Love is a universal human emotion that has been expressed in cultures around the world for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations used various symbols to represent the concept of love. These symbols took many different forms, from characters in ancient scripts to geometric shapes and images from nature. Understanding the origins and meanings of ancient love symbols provides insight into how love was understood and expressed in the distant past.
One of the most recognizable symbols of love and romance is the heart shape. The iconic, symmetrical heart with a V-shaped dip on the top and rounded curves on the bottom is found today on Valentine’s Day cards, intimate apparel, and endless other contexts related to love and relationships. But this familiar heart shape actually dates back thousands of years and predates its association with the physical human heart.
Some of the earliest heart shapes in visual culture come from the Mesopotamian civilization, appearing in artifacts dating between 3500-2000 BCE. Certain cuneiform characters representing words meaning “heart” or “inside” displayed the double-curve shape we now associate instantly with love and affection. The ancient Mesopotamian city-state of Uruk appears to have been the origin point for these early heart symbols associated with romantic love.
The ancient Egyptians also made use of a heart symbol in the context of sensuality and pleasure. Their heart images resembled the seed pod of the plant silphium, which was used as an early form of birth control. The shape of the silphium seed pod matches very closely to the symmetrical V-based heart shape we know today. This symbol appears frequently in Egyptian erotic artwork and other cultural objects related to love and fertility.
So while today we understand the heart first and foremost as a representation of the physical organ, this was not the original symbolic meaning in ancient cultures. The heart shape as a symbol of romantic love evolved separately from its anatomical association and dates back thousands of years to Mesopotamian and Egyptian iconography.
Another globally recognizable symbol of love is the image of two doves. Doves are a species of white pigeon found in most parts of the world, known for their gentle nature. Reports of doves pairing for life contributed to their perception as icons of loyalty and lasting love in the ancient world. The dove became an emblem of romance and enduring monogamous unions.
In ancient Mesopotamia, doves represented the fertility goddess Ishtar, who later became associated with the planet Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Temples dedicated to Ishtar often displayed doves. These monogamous birds symbolized the ideal romantic relationship between the goddess and her partner.
Doves were also prominent in the love goddess cults of ancient Greece and Rome. The Greek goddess Aphrodite and her Roman counterpart Venus rode in chariots pulled by doves. Followers left dove images and offerings at temples and shrines dedicated to these deities. In this context, doves signified the goddess’s powers related to romance, procreation, and sensual pleasure.
Similarly, ancient Egyptians considered doves living representations of tender affection between lovers. Turtle doves were associated with the Egyptian love goddess Hathor, representing her caregiving gentleness. But the dove iconography in Egypt could also take on more explicit sexual meanings, with depictions of doves copulating as symbols of eroticism.
Across ancient civilizations from East to West, the dove consistently served as an emblem of idealized romantic love and sexual desire. The loyalty of mated dove pairs provided a model for human relationships. Images of doves came to symbolize the affectionate bonds between lovers, both earthly and divine.
Roses are often called the flower of love and given as tokens of affection. The rose has had a rich symbolic history going back to the ancient world. Different rose colors had various meanings related to romance and passion.
In ancient Greece and Rome, roses were sacred to Aphrodite/Venus as the goddess of love. Red roses were connected to the deity’s erotic qualities and deeper romantic attachments. The ancient Romans also associated certain rose colors with Venus’s husband Vulcan, the god of fire. Pink roses represented Vulcan’s flames of desire for his beloved wife.
Ancient Egyptian artwork depicts roses frequently, especially in association with queens and femine divinities. The Egyptians placed particular meaning on the colors of roses. Blue roses symbolized rebirth and hope, while yellow roses represented friendship. Red and pink roses had similar amorous implications across Greek, Roman, and Egyptian societies.
Roses appear frequently in ancient Indian tradition as symbols of love and beauty as well. Lord Krishna is often called “the rose of springtime” in Hindu poetry. Red roses epitomized divine and human passion, while white roses signified purity and spiritual love.
Chinese artwork going back to ancient times also depicts roses, especially in images associated with the gods of marriage. One folktale tells of a young couple who exchanged red and pink roses as pledges of true love. Roses thus became tokens of loyalty and desire across cultures worldwide from a very early time period.
|Ancient Civilization||Love Symbol||Meaning|
|Mesopotamia||Heart shape||Romantic passion|
|Egypt||Turtle doves||Affection, sexuality|
|Greece/Rome||Red roses||Erotic love|
This table summarizes some of the major ancient love symbols from key civilizations and their associated meanings:
Love is a complex emotion that has been expressed via symbolism since ancient times. Recurring love symbols across cultures include hearts, doves, and roses. Although the shapes and images vary, these symbols consistently represent romantic passion, lasting affection, and the sensual aspects of love.
Ancient civilizations turned to these love symbols in cultural expressions like paintings, jewelry, and poetry. Though the symbols originated thousands of years ago, they remain hallmarks of romance and enduring attachment in the modern world. The diverse meanings behind both universal and culture-specific love symbols reflect the complexity and timelessness of human connections.