Love is a universal emotion, and conveying ideas through symbols is a universal activity. As it result, it makes sense that every culture has symbols of love. Many of these symbols are unique to specific cultures. Others are very specific and come from the unique stories and ideas of a distinct group of people. Even more, interesting, some symbols of love seem to be universal but have different origins in different cultures.
Here, we'll talk a little bit about symbols and their importance and history in psychology, and then we'll look at some symbols of love from around the world.
Symbols can generally be defined as actions or images that represent an idea through abstracts. Road signs use symbols to tell us that the road ahead will be curvy or that a hill is coming up. However, a photograph of the road or the road itself is not symbols because a photograph of a road is not abstract and the road itself is not representation - though both of those things can be used symbolically. For example, "the road" may symbolize the journey of life, or a photograph of a road may symbolize memories of travel or longing for adventure.
Symbols are used in every culture because they can facilitate communication more quickly than spoken or written language. They are also often effective if we are trying to communicate with someone who doesn't speak the same language as us because different cultures often share symbols.
Psychologists have long been interested in symbols and their meanings to different people and from different cultures. Specifically, the twentieth-century Psychologist Carl Jung was very interested in the significance and meaning of symbols. Jung believed that our dreams carry symbols from our subconscious minds - a part of ourselves that impacts our thoughts, actions, and feelings, even though we aren't aware of it. As he studied dreams and potential dream symbols, he noticed that people from all over the world had dreams with similar elements or even similar dreams. This leads him to the belief in what he called the "collective unconscious" - a level of consciousness that all people have in common, carried over from our earliest ancestors.
As mentioned above, people in different cultures often have the same symbols for the same things. Some of these are what Jung called "archetypes" - or universal elements of human experience stemming from our collective unconscious. Different cultures may have different variations on the meanings of different archetypal symbols, but the meanings are often very similar. For example, later in this example, we will look at how trees can be symbols of love in Europe and China even though the legends and are different, and the trees are different species. However, trees are thought to be a symbol of the connection between the earth, and the divine and forests are thought to represent our unconscious mind. So, the different trees and different legends connecting trees to love in different cultures may both speak to love as a way of making sense of our needs and desires by seeking the divine in one another.
Kissing and hugging are both common physical symbols of love.
Any time that we are close to another person, as in hugging and kissing, our bodies release oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called the "cuddle chemical." It's a "messenger molecule" responsible for feelings of calm. It's also important in forming bonds between other people, establishing trust, and even recognizing others. In the case of kissing, our lips have a high nerve density making them very sensitive - that's part of the reason that babies learn about the world by putting things in their mouths. Because hugging and kissing cause biological reactions that create feelings of love, it makes sense that all cultures would share these physical symbols of love. However, it also goes deeper than that.
In the prehistoric world, breath seemed to be the same as life. In many languages, including Hebrew, "spirit" and "breath" have the same word. Because breath moves through the mouth, touching the mouths together might have symbolized sharing lives to our ancient ancestors. Further, when we embrace others, we can feel their breathing, which similarly suggests closeness to one another in a spiritual sense. Further, kissing puts two peoples' faces very close together, giving them a great view of one another's eyes which have long been called "the windows to the soul."
Of course, the nose is also involved in breathing, and touching noses would also put us in good view of a partner's eyes. So, why don't we do that? Some of us do. It's commonly done in Polynesia.
The heart is another familiar symbol of love to many of us. Like breath, the circulation of blood facilitated by the heart is necessary for life. As a result, relating the heart to love emphasizes the importance of love as an element of human life and experience. The heart is also used to represent the center of something - as in "the heart of the city" - because the heart is in the center of the body. Similarly, a "broken heart" is used as a symbol of love lost and may reflect on a romantic partner being seen as a lover's "other half."
The heart isn't only a symbol of romantic love. Christian iconography often shows Jesus revealing or even holding his heart as a symbol of how the gospels describe his giving his life for the redemption of mankind.
Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on symbols of love. Many of the symbols of love around the world come from the ancient religious beliefs of the Greeks. The Greeks were replaced by the Romans, who adopted many of the Greek gods. Between the Greek and the subsequent Roman empire, this culture had a significant impact over much of Europe, Asia, and Africa for a thousand years. As a result, it's no wonder that many of our symbols of love still come from those traditions.
