Clarissa Hughes

Liver and Soul

A line from the book “The Abundant Herds” by Marguerite Poland and David Hammond-Tooke caught my eye recently. With reference to an ox being sacrificed for someone who is ailing it says: “ … gall [from the slaughtered animal] is sprinkled on the patient’s body for it is said that the shades lick the gall.”

 When an animal is hunted in traditional societies the most prized organ is the liver, which is often reserved for the hunter, or an elevated member of society such as a priest or a chief.

 What is so important about the liver, and its essence, the gall?

 A clue lies in the myth of Prometheus from Ancient Greece. Prometheus was a deity from the ancient race who created humankind and helped it progress. Zeus, however, saw man’s progress as a threat and disrespectful of his own power. He therefore revoked man’s use of fire. Prometheus promptly stole it back on behalf of mankind. Zeus was furious and punished Prometheus by holding him captive and instructing an eagle (Zeus’s emissary) to eat Prometheus’s liver every day.

 What’s important is that Prometheus doesn’t die. His liver regenerates itself every night. On account of his liver’s ability Prometheus, who is known for his empathy with humankind and his intelligence, is immortal.

Modern medicine has discovered that the liver is the only organ in the body with the ability to regenerate itself.

 In African culture we see the same idea depicted in the practice mentioned above. The liver’s essence was sprinkled on the patient’s body so that he may regenerate himself.

 A traditional hunter eats the liver of his kill so that the animal may symbolically regenerate through him.

 How the ancients and traditional societies arrived at the same conclusion is not as important as the fact that they did. There are many paths by which to reach the same truth.

 Are the liver’s rejuvenating qualities used as a metaphor? The word liver comes from the English verb ‘to live’. In medieval times it was regarded as the seat of the passions. In French there is a similarity between the words foie (liver) and foi (faith).

 Many cultures used liver for divination purposes. It was regarded as the source of life.

 So next time you embark on a project that enthuses you you might want to say that you’re putting your liver and soul into it.  Or perhaps next time when you think you’re getting to the nitty gritty of a situation it would be more accurate to say that this is the liver and soul of the matter.

Both are symbols of immortality. Both are regarded as a wellsprings.





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