Dr. Charles Odahl, professor of ancient and medieval history, and classical and patristic Latin at Boise State, illuminated some of the fact and fiction surrounding this day dedicated to love.
"Most of the traditions about St. Valentine are largely false and only emerged a millennium after the real saint lived in the late third and early fourth centuries," said Odahl.
The most popular origins-story floating around is that Valentine—or Valentinus—was a priest living in or near Rome in the mid to late third century. The mythology states that he ticked off Emperor Claudius Gothicus by marrying young men who the emperor wanted to stay single so they would report for military duty, Odahl said.
If history has taught us one lesson, it's not to piss off an emperor. Valentine was martyred in 269.
According to Odahl, the traditional story claims that Valentine was arrested and sentenced to death after he tried to convert the pagan emperor. While in prison, he befriended the jailer's daughter and, apparently, healed her blindness. Just before he met his end, Valentine reportedly sent a letter to the now-sighted woman, signed "From your Valentine."
It's a nice story. Too bad it probably didn't happen that way.
"Unfortunately for those who believe in this story, Claudius did not care if his soldiers were married, was not a persecutor of the Christians and was not even in Rome when he supposedly met and sentenced Valentine to death—he was up near the Danube River fighting barbarians," Odahl said.
The actual story of Valentine isn't nearly so simple.
Late in the third century, "some tough soldier emperors decided to destroy Christianity and began a 10-year-long 'Great Persecution' against Christianity," Odahl said.
Thousands of Christians were martyred, and though some evidence of the "interrogations, sufferings and deaths" still exists, most perished with little or no record of their lives. Valentine may have been a minor martyr killed during the persecution, Odahl said.
"Valentine was, in time, remembered as one of the martyrs for the faith, and a church was built in his honor a few miles north of Rome along the Via Flaminia by Pope Julius II," he said.
More than a century after he got his church, Valentine also got a feast day, which just happened to be on Feb. 14. Since then, cultures have combined pagan and Christian traditions to create what we now know as Valentine's Day, and the idea—and ideals—of romantic love have flourished in recent centuries. While the icons and imagery are now familiar, few people know where they originated. That doesn't seem to stop anyone from buying a card or heart-shaped box of candy. But why the heart instead of another symbol of love?
The Real Heart
Galen, heir to Hippocrates, and the Right Reverend of modern medicine, sought to understand the constituent functions of the human body. In De Usu Partium, he braved a detailed explanation for the source of the rhythm in our necks and the syncopated thrusts in our chests.
The left ventricle emanated heat and warmed the inhaled pneuma—our source of life—and drove it into our bodies through the arteries. Blood was made in the liver and sent by the veins to nourish our tissue, including the left ventricle, where it arrived from the right via pores in the septum that divided the two great chambers.
It took the radical era of Galileo, Newton, Bacon and Shakespeare—an astounding 1,500 years later—to overturn Galen's edicts.
"By actual inspection and not other people's books," William Harvey sparingly recounted how he eviscerated more than a millennium of unassailable truths.
Utilization of simple math was pivotal to the assault. He estimated that a human ventricle held 2 to 3 ounces of blood. At an average rate of 72 beats per minute, in one hour, the heart would pump 540 pounds of blood: far more than the weight of an average person.
Galen had to be wrong; blood must circulate. In his magnum opus, De Motu Cordis, Harvey not only explained venous and arterial circulation, but he also rendered a remarkably accurate description of the heart's physiology. As the ventricles filled with blood from the atria, their expansion triggered contraction that sent blood flowing. He predicted Marcello Malpighi's discovery of capillaries—unseen communications between arteries and veins. There was no pneuma mixed with innate cardiac heat that imbued us with life.
He searched for but could not find Galen's pores between the ventricles. The circulation of blood was "the only reason for the motion and beat of the heart," Harvey concluded without sentiment. And while it is Harvey's understanding of the heart that has led to all of modern cardiovascular medicine, his contemporaries disagreed with his myopic assessment of the heart's purpose.
Shakespeare evoked the heart to reflect the full range of human emotion. Francis Bacon wrote, "All our actions take their hue from the complexion of the heart."
Viewed in the refracted light of both art and science—as the practice of medicine is so commonly described—we should not forget one of Galen's main assertions: The heart is our source of warmth.
Hearts in History
There are matters of the heart, which you feel deep down in your heart, regardless of what your head says. Sometimes, when you follow your heart, you end up heartbroken or you find nothing but heartache.
But why aren't they matters of the liver which you feel deep in your spleen as you follow your epiglottis while hoping to avoid kidney ache?
It seems we had no choice but to turn to the heart when it comes to all things romantic or emotional. Despite the fact that the organ plays absolutely no role in how attachments are formed, or to whom, that four-chambered muscle in our chests has been proclaimed the, well, heart of emotion throughout human history.
