7 Bizarre Things People Used To Believe About The Heart


The heart seems to have a pretty central role in our cultural iconography — it's the symbol of love, romance, emotion, and blood, particularly in the West — but its current status is, surprisingly, one of the lowest in its history. For hundreds of centuries, cultures have tended to elevate the heart to the position held today by the brain: as the seat of thought, reason, feelings, and personality. And it's resulted in a series of strange and frequently gory episodes in heart-history, from sacrifice to hungry gods to violent arguments about ventricles.

The simplified heart symbol, it seems, really became the sign for romantic love in the late medieval period, where its anatomical and religious significance was co-opted by romantics as part of the new trend of "courtly love," or love-worship of an unattainable noble lady. The heart itself, though — as in the fleshy, beating thing — has had a bit of a weirder ride. It's been cut out of corpses and buried, treated with radishes, weighed by gods, and fueled by imaginary blood from the liver. Human medical history is generally peculiar anyway, but the heart's journey towards modern cardiovascular health has been rockier than most.

Here are seven of the strangest beliefs about the heart from different periods of civilization in history. Next time when you send a simple heart emoji, make sure you're not accidentally recommending somebody gets sacrificed to a sun-god.

1. That It Had To Be Lighter Than A Feather

If there's one thing that's likely stuck with you from grade-school classes on the ancient Egyptians, it's that they often viewed the brain as largely irrelevant and tended to remove it during the mummification process. For much of the ancient Egyptian period, the heart was seen as the site of bodily reasoning, personality, and soul, and was the only organ left in place inside the corpse; all the other "vital" ones were preserved, of course, in canopic jars. (In an explanation of the practice for History Extra, historian Dr. Joyce Tyldesley adds casually that if the heart were  " accidentally removed," it would be "immediately sewn back," which indicates there were a few heart-forgetting incidents in ancient Egyptian history.)

The heart was crucially important both in Egyptian medicine and in religion. There are numerous treatises that indicate a physician should "measure for the heart" on a sick person, which essentially means check their overall health. But it's in the afterlife when the ancient Egyptian heart became crucially important: the survival of their soul depended on a weighing ceremony, where the heart was placed on a scale next to the white feather of truth in the holy Hall of Ma'at. If it was lighter, the soul survived; if it was heavier, indicating the soul was "weighed down" with sins, the heart was eaten by a crocodile-leopard monstrosity. No immortality for it.

2. That It Needed To Be Sacrificed To The Gods

The goriness of Aztec religion is sometimes seen as a bit of a stereotype, but it's true that Mesoamerican cultures used bloodletting in many ceremonial ways; pulling a rope covered in thorns through the tongue of the queen or king was a pretty normal exercise. In that context, ceremonial heart sacrifice becomes a bit less alarming, but only slightly.

It wasn't rampantly running around ripping out peoples' organs; human sacrifice was a highly ritualized ceremony involving specific knives, places (the tops of huge temples, normally), and procedures. Following the death of a sacrifice, his or her heart would be excised, put in a special vessel, and then ceremonially burnt. The hearts were meant as "food" for a specific deity, Huitzilopochtli, who governed both war and the sun, and whose goodwill was therefore very important.

3. That A Small, Cold Heart Was The Bravest

This charming nugget comes from O.M. Hoytad's fascinating A History Of The Heart , and specifically old Norse-Icelandic sagas dating at least to the medieval period and likely to much more ancient periods. The perspective on the heart among the premodern Norse appears to have been a very practical one: the braver a warrior, the smaller and colder his heart.

The logic behind this one is revealed by several saga episodes where hearts are physically examined to see what makes them "good" or "brave". "A brave man's heart is smaller than a coward's," Hoytad explains, and is "small, firm and cold;" cowardice is supposed to make the heart quiver and jump, and that's only possible in bigger hearts with lots of blood and warmth. If you wanted to make it as a Norse hero, you needed to be Captain Tiny-Heart.

4. That It Was The Source Of The Breath & Soul

The notion of the heart as the center of all human intelligence and "soul" is pretty common across a lot of ancient societies, but in one instance it was so powerful it lasted right up until several centuries ago. The theorist behind that lasting idea was Galen, the ancient Greek physician whose ideas about the heart were followed meticulously all the way to the 18th century. And they were, well, rather interesting.

Galen attributed huge powers to the heart: he believed that it was the source of the innate "heat" that created life, and even though it couldn't be destroyed by fire. He wasn't alone, either; Avicenna, the ancient Islamic polymath who wrote extensively on both Aristotelean and Galenic medicine in Arabic, thought that breath arose from the heart, and that it controlled digestion, movement, and basically anything else of importance.

5. That Blood Passed From One Side To The Other Through Invisible "Pores"

One of Galen's more peculiar ideas about the heart had to do with the circulatory system. We all know now that the blood is essentially a deeply powerful pump, but Galen didn't believe in that element; he thought that blood was "created" in the liver through the digestion of food and sent up to the heart, where it floated from one side to the other via invisible "pores" in the skin.

This, obviously, is complete nonsense, but it was such widely-held nonsense that disagreeing with it could ruin your career. Just ask William Harvey, the 17th century physician who discovered that blood circulates; publishing the idea demolished his reputation and "stirred up tempests," as he said himself. And the 16th century Flemish anatomist Vesalius, who discovered no trace of these pores anywhere when he dissected bodies, couldn't bring himself to contradict Galen, instead tentatively suggesting that the pores must "escape human vision" because they couldn't be "perceived by the senses".

6. That It Needed To Be Removed & Buried Elsewhere

In the very early Middle Ages in Europe, in the 11th and 12th centuries, something interesting began to be practiced: a ceremony called the post-mortem ablation of the heart, which essentially means that a person's heart was taken from their body and buried somewhere else entirely. The reasoning was that the heart was the essence of the person and the center of their soul and emotions, and that it deserved special care.

The Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, which owns an ablated heart, explains that the practice was restricted to the upper classes, and was often sentimental; if the person died far away from home, perhaps on Crusade, their heart would be sent home for burial. Kings and queens of the period often had their hearts in one cathedral and their bodies in another. And it kept happening all the way up to the 19th century; Frederic Chopin, who died in 1849 in Paris, had his heart removed, preserved in alcohol, and secretly interred in his homeland, Poland.

7. That Heart Problems Could Be Cured With Radishes & Clams

If you had problems with your heart in medieval England, you likely wouldn't be suffering for very long. Not because the cures were very efficacious, but because they most likely didn't do anything at all except puzzle and inconvenience you. A lot of the cures for heart difficulties in the time period were a combination of diet and herbal medicine; one, for heart pain, suggested mixing rue and aloe to oil, boiling for a bit, and then smearing it across the chest. You'd be well-marinated, but not much better off.

One of the most famous of the period, though, is the radish cure. Apparently, if you had very bad pains around the heart, your symptoms could be alleviated by sitting in a vapor bath and being fed a radish with salt on it. If that didn't work, you'd be put on a six-day diet of cockles, a variety of mussel, that had been cooked in milk. All very nourishing, but not very helpful if you were having a heart attack.

Images: Wellcome Images (6); E. A. Wallace/Wikimedia Commons