The ❤ in Heart Month

This is the first in a series of posts recognizing American Heart Month.

By Megan Marz

Don’t have plans yet for this Feb. 14? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers the following suggestion: “Make a date with your heart! February is American Heart Month, and Valentine’s Day is a great time to start taking steps to be heart-healthy.” As employees of an institution focused on improving people’s health, we can’t argue with this advice. But it made us wonder: Why does Valentine’s Day, that candy-filled, Cupid-kissed holiday, seem particularly heart-friendly to the CDC? Put another way, why does the organ that pumps our blood bring to mind love and romance?

The Heart as a Symbol

Exploring the origins of such symbolism, the cultural historian Ole M. Høystad points out that love is only one of many emotions the heart represents:

“We talk about being light-hearted, being sick at heart, not having the heart to do something, of losing our heart,” he writes. “… We can find something heartbreaking and have our heart in our mouths; the heart can be squeezed, broken or crushed because we have been struck to the heart. And that the heart has something to do with the intellect can be seen from the expression ‘to learn by heart.’”

According to Høystad’s A History of the Heart, the organ has had such powerful associations since the beginning of recorded history: At a crucial point in the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, the eponymous hero offers a heart to the gods. Among all the internal organs, ancient Egyptians replaced only the heart before sealing back up an embalmed corpse and wrapping it in linen. Aristotle saw the heart as the origin of the other organs and the seat of the soul. Continue reading