“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
“We are humans. That means we are symbol making beings, and that means symbols can move us much more than facts.”
Anonymous history teacher
This week we celebrated 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 candy and cards called “valentines” to people we care for, and ideally to play special music, have special romantic meals, and 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. People in commercials kiss, hold hands, and smile at each other, and look at each other with clear undying devotion.
Of course, there are lots of people who think of this day as overly corny and unnecessary. Many of us who are without partners can tend to be saddened by it or, alternately, angry at it. But it is an important part of US culture, and we cannot deny or ignore it. Americans spend more money on Valentine’s Day than on any other single holiday except Christmas, so it is something major of which we are all aware. According to the website Business Pundit, we spent over $ 26 billion dollars on the holiday this year, more than on Father’s or Mother’s Day last year. The cards, the dinners, the chocolate, and the flowers all add up. It clearly means a lot ot a lot of people, and of course, businesses. 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 a story and symbol.
We have all probably heard the most accepted story about Valentine’s Day and the person for whom it is named. This story traces the day’s 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. That is why we have so many people in our culture named after Christian apostles and saints, or political heroes. Every culture does this as a way of passing on ideals and legacies.
Historians also know that at this time there was also a big February Roman pastoral festival dedicated to health, cleansing, renewal, and fertility. It was called the Feast of Lupercalia, and in one part of the festival 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 the 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 associated with gift giving in the name of 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 had been important as a symbol since the time of the ancient Egyptians. They saw it as the most important organ of the body. They believed 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 did some forms of heart surgery. But that circulation of blood was not the most important job of the heart to them; it's supposed link to all things emotional, spiritual, and intellectual was.
Greek and Roman cultures drew heavily from Egypt, so the heart was important to them as well, 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: 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 naturally took their symbols with them. That heart shape became associated with love in most parts of the world and now abounds on all those Valentine's 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 that heart as a symbol for love shows us just how powerful and persistent a given symbol can be, even when it contradicts fact and truth. 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. By the middle of the 18th century that had become commonly accepted medical knowledge, and by the mid-20th century was being widely taught in junior high school biology classes. We all know this fact. We know that emotions are generated in the brain-we now even know that certain specific things can trigger a specific emotion in a particular region of the brain. But our cultural knowledge and common ways of talking regularly ignores our factual knowledge. We still associate the heart with love. 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 not change that. We have our story and we have our symbol, damnit, and we’re sticking to them.
It seems humans need to make these stories and these symbols. That is the way we humans behave and make our way through much of the world. Yes, we are also quite “rational.’ Our rationality allows us to do many incredible things, ranging from cooking to simple toolmaking and using up to nuclear physics and more. But in our day to day, most common lives, we function with links between stories and symbols. We seem to need this to help us navigate the world. For better or worse, as Valentine’s Day shows, this is part of what makes us human.
(For an article on what Ancient Egyptians knew about the heart:
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