We'll talk later about flowers as a symbol of love, but that's partially related to Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring. Flora wasn't always a goddess - she was made a goddess by Zephyr, a wind god, an apology by taking her by force in a fit of passion as depicted in the Rennaissance painting Primavera Sandro Botticelli.
The Greek goddess Aphrodite, or the Greek Venus, was the goddess of beauty, which ancient philosophers closely linked to the idea of love. Rather than being born of parents, Venus appeared out of a cloud of sea foam. According to ancient myth, the rose came into being at the moment of her birth. In another Botticelli painting, The Birth of Venus, the goddess of spring is once again pictured, this time preparing to dress Venus in a robe of flowers further solidifying flowers as a symbol of love and linking love to the ideas of beauty, birth, and renewal that were already associated with spring and which still are in many ways.
However, Venus wasn't herself the goddess of love. Though her son, Eros to the Greeks and Cupid to the Romans, was. In some stories, Eros didn't have a set gender, and many ancient sources refer to Eros as a male or a female interchangeably. The ideas of love and beauty are closely linked for many of us, which is exemplified in the birth of love from beauty in ancient mythologies. The deity of love being both male and female speaks to the fact that love exclusive to neither male nor female experience but is common to both.
In one story, Venus hides Cupid from Cupid's intended lover, Psyche. Psyche is required to perform a series of tasks before being united with Cupid, one of which requires a trip to the underworld. The story speaks to the power of beauty to make the mind willing to go "to hell and back" for love.
Renaissance painters, like Botticelli, helped to pioneer the use of flowers as symbols in art. One of the flowers that they commonly used was the carnation, which was commonly used as a symbol of betrothal in their paintings. Carnations are also used in art as a symbol of marriage, according to art historian Miranda Bruce-Mitford. In more recent flower symbology, different colors of carnations are used to display different levels of emotion with a pink carnation symbolizing a crush and a red carnation symbolizing love.
The rose is largely seen as an archetypal symbol of beauty and love, although the kind of love differs. The rose's association with Venus implies an association with romantic love though, in some Christian traditions, roses were said to have grown out of drops of blood at Christ's crucifixion linking them with divine love and sacrifice.
In the Arthurian legend "Tristan and Isolde," told in "La Morte d'Arthur" by Thomas Malory. In the story, Tristan and Isolde are in love, but due to political disagreements, Sir Tristan is unable to see his Irish princess Isolde who was married to Tristan's uncle, the king of Wales. The two don't have a happy ending but die on the same day but are buried together, and roses grow out of their graves and vine together.
The flower Myrtle is also associated with Venus as well as with marriage in Britain. That's fortunate because in the 15th century England two sides in a civil war chose different colored roses as their emblems and were used to show allegiance to one faction or the other.
Another flower, Honeysuckle, is associated with love in France. The 12th-century poem, "Honeysuckle" by Marie de France expands a part of the story of Tristan and Isolde. In the poem, Tristan arranges to meet with Isolde because secretly
"He could no longer live that way
Cut off from the one he loved, for they
Were like the honeysuckle vine,
Which around the hazel tree will twine
Holding the trunk as in a fist
And climbing until its tendrils twist
Around the top and hold it fast
Together tree and vine will last
But then if anyone should pry
The vine away, they both will die."
In the poem, Tristan carves his name into a hazel tree to let Isolde know that he is nearby, which may have started the tradition of young lovers carving their names into the bark of trees.
A similar story of star-crossed lovers in China relates a young couple who run away to meet under a willow-tree, making that tree a symbol of love in China. This story also ends unhappily with the two lovers dying in a fire and their souls leaving the blaze as doves, another symbol of love.
Some symbols work together with elements of individual parts of symbols.
Wings are seen as a symbol of love for several reasons, including Eros/Cupid often being depicted with wings as well as the doves in Chinese mythology. As a result, hearts are often given wings in different artistic or symbolic contexts.
Similarly, the heart pierced by an arrow represents the pain the love and lost love can cause but is also a reference to Eros/Cupid.
Links have been provided above, where possible, for the exploration of some of the documents and images used in compiling this article. There are many bodies of work regarding symbolism and love that are good for endless study.
If you feel heartbroken, or like you've been shot with Cupid's arrow, you might need more help. If you need a hand navigating love or loss of love, visit https://www.betterhelp.com/online-therapy/ for information on connecting with counselors and therapists over your internet connection.