The Amorous Heart

An Unconventional History of Love


By Marilyn Yalom

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An eminent scholar unearths the captivating history of the two-lobed heart symbol from scripture and tapestry to T-shirts and text messages, shedding light on how we have expressed love since antiquity

The symmetrical, exuberant heart is everywhere: it gives shape to candy, pendants, the frothy milk on top of a cappuccino, and much else. How can we explain the ubiquity of what might be the most recognizable symbol in the world?

In The Amorous Heart, Marilyn Yalom tracks the heart metaphor and heart iconography across two thousand years, through Christian theology, pagan love poetry, medieval painting, Shakespearean drama, Enlightenment science, and into the present. She argues that the symbol reveals a tension between love as romantic and sexual on the one hand, and as religious and spiritual on the other. Ultimately, the heart symbol is a guide to the astonishing variety of human affections, from the erotic to the chaste and from the unrequited to the conjugal.



FIGURE 1. Artist unknown, Brooch from the Fishpool Hoard, 1400–1464. British Museum, London, England.

A EUREKA MOMENT AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM IN 2011 GAVE birth to this book. I was attending an exhibition of medieval artifacts, including gold coins and pieces of jewelry that were part of the Fishpool treasure hoard discovered in Nottinghamshire in 1966. Many of the items had been made in France and carried French inscriptions—for example, a small gold padlock with the words de tout (with all) on one side and mon cuer (my heart) on the other.

Suddenly an exquisite heart-shaped brooch seized my attention: I noticed the heart’s two lobes at the top and its V-shaped point at the bottom as if I were seeing them for the first time. Then, for a brief moment, all the hearts I had grown up with—on valentine cards and candy boxes, posters and balloons, bracelets and perfume ads—flashed into my mind. It quickly dawned on me that the perfectly bi-lobed symmetrical “heart” is a far cry from the ungainly lumpish organ we carry inside us. How had the human heart become transformed into such a whimsical icon?

From then on, that mystery has pursued me, and inevitably it drew me back into the subject of love, an inexhaustible domain for which the heart has served as a kind of compass.

It is not surprising that the heart is associated with love. Anyone who has ever been in love knows that your heart beats faster when you catch a glimpse of the person who stars in your romantic imagination. And if you have the misfortune of losing that person, you feel an ache in your chest. “I have a heavy heart” or “My heart is broken” are the words we use when love turns against us.

How long has the heart been coupled with love? When was the heart icon created? How did it spread across the globe? What does it tell us about the meaning of love in different eras and places? How have various religions dealt with the amorous heart? These are some of the questions I grapple with in this book.

ANCIENT EGYPTIANS BELIEVED THE HEART WAS THE SEAT of the soul, to be weighed on a scale at the time of one’s death (Figure 2). According to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, if the heart was pure enough and weighed less than the feather of truth called Maat, the deceased would gain entry into the afterlife. However, if the heart was impure and heavy with evil deeds, it would sink lower on the scale than the feather and cause the dead man or woman to be devoured by a grotesque beast. Obviously this scenario of the heart on trial prefigured the Christian Last Judgment.

FIGURE 2. The Singer of Amun Nany, Funerary Papyrus (detail), ca. 1050 BC. Papyrus, paint. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1930.

But ancient Egyptians also saw the heart as the home of a person’s amorous feelings. One Egyptian poet visualized his heart as a “slave” to the woman he desired, and another poet felt his heart surge with love as he went about his daily tasks: “How wonderful to go to the fields when one’s heart is consumed by love!” Despite the distance of more than three thousand years, we immediately recognize these sentiments as identical with our own.

In general the religions that subsequently arose in the Middle East—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have been wary of the amorous heart. Aside from the Song of Songs and a few stories in the Hebrew Bible, the sacred books of these religions do not extol sensual love between human beings. Indeed, the birth of monotheism ushered in a rivalry between secular and religious claims to the heart—a rivalry that took different forms during the first millennium and became overtly contentious during the Middle Ages.

