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Distributed for Reaktion Books

A History of the Heart

“My heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.” “The heart has reason that reason cannot know.” “The more I get to know President Putin, the more I get to see his heart and soul.” The heart not only drives our physical life, but throughout human history it has also been viewed at the seat of our deepest emotions. It has figured hugely—if metaphorically—in nearly every aspect of human civilization and as the unending subject of literature, music, and art. Yet until now there has not been a study of this paramount icon of love. Ole Høystad ably fills this enormous gap with a fascinating investigation into this locus of grief, joy, and power.            Firmly positioning the heart at the metaphorical and literal center of human culture and history, Høystad weaves history, myth, and science together into a compelling narrative. He combs through religions and philosophies from the beginning of civilization to explore such disparate historical points as the Aztec ritual of removing the still-beating heart from a living sacrificial victim and offering it to the gods; homosexuality and the heart in Greek antiquity; European attempts to employ alchemy in service of the mysteries of love; and the connections between the heart and wisdom in Sufism. Høystad charts how the heart has signified our essential desires, whether for love and passion in the medieval excesses of troubadour poetry and chivalric idealism, the body-soul dualism propounded by the Enlightenment, or even the modern notions of individualism expressed in the works of such thinkers as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Joseph Campbell.

            A provocative examination of the deepest vaults of our souls and the efforts of the many lonely hunters who have tried to unlock its secrets, A History of Heart upends the clichés to reveal a symbol of our fundamental humanity whose beats can be felt in every aspect of our lives.

251 pages | 20 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2007

History: General History

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"A History of the Heart is about far more than the changing representation of the most charismatic organ. The ease with which the central storyline opens into a wide-ranging intellectual history of Western culture is the book’s chief delight and major achievement. . . . A beautifully presented volume. . . . Høystad does well to guide the reader towards an understanding of how erotic and spiritual love became sharply separate yet powerfully interdependent forces, and how passion and suffering became integral to the sublimination of desire."—Lynne Pearce, Times Higher Education Supplement

Lynne Pearce | Times Higher Education Supplement

"The book is a cultural account of the heart in primarily Western civilization. . . . A bonus is the inclusion of 20 color illustrations including Aztec drawings, artwork by Matisse and Munch, and a dazzling painting by Jose de Paez. . . . Informative and eye-opening."

Tony Miksanek | Journal of the American Medical Association

"Høystad can play a linguistically subtle tune of scholarly brilliance."

Neue Zürcher Zeitung

"An entertaining, clearly written and knowledgeable tour de force through European intellectual history."

Süddeutsche Zeitung

"Contains some worthwhile analysis and conjecture."

C.E. O'Neill | Choice

Table of Contents




The oldest of high civilizations – Sumer and Gilgamesh
The mythical heart in ancient Egyptian culture
The many-sided human being of Greek antiquity
Mankind in Homer
Laughter and passion
The Dionysian and the Apollonian
Homosexuality in antiquity
The Platonic human image
From Aristotle to Galen
The history of Plato’s legacy
The heart in the Bible and in Christianity
The Old Testament
The New Testament
Augustine’s legacy and the Middle Ages
The greatest and most beautiful European creation?
Islam – last surviving heart culture?
The wisdom of the heart and the heart of wisdom in Sufism
Arabian influences on European culture
Aztecs – Why so heartless?
I am fat, even at the heart-roots – Norse anthropology


The emotional turn in the High Middle Ages
Troubadour poetry
Novels of chivalry
Eroticism and religion: Abélard og Héloïse
The heart in romantic love
Tales of everyday love
The new subject
Descartes and the body-soul dualism
Montaigne: Man is his work
The body of the text and the text of the body
Eros and Thanatos: Ars moriendi
From Renaissance and alchemy to Romanticism
Shakespeare the heartbreaker
”I cannot heave my heart into my mouth”
Rousseau – philosopher of the heart
Herder and the expressive turn
The Faustian Goethe
Long live individualism! From Nietzsche to Foucault and Campbell




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