George Fetherling: Mysteries of the heart

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When the pieces of a dismembered murder victim are discovered in an assortment of different locations, the place where the heart is found, assuming it is found, is what determines, for legal purposes, whose jurisdiction the case comes under. Or so a forensic scientist once told me.

A grisly thought, admittedly, but one in honor of St. Valentine’s Day, for it is a modern illustration of the belief that the heart (and not the brain, say) is the most important part of the human body. Because pop culture is practically built on this idea (nobody ever writes love songs about the brain), we tend to think of it as contemporary. But in fact the feeling is ancient almost beyond calculation.

Romantic ideas about the heart fly in the face of known fact but that doesn’t matter and never has. People many thousands of years ago knew that the heart is basically a blood pump, but that didn’t keep them from also believing it was the seat of romantic love (and all other strong emotion).

Scientists discredited the idea soon after the Middle Ages, but everybody else still clings to it, if not with their logical minds then with their cultural consciousness. It’s part of our tribal software, a sort of throwback to our primitive ancestors (like the appendix perhaps). We pay lip-service to the tradition by talking about heartache, broken hearts and so on, but without actually examining the notion too closely. For to scrutinize it is to see just how close it comes to being ridiculous sometimes.

Which is perhaps why so little has been written about the history of this particular idea. At best, you’ll find a snippet of information in one place, another seemingly unrelated bit somewhere else. When you put all the pieces together, what you get is an assortment of curious facts such as these:

• Cor, the Latin for heart, has given us words such as “courage,” “accord” (meaning two hearts in agreement) and “cordial.” But when the Romans spoke of the emotional rather than the physiological heart they said pectus — the chest or breast. This was because they connected being lovestruck, as well as extremes of fear, hatred and embarrassment, with shortness of breath and a general uncomfortable sensation beneath the skin.

It was probably only in the second century A.D. that the location of love was narrowed down to the heart specifically, thanks to Galen, the famous Roman physician. As the resident doctor at a school for gladiators, he had plenty of opportunity to study gore, and as far as he could tell there was no other place inside there where love might reside.

• In 1269, a Scottish nobleman named John Baliol died; Balliol College at Oxford (no one knows how the double L came about) is named for him. His widow, Devorgilla, buried all of him except his heart, which she kept in a reliquary in her private chamber. Then she founded an abbey on the site, calling it Douce Coeur or Sweetheart Abbey — because they had been sweethearts.

• The heart was always seen as the noblest of the internal organs as well as the most vital. The hearts of martyrs or future candidates for sainthood would be preserved, but never their livers, say, or the entrails — at least not on their own; it was either the heart by itself or the whole lot together.

• In the Renaissance, when the study of medicine began to include dissection once again and there were great advances in knowledge, it became clear that emotions must emanate from the brain instead. Yet the notion that love reposed in the actual physical heart, rather than the symbolic heart, didn’t pass away in serious circles all at once. Neither did the assumption that romantic love caused a direct physical reaction in the chest cavity.

The concept of courtly love, accompanied by palpitations of the heart, is found in Chaucer and persists in Shakespeare, who also, incidentally, uses a version of the phrase “wear your heart on your sleeve.” The reference is to a heart-shaped livery badge worn by servants. To sport such an insignia was to show that you were in another person’s service — metaphorically in this case, as in head-over-heels.

• By contrast, “broken-hearted” seems to have biblical origins. In the Old Testament, the expression refers to broken pride and joy in life. In the Psalms it is tied to repentance of sin. From there it must have been only a short hop to secular speech and the use of the term to mean disappointment in love.

• A human heart that matched what we think of as heart-shaped — a perfectly formed bright red thing with two halves of equal size — would be one that was horribly diseased. The origin of this stylized representation is somewhat obscure, but it probably appeared at the same time as St. Valentine’s Day, about whose history there is much dispute.

In one version, the holiday derives from the last of several Roman emperors named Valentinianus. By another, it comes directly from an early Christian martyr, a third-century Italian who composed letters from prison in order to comfort the faithful and became the patron saint of note-writers; this is the St. Valentine whom one of the recent popes wanted to decanonize, causing a popular protest.

In any event, St. Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, which has been observed in some fashion since the seventh century, is supposed to be the anniversary of the saint’s death. In fact, the date no doubt came about as a continuation of the Roman festival of Lupercal, held in the middle of February when transposed to our calendar.

It seems likely that the sending of cards carries on a pagan custom of paying homage to Juno, the Roman queen of heaven who was also, among her various other cabinet responsibilities, the goddess of childbirth. But much of this is conjectural, and the bright red heart used on valentines may have other sources entirely.

I’m not a Roman Catholic but I grew up in a Roman Catholic neighborhood, and I remember (or think I do) that when I was a kid, visiting the homes of school friends whose families were particularly devout Italian-Americans, I would see the Icon of the Sacred Heart: a statuette of Jesus holding His own exposed ticker. The heart was very red, was wrapped in the crown of thorns and had fire coming out the top. There was also a dagger sticking in it.

This representation is probably what gave us the image of the red heart with the arrow through it. Maybe. Then again, the “I Love Lucy” sort of heart may be patterned after the wine-vessel used in celebrating the Eucharist. One clue is the fact that the heart seen on playing cards is called coeur in French and herz in German, the words for the human heart, but that gamblers in Spain and Italy call the suit copa and coppa, respectively — “cup.”

But who really knows? The point, I think, is that, for all the displaced sentimentality of country music and for all the civic patriotism of I [HEART] New York bumper stickers, the idealized human heart is still a convenient tool for people to express the emotions they cling to in their daily lives and relationships.

George Fetherling, a novelist and poet, is an occasional contributor to the Post-Gazette (

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