9 Ancient Symbols of Love and What They Mean

Some of these symbols may surprise you.
Megan Lierley
by Megan Lierley
Updated Jan 13, 2022

Since many of us have just experienced the most uncertain two years of our lives, sometimes it's calming to remember that the entire world hasn't been upended. We still take a shower every day (OK, almost), it still gets colder in the winter, and even though it doesn't always feel like it, in the wise words of Hugh Grant in Love Actually, "love actually is all around."

So, whether you're looking for connection in times of uncertainty, or just want to learn more about how the ways in which we symbolize love have changed or stayed the same across centuries and cultures, let's explore some ancient symbols of love.

Apples

There's a lot to unpack when it comes to apples, going all the way back to the Old Testament of the Bible with Adam and Eve. There, the apple served as a sign of temptation. According to Greek mythology, however, the apple is a symbol of courtship. You probably remember Dionysus (the Greek god of wine), but did you know he presented apples to Aphrodite (the goddess of love) to win her love? Now, apples are widely seen as a symbol of health (an apple a day keeps the doctor away!), fertility, youth and beauty. So, the symbolism has evolved over time and may be less directly related to love than for previous generations.

Claddagh

You've probably seen a Claddagh ring before, whether or not you were aware. The Celtic love symbol is made up of three components: a crown to symbolize loyalty, a heart to symbolize love, and two hands that represent bonded friendship. The story takes place in Ireland, where, in the village of Claddagh lived a young man named Richard. While fishing with his family, he was captured by pirates and forced into slavery. In captivity, Richard worked for a goldsmith and each day he would save a speck of gold to craft a ring for Margaret, the lover he left behind. Today, people still proudly wear Claddagh rings to symbolize love. When the Irish symbol of love is worn on a person's left hand with the heart facing inward, it means the wearer is taken. If the ring is on the right hand with the heart facing outward, the person is looking for love.

Lotus

The lotus represents many things, depending on how many petals it has. A lotus flower with eight petals is said to represent peace and harmony, while a lotus with one thousand petals represents enlightenment and self-love. The lotus blossom appears frequently in both mythologies and religious rituals throughout Asia. In Buddhism, the color of the lotus flower also presents different meanings, with the red lotus symbolizing the heart-state of compassion and love.

Rose Quartz

Ask your friend who's into crystals what they'd recommend for love and you're bound to hear about this one. A long-lasting symbol of love, rose quartz is present in Greek mythology, including a story about Cupid. In this particular legend, Cupid and Eros brought rose quartz to humans to bring them love and hope. And the ancient Greeks weren't the only ones who found meaning in this beautiful crystal. For Romans and Egyptians, rose quartz meant beauty, whereas, for North Americans, it commonly represents balance and peace.

Swans and Storks

Both swans and storks represent love in different cultures and traditions. White swans are said to symbolize affection and devotion. You've probably seen images of two swans coming together, their heads coming together with their long necks to create a heart. Additionally, swans are said to mate for life. The swan is associated with the Greek and Roman goddesses of love, and even with the Virgin Mary. Storks, on the other hand, represent a different kind of love—and you can probably guess where this is going. Some cultures represent the stork with new life or having a baby, as the tale goes that storks deliver babies to their parents (we wish it was that simple!). In addition to birth, storks are seen as a sign of good luck.

Fabric

Did you know that even certain fabrics are symbols of love? Ribbons, lace and frills are historically connected to romance, beginning with knights giving a ribbon or scarf to their beloved before riding into battle. Women might also drop a lace handkerchief to show a potential suitor she was interested and wanted him to approach her. Today, we will see lace and ribbons associated with love as used in wrapping gifts, or even lacy lingerie.

Love Knot

A simple symbol of love, a "lover's knot" is a series of interlocked knots in which no single knot can be determined to be the true "true love knot." While sometimes called a Celtic love knot, there are actually many cultures and traditions with a variation of the symbol. It appears in both The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as a Hindu short story called "A Love Knot." Once commonly seen on sailors' wedding rings, this symbol of eternal love is still symbolized on jewelry worn today.

Red Rose

This one may feel like a gimme—we've all seen bouquets of a dozen red roses become omnipresent in the office or on campus on Valentine's Day. But red roses have been associated with love and passion for far longer than we've been around to admire their beauty. For starters, "rose" is an anagram of Eros, the Greek god of love. Legend has it that Aphrodite named this beautiful flower in honor of her son. Ancient Roman lore has something to say about roses, too. Newly married couples would wear rose crowns and their bed would be covered in rose petals (so that's where that tradition comes from!), linking roses to desire and sexual pleasure.

Maple Leaves

In China and Japan, the maple leaf is an ancient symbol of love. It can represent the reminder of the beauty of love in everyday life, as well as the sweetness that accompanies the early stages of a romantic relationship. And Japanese and Chinese cultures aren't the only ones turning to maple branches for signs of everlasting love. North American settlers really put a lot of stock into the humble maple leaf. They would not only place maple leaves at the foot of their beds to ward off evil but also to encourage sexual pleasure and peaceful sleep.

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