Tuesday 30 December 2014

The Cabinet of Curiosities: The Human Heart - Louisa Young

My proposal for the Cabinet of Curiosities is one of the most curious items I have ever come across: the human heart. We all have one; most of us will never see one. We all know what it is, very few of us can explain how it works. There exists a universal fascination with it which no other organ shares, not even the brain, so complex and mysterious, and only now beginning to give up its secrets. The future may belong to the brain, but the past belongs to the heart.

When I first wrote about the heart, in The Book of the Heart (2001), people would say 'Oh - the physical heart? Or the emotions?'

'Both,' I would reply, because the heart is above all two things at once: full and empty, moving and still, left and right, ventricles and atria, physical and spiritual, red and blue, oxygenated and non-oxygenated, body and soul, sacred and profane, god and man, hard and soft, recipient and creative, male and female, suction and expulsion. It is a muscle, a pump for blood, and yet it is the home of love, courage and religion; it is full of blood and of symbolism. Every age, every culture and every religion has ideas and beliefs about the heart which support, overlap and undermine each other; we have always known the heart's vital importance, and assigned similar reasons for it.

Here is an anthropomorphic Olmec heart, 5000 years old:

I divided the book into four sections - like the four chambers - and filled them with Anatomy, Religion, Art and Love, but they kept overlapping.

But why the heart? Imagine you are a neanderthal. . .  what do you do? Go hunting? Your heart twitches when you see your prey - a mammoth, say. It beats faster and faster as you run after your mammoth. When you shoot it, where do you aim? You know an animal shot through the heart dies; you know when it dies the beating stops. You drag the mammoth home, heart thumping away with the effort of work. You give it to your family to eat and your heart glows with pride. Your wife takes you aside and makes beautiful love to you in gratitude for having brought home the mammoth bacon; again, your heart makes its presence felt. Little wonder that the most ancient cave paintings - in the cavern at Pindal - show a heart (on a mammoth, as it happens) and the earliest written story, Gilgamish, tells of the hero's heart being full of courage as he sets out, and full of affection for his friend.

In ancient Egypt, after you died your heart was weighed against the feather of truth, in front of a jury of fourteen gods, and if it were found wanting it was eaten by a demon called Ammit, part crocodile, part lion, part hippo. The process of judgement was governed by the Book of the Dead; here are some prayers listing some of the 42 specific sins which had to be denied by your heart, to specific gods:
'Oh Wide-of-Stride who comes from On, I have not done evil.
Oh Shadow-eater who comes from the cave, I have not stolen.
Oh Lion Twins who some from Heaven, I have not trimmed the measure.
Oh Cave-dweller who comes from the west, I have not sulked.
Oh Backward-faced one who comes from the pit, I have not copulated with a boy.
Oh High of Head who comes from the cave, I have not wanted more than I had.

'I have not mistreated cattle, I have not sinned in the place of truth, I have not deleted the loaves of the Gods; I have not eaten the cakes of the dead, I have not held back water in its season, I have not quenched a needed fire . . .'

And there were prayers to the heart itself (both hearts the haty and the ib - the Egyptians had separate names for the emotional and physical hearts) asking it not to lie about you, or get you into trouble:
'Oh my heart of my mother
Oh my heart of my mother
Oh my heart of my being
Do not rise up against me as a witness
Do not oppose me in the tribunal
Do not rebel against me before the guardians of the scales . . . '

Here is the Psychostasia of Hunefer - heart on the left, feather of truth on the right, Thoth commanding the proceedings, Ammit lurking:

which led directly to this sort of thing: St Michael weighing a soul 
(depicted here by Hans Holbein the Younger)

I had an entire chapter on the pre-biblical origins of Country and Western lyrics, with a section on Hank Williams's Your Cheatin' Heart -  'Your cheating heart will make you weep, you'll cry and cry and try to sleep, but sleep won't come, the whole night through - Your cheating heart, will tell on you . . . ' You can't tell me that's not about Osiris.

