♥ The Ancient Origin of the Heart-Shaped Valentine ♥
This very rare coin is a silver hemidrachm struck in Cyrene (modern Libya) around 500 to 480 BC. Both sides of the coin show the now extinct* heart-shaped silphium fruit. The silphium plant, a large relative of the fennel plant, was abundant and a lucrative cash crop in ancient Cyrene, which is why it appears as the symbol of the city on its coinage.
Since it allegedly went extinct, silphium is a bit mysterious to us. We do know that it was greatly prized for its medicinal and culinary properties. It was used as an herbal birth control method, thus forever associating the shape of its fruit with passionate love and thus, matters of the heart. Ancient writings also help tie silphium to sexuality and love. One such reference appears in Pausanias’ Description of Greece in a story of the Dioscuri staying at a house belonging to Phormion, a Spartan: “For it so happened that his maiden daughter was living in it. By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium upon it.”
Pliny reported in his Natural History that the last known stalk of silphium found in Cyrene was given to the Emperor Nero “as a curiosity,” because it was nearly extinct by then.
*There is some debate about whether or not this plant is really extinct. You can read about that on the Silphium Wikipedia page.