The Anatomical Theater: Heart and Blood

This beautiful looking cow heart you’re gazing at appears courtesy of Regula Ysewijn, who blogs under the title Miss Foodwise.  Stuffed with kale, bacon and mushrooms this hearty repast reminds us that any body part in a human we probably dine on when it comes from an animal.  More about this fabulous dish later, for now let’s gaze upon a human heart.


Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart offers maybe one of the most famous pulses in literature as portrayed by Jamie Davies in the above drawing. After killing an old man for his “evil eye,” our narrator cuts up the body, placing organs and limbs under the floorboards.  The police arrive to investigate suspicious noises, our narrator and murderer invites them in, flush with the success of his crime, but then soon begins to hear a disquieting sound.

It was a low, dull, quick sound –much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath –and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly –more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men –but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do?

What is it?  Of course, as every undergraduate in university knows, it’s his conscience, his guilt, his superego–yes, well, let’s be properly supernatural and horrified and say it is the old man’s heart.

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!”  (559)

The heart and the blood it pumps cry out our crimes.  Remember Cain and Abel, as painted here by Pietro Novelli from the seventeenth century.


Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cried out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  (Gen. 5.10-11)

Note how the world becomes a body as the earth drinks in Abel’s blood. A moment that sacralizes his death as the ground like Cain is cursed by taking in that which is not to be spilled.  Our blood is precious as a sign of our life connected to the transcendent.  Our heart reveals what we have done, felt and thought.  An inner mirror or window we cannot obscure.  The “Weighing of the Heart” in The Egyptian Book of the Dead offers a moment we may live any day or minute on earth, and one we may believe judges all our actions and thoughts after we die.  This particular Book of the Dead presents Ani, a royal scribe, descending to the underworld–a descent which transforms the deceased so he may arise as the reborn morning sun. Ani journeys across the day-lit sky in a boat, and in the evening sails through the darkness of the underworld.  In this panel, Ani’s heart rests on the left pan of a scale, the feather of truth on the right.  The baboon and ibis represent Thoth, the god of judgment in the afterlife.  If Ani is found wanting, if his heart fails its test with truth, then the dog-like beast Amit, “she who swallows the sea” will consume his soul.  Consider, Chapter for not letting Ani’s heart create opposition against him in God’s Domain.

Museum Two weighing

O my heart which I had from my mother!  O my heart which I had from my mother! O my heart of my different ages!  Do not stand up as a witness against me, do not be opposed to me in the tribunal, do not be hostile to me in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance, for you are my Ka which was in my body, the protector who made my members hale.

Our heart is our doppelganger, a mirror-image of us that walks through death with the same emotions and memories.  Not affected by the manipulation of words, the fabrication of images, the heart speaks our truth, regardless whether we want that or not.


Leonardo Da Vinci’s heart reveals fluids, weights and levers.  He looks closely at heart valves, describing how they close and open.  Our heart reveals us to be a machine that may be rationally understood.  Da Vinci studied the heart as a muscle with four chambers and a pulse.  He had studied with Andrea del Verrocchio, who insisted his students understand human anatomy.  Later, he gained permission to dissect corpses at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, which led to even more detailed sketches he never distributed in his lifetime.  About four hundred years later, Robert Pinsky names the heart as a muscle in his poem The Hearts,

The legendary muscle that wants and grieves, / The organ of attachment, the pump of thrills / And troubles, clinging in stubborn colonies / Like pulpy shore-life battened on a jetty.

Imagery connecting the heart to the sea appears in a poem written in 1864 by Emily Dickinson.

The Heart has narrow Banks
It measures like the Sea
In mighty—unremitting Bass
And Blue Monotony

Till Hurricane bisect
And as itself discerns
Its sufficient Area
The Heart convulsive learns

That Calm is but a Wall
Of unattempted Gauze
An instant’s Push demolishes
A Questioning—dissolves

The heart has depths unseen.  It appears still but at a moment rages.  The heart can also break as Billie Holiday sings.

The ache of love lost, questions whether we ever had that love in the first place.  The feeling of heartbreak accompanies the loss of an ideal world. We take our heart out of our body, a neat surgical procedure, and offer it to the person we have chosen to bear our heart and give it meaning.  This often requires us to split open our beloved’s chest as well, placing our heart within; therefore, when the beloved descends from the pedestal, still with our heart in their breast and walks away, we feel as though we are dying.


The heart can also shatter because of what we eat.  Meet the effects of the Western Diet in Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food.

