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Liver: The Seat of Emotions, According to Ancient Greeks

For the ancient Greeks the liver had an important role in divine and spiritual daily life: was the center of the soul and source of emotions. Prometheus (1762) by Nicolas Sébastien Adam. Louvre Museum. Credit: Public domain

For the ancient Greeks, the liver played an important role in both divine and ordinary daily life. Even terms used today such hepatitis, hepatoma, and hepatology, derive from the ancient Greek word “hepar” which means liver.

According to the ancient Greeks, the “hepar” (liver) was the center of the soul and the source of emotions; they believed that the liver had the divine ability to regenerate after a small incision, which is the case and which we can see in the stories of the punishments of Prometheus and Tityus.

The legend of Prometheus

According to Greek mythology, Prometheus was the Titan friend of mortals; he believed that men were worthy of possessing things that were only allowed by the gods.

The first trick he played on Zeus was when he made a sacrifice and divided it into two parts—on the one hand, he placed the meat and entrails with the skin of the animal and, on the other hand, the bones covered by the fat of the ox. He told Zeus to choose which part the gods would eat and which part they would leave for men.

Zeus, having thus been deceived, chose the fat and bones.

Zeus was enraged when he realized that he had chosen the less desirable portion. Men then burned their sacrifices for the gods, offering them the bones and eating the meat.

Angry with this deception, Zeus forbade men from fire, prompting Prometheus to undergo his great feat of stealing the fire from Mount Olympus and bringing it to men.

Zeus later took revenge on humanity and Prometheus; his revenge on humanity was when he breathed life into Pandora, a woman who later opened the amphora that had all the misfortunes that Zeus desired for humanity.

His revenge against Prometheus was torturous. He chained Prometheus and sent an eagle to eat his liver. As he was immortal, the liver grew back every day, and the eagle would once again devour it each day so that the cycle would eternally repeat.

The Punishment of Tityus and the liver in Ancient Greece

Tityus was a minor character of unbridled lust according to Greek mythology; he was a giant measuring about a “third of a stadium.”

Tityus’ crime was the attempted rape of Leto, Zeus’s lover and the mother of Apollo and Artemis. Hera instigated Tityus to commit the crime when Leto was traveling from Panopeo to Pito. He ripped her dress and attempted to rape her.

Leto’s screams attracted the attention of her children, Apollo and Artemis, who struck Tityus with her arrows; other versions of the story say that Zeus threw a lightning bolt at him.

Tityus’ punishment was being thrown into the abyss of Tartarus, where snakes and vultures forever ate his liver.

The Odyssey mentions Tityus thus: “I also saw Tityus, the son of the august Gaia, lying on the ground, where he occupied nine yugadae. Two vultures, one on each side, gnawed at his liver, penetrating his entrails with their beaks, without his being able to push them off with his hands.”

Other important facts about the liver

The liver
The liver. Credit: Henry Gray / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The liver is a complex organ that performs many important functions, including: storing vitamins, iron, various minerals, and energy in the form of sugar; making protein and bile, which is necessary in digesting food; and aiding in digestion by helping in the absorption of fat and vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Additionally, the liver is also responsible for such functions as processing old blood cells and maintaining hormonal balance. The cleansing of blood through the removal of medications and toxins, such as alcohol, and support against infections are also amongst the functions of the liver. Infections are resisted through the production of immune factors and the removal of bacteria from the bloodstream.

Today, we know that the liver is the only organ in the body that can regenerate itself, unlike other organs of the human body.

Hence, it no longer seems incredible that the liver was the most important organ for ancient Greeks or that they held it in such high esteem that it played a prominent role in Greek mythology.

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