All About the Heart

by Christopher Xeneopoulos Janus

There is a universal fascination with the human heart, especially for me as it is considered the symbol of romantic love.

Every age and civilization has developed theories and beliefs about it.

It is celebrated as the home of faith and courage and the seat of the soul. No other organ has inspired so many poets, writers, painters and religious thinkers, and references to it around literature, art and religion, advertising, cultural kitsch, song lyrics, and every day language and imagery.

As a writer, especially when Iwas young, I became fascinated to know who said what and when.

For example, what happy young girl said "I love you with all of my heart." What sad girl said "You've broken my heart."

Who first in literature said "My heart says yes, but everything else says no."

It is better to have a broken heart then no heart at all. Who said "He's heartless" and who said "Ah, have a heart."

And then I began making a list of heart love expressions I could identify.

When Iwas inOxford, Iheard Margret Thatcher say "Ileave my heart at home when Igo to Parliment."

Lord Byron said "Maid of Athens, Ere we part Give oh give me back my heart."Melina Mercouri once said "My little dog has more heart than..." Marilyn Monroe was frequently quoted as saying "My trouble is Ithink with my heart." Jackie Onassis said "he is a great president because my husband has a great heart.
" Lina Horne said "Ising with my heart."

When Eleanor Roosevelt was asked about her relationship with various women she said "the heart has reasons of its own."Mae West is frequently quoted as saying "come up and see me and bring your heart."

On the train on my way to Chicago, I overheard two young girls discussing their boyfriends, and one said "Oh no, I have a stone in my heart for him."Katherine Hepburn said, "Women love with their hearts, en love by appointment."

While pursuing my special interest in the subject I have course read a good many articles and books about the heart and love and its' history.

Louisa Young has written one of the best, if not THE best books of the heart, simply called The Book of the Heart. It's very comprehensive, scholarly, and as she would say written by the heart.

I have found research on the history of the heart by centuries and here are some of the results.

10,000-8,000 B.C.E.

The heart symbol, the popular icon for the heart, can be traced to before the last Ice Age. Cro-Magnon hunters in Europe use the symbol in pictograms, though it remains a mystery exactly what meaning it held for them. The symbol will not become universal until the Middle Ages.

2,500 - 1,000 B.C.E.

The Egyptians believe the heart, or the ieh, is the center of life and morality. Egyptian mythology states that after death, your heart is taken to the Hall of Maat, the goddess of justice. There your heart is weighed against the Feather of Maat.

If your heart is lighter than the Feather, you join Osiris in the afterlife. If you fail the test on the scales, then the demon Ammut eats your heart, and your soul vanishes from existence.

400 - 200 B.C.E.

Ancient GReeks hold the heart to the center of the soul and the source of the heat within the body. They also make some clever medical assertions.

Scholars and physicians such as Hippocrates and Aristotle see the connection between the heart and lungs and seem to be aware of its pumping action.

43 B.C.E. - 17 C.E.

The ancient Romans understand that the heart is the single most vital organ in sustaining life, as evidenced in the following quote from the Roman author, Ovid. "Although Aesculapius himself applies the herbs, by no means can he cure a wound of the heart." Aesculapius is the Greek deity of medicine and healing.


Early Americans recognize the importance of the heart.

The Teotihuacan culture in the Mexico believes that every human being contains several different spiritual forces.

Most of these may leave the body at certain times, such as when one is dreaming. However, the teyolia. The spiritual force that is associated with the heart, must remain within the body at all times, or the person will die.


The image of the heart becomes very important in Christian theology. The Sacred Heart, which is usually seen emitting ethereal light and suffering from wounds, is seen as a symbol for Jesus Christ and his love.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart reaches a high point in the Middle Ages, where it is seen in works of art and is mentioned constantly in prayers and doctrine. It remains an icon even today.

The Persian poet Omar Kahyyam wrote this immortal verse in his rubaiyatt. Ah Love! Could you and I with Him conspire to grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire, Would not we shatter to bits - and then Re-mold it near to the Hearts Desire!


Scholars begin to question accepted views of the heart.

Scholars and physicians such as Andreas Vesalius, the father of modern anatomy, and Michael Servitus makes several key observations about the anatomy of the heart, while Leonardo da Vinci becomes the first artist to draw a truly accurate sketch of the organ.


William Harvey publishes, "An Anatomical Study of the Motion of the Heart and the Blood of Animals," which details for the first time the idea of circulation and how blood travels throughout the body, propelled by the pumping of the heart. The idea is a major breakthrough and will revolutionize the way the world thinks about the human body.


A freak accident leaves the son of an English aristocrat with a gaping hole in his chest. This allows people actually to look inside his chest to observe the heart, and even reach in and touch it, if they so desire (King Charles I of England did).

Several physicians examine the young boy, including William Harvey. As unlikely as it seems, the young nobleman appears to have lived a perfectly healthy life despite the permanent wound.


The Western cultural idea of the heart has taken on innumerable meanings. It is the center of all functions, feelings, and thoughts. It is the seat of the soul and the center of courage and intellect, the "Prince of all Bowels."

Arguably, the heart is the single most important word in the human language referring to the mind and the body.


Physicians attempt to operate on the heart, specifically on the pericardium.

One of Napoleon's surgeons, the Baron Dominique Jean Larrey, performs the first such operation. Despite the successful surgery on the pericardium, the patient dies within a month.

A few other physicians, such as Francisco Romero and Michael Skielderup, attempt similar operations. Most of the patients die.


The popular icon of the heart continues to be important in many cultures. In the Voodoo religion, the heart becomes the symbol of Erzulie, the Ioa of love, beauty, and purity.

InAfrica, the Asante people of Ghana develop Adinkra, the hand-embroidered cloth that represents social thought and Asante beliefs. The heart icon becomes a major Adinkra symbol, representing love and closely resembling the symbol for wisdom.

Finally, I want to close with an unforgettable experience I had regarding this subject. In the 1950's I had a small coal mining operation in Brazil near the Amazon.

The coal mine was also not far from the Leper Colony, I knew the doctor at the colony who was from Harvard and I once asked him to introduce me to someone who had leprosy and would not mind talking about it. It was understood that lepers did not feel ill, there was this serious disfiguring of the body and eventually complete deterioration.

My doctor friend introduced me to a young couple in their thirties who had come over to Africa to work the rubber trees on the Amazon. This is where he got leprosy and his wife who would not leave him eventually got it too. Leprosy is very contagious.

He held the hand of his wife while we talked, a very pretty girl but the left side of her face and neck were disfigured and his right arm and leg were badly affected. He looked her in the eyes as he spoke and said "This awful thing changes the way we look but it cannot change the heart and affect our love" and he kissed his wife. Frankly, I nearly cried.

The doctor would not let me touch the couple or shake hands goodbye. But it is an experience I will never forget.

(Posting date 31 October 2008)

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