Liver: The Source of Emotions, According to Ancient Greeks

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 the terms used today such as liver, hepatitis, hepatoma, 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

The torture of Prometheus. Credit: Salvator Rosa / Wikimedia Commons /Public domain

According to Greek mythology Prometheus was the Titan friend of mortals; he believed that men were worthy of possessing some 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 covered 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, deceived, chose the fat and bones.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

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

Angry with this deception, Zeus forbade fire to men, 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, the eagle would eat it again every day and the cycle would go on forever.

The Punishment of Tityus and the liver in Ancient Greece

Tityus eaten by vultures. Credit: Tiziano / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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 ate his liver forever.

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:

  • Stores energy in the form of sugar
  • Stores vitamins, iron and other minerals
  • Makes proteins
  • Makes bile, which is necessary to digest food
  • Aids in digestion by helping to absorb fat and vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K
  • Process old blood cells
  • Helps “cleanse” the blood by removing many medications and toxins, including alcohol
  • Helps the body resist infection by producing immune factors and removing bacteria from the bloodstream
  • Maintain hormonal balance

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

So it no longer seems so incredible to believe why for the ancient Greeks the liver was the most important organ, or why it played such a prominent role in Greek mythology.

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