Love is a universal feeling that has been expressed through symbols across cultures and throughout history. These symbols represent the diverse ways that humans experience and demonstrate love. Some well-known love symbols include the heart shape, rose, dove, and Cupid.
One of the most ubiquitous symbols of love and romance is the heart shape. The association between the heart shape and love began in the late medieval period. The physical heart actually looks nothing like the stylized heart symbol. However, the heart shape may have been inspired by features of the human female body or different kinds of leaves and seeds.
By the 17th century, the heart symbol was firmly established as a metaphor for romantic love and affection in Europe. The “Sacred Heart” of Jesus also became an important Catholic symbol representing divine love. Today, images of hearts are used to represent love and romance in many contexts, from Valentine’s Day cards to engagement rings to tattoos.
Roses have symbolized love since ancient times. Rosebuds and garlands of roses appear in ancient Egyptian art and Greek mythology associated with love goddesses. Red roses represented Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Romans also believed white roses grew where the tears of Venus fell as she mourned the loss of her beloved Adonis.
During the Victorian era, different rose colors carried coded meanings. Red roses symbolized passion and desire, pink roses conveyed gentler affection, white roses signified true love, and yellow roses represented friendship or jealousy. Today, red roses in particular are considered the flower of romance and given to loved ones on occasions like Valentine’s Day and anniversaries.
In many cultures, doves represent love and faithfulness. The dove was a sacred animal associated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite and Venus. Doves also symbolized love and fertility in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India. In ancient Greece, dove blood was said to be red due to the bird’s association with Aphrodite.
In Judeo-Christian tradition, doves represent love and fidelity because they mate for life and share parenting duties equally. The dove appears in the story of Noah’s ark as the bearer of an olive branch, signaling hope, peace, and renewal after the Flood. Today, white doves are commonly released at weddings as symbols of the love between the bride and groom.
Cupid is the Roman god of erotic love and desire. He is often depicted as a winged, cherubic boy carrying a bow and arrows. The Romans adopted Cupid from the earlier Greek god Eros. In Roman mythology, Venus-Aphrodite sends Cupid to pierce the hearts of both gods and mortals with his arrows, causing them to fall madly in love.
In Renaissance art and later Western traditions, Cupid became a ubiquitous symbol of Valentine’s Day, romance, and courtly love. His arrows make their target feel passion, desire, and infatuation for another. Images of Cupid aiming his bow to inspire love became popular on Valentine’s cards in the 19th century and remain familiar love symbols today.
The custom of exchanging wedding rings originated in ancient Egypt, where the circle shape signified eternity. Circles have no beginning or end, symbolizing the eternal bond of marriage. Early Roman brides and grooms wore simple iron rings during the betrothal ceremony.
The durability and malleability of the metal gold has made it the preferred material for wedding rings. While styles have varied across cultures and eras, by the 20th century, the standard became a gold band worn on the left-hand ring finger. This custom gained popularity after World War II. Today, wedding rings signify devotion and the commitment of marriage for both women and men.
Since the early 2000s, “love lock” padlocks have become a popular tradition for couples around the world. The couple writes their names or initials on the lock, secures it to a public place like a bridge or fence, and throws away the key. This symbolizes their everlasting love. While not all cities allow love locks to protect architecture, they can still be found in places like Seoul, Cologne, and Paris.
Other Love Symbols
Here are some additional examples of objects that have represented love symbolically across cultures:
|Apple||Love and temptation in Greek mythology|
|Maple Leaf||Enduring love in Japan|
|Lock & Key||Guarding one’s heart, monogamy|
|Scarves & Rings||Eternal love and commitment in Celtic traditions|
|Lotus Flower||Purity and open heart in Hinduism and Buddhism|
|Mistletoe||Kisses and romance|
There are countless symbols and tokens representing romantic love across many cultures. Some are based in mythology and ancient tradition, while new symbols continue to emerge. Regardless of the particular emblem, love symbols speak to the universal human experience of caring, passion, and intimacy.
Types of Love
The symbols explored above generally represent romantic love between couples. However, philosophers and psychologists have described different classifications and forms that love can take. Understanding these distinctions provides a fuller picture of this complex emotion that inspires so much poetry, music, and art.
Companionate love involves emotional intimacy between close friends or family members. It combines affection, trust, respect, and compatibility without intense passion or lust. Companionate love is often found in long-term committed relationships after the fiery romance has faded. This type of abiding love remains caring while the intense infatuation evolves into secure attachment.
Fatuous love occurs during the early stages of romance when attraction and infatuation are high. This state brings arousal, exhilaration, and feelings of completeness. But fatuous love relies on passion without truly knowing the other person. As intimacy and vulnerability increase over time, this naive infatuation typically evolves into a more authentic loving partnership.
This term describes a relationship that lacks any of the core components of real love. Neither partner feels a sense of intimacy, commitment, passion, or emotional connection. They may stay together out of obligation, convenience or social pressure. However, empty love indicates the relationship lacks mutual understanding and growth.
Unrequited love refers to strong romantic feelings that are one-sided. The beloved does not reciprocate the loving emotions. While the causes vary, unrequited love always involves painful longing and desire without reciprocation. It highlights the vulnerability and risks that come with opening one’s heart to another person.
Lust vs. Love
Lust and romantic love are often intertwined at the start of a relationship. However, many philosophers argue that lust is a separate impulse based in physical desire rather than emotional intimacy. While lust can be a healthy part of romantic attachment, love depends on honesty, trust, and seeing the whole person.
Platonic love describes an affectionate relationship that is not sexual or romantic. Named for the philosopher Plato, this love is centered on close friendship, mutual understanding, and sharing life experiences. Platonic love prioritizes emotional intimacy over physical intimacy.
The concept of self-love has gained more attention in recent decades. This refers to fully accepting and caring for oneself as worthy of compassion. It emphasizes meeting one’s own emotional needs before seeking a romantic partner to “complete” you. Self-love is seen as a foundation for developing healthy relationships.
Expressions of Love
Symbols and classifications provide a broad understanding of love as an abstract concept and lived experience. But how do people translate these feelings into actions? Here are some of the most common ways that love is expressed:
- Words of affirmation – Saying “I love you,” writing love notes, expressing affection
- Acts of service – Helping with tasks, cooking meals, lending emotional support
- Giving gifts – From extravagant to handmade items or shared experiences
- Quality time – Dedicated conversations, dates, trips, activities
- Physical touch – Hugs, kisses, hand-holding, intimacy, sex
Individuals may have their own preferred “love languages” when giving or receiving care. However, words and actions that demonstrate true presence, commitment, and vulnerability are universal signs of love.
Love has inspired awe, delight, heartache, poetry, and art across human history. This complex emotion finds expression through both symbolic representations like Cupid and the heart as well as tangible caring actions. While the type or intensity of love may vary, at its core this sentiment reflects meaningful human bonds.
The symbols, categorizations, and expressions of love discussed here illustrate its multidimensional nature. Far from a simplistic feeling, love encompasses romance, friendship, family bonds, spirituality, and self-acceptance. There are countless symbols and stories of love yet to be created as individuals and cultures continue capturing this eternally fascinating aspect of human existence.