Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

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Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by PhilHunt » Mon May 02, 2011 4:27 pm

I was reading about Egyptian religion the other day when I came an account of Egyptian ideas of hell. In one mythology, the dead would go for judgement after death and have their heart weighted. If the heart weighed less than the feather of truth, they would be let into heaven by Osiris, the god of the underworld, where they would live with the gods; if the heart was heavier than the feather then the deceased was thrown into the jaws of Ammit, the crocodile monster, to be devoured.

After reading this it struck me that the expression 'a heavy heart', while also adhering to the orientation metaphor that 'good is up' & 'bad is down', could well have come from this Egyptian myth. I'm not suggesting a direct and continuous link, but perhaps through rediscovery of Egypt and its myths by later generations in a similar way that Pluto and Aristotle were rediscovered by Europeans in the Middle Ages.

Does anyone know if there is a link?
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by PhilHunt » Tue May 31, 2011 9:35 am

Thought I'd reply to my own post seeing as no-one took a bite.

I've found some info on-line with an attempted origin:
"Heavy Heart:
In a sad or miserable state, unhappily, as in He left her with a heavy heart, wondering if she would ever recover . The adjective heavy has been used in the sense of "weighed down wit grief or sadness" since about 1300. Its antonym light dates from the same period. The latter use survives only in light heart , meaning "freedom from the weight of sorrow" that is, "a happy feeling."
American Heritage
No examples are given to support the 1300 date, and no etymology is offered fro 'heavy heart' itself; but at least we have a rough origin for 'heavy' in the expression.

Proverb 25:20 contains the line:
Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.
Most English versions of the Bible seem to follow the translation of the King James version, using 'heavy heart', though Keil and Delitzsch's Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament says that a more exact translation would be "a heart morally bad, here a heart badly disposed, one inclined to that which is evil; for שׁר שׁיר is the contrast of קונן קינה, and always the consequence of a disposition joyfully excited"

The King James version is a collection of various translations dating back at least as far as 1380 AD when John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English for the first time. We have no exact date for when this passage was translated though.

Shakespear uses the phrase in Venus and Adonis (1593):
Mine eyes are turned to fire, my heart to lead: Heavy heart's lead melt at mine eyes' red fire – So shall I die by drops of hot desire
But the earliest quote I can source and date outside of the Bible is Foxe's book of Martyrs (1563), an account of Protestant martyrs throughout Western history from the 1st century through the early 16th centuries, which contains the expression 'with a heavy heart' in two places.
"The father, on being dismissed by the tyrant Bonner, went home with a heavy heart, with his dying child, who did not survive many days the cruelties which had been afflicted on him.
Page 354
2007 reprint"
If anyone gets a chance to look at this wonderful piece of Protestant propganda, have a look at the horrific woodcuts showing martyrys being killed in such gruesome ways that it would put most slasher movies to shame.

So, I'm still not sure quite how this expression came into being.
It doesn't appear to be a true translation from the Bible text, but it appears in the King James Bible. Does this mean that perhaps the expression was well known enough to be used when it was translated? If this is the case, why is there not more writing containing 'heavy heart' from the 14th C. to the 16th C.?
Did Foxe pick the phrase up from another source, such as the King James Bible or from somewhere else? Did Shakespeare get the expression from the King James Bible or from Foxe?

More questions than answers, I'm afraid.
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue May 31, 2011 10:55 am

The simplest possible derivation for 'heavy heart' is the unmistakable physical sensation experienced by someone who is in the throes of loss, remorse etc. That being so, one would suppose that the expression could have been independently reinvented on a number of occasions, making it difficult or impossible to establish it as being a usage of purely literary or mythic origin.

It seems logical that the more culturally bound an expression is to its source, the less likely it will be to propagate widely across languages and cultures unless it has managed to find its way into one of those rare works (which are typically religious) that have substantially succeeded in transcending linguistic and cultural barriers. The Bible and the Koran are two obvious examples of such works.

