Eat Your Heart Out

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

 With the approach of St. Valentine’s Day, stylized hearts appear everywhere. In the United States, we celebrate the saint’s feast by glutting ourselves with romance and gifts, be it chocolates encased in heart-shaped boxes, folded paper proclaiming sentiments, or flowers whose price increased in anticipation of the holiday.

Yet throughout history, the heart has always held a special fascination, and not merely at this time of year. The heart is the center and the core of the body, the essence of the matter. This organ which keeps our blood circulating is said to hold the key to our emotions. We “listen to our hearts” and allow them to guide us.

However, the focus of this article is not the metaphor, but instead the literal interpretation of “eat your heart out.” Instead of alluding to mere jealousy, we’ll briefly explore the physical heart through a precursory glance at folklore, legend, literature, myth, and modern culture.

For example, as proof of her demise, the Queen demanded her huntsman bring her stepdaughter Snow White’s heart. The huntsman could not harm the innocent princess, though, and urged the girl to flee deep into the forest and away from the Queen’s wrath. To preserve his life and liberty, though, he slaughtered a pig and took its heart to the Queen and claimed it belonged to Snow White. The Queen ate the heart, contented until she discovered the truth through magical means.

Indeed, fairy tales value hearts and their special magic. In Tam Lin, the Fairy Queen attempted to remove the hero’s eyes and heart and replace them with wood. A witch locks away a girl’s heart in “A Heartless Princess.” In Hans Christian Anderson’s “Little Mermaid,” stabbing the Prince with an enchanted blade through the heart would restore the sad creature to her former shape. In “The Snow Queen” by the same author, young Gerda battles the damaging magic of splinters from troll’s magic mirror that pierced and froze her friend Kai’s heart.

The Woodman of L. Frank Baum’s Oz longed to replace his heart. Guilt and an imagined heartbeat from an offending organ betrayed the “not insane” narrator from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart.” In Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” season four’s “Hush,” eerie Gentlemen float through Sunnydale to collect hearts from magically silenced victims.

Films like the early 2000’s “Candy Stripers” and “Midnight Meat Train” depicted heart removal with brutality, whereas in ABC’s television show “Once Upon a Time,” Regina and other magical practitioners remove a jewel-like heart from their prey, thereby controlling them.

Some magicians purposefully skived off part of themselves, including their hearts, to lock away for protection, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter antagonist, Voldemort. As part of a ritual, the ancient Aztecs removed still-beating human hearts, and for mummification, ancient Egyptian priests placed the heart of their pharaohs into Coptic vessels. The hearts of Boyar shaman are believed to possess the ability to heal illnesses and restore life to the recently deceased. In Eastern Europe, folk exhumed suspected vampires’ hearts, burned them, and fed the ashes to the victims of their vampiric attentions.

An 18th century tale relates the story of a girl who received an unmarked package from overseas. Within the box she found powder she misinterpreted as an exotic tea. By this mistake, she steeped her lover’s heart and consumed his essence. In an 19th century story, an angry spouse fed his adulterous wife a pie containing her lover’s heart. When she realized the truth, the wife swore to never eat again and died shortly thereafter. Another tale follows a foolish man seeking wisdom. To be granted such, he’s advised to bring the heart of the creature he loved the most in the world. The lad returned with his mother’s heart, but when he received his wisdom, he realized the evil he’d perpetrated.

As stated earlier, this article presents a mere glance at the power of the heart throughout society. Although its use as a metaphor and literary devise persists, the heart beats its own brutal rhythm throughout history, speaking to man’s fear of vulnerability.