Look back as far as ancient Egypt, when the heart was considered the center of the soul. After death, the brain was discarded like so much cold hash, while the heart was carefully preserved in its own jar. The spirit of the deceased was going to need that ever-important organ when he or she stood before Ma'at, the goddess of truth, justice and harmony, when the heart would be weighed against a feather. If you were a good enough person, your light heart meant a direct ticket to the afterlife. The heavy-hearted were doomed to have their heart, and therefore soul, devoured by Ammut, who carried out divine retribution.
The ancient Greeks subscribed to this belief as well, holding that the heart was the center of the soul. Even Aristotle proclaimed that the heart contained all human passion, and he wasn't the only ancient philosopher to do so, according to Odahl.
This belief led the heart to be Cupid's target as the son of Aphrodite ran around targeting lovestruck men and women with his love-juiced arrows.
Additionally, since the blood pumped through the heart is red, even that color came to symbolize passion, Odahl said.
Claiming that an organ in the middle of our bodies is the root of emotion is one thing, but turning that organ into a symmetrical, viewer-friendly icon is another. It hasn't escaped notice that the traditional heart symbol looks nothing like an actual heart.
According to numerous sources, from the Journal of the American Medical Association to Slate.com, there are several theories about the origins of the symbolic heart that now is the all-encompassing image of love. One of the favorites comes from the seventh-century BCE city state of Cyrene, which was a giant in the world of silphium—a now-extinct plant that happened to have seed pods shaped like a heart. The plant was so important that the image graced coins of the era.
Turns out the black-market use for the plant was as a form of contraception, hence the popular association with sex, and therefore love.
Of course, another theory for the symbol is that it was created by someone who just couldn't draw.
A few centuries later, the symbol of the heart as we know it today became synonymous with the Holy Grail through the connection to divine love and devotion. Early decks of cards, including traditional tarot decks, used cups as a suit, which was later turned into hearts.
The heart was adopted as a medieval symbol of heraldry, and eventually, the Christian church adopted the image of the sacred heart in association with Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
The image of the heart in association with love has only become more entrenched in culture as the popularity of Valentine's Day had grown. So the next time you scribble a heart at the end of a note, remember, you're just the latest in a very long line.
A Schmerz of Corazon
While the heart of a Spaniard, his corazon, may ache, it is not the same herzschmerz that Germans feel.
In German, the upper love muscle is either your ticker, your herz. Or it's herzschmerz, the pain in your heart.
"I guess we are more practical, we are thinking more about the pain," said Boise State German professor Heike Henderson.
Spanish speakers have an inflated sense of their corazon; it is a musical pulsation, an emotion, the rock of truth and faith. And most of all, the locus of attraction, love and sex.
Like Spaniards, the Basque use behotza as a pet name, as in dah-ling. In the Basque Country, where the names of things are unlike names in any other modern language, Behotza, heart, could also be the name of a gal.
The heart of North Africa, ul, in Berber, which may inform the Arabic form qalb, is understood as a seat of emotion. Arabic pop music is peppered with references to qalbi—my heart—fluttering, broken and beating with metaphor.
Lev, the Hebrew form, originally connoted an intellectual attachment, rather than emotional, explains Rabbi Dan Fink of Temple Ahavath Beth Israel. But modern Hebrew poetry and literature have borrowed new shades of meaning for the term.
In sign language, a middle finger tapping on the chest refers to one's pulmonary function, while a stronger fist beating against the chest animates the emotions that emanate from the bosom.
"You can perform a wringing-out-a-towel or sponge-like action over your heart to show grief," writes Boise State American sign linguist Rand Adams.
And if you are capable of such emotion, in China, you would be hao xin, good-hearted, whereas the opposite, the hui xin, display a lack conscientiousness and feeling, as in meiyou liang xin.
The Japanese, who retain the Chinese character for xin, a clever, ancient rendering of the four chambers of the heart, have multiple terms in this realm. Shinzo is the blood-pumping organ, whereas the lovely kokoro is both mind and spirit, according to Boise State Japanese lecturer Tetsuya Ehara.
The French saw something in the Schitsu'umsh people in Northern Idaho, calling them Coeur d'Alene, the "heart of the awl," which according to the tribe, refers to a clarity and exuberance in the art of negotiation and trade.
While modern American speakers have taken the term to new levels—it's a verb now, as in BW hearts Schitsu'umsh—we're not going to put anyone in a heart-shaped box.
'Cause we have mad liang xin, this week, behotza.
The Written Heart
"Now join your hands, and with your hands your hearts."
Taken literally, this line from Shakespeare's Henry VI might have incited a gruesome scene: pierced chest cavities and fingers grasped around thumping bloody orbs. But well before brooding lords and bodiced broads inspired the Bard, the word heart held a variety of metaphorical meanings. Inscribed in Old English as hoerte, the body's most vital organ has long been etched in stone, carved in trees and scrawled onto paper as a metaphorical representation of emotion.