However, if all or most other languages have similar idioms (suggesting that simple physiological observation gave rise to them), the likelihood that the English-language expression could be proved to derive from Egyptian mythology or some other ancient source is pretty low. This would especially be the case if similar expressions exist in languages and cultures that have (at least till relatively recently) had minimal contact with cultures that are familiar with the Bible, such as the tribal cultures of New Guinea, southeast Asia, parts of Africa and South America, and perhaps Australia.
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by PhilHunt » Tue May 31, 2011 12:01 pm

I agree with your reasoning Erik; However, I dispute the simplest possible derivation for 'heavy heart' is the unmistakable physical sensation experienced by someone who is in the throes of loss, remorse etc. The idea of the heart being the seat of personality and emotion seems so natural to us, but is a cultural construct. When you are sad you do not feel any 'sinking' feeling in your heart, or a 'breaking' when your loved one leaves. These are ideas that we have 'learned' through culture. This is proven by the fact that there are limited examples of 'broken heart' (1464) or 'sinking heart' (1700s) in writing, they are ideas that took off in literature during the romantic period; and that is what I find interesting; the apparent connection between an ancient Egyptian myth about the heart and expressions to do with the heart which appear to surface in English around the 1500s.

Where the King James Bible uses 'heavy heart' it is not a direct translation from the original but a substitution for another idiom particular to Hebrew. Substitution of idioms in translations would mean the audience for this work would already know of the expression; so why are there no earlier sources in writing?

I thought I would do a comparison with other languages that I am familiar with.

Modern Italian does not use the heavy/light heart metaphor much. However, I have found references to it turning up in Italian literature from 1850, once in a discussion on Egyptian history:
Gli Egizii dicono dunque etscem, che letteralmente significa picciol cuore, ed esprime l' idea di pauroso, codardo ; arsciet , cuore pesante oppure lento di cuore, cioe paziente; ssaciet, cuora alto o alto di cuore, orgogliosa; ssab.et, ...
1834
In a medical text:
Cuore pesante 652 grammi. Idro-pericardite, vegetazioni sulle valvole aortiche e sulla mitrale , false membrane rivestenti l'interna superficie del ventricolo sinistro. Uomo di 22 anni, affetto già da sei anni di malattia di cuore in ...1843
..and Biblical scholarly text:
... come erano insensati, ed il loro cuore pesante e tardo a credere quello che i Profeti dissero ; e per convii*- cerli incominciò da Mosè , e percorrendo appresso tutte le profezie, spiegò loro quello «he era stato predetto di lui 2. ...
1822
In French 'heavy heart' translates as 'cœur gros' and this turns up in French texts from the 1560s onwards, mainly in Biblical texts and translations of Shakespeare.
There are a couple of examples of it being used descriptively outside of these texts. For example:
Or, les Hespagnols , ayans le cœur gros à cause de leur victoire et acharnez à partuer le reste des François, braquèrent les canons du fort contre les navires et bat- teaux. Mais à cause du temps pluvieux et que les canons aussi ...
Brief discovrs et histoire d'un voyage de quelques François en la Floride:
1579
In Spanish, 'heavy heart' translates just as 'pesar' (regret, sorrow). There is no correlation between them.

I will not attempt other languages as I am unfamiliar with them.

So, in Italian there is no real connection, and by extension, I imagine, Latin. However, French and English texts contain the expression from the 1500s onwards. I wonder what the connection is?
I would say it has come via a ‘religious’ source, as there is a mass of biblical writing from that time onwards which use the expression in both French and English, but why just these two languages? What is the common thread? Could it in fact be connected to the Reformation, Henry VIII breaking from the Catholic Church, Protestantism? Is Foxe indeed the source?
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Wed Jun 01, 2011 6:02 pm

The metaphorical use of heaviness or burdens to signify low mood is certainly Biblical:

Psalm 55:22 :


New American Standard Bible (©1995)
Cast your burden upon the LORD and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken.