WHEN TWELFTH-CENTURY TROUBADOURS FROM THE SOUTH of France took up their lyres to sing of love, they believed their songs would have little value unless they sprang from an amorous heart. Then, following the lead of Occitane troubadours, northern French minstrels and storytellers pledged their hearts to an idealized woman and aspired to “exchange” their hearts as tokens of fidelity. It is true that this lofty mode of behavior was intended primarily for members of the nobility and that even they could not live up to such high standards. And yet this doctrine of refined love issuing from regional courts in France, Germany, and Italy proved to be remarkably persistent: over the centuries it evolved into the small and large courtesies that Western men and women expect of each other, and it created a romantic ethos that has endured to this day.

At the same time Christianity contributed, though in different ways, to the renewed prominence of the heart. Starting with the Bible, the heart was understood to be the chief organ for receiving and storing the word of God. Among the Church fathers, the one most associated with the heart was Saint Augustine (354–430), who mentioned it more than two hundred times in his Confessions, frequently as a term for his innermost self. As Augustine put it in an oft-quoted affirmation of his faith: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Perhaps more than any other Church figure, Saint Augustine was responsible for claiming the chaste heart for Christianity and for discrediting the lustful heart associated with secular love.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the revival of religious life in monasteries and convents presided over by such towering figures as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), and Saint Francis (1181–1226) placed a new emphasis on one’s inner life, represented by the pure heart dedicated to Jesus. The Church promoted the love of God and all His creatures, conceptualized in the virtue of caritas, as a superior rival to erotic love.

Yet despite the Church’s official opposition to earthly love, Eros found its way into cloistered retreats, where some men and women of the cloth adopted the language of lovers for conversations with each other and with God. Mystical thinkers, such as Gertrude the Great of Helfta, had visions of intimate bodily encounters with Jesus that sound as if they could have come off the pages of French and German romances.

The heart icon as a symbol of love first appeared during this medieval period of cultural renewal. It was created simultaneously for secular and religious works of art and flourished most notably in courtly circles. Once born, the amorous heart motif found its way into thousands of items—such as jewelry, tapestries, ivory carvings, and wooden chests—all produced for the enjoyment of the upper classes. This symbol of love, at first known only to elite members of society, has by now become the property of everyone who can see.

The appeal of the heart icon lends itself to aesthetic, philosophical, and psychological interpretations. Its perfect symmetry and bold color speak to our sense of beauty. Its two equal halves merged into one convey the philosophical idea, dear to Plato, that each person seeks to be joined with his or her soulmate. And on an unconscious level the round lobes evoke sexual images of breasts and buttocks. For all these reasons and more, this medieval symbol has embodied different ideas about love meaningful to different groups of people in different times and places.

Although this book focuses on Western culture, I shall also consider the Arabic world from the period between classical antiquity and the Middle Ages and, to a lesser extent, some examples from contemporary Asia. These forays outside the Western sphere suggest that the association between heart and love is prevalent in certain other parts of the world as well. For example, I was not surprised to discover that the Japanese character for love contains within it the character for heart.

heart →

love →

Tracing the connection between the heart and love has led me into trails I would never have anticipated in advance: how philosophers and physicians disputed the functions of the heart, how the heart was sometimes buried separately from the body, and how both Catholics and Protestants utilized the heart for religious ends. The way the heart has been discussed and portrayed by authors and artists in myriad cultures is obviously more than one person can explore in a lifetime. Yet even a selection of these topics brings us closer to that mysterious, multifaceted phenomenon we encapsulate within the word “love.”

Chapter 1

The Amorous Heart in Antiquity

LONG BEFORE THE AMOROUS HEART FIRST APPEARED VISUALLY, a connection between the heart and love had been firmly established in speech and writing. As far back as the ancient Greeks, lyric poetry already identified the heart with love in verbal conceits that would not find their visual equivalents for almost two thousand years. Among the earliest known Greek examples the poet Sappho agonized over her own “mad heart” quaking with love. Sappho lived during the seventh century BCE on the island of Lesbos surrounded by female disciples for whom she wrote passionate poems, now known only in fragments, like the following:

Love shook my heart,

Like the wind on the mountain

Troubling the oak-trees.