While the ancient Egyptians—and later the Greeks—viewed the heart as the soul's throne, the Old Testament solidified it as the body's intellectual center, or its nexus of rational thought. With the decree "Love the Lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might," the Old Testament also brought the heart a new master. The bequeathing of man's metaphorical heart to God meant that earthly love was to be viewed as base, a betrayal of man's obligation to his one true Lord. It wasn't until nearly 1,000 years later, when the troubadour William IX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1127) began singing bawdy tales of courtly love between the sexes, that man again wrested his heart from God's clutches to be offered up in the earthly world.
"That love could be shared, that two people could feel passionate concern and desire for each other, was at first an avant-garde and dangerous idea," writes Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of Love. "Because the church taught that love was appropriate only for God, it found the idea of mutual love simply impossible."
This notion of courtly love—a form of highly structured theatricality in which men pined after virtuous (often married) women they scarcely knew—spread quickly throughout Europe. Twelfth-century author Andreas Capellanus codified many of these courtly practices in his book De Amore. He listed the rules of courtly love beginning with the most sensational by current conventions: "Marriage is no excuse for not loving." The list continued on with nuggets like, "Love rarely lasts when it is revealed," "A lover is always fearful," and "When a lover suddenly has sight of his beloved, his heart beats wildly."
For years, this distanced form of love held court. In 14th-century Florence, Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, wrote a collection of autobiographical poems titled La Vita Nuova inspired by Beatrice Portinari, his life's true love—a woman he had only met twice. Describing his first encounter with Beatrice, Dante wrote:
"At that moment I say truly that the vital spirit, that which lives in the most secret chamber of the heart began to tremble so violently that I felt it fiercely in the least pulsation, and, trembling, it uttered these words: 'Behold a god more powerful than I, who, coming, will rule over me.'"
But by the 16th century, when Shakespeare's Romeo posed the question: "Did my heart love till now? Forswear it sight, for I ne'er saw true beauty till this night," our modern conception of love as passionate and reciprocal was in full flourish. Though the love born in the hearts of Romeo and Juliet was just as seemingly unfounded as Dante's love for Beatrice, it was representative of a cultural shift in the purpose of marriage. Unlike Dante and Beatrice, who were both married to others, Romeo and Juliet followed their hearts and married for love—even against the will of their warring families.
As depictions of love have progressed through various literary movements in the centuries after Shakespeare—the Romantics, the Transcendentalists, the Surrealists, the Beats—there has been one metaphor that has carried through time. One that pulses under floorboards, is ripped out of chests and echoes, hauntingly, through the stillness of the night. The heart.
No Chocolate Hearts Here
In Vietnam, the culinary challenges are mighty even for a traveler adventurous in food. From piglet brains in a bowl of pho to hot vit lon (partially incubated duck eaten out of the egg), a fearless eater can show off their grit and iron gut from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. However, in a country where snakes are fermented in wine, one culinary challenge stands above the rest: the beating cobra heart.
As the intrepid diner looks on, a kitchen hand armed with a knife slices into the pale underbelly of a cobra, squeezes out its blood into a cordial glass and then rips out its heart and drops it into the mix of blood and alcohol.
They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but maybe the proverbial "they" had it all backward. Maybe the way to a man's stomach is with a blood drench—a meal of a pumping organ courtesy of an animal slaughtered tableside.
Travel Channel gastronomes Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmerman have both grossed out American audiences with segments in which they slug down snake's blood and its still pumping heart. Zimmerman, the king of bizarre food, has one up on Bourdain when it comes to hearts. In an early segment, the bald Zimmerman held a beating frog's heart between his chopsticks, joking that it would be the most wiggly thing he'd ever eaten. After popping the tiny red sack into his mouth with little fanfare or expression, he said, "Not a whole heck of a lot of flavor but supposedly very, very good for you, if you know what I mean."
Surf YouTube long enough and you'll find posts by biology students who've taken a bite out of the heart on their dissection table when the teacher wasn't looking. You might also stumble across one of a guy who nibbles on a goose heart and chases it with a can of Keystone or footage of Aussie pro skater Jason Ellis' gory gumming of a shark's heart.
But making a meal of an animal's heart hasn't always been a task for the culinary freakish.
In the United Kingdom, ox heart is often touted as a leaner and cheaper option to prime beef cuts, and a quick Internet search will easily turn up a couple of recipes for stuffed beef heart.
Although some local chefs were stumped when BW called to ask about cooking and eating any animal heart, a butcher at a local Albertsons had some answers.
Jim Charlton at the Broadway Avenue Albertsons said he's not only sold hearts at the store, but he's eaten beef heart himself.
"I tried it once," said Charlton, "but it was too strong tasting for me."
Charlton said that although he used to sell hearts all the time, orders for them these days are few and far between.
"Most orders now are for people who are feeding pets like piranhas," he said. "Body builders used to eat it; supposedly it had better protein."
If you're up to the task of stomaching a heart but don't think you can stomach the preparation of one, there may be another way. While you won't find any restaurants in Boise serving up beating cobra hearts, you will find heart on at least one menu. Tucano's Brazilian Grill, a churrascaria set to open next week, will have coracao de frango—or chicken hearts—on its menu.