New International Version (©1984)
Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.

I haven't checked in a study Bible for the earliest known Hebrew rendering, but the NASB is a very literal and accurate translation.
Last edited by Edwin F Ashworth on Thu Jun 02, 2011 8:58 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Thu Jun 02, 2011 8:54 am

I'm less impressed with the NASB's literalness after checking in various study aids - for instance, The Complete Word Study: Old Testament - Zodhiates.
A better translation of the Hebrew gives allotted portion or what is sent you rather than burden (or indeed, cares). The NASB and NIV are paraphrasing here.

At Proverbs 12:25, there is another example:

New International Version (©1984)
An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.

New Living Translation (©2007)
Worry weighs a person down; an encouraging word cheers a person up.

American King James Version
Heaviness in the heart of man makes it stoop: but a good word makes it glad.

Apparently, anxiety and stoop are closest to the original, so heaviness can again only be traced back as far as the AV (the AKJV mirrors the AV here, with archaic verb-endings replaced).
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Jun 02, 2011 9:53 am

PhilHunt wrote:The idea of the heart being the seat of personality and emotion seems so natural to us, but is a cultural construct.
True, but I was not arguing the contrary.
PhilHunt wrote:When you are sad you do not feel any 'sinking' feeling in your heart, or a 'breaking' when your loved one leaves. These are ideas that we have 'learned' through culture.
It is certainly plausible that the culture we grow up in shapes our interpretation of the physical sensations we have when we are affected by some strong emotion -- hence, for instance, the 'heavy heart' in English versus the 'big heart' in French ['cœur gros'] that you referred to -- but however we are conditioned to interpret it, we still experience a physical sensation of some kind.

In that light, I'll expand my speculation concerning the degree of prevalence of the 'heavy heart' notion to include other associations besides weight/lightness with the physical feelings experienced alongside grief, sadness, etc. and their opposites. I still think a physiologically-based origin for such heart-related metaphors is more likely than individual textual sources.

Particularly in the light of Edwin's investigation of the Biblical source text, the lack of textual evidence gives me no reason to be persuaded by your suggested attribution of the expression 'heavy heart' to a source in either Egyptian myth, Foxe or the Bible. Because of the likelihood that physiologically-based 'natural metaphors', if I can call them that, will cloud the evidence, it also seems to me that it is impossible to prove any proposition about a particular textual origin for such expressions.
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by PhilHunt » Tue Jun 07, 2011 11:51 am

Sorry to take so long to reply Erik. All work and no play....

I agree with you that 'heavy' denotes sadness because it denotes 'down', being a spatial metaphor based on our orientational interaction with the world, something which has been discussed here at length in the past, but I do not accept that the heart is the seat of any physical or emotional feeling; this is a social construct. I still argue that we feel no sensation in the heart except for when we are suffering from an illness or an attack or some kind, and then it is in the chest, not the heart. After all, no one clutches their chest and says that their lungs have been broken when they split with their partner, do they? Why not, why do we think so little of the lungs and so much of the heart?

The idea of the heart being the seat of emotion is one passed down to us from Ancient Greek thinkers. The most commonly held belief was that the heart was the seat of thought and logic (sentience) as believed by Aristotle; Galen thought of the heart as a heat chamber where the soul most likely resides and that it controlled all other organs with an intelligence of its own. These ideas were based on misguided views on the development of human embryos and structures of the organs. They believed that the heart was the first organ to form in the bodies development and thus must be the seat of logic, thought and emotion [Hippocrates did contradict these views and locate pleasure, sensation and thoughts in the brain, however he was an exception]. The faulty views of Aristotle and Galen stood as THE authority on the heart in Europe until about the Renaissance when it was finally possible for laymen to dissect corpses without fear of a visit from the inquisition or some other such church authority. Before that, knowledge of anatomy was confined to church scholars who did not do practical observation themselves.