Sappho’s heart was never still. It was constantly agitated against her will by Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She pleaded with Aphrodite: “Don’t shatter my heart with fierce pain.” Yet in old age Sappho bemoaned her “heavy heart,” no longer vulnerable to the transports caused by youthful love.

Sappho’s voice echoes down through the ages, as generation upon generation of men and women experienced love as a sort of divine madness invading their hearts. The Greek biographer Plutarch, some six hundred years after Sappho, recognized this malady in the person of King Antiochus. When Antiochus fell in love with his stepmother, Stratonice, he manifested “all Sappho’s famous symptoms—his voice faltered, his face flushed up, his eyes glanced stealthily, a sudden sweat broke out on his skin, the beatings of his heart were irregular and violent.” Love was understood to be a bodily experience lodged primarily in the heart and affecting the entire soma. It was often portrayed as a painful affliction, visited upon mortals by capricious gods.

THE STORY OF JASON AND MEDEA, AS TOLD BY APOLLONIUS of Rhodes around 250 BCE in his Voyage of the Argo, gives a good example of how the Greek gods imposed love upon humans. Prompted by the goddesses Hera and Athena, Aphrodite prevailed upon her young son Eros to make Medea fall in love with Jason so as to enable him to capture the Golden Fleece.

… drawing wide

apart with both hands he [Eros] shot at Medea;…

And the bolt burnt deep

down in the maiden’s heart, like a flame.

Eros with his bow and arrow was hardly a benign figure as he would become much later in the cuddly form of Cupid. Here he is clearly a dangerous, inhuman force, inflicting sexual desire upon an innocent maid and filling her heart with fierce passion that will ultimately prove destructive.

Ancient Greek philosophers agreed, more or less, that the heart was somehow linked to our strongest emotions, including love. Plato argued not only for the dominant role of the chest in the experience of love but also for the negative emotions of fear, anger, rage, and pain. In his Timaeus he established the reign of the heart over the body’s entire emotional life.

Aristotle expanded the role of the heart even further and granted it supremacy in all human processes. Not only was it the source of pleasure and pain, but it was also the central location for the immortal soul, the psuchê, or psyche. Aristotle’s differences with Plato and, afterward, with the Greek physician Galen (130 CE–circa 200) would be debated endlessly by successive philosophers and scientists into the seventeenth century.

BY THE TIME OF THE ROMANS THE ASSOCIATION BETWEEN the heart and love was already commonplace. Venus, the goddess of love, was credited—or blamed—for setting hearts on fire with the aid of her son Cupid, whose love darts aimed at the human heart were always overpowering. Hearts enflamed by Venus or pierced by Cupid’s arrows regularly appeared in the works of such poets as Catullus (87–54 BCE), Horace (65–8 BCE), Propertius (circa 50–15 BCE), and Ovid (43–17/18 BCE).

These poets commonly employed a pseudonym for the loved one—“Lesbia” for Catullus, “Cynthia” for Propertius, “Corinna” for Ovid—but we cannot be sure there was always a living counterpart behind the name. Still, they wrote convincingly of their love experiences centered on the figure of the domina—the woman who had taken hold of their hearts, obsessed their thoughts, and forced them into emotional servitude.

FIGURE 3. Artist unknown, Drachm depicting a silphium seed pod, ca. 510–490 BC. Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone, Cyrene, catalogue number 14.

In Catullus’s case, at least, Lesbia is known to have been a pseudonym for Clodia, the wife of a Roman politician. The other poets’ mistresses were probably either married women or demimondaines—free women (as opposed to slaves) who attended private dinners in mixed company and circulated in public venues like the circus and races. It was to a woman of this sort that the poet dedicated his heart, despite her reputed unfaithfulness.

Catullus also has a curious connection to the visual image of the heart shape on the ancient coin pictured in Figure 3. This coin, stamped with the outline of the seed from the silphium plant, a now-extinct species of giant fennel, looks exactly like our present-day heart icon , which has symbolized love since the Middle Ages. In one of his poems Catullus specifically mentioned Cyrene in ancient Libya as the city producing silphium—a city that had, in fact, grown so rich from the export of silphium that Cyrenians put it on their coins.

