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Timeline: Heart in History

10,000-8,000 B.C.E.-1850 | 1882-1998  

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 ieb, 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 be the center of the soul and the source of 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.


Perhaps the most important of all classical physicians, Claudius Galenus, known as Galen, is the personal physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Though much of what Galen believes is incorrect (he fails to understand circulation, for example), he makes several important observations concerning the heart, including the description of valves and ventricles and the differences between veins and arteries.


Early Americans recognize the importance of the heart. The Teotihuacan culture in ancient 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.


During the Middle Ages, the methods of Galen and other ancient physicians are strictly followed, and there are no new medical advances concerning the heart. Culturally, the heart begins to grow in its meanings. The heart icon becomes a major symbol for medieval heraldry, where it is used to signify sincerity and clarity. In art and chivalric literature, the heart is increasingly seen as synonymous to the Holy Grail. In fact, early decks of playing cards even use the Grail instead of the heart symbol as an icon.


Scholars begin to question accepted views of the heart. Scholars and physicians such as Andreas Vesalius, the father of modern anatomy, and Michael Servitus make 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 of the Blood in 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 man, 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 loa of love, beauty, and purity. In Africa, 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.

10,000-8,000 B.C.E.-1850 | 1882-1998  

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