This thinking about anatomy led me to do some research into historical developments in the anatomy of the heart and I found some interesting things. It seems the above state of affairs continued up until the time of William Harvey who was the first European to correctly map the heart and the flow of blood. De Motu Cordis, Harvey's book outlining his views on the circulation of blood was not well received by his peers due to their persisting belief in Galen. Although Harvey did supported the Aristotelian notion of the heart, he examined carefully the function of all of its different parts and came to a reverse conclusion of Galen and his medieval and Renaissance readers: he believed that the heart was actively at work when it was small, hard and contracted (systole), expelling blood, and at rest when it was large and filled with blood (diastole). Perhaps the idea of a heart at rest in an engorged state (thus heavy) could have some connection. He wrote in 1653: "The heart is situated at the 4th and 5th ribs. Therefore [it is] the principal part because [it is in] the principal place, as in the centre of a circle, the middle of the necessary body."
Harvey did not challenge the metaphysical interpretation of the heart though. He agreed that the heart was the primary "spiritual member" of the body, thus the seat of all emotions (the idea of the ancient Greek thinkers). As a contemporary wrote:
"If indeed from the heart alone rise anger or passion, fear, terror, and sadness; if from it alone spring shame, delight, and joy, why should I say more?"
Andreas de Laguna in 1535.
Harvey metaphorically described the heart as the "king" or "sun" of the body to underscores its cosmological significance, an idea popular in religious iconography and alchemy.

I'm starting to think that the renewed interest in anatomy at that time probably spiked interest in the popular imagination, and Harvey's position as the King's physician could account for his views coming to the churches attention around that time. Educated men were often church scholars, so the intertwining of science and religion was inevitable.

All the references to heavy and heart start to appear around the same time. I did some searches on variations of the 'heavy heart' theme such as 'a heaviness of heart' and it only confirmed my suspicions. However, I realised later that Heart was not always spelt as such in English, but was for a long time 'hart'. To my surprise I found a solitary earlier quote with this new spelling it 1587, from an Italian translation:
Amorous Fiammetta
Giovanni Boccaccio - 1587
Nor yet secure of her voluble and flattering Fortune, with howe heavy hart did shee celebrate her newe espousalles, which greefes and extreame myseries, with a tragicall ende at last, and with a stout enterprise, she did fully finish. ...
I will have to investigate this more to see if the original text is the same as the translation. After all, in Italian, 'a heavy heart' 'cuore pesante' actually means something closer to 'sinking heart' or 'sinking feeling', which is not the same thing. It would still root the emergence of the phrase around the same time as dissections were taking place in Bologna (where Harvey studied), but may suggest an Italian origin after all. Wiki has some interesting info:
The first major development in anatomy in Christian Europe, since the fall of Rome, occurred at Bologna in the 14th to 16th centuries, where a series of authors dissected cadavers and contributed to the accurate description of organs and the identification of their functions. Prominent among these anatomists were Mondino de Liuzzi and Alessandro Achillini.

The first challenges to the Galenic doctrine in Europe occurred in the 16th century. Thanks to the printing press, all over Europe a collective effort proceeded to circulate the works of Galen and Avicenna, and later publish criticisms on their works. Vesalius was the first to publish a treatise, De humani corporis fabrica, that challenged Galen "drawing for drawing" travelling all the way from Leuven[13] to Padua for permission to dissect victims from the gallows without fear of persecution. His drawings are triumphant descriptions of the, sometimes major, discrepancies between dogs and humans, showing superb drawing ability. Many later anatomists challenged Galen in their texts, though Galen reigned supreme for another century.
Unfortunately it's looking highly likely that the Egyptian myth was a red herring and had nothing to do with the expression after all, but rather the new interest in anatomy, which was a source of entertainment and interest for educated men of the time, is the likely culprit.

