“We are humans, and that means we are symbol making beings. And symbols can move us as much as or more than facts" Anonymous history teacher
“Symbols are the imaginative signposts of life.” Margot Asquith
“In most cases, a good story connected to a strong symbol will last much longer and have more effect than any collection of mere facts”
Mac George Bundy, advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson
STORY AND SYMBOL: WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN
This week we celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to the ideas of true and romantic love. As in any culturally significant observance there are rites, behaviors, and symbols that mark the occasion. We are expected to tell people we care about that we love them, to give cards called “valentines” to people we care for, and ideally to play special music, to have special romantic meals, and to spend “romantic times” with someone. Cartoon hearts are seen everywhere, and the day is supposed to be all about the expression of love and togetherness. Of course, we live in a capitalistic and highly commercialized civilization, so there is always an economic interest behind any such cultural observance. Americans spend more money on Valentine’s Day than on any other single holiday except Christmas. According to the website Business Pundit, we spent over $15 billion dollars on the holiday in 2011, more than on Father’s and Mother’s Day combined. The cards, the dinners, the chocolate, and the flowers all add up. But to have reached that economic point, Valentine’s Day had to first be accepted as an important cultural idea. It needed to be embraced by us. And like any other strong cultural occasion, that means this day has to be wrapped in story and symbol.
The most accepted story about Valentine’s Day traces its origins to a Roman priest by the name of Valentine. In the late third century ACE the Roman emperor Claudius was engaged in a series of unpopular and costly military campaigns, and he was having a hard time getting men to join the Roman armies. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families, so he summarily banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When what Valentine was doing was discovered, Claudius had him beheaded on February 14, probably in the year 278 A.C.E. He was later made a saint, became a martyr for the Catholic Church, and became associated with romantic love and marriage. Supposedly he wrote notes to people while in prison, signing them, “From your Valentine.” Thus was a story and a tradition born.
Historians know that there really was a St. Valentine. But historians also know that there were at least three saints who were named Valentine. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists three martyrs with that name, and all are connected to a date in February. While that may seem strange to us, it is really not that surprising. Valentine, meaning, “having valor, righteousness, and strength,” was not that uncommon a name for Roman boys at the time. Just as happens now, parents then often gave children names that meant something: an ideal or hope. Historians also know that at that time there was a big February celebration in Rome called the Feast of Lupercalia. It was a pre-Roman pastoral festival dedicated to health, cleansing, renewal, and fertility. As a part of the occasion, the names of single Roman women were put into a box. Single men randomly picked a name out of the box and they were then allowed to romance the woman whose name they had drawn. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome many of these ancient Roman festivals were outlawed and/or converted into Christian fetes. In 496 ACE Pope Gelasius decided to put an end to the Feast of Lupercalia; he declared that February 14 would thereafter be celebrated as St Valentine’s Day, giving the day of his martyrdom a new meaning. People were to exchange simple gifts with loved ones such as grain, messages and flowers. The story of Saint Valentine sacrificing his life for love became a widespread and popular one, and he and the date of February 14 became forever associated with gift giving in the name of romance and love.
Eventually the story of Valentine’s devotion to true love became joined to the one thing all great stories need: a symbol. The heart has been important as a symbol since the time of the ancient Egyptians. They saw it as the most important organ of the body. This was the place in the body where wisdom, emotions, personality and more were all joined. They also believed that it was an important vehicle through which gods spoke to humans. Yes, they knew about the chambers of the heart and that blood circulated through the heart; they actually performed surgery that removed the heart. But the circulation of blood was not the most important job of the heart to them; its supposed link to all things emotional and intellectual was.
Greek and Roman cultures drew heavily from Egypt, so the heart became important to them as well. It was associated with emotions such as love, and by the 5th century BCE symbols on coins and in writings depicted the heart looking somewhat as it does on our Valentine’s Day cards, like a fat rounded ”V” with two joined curves at the top. Some historians say that particular shape was chosen because it looked like the seed pod of a plant called silphium, a plant used as a medicine and as a contraceptive in the ancient world. Others say it came about as an attempt by early graphic designers to represent what the heart looked like in early medical texts. Regardless, by the time of the Renaissance that shape had become a symbol of love throughout Europe. And as Europeans went to other continents, they took their symbols with them. That heart shape eventually became associated with love in most parts of the world. This hshape now abounds on all those valentine cards, in the design of boxes of chocolate, in TV commercials, and all over just about anything connected with love. The story had found its symbol, and the two would be forever linked.
The use of the heart as a symbol for love shows us just how powerful and persistent a given symbol can be, even in the face of contrary fact. In the 1640’s William Harvey put forth the notion that the heart was a muscle, and that its primary role was to keep blood circulating in our bodies; it had no connection to anything emotional or intellectual. By the middle of the 18th century that had become fairly common medical knowledge, and by the mid-20th century that was being widely taught in junior high school biology classes. We all know this as fact. Yet despite all this factual knowledge, we still associate the heart with love. We know that emotions are generated in the brain-we now even know that certain specific things can trigger a given emotion in a particular region of the brain. But our language and common ways of talking regularly ignores what we know to be true. We still say, “I’m heartbroken,” when we are disappointed in love. Or we say, “My heart is heavy with loss” when we acknowledge the death of a loved one. We place our hands over our heart when we say the Pledge of Allegiance. Our "hearts are lifted,” when we feel our mood dramatically improve, and are “downhearted” when the opposite happens. We still talk and think as if all these emotional things are connected to that muscle that keeps our blood flowing despite our knowing the facts. We do not say, “My brain is lifted when I am happy,” or, “It is with a heavy brain that I bring you this sad news.” And we definitely do not know a place on Lonely Street called “Brainbreak Hotel.” It is the “heart” we relentlessly talk about in such situations. And more knowledge or more education will probably not change that. We have our story and we have our symbol, damnit, and we’re sticking to them.
In all our celebrations and rituals, then, we can always see this link between story and symbol playing out. As humans we need that interaction between the two; that is where our emotions get touched, where our memories come alive, and where we can join together with other people. A good story with a good symbol helps us make sense of the world, and it also move us, whether it is on the political front, in movies, in art, in literature, in romance, or whatever. We create stories and symbols, and the joining of them is one of the things that mark us as humans-that strange animal that uses these things to try to interpret the world. We need them to make a space for ourselves in this world and to exist comfortably in it. Yes, we are also rational, and the rational side of our brain gets us through a lot and helps us greatly. Our rationality has helped us figure out important things about the universe, solve problems, create impressive inventions, design social and political systems, and much, much more. But we cannot or should not overlook how much we still depend on story and symbol to find our place in the world. If they can be linked to fact, it is so much the better. But even if they can’t, we still make regular use of them in figuring out the world and navigating this thing called life. They give us a way to find a place to stand. We have to use the two of them; we have to. After all, we are human, and this is what humans do.