How did it come to pass that we should love with our hearts instead of the liver? The pre-Spanish Filipino, like many of his contemporaries in Southeast Asia, believed that the liver (atay) is the seat of love. More: it is the bodily center of a person’s being, the source of power, courage, and strength. It is named in Philippine languages—atay, atey, hatay, ati—and has spawned numerous derivations that signify what is treasured, affective and elemental.
In Tagalog, emotion is dalamhati (literally, “inside the liver”) and intense feelings of grief, yearning, and happiness are pighati, lunggati, and luwalhati. Metaphorically, atay is used to refer to the best of anything, so that the most fertile land is atay ng lupa, and the softest, most “feeling” part of the hand or leg is atay ng paa or, in Cebuano, atay-atay. In old Tagalog, a proud and powerful man is called pagmamayatay (“he who claims to have the liver”). In Cebuano, one speaks of glowing praise as makapadaku sa atay (“enlarges the liver”) and of what causes a sharp, rending emotion asmakapakitbi sa atay (“curdles the liver”).
So elemental is the liver that among the Bagobo, Manobo and Mandaya, one eats a piece of an enemy’s liver to gain his power and enhance one’s strength. The asuwang knows what the best body part is and aims straight for the liver (the body’s bloodiest organ) instead of the heart.
Such native knowledge is not particular to Filipinos but found among early peoples in other parts of the world. Ancient medical theorists, like the second-century Greek physician Galen, ascribed to the liver great powers both physiological and mystical. It is then no surprise that our own native expressions have equivalents in other languages, like English (to be “liverish” is to feel an internal discomfort and to be “lilylivered” is to be wanting in courage).
In contrast, the mythology of the heart is not as attractive nor is its chemistry as complex. The most versatile organ, the liver has some 200 different functions: it manufactures bile, removes poisons, processes nourishing sugars, forms antibodies, purifies the blood, enhances its flow, and more. It has amazing recuperative powers for when a part of it is damaged it can grow new cells to replace lost ones. If there is a chemistry to love, there is no better place for it than this wonderful chemical capital of the body, the liver. Beside it, the heart is a rather dull organ.
I’m sure all this is not convincing anyone to barter the heart for the liver. I don’t expect anyone would be sending a Valentines card with a drawing of the liver instead of the heart. The merchandising possibilities do not look attractive— jaundice yellow instead of the signature red, and instead of Cupid shooting arrows into a heart, a witch or sorcerer digging in for the liver? And I have to admit it does not sound romantic to speak of one love-struck as giatay. (Though, come to think of it, being “struck by pestilence”—which is what giatay means—is not at all an inaccurate metaphor for love.)
We have come to fancy the simpler, softer, sanitary imagery of the heart. Yet, turning away from the more darkly visceral symbolism of the liver, we may have missed out on the denser, earthier, more dangerous and labyrinthine qualities of love.
Your Hallmark messages of a tame and prettified love do not quite grab the heart, er, I mean, liver, as this old Palawanon verse: On the areca tree by the wayside, / I etched a sign: / My liver hungers for you.
—Resil Mojares, “Heart and Liver” (Feb. 13, 1994)
This might not be my favorite among the essays on House of Memory, but this is something worth sharing. Have a liverly Valentine’s, everyone. 🙂