In the summer of 1982, a group of ten middle-aged, overweight, and diabetic Aborigines living in settlements near the town of Derby, Western Australia, agreed to participate in an experiment to see if temporarily reversing the process of westernization they had undergone might also reverse their health problems.  Since leaving the bush some years before, all ten had developed type 2 diabetes; they also showed signs of insulin resistance (when the body’s cells lose their sensitivity to insulin) and elevated levels of triglycerides in the blood–a risk factor for heart disease.  (85)

Heart disease: charred hamburger or processed chicken parts from Chick-Fil-A or McDonalds, dairy products filled with sugar, three-egg omelettes from Denny’s, and grain as long as it’s white and without nutritional benefits. Fry everything of course, and top it off with a Big Gulp.  Your heart will respond.  Consider Jamie Oliver’s passioned plea on the state of eating in the United States.

The health of our heart, the quality of our food, the way we shape our life, the love we feel–all of this grounds us in the world, especially our blood or the blood of an animal.  It’s an old idea founded in a blood sacrifice.  Here is a fragment of an architectural relief from Rome, dated the second century CE, followed by an excerpt from Book Three of The Odyssey, Robert Fagles’ translation.


Prayers said, the scattering barley strewn,

suddenly Nestor’s son impetuous Thrasymedes

strode up close and struck—the ax chopped

the neck tendons through—

and the blow stunned

the heifer’s strength—

The women shrilled their cry,

Nestor’s daughters, sons’ wives and his own loyal wife

Eurydice, Clymenus’ eldest daughter. Then, hoisting up

the victim’s head from the trampled earth, they held her fast

as the captain of men Pisistratus slashed her throat.

Dark blood gushed forth, life ebbed from her limbs—

they quartered her quickly, cut the thighbones out

and all according to custom wrapped them round in fat,

a double fold sliced clean and topped with strips of flesh.

And the old king burned these over dried split wood

and over the fire poured out glistening wine

while young men at his side held five-pronged forks.

Once they’d burned the bones and tasted the organs,

they sliced the rest into pieces, spitted them on skewers

and raising points to the fire, broiled all the meats.  (3.503-520)

This blood rite is sacred to Athena and creates a bond between guest and host, animal and human, mortal and immortal, sacrifice and food.  Blood also allows the living to communicate with the dead in a passage form Book Eleven of The Odyssey.

Here at the spot

Perimedes and Eurylochus held the victims fast,

and I, drawing my sharp sword from beside my hip,

dug a trench of about a forearm’s depth and length

and around it poured libations out to all the dead,

first with milk and honey, and then with mellow wine,

then water third and last, and sprinkled glistening barley

over it all, and time and again I vowed to all the dead,

to the drifting, listless spirits of their ghosts,

that once I returned to Ithaca I would slaughter

a barren heifer in my halls, the best I had,

and load a pyre with treasures—and to Tiresias,

alone, apart, I would offer a sleek black ram,

the pride of all my herds. And once my vows

and prayers had invoked the nations of the dead,

I took the victims, over the trench I cut their throats

and the dark blood flowed in—and up out of Erebus they came,

flocking toward me now, the ghosts of the dead and gone …  (11.26-42)

Blood is food for the dead, which allows them to speak, allows them to crossover, however briefly, into being more of a human than a shade.  As with the sacrifice of the heifer from Book Three, blood creates a threshold between realms that usually stay separate: mortal and immortal, living and dead.  The whole time, someone’s eating, which reminds me of that cow heart.


I love the opening direction for preparing the heart that Ms. Ysewijn crafts.

Your butcher might have halved it and removed parts already but usually the heart comes with muscle fat, arteries and blood vessels. This isn’t something to be scared of, it is actually quite beautiful to see what a heart looks like.

Quite beautiful, and Miss Foodwise also offers history with her recipe. Delight in this passage from Elizabeth Raffald’s book The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769):

Wash a large beast’s heart clean and cut off the deaf ears, and stuff it with forcemeat as you do a hare, lay a caul of veal, or a paper over the top, to keep in the stuffing, roast it either in a cradle spit or hanging one, it will take an hour and a half before a good fire; baste it with red wine; when roasted take the wine out of the dripping pan and skim off the fat, and add a glass more of wine; when it is hot put in some lumps of red currant-jelly and pour it in the dish; serve it up and send in red currant-jelly cut in slices on a saucer.

So there we are, a journey, an odyssey, from cow heart, to a beating heart, to Cain and Abel, a heart on a scale, a sixteenth century heart, poetic hearts, hearts made to be broken, hearts diseased, Odyssean blood, and back to that cow heart.  End scene.  Well, maybe one more song of heartbreak and lament from Nick Cave.

Bon Appétit!




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