You ask, Lesbia, how many kisses should

You give to satisfy me…

Greater than the number of African sands that

Lie in silphium-bearing Cyrene.

Why would Catullus mention silphium in a love poem? The most common explanation today is that silphium was highly prized in the ancient world as a form of contraception. Another Cyrenian coin even carried the image of a woman touching a silphium plant with one hand and pointing to her genitals with the other. The second-century Greek physician Soranus suggested that taking a small dose of silphium once a month would not only prevent conception but also, when necessary, induce abortion.

It is unlikely that the shape of the silphium seed had anything to do with the heart icon created in Europe more than a millennium later. Still, Catullus’s reference to silphium in a love poem does remind us that women have always had to worry about the possible consequences of their sexual relationships; pregnancy was not something to be wished for by Catullus or his mistress. He ends the poem deriding the evil-tongued “busybodies” who are outraged by Lesbia’s kisses, more numerous than the sands from silphium-bearing Africa.

Whatever the significance of silphium for Catullus, the fact remains that its seed pod, as pictured in Figure 3, is the oldest known image of the shape that will become, in time, the world’s most ubiquitous symbol of love.

OVID, THE BEST KNOWN OF THE ROMAN LOVE POETS, PRESENTS amor as a kind of game that anyone can play as long as you know the rules. And he set out—somewhat tongue in cheek—to teach those rules in his Art of Love (Ars amatoria), which gained instant popularity in his day, became fashionable once again during the Middle Ages, and even today has a worldwide following through numerous translations—at least ten in English alone listed on

For Ovid love is a curious mixture of sex and sentiment, with an emphasis on the former. In fact, whenever he uses the word “heart” for a man, the reader should equate it with eros—sexual desire. Ovid’s heroes (himself, first of all) are warriors committed to “winning” and bedding a designated woman:

Love is a warfare: sluggards be dismissed.

No faint-heart ’neath this banner may enlist.

Eros, according to Ovid, had no law outside itself, no greater morality binding the heart than its own passion. The poet had nothing but applause for the bold man who “shows a lover’s heart,” by which he meant a man willing to overcome daunting obstacles in pursuit of an irresistible woman. While he assumed that men will be the seducers and women the seduced, the women he knew were by no means passive players in the game of love.

And what, then, of woman’s heart? Hers, too, was the home of Eros, but according to Ovid, it was girded by numerous other desires such as money, flattery, secrecy, and reputation. Ovid did not offer an attractive portrait of the women he lusted after. There was one area, however, where he gave woman her due, and that was the bedroom. Here he expected that she would be his match, that she too would enjoy sex as much as he. As he put it: “I hate a union that exhausts not both.” Somehow Ovid managed to describe the intimacies of lovemaking without sounding pornographic. Any woman, then or now, would appreciate his understanding of how erotic enjoyment can be shared equally, as expressed in the following lines:

Love’s climax never should be rushed, I say,

But worked up softly, lingering all the way.

The parts a woman loves to have caressed

Once found, caress.…

But ne’er must you with fuller sail outpace

Your consort, nor she beat you in the race:

Together reach the goal; it’s rapture’s height

When man and woman in collapse unite.

This, then, is Ovid’s vision of a sated “heart.” Taking his cues from the love trysts of Venus, Mars, and other Greco-Roman gods, he pictured love in the form of two bodies wrapped together in mutual delight. There is nothing ethereal in this vision, none of the metaphysical idealism that Plato had espoused four centuries earlier, nor the religious connotations Dante would invest in love thirteen hundred years later, nor the overwrought emotional states of nineteenth-century Romantics. Ovidian love is embedded in the flesh, with the “heart” a lofty euphemism for the genitals.

