The metaphorical heart

Witness of the archaic consciousness

Author: Dr. Annette Blühdorn
Category: Philosophy
Issue No: 90

Quite naturally we use the heart again and again as part of our everyday language: “I take heart” or “My heart goes out”. But what do we specifically mean by such statements, and on what basis are our supposedly safe utterances about the heart based? The author shows us where the origins of this complex and multi-layered heart metaphor lie by taking us on a journey through various cultural conceptions of the heart as an organ as well as the philosophy of the body.


It melts us it bleeds it laughs in our bodies
We wear it on our tongue
We pour it out
We give it air
We greet from it
We eat it in aspic
It is stony and soft
golden hard burning larded
half light deep good or heavy
fried broken expanded greasy
We bring something over it and carry something under it //
We put our hand on it
We enclose something in it
We press something to it
We take something to it
We have something on it
We hang it on something
It has flaps leaves ladies
It has flaws punches reasons bags and pits
Seizures chambers and lusts
We grow something on it
and cut something in it
and grab something from it
A stone falls from it
We make a murder pit out of it
We have it on the right spot

  • Hans Magnus Enzensberger

In his poem Innenleben, Hans Magnus Enzensberger reels off a whole series of winged heart words that we use regularly in everyday life, and in doing so he allows the physical organ, the heart muscle, and the non-physical, metaphorical heart to merge as if by chance. In a poetically ironic way, he thus depicts our handling of the concept of the heart, which is usually done thoughtlessly, because we habitually use many of the phrases listed here without knowing what exactly we actually mean by “heart” in the respective context.

We also encounter this thoughtless, uncritical use of the term heart in yoga: backbends are heart openers; the heart chakra stands for compassion, empathy, contact; the energetic nature of the heart can be “experienced in the power of love, which can overcome and dissolve all the obstacles that the ego piles up” (Trökes, 101); and Doris Iding recommends: “Jump into the center of your heart. Bathe in it and live out of it.”





Here, on the one hand, it is pretended that it is perfectly clear what the metaphor “heart” means, while on the other hand it is quite obviously unclear how the quoted statements and recommendations are to be interpreted or implemented in concrete terms. On the contrary, they remain vague and nebulous – accordingly, explicit instructions for action are also missing.

The question is therefore on what basis these supposedly safe statements about the heart are based. We read neither in the Yoga Sutras nor in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, i.e. the texts to which Yoga – also modern Yoga – essentially refers, really illuminating comments on this.


The aim of this article is to show where the origins of the metaphorical heart lie, with its complex, multi-layered meaning, which we take so much for granted today in yoga, but also in our everyday use of language.
The focus will be on the one hand on the lines of tradition that have significantly shaped the European-Christian Occident, i.e. on Greek antiquity and the statements of the Jewish Old and Christian New Testaments; on the other hand, specifically with regard to yoga, the Vedic culture will be considered.

Starting point of the presentation is an overview of the understanding or awareness of the heart as an organ in the mentioned cultures. For the fact that the heart could take on the metaphorical meaning it still has today must also be seen in connection with its function as a central organ within the body or with the interactions between psycho-emotional state and physiological heart activity.

Read more about the metaphorical heart used as a metaphor in various spiritual traditions from the present and past – from the culture of the heart in ancient Egypt to meditation and mindfulness practices for the heart chakra in Indian yoga.


In his poem, Hans Magnus Enzensberger playfully mixes the spheres of the abstract, metaphorical heart and the concrete heart organ. In the scientific (Berkemer/Rappe) and cultural studies (Høystad, Nager) on the metaphorical heart, it is different. Here we read very little about the heart as an organ – as if it were largely irrelevant to the representation. In fact, however, as Till Bastian explains, there is a sense of organ that people of older cultures probably had, and these sensations probably allowed them to sense the central function of the heart organ.

It can be argued that it was only through these physical-bodily impressions that the heart region was consciously perceived and then became significant on a psycho-mental or also on a spiritual level.
Therefore, the heart as an organ must not be left out in the discussion of the metaphorical, non-physical heart.

In this version, excerpts from the article are reproduced. The complete article is available in pdf, which can be ordered below.


Ancient Greek has no equivalent for the Hebrew term lēb or lēbāb, which occurs so frequently in the Old Testament and is usually translated as “heart” but varies in meaning depending on the context. Instead, different terms are used here, depending on the context, to denote the chest and heart spaces. This can be observed very clearly in Homer’s Iliad.

The words used here cover a semantic conceptual field that ranges from concrete terms such as stomach, diaphragm, interior of the chest and heart as part of the human body to abstract terms such as sensibility, mind, disposition, soul, but also passion, anger, zeal, fighting courage, besides also mind, spirit, reason, thought (cf. Schmitz 31998, 373-445).





This circumstance makes two things clear. First, it shows that the Homeric man of the Iliad does not have, like the man of ancient Egypt or Israel, a constituting center and a personal center that are identified with the heart – an assumption that we still make today.

It follows, secondly, that a self-reflective turning to one’s self does not take place here. Rather, one must imagine the Homeric man of the Iliad “as a symphony of impulses and voices coming from his various body parts. He does not perceive his body as a unity, as we do, but as an exuberant multiplicity of the most diverse forces, independent of one another.” (Høystad, 35)

At the same time, man does not yet live in the polarity of body and mind or soul, but grasps himself undivided in this respect. To find one’s way back into this holistic state is, by the way, the goal of the mysticism of yoga and certainly of many people who practice yoga today.


In the until then undivided, holistic understanding of the body, the division into body and soul penetrates with Plato. Before Plato, other Greek thinkers had already distinguished between matter and the spirit that moves and recognizes it, such as Empedocles, Democritus and the representatives of Orphism. But Plato developed this dualism further and expanded it into a systematic model in which the soul becomes the center of man and the body loses importance.

Plato fans out the soul and places three hierarchically ordered soul components as ranking above the body. The lowest, lowest soul component is the desiring, which is located in the region below the diaphragm. The middle part of the soul is the courageous and energetic, which has its seat in the heart. In the highest place is the reasoning or thinking soul, which is at home in the head and is supposed to direct the other two soul aspects.

Only this reason part of the soul is immortal and therefore has a special position. The body is animated by the threefold stretched soul, physical sensations and driving forces are now devalued or displaced and shifted into the abstract area of the soul, i.e. inward.



About the author: Dr. Annette Blühdorn

Dr. Annette Blühdorn, studied classical philology, Slavic studies, German studies; doctorate on contemporary German poetry; many years of teaching as a university lecturer in England; yoga practitioner for over 35 years; certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, since 2014 with her own yoga studio in Millstatt, Carinthia; member of the editorial team of the association magazine of “Iyengar-Yoga Deutschland e.V.”; various publications.

Website: www.yoga-weinleiten.at

This article has also been published on the German Website: Das metaphorische Herz

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *