From its physical attributes to its power as a literary metaphor to its religious significance, and beyond, here is the captivating story of the role of the heart in our lives and culture.
There is a universal fascination with the human heart. Every age and civilization has developed theories and beliefs about it, which overlap, support, and sometimes undermine one another. it is celebrated as the home of faith, love and courage, the seat of the soul. No other organ has inspired so many poets, writers, painters, and religious thinkers, and references to it abound in advertising, cultural kitsch, song lyrics, and everyday language and imagery. Shedding light on the heart's many mysteries and meanings, the chapters in THE BOOK OF THE HEART explore:
· The Physical Heart: a natural history of the heart; its strengths and weaknesses; the anatomy of the human heart
· The Religious Heart: the bleeding heart; the sacrificial heart; the heart's place in cannibalism and other rituals.
· The Heart in Art: visual depictions of the heart from classical art to tatoos; fruits and other symbols of the heart
· The Written Heart: poetry and song; romantic love, myths, and legends; the novel
Filled with fascinating tidbits (for instance, a giraffe requires a heart weighing sixty-six pounds to pump blood up its neck) and graced with charming illustrations, THE BOOK OF THE HEART is a great Valentine's Day Gift and the perfect book to pick up for some heartening entertainment any time of the year.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
LOUISA YOUNG, a freelance journalist, is a reviewer for The Sunday Times (London), writes regularly for The Guardian (London), and contributes articles to magazines and national newspapers in the United Kingdom. She is the author of two novels and one previous nonfiction book. She lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
the history of the
of the heart
Before embarking on the uplands of the heart's emotional and spiritual manifestations, let's look at what it undeniably is. It is a pump made of muscle, and it moves blood around the body. It took us a very long time to discover this, and the story of this discovery is both strange and beautiful.
The spiritual significance of the heart, in Egypt and elsewhere, contributed directly to anatomical ignorance of it: religious and magical beliefs precluded finding out more. The hope of, desire for and belief in some form of life after death was universal among human cultures. Who could swear it would not involve the resurrection of the body? Cutting up the body to see how it worked was, for generation on generation and across the world, taboo. Anatomical knowledge therefore depended on what butchers saw inside the animals they slaughtered, and what priests saw in the animals they sacrificed and in whose innards they fossicked for knowledge of the future. None of these was necessarily interested in anatomy; none that we know of kept a record or tried to educate others beyond passing on professional skills. The medicine men of primitive societies did sometimes open a body, but only to look for signs of magic: anatomical knowledge was not a useful thing to them.
the ancient egyptians
The Egyptians specialized in cutting the human body: their religious rites specifically required them to open the thoraxes of corpses in the course of mummification, and to remove certain organs. So why didn't they garner anatomical knowledge along the way? Those doing this cutting were embalmers, unconnected with medicine. Their job was to preserve the body for eternity, not to uncover its secrets. The disemboweling rites, out of respect for the body, involved only tiny cuts. Ancient Egypt had sophisticated medical and surgical practices, but they were based on limited and prescribed ancient knowledge; when the Egyptians started writing things down, contemporary anatomical investigation was not something they considered. The heart--which anyway was not removed during embalming--was above all for them a spiritual entity.
The twenty-meter-long Ebers Papyrus (1550 b.c.) contains a book which opens thus:
The Beginning of the Secret of Medicine. Knowledge of the pulse of the heart. Knowledge of the heart . . . There are vessels for every part. In each place where each healer, each priest of Sekhmet, each magician puts his fingers--on the nape, on the hands, on the place of the heart, on the two arms, on the two feet--everywhere he encounters the heart, by its channels to all the parts.
They had identified the heart, the vessels and the pulse. They were not the first: the forty clay tablets of the Mesopotamian Treatise of Medical Diagnosis and Prognosis, which is dated circa 650 b.c. but records far older Sumerian and Assyrian healing traditions, also recognized that the pulses were informative in diagnosis. (This knowledge was completely bound up in magic: a tablet from 2000 b.c. reads, "When a woman gives birth to an infant that has the heart open and has no skin, the country will suffer calamities." The Mesopotamians believed the liver to be the seat of life, and used it in divination, before it lost its status forever under Christianity: it was associated with pagan divination and low, base urges--concupiscence and lust and greed.)
Another Egyptian text, Der Grosse Medizinische Papyrus der Berliner Museum, speaks of "The system of circulation of man in which is found all his maladies . . . [the vessels] bring air to his heart and it is they that give air to every part of his body." Now, the circulation of the blood per se was not discovered and proven until William Harvey demonstrated it in 1618, but it seems the ancient Egyptians may have had an idea of it (the Atharvaveda--see page xx--mentions circulation in the vessels 2,500 years before Harvey). The Egyptians knew that air came in through the nose to the heart and lungs, and was circulated to all the limbs--which if you read oxygen for air is true, though they hadn't clarified the complexities.
