April 11, 2017

Oddities - The Eaten Heart Legend

         Do you remember the ancient Greek myth according to which Dionysus was dismembered and pieces of his body boiled in a cauldron and then pierced with spits and roasted?  Those who did such an abominable thing were the Titans. Luckily, he was later reborn from the one organ they didn’t consume, his heart.
Well today I bring you a story that was told over and over again-  the legend of the Eaten Heart.  Scholars collected about 24 distinct versions of this story. For many years, it was thought that this story came from Europe. Most of the versions came from European literary traditions in England, Germany, France, and Italy. There was also one Swedish version. 
In the 1880s, a scholar found a version of the story that included all the key elements in the Punjab district of India, and everyone studying this story had to scramble to account for that. Was the Indian version derivative of the European versions, or vice versa? No one place could definitely lay claim to this story—it’s just a classic.
Some even go as far as to consider it as an aside in the story of Tristan and Iseult. It happened during the Middle Ages, in Europe. In the most basic version of this story, a married woman takes a lover, and her husband finds out. When the lover dies or is killed, the husband takes possession of his heart, cooks it, and feeds it to his wife, who dies shortly after.

 Vessel in the form of a heart held by a hand; 16th century Wellcome;Wkimedia

There are two main variations, dealing with how the lover dies. In one version, the husband tracks down the lover and kills him. In the second, the lover dies some other way, usually when he goes off to the Crusades. He wants his heart removed and sent back to his lady love, (this was a popular gesture at the time), but while the heart is en route, the husband intercepts it. No matter what, the wife eats the heart. That’s a key bit. She almost always dies after that, usually by throwing herself out the window or refusing to eat, sometimes both. Occasionally she dies of grief. When she survives, which is rarely, she ends up in a convent. Although she’s always in love with the dead man, in some versions of the story, her love is innocent and never consummated. More often, though, she’s an unrepentant adulteress.
Besides being a thrilling tale about a woman or women being tricked into cannibalism, the legend of the eaten heart is a story about power. Who wins in the end, the husband or the wife? Different versions have different answers to that question: sometimes the husband is explicitly punished for his transgressive act by a vengeful relative of his wife or by being exiled from his home.


  1. Wow, I have to say I have never heard this story, Carmen, not am I familiar with the Greek Myth of Dionysus. I am, however, well acquainted with the tale of Tristan and Iseult, so at least I got one out of the three, LOL.

    It's interesting that the tale of the eaten heart has so many variations and is tied to various countries. This was a fascinating post, and I learned a new bit of folklore. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Interesting and terrifying at the same time. Imagine the dread that woman lived. Knowing she was eating a human heart.
      I am glad you found something interesting in the post, Mae!

  2. Marvelous, Carmen! I know Dionysus pretty well, and Tristan and Iseult, but I had never heard of the stories of the eaten heart. Thanks for the new insights. I love how mythology travels down through folklore!

  3. I am glad you find the post interesting, Flossie. We keep finding new things every day. Thank you for checking the post!

  4. You always find the most fascinating legends.
    Happy Easter, my friend.


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