AMONG FREE ROMANS MARRIAGE HAD LESS TO DO WITH erotic love than with family ties, social position, property, and progeny. Yet the heart was still supposed to inspire tender feelings between husbands and wives. In fact, the wedding ring given to the bride to wear on her fourth finger was believed to have a special connection to the heart, as explained by the second-century Latin author and grammarian Aulus Gellius:

When the human body is cut open as the Egyptians do… a very delicate nerve is found which starts from the [ring] finger and travels to the heart. It is, therefore, thought seemly to give to this finger in preference to all others the honor of the ring, on account of the loose connection which links it with the principal organ.

What a fanciful notion! Although it has no basis whatsoever in our current knowledge of anatomy, the Roman belief that a small vein called the vena amoris (vein of love) ran from the fourth finger to the heart endured for centuries. It was still current in the fifth century CE, as evidenced by the Latin playwright Macrobius in his Saturnalia, and even appeared regularly in the Middle Ages as part of marriage ceremonies. In medieval Salisbury, England, the liturgy for the marriage service stated emphatically that the groom should place a ring on the bride’s fourth finger “because in that finger there is a certain vein, which runs from thence as far as the heart, and inward affection.” Thus the Romans established the practice of placing a ring on the bride’s finger to seal the wedding ceremony and strengthen the bride’s affection.

The Roman wife who lived up to expectations would sometimes be honored at her death with a nostalgic reference to her loving heart. In this vein an epitaph from the second century BCE reads, “Here is the unlovely grave of a lovely woman.… She loved her husband with her heart. She bore two sons.… She was graceful in her speech and elegant in her step. She kept the home.” These words praise the deceased wife as a mother, homemaker, graceful speaker, and possessor of a faithful heart.

Men, too, were expected to harbor sweet feelings in their hearts for their wives. The great statesman Cicero began a letter to his first wife, Terentia, in 58 BCE: “Light of my life, my heart’s desire. To think that you, darling Terentia, are so tormented.” Cicero’s marriage to his “heart’s desire” lasted for more than thirty years, but the couple were frequently separated during that time, often by his choice. Eventually they divorced, which permitted him to marry Publilia, his very young ward, who came with a substantial dowry. The true love of Cicero’s life was his daughter, Tullia, who died only a month or so after his second marriage. Unable to stop crying, he experienced what we today would recognize as deep depression. Because the Romans disapproved of public displays of grief, especially regarding a woman, Cicero had to conceal his emotions, and shortly afterward he ended his short-lived marriage to Publilia.

Catullus, when he was not writing about Lesbia, described the kind of heart considered appropriate for each half of a Roman couple. The husband: “Within his inmost heart a fire / Is flaming up of sweet desire.” The wife: “Submissive to her lord’s control / Around her heart love’s tendrils bind.” Would today’s young Americans find such hearts suitable, with the wife’s heart submissive to her husband’s? I don’t think so.

And yet compared to many other countries yesterday and today, Roman women were often fairly independent. They were not confined to a woman’s section in their homes, and they could circulate with relative freedom outside the house. They probably had little say about the husbands their families selected for them, but in contrast to polygamous societies, the bride did not have to share her husband with other wives, as Roman law allowed a man only one spouse (at a time). If the dictates of her heart drove her beyond the marital bed into the arms of a lover, her husband had the right to divorce her but not to kill her, as he might have done with impunity in earlier times.

Emperor Augustus, wishing to rein in married women’s sexual liberties, introduced the Lex Julia de adulteris in 18–17 BCE, which made adultery a serious crime. Ten years later he suddenly sent Ovid into exile and offered two causes for this radical judgment: a poem (presumably The Art of Love) and an unspecified “indiscretion.” In his battle against marital infidelity (which didn’t affect his personal behavior), Augustus did not spare members of his own family: both his daughter Julia and his granddaughter, the younger Julia, were banished for the same offense. Though Ovid was obliged to spend the last years of his life in exile on the distant shores of the Black Sea, he was not forgotten in Rome, where his works continued to be immensely popular.