The Egyptians believed that the body was fashioned by Khnum, the potter god, who "knotted the flow of the blood to the bones" and formed "the spine to give support, the testicles to move, the arm to act with vigour . . . The heart to lead, the loins to support the phallus in the act of begetting . . ." and so on, all "by the will of his heart." The heart, they thought, slowly grew larger and heavier until the age of fifty, and then began to shrink again, just as slowly. It spoke in pulses to the organs and body parts through the metu, which included blood vessels, tendons and long thin muscles, respiratory vessels and possibly the digestive system too, as they all joined together at the anus, and this speech could be interpreted by taking the pulse. (Debdeb, the ancient word for the noises made by the heart, is charmingly similar to the lubdub used by modern Western doctors.) The vessels carried secretions, humors, blood, sperm, feces, air, the breath of life and the breath of death.
These fluids moving through the vessels were considered similar to the Nile and its canals: Herodotus observed that "every month for three successive days [the Egyptians] purge themselves, for their health's sake, with emetics and clysters"--the equivalent of clearing an irrigation ditch. If the feces backed up toward the heart, you could become very sick. The heart governed the flow, and had a life, moods and requirements of its own. If it wandered--and it might--it was important to persuade it back into position: a heart in its place denoted good health. Even now, our heart can be in our mouth, or in our boots, neither of which gives us the same comfort and security as knowing that our heart is in the right place. (In the sixteenth century the equivalent was: "Your hert is in your hose, all in despaire.")
For doctors, dealing with diseases rather than wounds (doctors and surgeons traditionally carried out different functions and were often a little adversarial), the heart was paramount. Many terms for sicknesses of the heart survive in hieroglyphs. Paragraph 855 of the Ebers Papyrus is a series of explanations of terms used to describe heart sicknesses. The heart can suffer from wiauyt, old age; wegeg, weakness; fet, turning aside; maset or mas, kneeling; ad, decay. It can be weary as though from traveling far, constricted, small: all these descriptions have been associated with what we now term heart failure. Congestive heart failure might be indicated by igep, bah and meh, meaning "flooded" and "drowned." "The heart is covered up," or "a liquid of the mouth" suggests pulmonary edema and left ventricular failure, which can in extreme cases lead to frothing at the mouth. A heart that is deher, rut or nepa (bitter, dancing or fluttering) is considered by modern medical diagnosis to be enlarged or displaced, though poets and people in love might recognize the symptoms as something else. Other descriptions, eloquent if unplaceable, include sesh, the heart that spread itself out, with its metu holding feces; wesher, where it dries up; aq, where it perishes; meht, where it is forgetful (these two are caused by the breath of the lector priest); djednu, hot; depet, powerless, dark because of anger; neba, unclear, something entering from the outside; and wekh, shrouded in darkness.
The Ebers Papyrus includes what is possibly a description of angina: "He suffers in his arm, his breast and the side of his stomach. One says concerning him: It is the wadj disease. Something has entered his mouth. Death is approaching." The prognosis and symptoms are correct; wadj can mean green, arguably the skin color of someone suffering an attack of angina. What "enters" is usually a disease-causing demon. Fascinating work has been done in this area, but in many ways we remain wekh, partly because though there were separate words for the heart/soul--ib--and the organ--haty--there was a great deal of shared territory between the physical and the spiritual: the body had not yet been artificially separated from the soul. A description of what sounds like a physical heart condition might equally be an emotional or spiritual condition, or a combination of the two.
The Egyptians were themselves fairly wekh when it came to treatment: remedies to cool the heart were among the most common; amulets were popular, in the shape of an admired animal or body part--hearts appeared frequently. The amulets would be made of red stone--jasper, carnelian or red glass--or porcelain, or wax, and inscribed with a human head or with verses from the Book of the Dead to give the wearer power in the afterlife. Another "timely remedy" was "to prevent illness by having the greatness of god in your heart."
The earliest Chinese medical texts, 3,000 years old, speak, like those of the ancient Egyptians, of the significance of the pulse. The Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor explains how the flow of qi, vital energy which could be compared with the Greek pneuma (see page xx), round the body is vital to good health, and is measured by the pulse. When the Yellow Emperor declared that he "should like to be informed about Nature to the utmost degree and to include information about man, his physical form, his blood, his breath of life, his circulation and his dissolution; and I should like to know what causes his death and his life and what we can do about all this," his adviser Ch'i Po started to explain: "According to the final calculations Nature begins as one and ends as nine . . ." and proceeded to divide man into three, and each part into three (the heart, for example, is attended to by the element of man in the middle regions). The liver controls the soul; the heart controls the shin, the spirit or "divinely inspired part"; the spleen...
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