From Greek mythology to Hindu motifs, cultures around the world have used a range of symbols to represent love in Eastern and Western art. Beyond the traditional hearts and roses, there are many lesser-known emblems that have come to symbolize love. Today, symbols of love are used in a variety of industries and disciplines including the visual and performing arts, antiques—even greeting cards.
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, we explore some of the most decorated love symbols from a variety of cultures, each of which bears its own origin and meaning.
Apples appear in many different religious traditions, and though each have their own distinct reference, they all depict the fruit as a symbol of love, desire, and abundance. In Greek mythology, the apple serves as a prominent symbol of courtship. It is said that Gaia, the Primordial Goddess of Nature, gave apples to Hera during her wedding to signify lasting love and eternal union. Gratified couples as far back as the 7th century B.C. would share apples at their weddings in hopes of a fruitful, bonded relationship.
In Norse mythology, many would eat apples from the garden of the goddess of youth, Iðunn, in attempt to ward of disease and retain their beauty. In Chinese culture, apple blossoms represent adoration.
The Claddagh symbol is most prominently fashioned into Celtic rings, but appears in other forms of jewelry as well. The symbol is associated with the Irish folktale of Claddagh, a village outside the city of Galway, in which a young man named Richard, who was out fishing with his family, was captured by pirates and forced into slavery. According to the tale, Richard was constrained to work for a goldsmith where he inevitably learned the craft. Everyday he stole a speck of gold that he intended to use to make a ring for his beloved back home, Margaret.
As the legend goes, Richard eventually saved up enough gold specks to craft a ring, in hopes of someday presenting it to his loved one. When he finally escaped, he returned to give the beautiful ring to Margaret, who accepted it lovingly. The Claddagh symbol has three components: a crown, which symbolizes loyalty, two hands, which represent a bonded friendship, and a heart, which denotes love.
The likeness of Cupid — a young boy, armed with a bow and arrow which he uses to pierce people’s hearts so that they fall desperately in love — has become a symbol synonymous with Valentine’s Day.
In Greek mythology, he was known as Eros, the son of Aphrodite (goddess of love and beauty). In Roman mythology, Cupid is the god of love, son of Venus and Mars. Often, he is depicted in art as a blindfolded figure, which is meant to represent love’s blindness.
Doves have long been considered symbols of love and peace. Along with their cooing and bowing courting rituals, doves mate for a lifetime, which has come to symbolize fidelity. Often, a depiction of two doves together translates to everlasting, eternal love. In Greek and Roman mythology, doves were sacred animals, and many depictions of the goddess of love featured the white birds fluttering around their bodies.
The harp is another ancient symbol of love that bears a variety of meanings across different cultures. In Celtic culture, the harp represents a bridge of love, connecting heaven and earth. In Norway and Iceland, it is believed that the strings of the harp form a ladder, which symbolizes the ascent to higher states of love. Harps have also been used prominently in love songs due to their gentle, cascading sound characteristics.
This aromatic white flower is a powerful symbol of love, especially within the Hindu religion. Its significance is believed to have originated in the foothills of the Himalayas, considered sacred ground in India. Hindu goddesses are often depicted wearing garlands of Jasmine, with the distinctly white petals symbolizing purity.
Kokopelli is a musically talented fertility deity with roots in Native American culture. He is depicted with a plumed headdress while blowing his flute, and has appeared in pottery, cave art, and folklore dating back thousands of years. The love-flute that Kokopelli carries was said to be used by a man to attract his maiden, and was destroyed by the two after they were married. Kokopelli symbolizes a range of subjects including fertility, courtship, and matrimony.
The Celtic love knot is an ancient symbol that represents eternal love through an interlacing design which seemingly has no beginning or end. The intertwining design also represents the binding of two souls. The love knot originated around the 3rd century B.C., first appearing in works of art from the Roman Empire. The motif was later adapted by the Christians around 450 A.D. to adorn illuminated manuscripts and incorporate into the designs of high crosses. Today, it is still a commonly used design for Celtic wedding rings.
The maple leaf is an ancient symbol of love, most notably in China and Japan. Like the sweet sap from its tree, which ultimately produces maple syrup, maple leaves represent the sweetness and wonder of love in daily life. The tree’s leaves became a popular motif in Japanese ukiyo-e art, a style of woodblock print and painting that flourished during the Edo period, when artists focused on depicting the sensory pleasures of life.
Osram Ne Nsoromma
Adinkra is a cotton cloth produced in West Africa which has traditional Akan symbols stamped on it. These symbols represent popular proverbs, often conveying more meaning than a single word can. Osram Ne Nsoromma is one of those symbols, and it consists of a star and half moon. The moon and star together represent the harmony that exists in the relationship between a man and a woman, and serves as a symbol of love.
Ancient Greek and Roman cultures associated roses with Aphrodite and Venus, respectively; both goddesses of love. Since, roses have been recognized as symbols of love and beauty. Each color rose has further meaning:
- Yellow: joyful love
- Red: passionate love
- Pink: true love
- White: innocence and purity
Like many other symbols of love, shells, and conch shells in particular, are one of the main objects associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love. Many kinds of seashells have come to be associated with the protectiveness of love, as their hardened casing protects the precious pearl that grows inside the shell of a mollusk.
Throughout history, different cultures have depicted love and affection through an array of symbols. Many representations, like the Irish claddagh, derive from ancient mythology and cultural folklore. Today, these talismans offer storied objects, thoughtful gift ideas, and meaningful ways to show affection.