DID GREEKS AND ROMANS BELIEVE THAT ALL-POWERFUL gods on Mount Olympus initiated love between humans? Let’s leave the last word to Ovid: “Gods have their uses, let’s believe they’re there.” Many of Ovid’s contemporaries shared his skepticism. Some Greeks and Romans were probably fervent believers, whereas others—certainly as far back as Plato—understood the gods as allegorical figures, character types, or divine essences. In Greek and Roman myths the gods acted just like human beings: they made love and war, experienced jealousy and rage, committed adultery, lied, cheated, seduced male youths and female maids, and sometimes even stole babes. They had no compunctions using their supernatural powers to conquer a love object for themselves or to cause a mortal to fall disastrously in love.

Their powers, like forces of nature, were fundamentally amoral, and the sexual love they promoted in humans was frequently destructive. For example, Medea, who helped Jason acquire the Golden Fleece, ended up murdering their children in a fit of rage when he abandoned her for another woman. Phaedra, who fell in love with her stepson, Hyppolitus, ultimately caused his death as well as her own. Helen, joined to Paris by the machinations of Aphrodite, subsequently became responsible for the Trojan War—the playwright Aeschylus aptly called her “a heart-eating flower of love.” In these and other instances ancient male writers endowed mythological females with hearts capable of the most horrendous deeds. Rarely was the heart united harmoniously with another heart; instead, it was often “eaten,” pierced, conquered, invaded, ripped apart, destroyed.

Still, Greeks and Romans looked to marriage as a possible incubator for tender, mutually loving hearts. Starting with Penelope and Odysseus in the Odyssey, Greek literature offered the picture of man and wife bound together by affection, family ties, and loyalty to one another. Whatever the daily life of Greek and Roman couples might have been—contentious, miserable, sweet, peaceful, or a mosaic of many possible emotional states—they at least paid lip service to an ideal vision of conjugal love. Flaming romantic love, such as we know it today, was to be feared rather than embraced.


  • "From Christian theology to erotic poetry, Shakespearean drama to contemporary heart symbolism, The Amorous Heart is a fascinating history of the heart as symbol, icon and inspiration."—Mercury News (San Jose, CA)
  • "Yalom's writing is always clear and thoughtful, and at times (in congruence with her subject) it verges on the mildly frolicsome."—Wall Street Journal
  • "A charming and curious account of the heart in Western culture."—Times Literary Supplement
  • "This history of the heart will woo romantics and iconographers alike."—Booklist
  • "Dynamic... Yalom's book is a scholarly and fresh approach to art history."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Fascinating and enlightening... Yalom takes us from the Ancient Egyptians (who believed the organ was the seat of amorous feelings) to the kitsch and commercialism of Valentine's Day and the advent of the emoji. We heart this book!"—Indulge Magazine
  • "[An] illuminating study... combines an impressive depth and reach of knowledge with an engaging style that serves the popular topic well."—Kirkus
  • "A fascinating journey into the meanings of the heart... full of references to a rich range of literature, opera, art, and everyday objects that together form an enlightening read."—Wellesley Magazine
  • "For anyone whose heart has ever palpitated in love or devotion, this is a thumping romp through the history of hearts--in love, literature, illuminated manuscripts, and valentine cards."—Christopher de Hamel, author of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts
  • "Lovers have histories; so do hearts. Sprouting in vines, burned in fires, frozen in icy jewels--the hearts in Marilyn Yalom's new book seem in sympathy with Yalom herself: they will their secrets--not to just anyone, but to her, such a warm writer, yes, they will confide."—Alexander Nemerov, author of Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine
  • "Another tour de force by one of America's leading cultural historians. Marilyn Yalom's account of the heart's symbolization as the seat of passion takes us from antiquity to the Middle Ages to valentine kitsch of our own age. An exquisite book full of historical surprises and revelations."—Robert Pogue Harrison, author of Juvenescence and The Dominion of the Dead

On Sale
Jan 9, 2018
Page Count
288 pages
Basic Books

Marilyn Yalom

About the Author

Marilyn Yalom is a senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, and the author of A History of the Wife, among other books. She lives in Palo Alto, CA, with her husband, Irvin.

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