Hindu gods, Aztec rites, Blondie hits … why the heart is our eternal symbol | Culture

A man in Maryland has been given a pig’s heart as a transplant (genetically modified, phew), and the outdated chestnut rolls out once more: received’t that perhaps one way or the other make him … piggy? The rationalists snigger, and the surgeons reassure: it’s only a muscle! A pump!

Bodily, they could be proper (the heart is advanced and nonetheless not absolutely understood), however culturally they couldn’t be extra improper. Over millennia and throughout the world, the heart has additionally been a home, a guide, a rose, a pine cone, a pomegranate, a bunch of grapes, a pincushion, a wheel, a fountain, a picnic spot, a cup, a harp, a map. It flies, sinks, grows, breaks, rejoices, flutters, burns. It’s wounded with blades, sacrificed, given, stolen, swept, polished, eaten. Frida Kahlo painted it, as a pile of paint.

The heart is the solely human organ apart from the penis to maneuver past our management, and we’ve by no means bought over it. Think about being stone-age: you’re feeling it beat sooner if you’re offended, scared or lustful, if you hunt; you understand to shoot for the heart to kill. However you don’t know the way it works. Useless, it’s only a flesh whoopie cushion. No surprise magic and faith settled in. Adopted by love, braveness, honesty and the relaxation.

In Gilgamesh, the oldest written story, the hero’s heart beats with satisfaction. In an Egyptian poem, no less than 3,000 years outdated, a girl says: “My heart flutters rapidly after I consider my love for you; it lets me not act sensibly, it leaps from its place.” Be nonetheless my beating heart …


After dying, the Egyptian heart was weighed towards the Feather of Fact earlier than a panel of deities: fashions of scarab beetles carried prolonged prayers beseeching the heart to not converse out towards its proprietor. The true heart would go west throughout the Nile to spend eternity consuming cake with Osiris; the impure heart was itself eaten, by Ammit, a chimaera of crocodile, hippo and lion. As Hank Williams wrote centuries later: “Your cheatin’ heart will inform on you.”

Heart symbolism emerged naturally and seeped inexorably into all religions. Plato described the heart as two-sided, with chambers, which is echoed in the two tablets of the Ten Commandments in the Previous Testomony, the place legislation is written in the heart. In the Qur’an it’s made from glass, for God to see your ideas: it should be stored clear, to mirror God again clearly. That will not have been Debbie Harry’s level, nevertheless it was her picture. It was in love songs lengthy earlier than the Tune of Solomon’s “Set me as a seal on thy heart”. The Hindu gods Sita and Rama lived in the heart of the monkey god Hanuman 9,000 years in the past.

It makes a noise. It’s a drum, clearly. Way back, air was believed to go by it: in Sufi poetry it’s the reed flute, the ney. It has strings – the anatomical cordae tendinneae. By the seventeenth century, emblems – illustrations of spiritual factors for the illiterate – confirmed a Cupid-like little Jesus enjoying it as a harp. They confirmed hearts with wings, with eyes, even being circumcised. In some, little Jesus sweeps demons and sins out of a heart-shaped home. Chambers, proper? The logic is literal. A tenth-century Chinese language heart sutra is written in the type of a pagoda. Nuns in Germany embroidered expensive little heart chalets by which Jesus receives a drink, whereas the lamb of God sits on the chimney – neatly representing the aorta. Steps up are labelled with the virtues that should be proven with the intention to get there. Christ’s heart-house, speared open on the cross, is open to us. (In one other strand, the sacrament of his blood – the love – flowed into the Holy Grail, associating the heart with cups: “copas” was the authentic swimsuit in playing cards which turned hearts.)

The ancient Egyptian god Horus weighing the heart of the dead in a balance, in an image from the 28th dynasty, dating from around 400 BC.
The traditional Egyptian god Horus weighing the heart of the useless in a stability, in a picture from the twenty eighth dynasty, relationship from round 400 BC. {Photograph}: Print Collector/Getty Pictures

In Mexico, the best-looking younger Aztec males had been handled as gods for a 12 months – superb meals, musicians following them round, women – earlier than their hearts had been fed to the Eagle of the Solar. (The oldest recognized sculptural illustration of the heart is a 4,000-year-old Olmec ceramic, with two chambers, sprouting blood-vessels, and a head.) Many tribal societies would eat the heart of the enemy to accumulate their energy (medieval French troubadours sang of husbands serving the spouse together with her lover’s heart, and Mike Tyson was nonetheless threatening to eat Lennox Lewis’s in 2000). Mexico Metropolis is based the place a magician’s heart sprouted right into a prickly pear. All that syncretised neatly with Catholicism, linking again into the heart as edible fruit: the pomegranate, which represented Christ’s ardour in Renaissance Europe (echoing Persephone, who additionally rose from the useless in spring), the grapevine that Jesus needed to be (as a result of in any other case how may his blood be wine?), even the apple that Eve tasted, discovering self-knowledge. The heart of Mary, in the meantime, was a rose – besides the place speared with the arrows of her seven sorrows.

How the symbol skips and hops by cultures and occasions, echoing and shifting. In Tenth-century China, a map of the emotions of the heart; in Sixteenth-century Europe, Mercator utilizing the form as a projection for a map of the world.

And the place did that form come from, with the scalloped high and pointy backside? Till the 1300s, it was represented pine-cone formed, pointy find yourself. Galen mentioned it had “in medio fovum” – “in the center a ditch or pit”. Made seen, the ditch emphasises the damaged heart – open to new data, to let God, or love, in, or out. As Leonard Cohen sang: “There’s a crack in all the things, it’s how the mild will get in.”

So sure, it’s a pump. However not solely.

Louisa Younger’s new novel, Twelve Months And A Day, can be printed by Borough Press in Might

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