The ancient Egyptian and Babylonian reverence for the heart swanned through the Old Testament into Judaism and Christianity; segued into Islam (where the heart must be clean and pure as glass to reflect God back at himself - god lives in a clean heart - cue Blondie, Heart of Glass - and here is a heart of glass, full of animals, with Jesus holding it up (while spurting blood from his heart into a cup - the original suit in cards, which became Hearts, was Cups, as in Tarot and the old Italian Scopa cards):

and cue also this - a dear little Jesus sweeping all the evils out of a cosy clean heart: 

Which leads to all kinds of things . . . . Here is a piece of work by an anonymous nun of the late 15th century. Forgive my bad photograph. The heart is a house; the aorta is a chimney (with the Lamb of God sitting on top). Steps lead up to the door and inside the nun sits on Christ's knee, with God the Father embracing her and the Holy Spirit perching by her. She has even let her hair down and taken off her veil. Top right you may make out St Walburga and her host of 144,000 virgins arriving on a cloud. A tiny dog protects the doorway. It is truly a heart full of love, a safe place to spend eternity.

The same nun made this: The heart of Christ on the cross. The ladder leading up is labelled step by step with virtues you need to have in order to reach the happy state of union with God inside his heart. 

Here's another couple setting up home in the heart of god: 
Rama and Sita, inside Hanuman

Here is the most wounded of wounded hearts, that of Mary, with her seven sorrows, each one a blade: this is a 17th-century Italian depiciton. She would have had a wig and a skirt. 

A heart is a container of God, his love, and his word: 
here it's a vine bearing grapes full of blood/wine/Holy Communion for the lambs to drink (see also heart-of-glass Jesus, above) 

Here it's a pomegranate, split open to presage Christ's passion on the cross, when his heart was pierced by the spear of the soldier Longinus (knowing this would happen is one of Mary's sorrows, see above). Broken hearts of course had a chapter to themselves.

Here the heart is a book 
(cf Moses, the two tablets of the law, the law written on the hearts of men . . .)

and here is Jesus (or Amor, depending) writing in it

which brings us to this:

If it can be a book it can be a map. Eat your (sorry) heart out, Grayson Perry:

or a song . . . .

or a musical instrument. See those heartstrings go Zing. . . .

Or it can be a locket to keep a real heart in.
This one contained the heart of Edward, Lord Bruce of Kinloss, who took exception to Sir Edward Sackvile's contention that Scotsmen were beggarly, and as a result died in a duel at Bergen. 
There's a reason why it's upside down, by our standards. I could tell you why. I could tell you why the heart has a pointy bottom and scallopy top, too, despite looking in reality like a meat whoopie cushion. And why it has two sides. And  . . . all kinds of things. If truly 'the heart of him that hath understanding seeks knowledge' (Proverbs, 15.14), just ask.  

Have I convinced you? Is the heart curious? Does it not deserve a place in our cabinet? 


Pippa Goodhart said...

Absolutely wonderful! Heartfelt thanks for a marvellous post about, perhaps, the. Ingest Curiosity of them all.

Mary Hoffman said...

What a fabulous post, Louisa! The heart definitely earns its place in our Cabinet of Curiosities.

Celia Rees said...

Fascinating post. I've always found it interesting that Mesoamerican hearts are far more anatomically correct than European depictions. Maybe due to the familiarity gained through sacrifice.

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

Europeans hardly saw a real human heart between Galen and Leonardo, because of Christianity - the human body was sacrosanct as it would need to be in good nick for Resurrection Day. Even with an animal heart it's terribly difficult to work it out if you don't either see it in action or know beforehand how it operates - which nobody did before Harvey, though they came up with some magnificently wrong theories. And yes, the meso-americans are more likely to have seen it in action.

Sue Purkiss said...

Extraordinary - thank you, Louisa.

adele said...

Just marvellous...thank you so much for this post.

Susan Price said...

I'm a day late to this but - wonderful post! Absolutely fascinating.