. This shape is the only memory we have left of the plant, since it was cultivated to extinction in the first century AD. Another theory attributes the shape to Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, who described it exactly as we use it today.

Meanwhile, the Roman poet Ovid popularised the character of Cupid, the floating fat boy, who fires arrows tipped with love at unsuspecting hearts. All the elements were now in place. In medieval Europe, Christian painters started using it frequently, beginning with Giotto. They usually showed people ripping out their hearts and presenting them to Jesus, as a sign of their devotion. These paintings are extremely disturbing because none of the victims appear to be feeling any kind of pain. Initially, the heart was shown upside down, with the pointy end up, but by the 15th century, this had changed. This was also when the French created the first modern suite of playing cards, using the heart as one of the symbols. Bells, roses and swords were other options considered at the time, some of them pushed by the Germans, but it was the French system that eventually became popular. After this, it spread like wildfire. By the 16th century, it was appearing on Samurai helmets, as the heart of Marishiten, goddess of archery.

In 17th century England, Valentine’s Day was introduced, during which gentlemen and ladies of quality exchanged notes in which they mentioned that they rather fancied each other. Soon after, the first heart-shaped box of chocolates was created. More recently, in 1977, designer Milton Glaser created the I (heart) NY logo, scribbled on a napkin in the back of a cab. It was for a campaign to promote tourism in New York, where a crime wave was making people reluctant to visit. It was extremely popular, and inspired less popular follow-ups such as ‘I have mixed feelings about NY’ and ‘I only like NY as a friend.’ He gave it away free because he wanted to help his city, and it still earns the city of New York $30 million dollars every year.

It has to be admitted that this symbol has never played a role in our history. Our medical science was always advanced, and we did not support inaccurate depictions of anatomy. It came to us via the Greeks, the French, Madison Avenue, and of course, the British. But we accepted this act of colonisation. We recognised its power. Because whenever we see the one we love, we can feel it, beating, inside us.

The writer is a satirist, whose most recent novel, Murder With Bengali Characteristics, does not feature any character resembling Mamata Banerjee

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From HT Brunch, September 25, 2016

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