There is always another possibility; that the expression surfaced in the King James Bible earlier then fell out of use, and the later usage has no connection to the earlier one.
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Jun 07, 2011 6:41 pm

Phil H., I did a search for HEAVY HEART and the earliest example I could find in English was in the proverb:
A light purse makes a heavy heart.
(The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs)

Since this was a proverb recorded in English by John Heywood in 1555 – he was a compiler of proverbs and not the author – it is likely that it is considerably older.
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by PhilHunt » Tue Jun 07, 2011 7:42 pm

I'm interested to know which edition you saw this in.
I'm looking at a 1562 edition of The proverbs, epigrams, and miscellanies of John Heywood and John Stephen Farmer and there is no mention of 'heavy heart'. There are seperate entries for each word but not together.
Another copy I'm looking at from 1867 is the same. It seems that Heywoods original book has been updated and collated many times. Is it possible it was a later addition?
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Jun 08, 2011 3:24 am

Phil H., I found the 1555 date in The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs: “The proverb [[a light purse makes a heavy heart]] was first recorded in 1555 by J. Heywood[/i].” I took them at their word because they are a generally a reliable source and because I couldn't get access to a 1555 edition to check. So, it may well have been there, although I probably wouldn't have found it anyway because of the archaic spelling.

Archaic spellings makes it difficult to do a thorough search (see below), but I did find the proverb in Heywood’s 1562 edition.

The following are from the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY:

HEAVY-HEARTED: Proceeding from or caused by a heavy heart; sad, doleful.
<1562 “Lyght purses Make heauy hartes, and heuy harted curses.”—Proverbs and Epigrams (1867) by John Heywood, page 151>
Here are two more early quotes with the following definition:

HEAVY-HEARTED: Having a heavy heart; grieved, sad, melancholy.
<circa 1400 “Heuy herted men and stille studious men.”—Cato’s Morals 235 in Cursor Mundi: A Northumbrian Poem of the 14th Century, page 1672>

<1535 “Thou art not sicke, that is not ye matter, but thou art heuy harted.”— Coverdale Bible, Neh. ii. page 2>
Here is an informative blurb on Heywood’s work from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

Apart from a handful of lyrics, Heywood was also hard at work on his proverbs and epigrams. Beginning with A Dialogue Containing the Number in Effect of All the Proverbs in the English Tongue in 1546, he built up a series of epigrams on proverbs in hundreds over editions in 1549, 1555, 1556, 1560, and 1561, culminating in his Works of 1562 (the plays were not included). Though perhaps not containing all the known English proverbs, the collection, estimated at over 1260, was indeed the largest to have appeared. It derived from many sources, including Erasmus's Adages (1508), but there is a sense that Heywood's sensitive ear for demotic speech played a significant part. The Works were well enough liked to be reprinted in 1566, 1576, 1587, and 1598.
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by PhilHunt » Thu Jun 16, 2011 12:40 pm

Thanks for the search Ken. It looks like my theories are all blown out of the water.
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by Nick » Wed Mar 07, 2018 10:20 am

Hi Phil, This is a very late addition to the discussion: seven years!

I am not so sure your theories are wrong. I found this discussion because - independently - during my studies of Ancient Egypt - and the weighing of the heart after death - the same thought occurred to me: was this the origin of expressions like light-hearted, down-hearted, heavy-hearted?

The Bible is probably the best source since there are many connections in the Old Testament between Israel and Egypt (Joseph, Moses) and continuous trade from Egypt to Palestine etc. If these expressions can be found in the original Bible texts, then I would argue for certain derivation from Egypt.

Personally, I discount the 'that's how it feels' school-of-thought, since I am not sure that the heart does 'feel' that way.

I particularly think that 'down-hearted' is a strong indicator of this derivation since 'down' would be the direction of the human heart if too heavy when weighed in the scales of Anubis after death.
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by Nick » Wed Mar 07, 2018 10:27 am

Response to earlier post from Erik:

'gros coeur' - 'gros' can mean heavy in French as well as 'large.'
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Re: Heavy Heart - Lighter than a feather

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Mar 07, 2018 4:11 pm

Thanks for that clarification, Nick.
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