Hepatic Regeneration in Greek Mythology
We recently posted a liver dissection (which you can check out here), where we explored the anatomy and physiology of this fascinating, arguably the most important organ of the human body. As we explained in the video, the liver is the only organ in the human body capable of regeneration. This is why liver transplants –a medical process where a donor gives a portion of his healthy liver to someone with a malfunctioning/diseased liver– are possible. The donor’s liver would quickly grow back, and the small piece of healthy liver implanted within the individual with the malfunctioning liver would soon grow to be a full-sized healthy liver.
Although it is easy for us to instinctively think of any surgical procedure as relatively modern, did you know that hepatic transplantation is hypothesized to have been well known to ancient Greeks? Ancient greek medico-philosophers believed that the liver was the center of the soul, most likely driven by their understanding of the liver’s vital role in maintaining homeostasis. There are numerous recorded incidents in ancient Greece of operations on hepatic abscesses and hepatic malignancies, animal dissections/human autopsies, and the use of slaves and convicts as research subjects– all of this implies that the Greeks must have had a significant understanding of the liver’s anatomy and physiology. In addition to all of this, the mythology of the ancient Greek people is surprisingly another valuable avenue through which we can observe what people at the time thought/knew about the liver. With all that said, here are two fascinating tales in Greek mythology regarding hepatic regeneration.
(Prometheus Tied to Mt. Caucasus)
Prometheus was a clever Titan who created mankind out of clay. Having made humans himself, Prometheus inevitably took pity on the cold and weak humans, and gifted them with fire he stole from the workshop of Hephaestus and Athena on Mt. Olympus. Mankind was able to prosper with the newly acquired fire, but Zeus –king of all gods– soon found out about what Prometheus had done, and was enraged. Zeus decided to punish Prometheus by tying him up to a rock on Mt. Caucasus, and sent an eagle to eat Prometheus’s liver. If this wasn’t cruel enough, Zeus made it so that Prometheus’s liver would regenerate every night, and the eagle returned every day to perpetually torment Prometheus. Fortunately, Zeus took pity on Prometheus after years of such punishment, and sent the Greek hero Hercules to free the titan.
(Tityus Bound to the Underworld)
Tityus was a Euobian giant, the son of Elara (a mortal princess) and Zeus. Being the son of a divine being, Tityus was huge, immortal, and had numerous special abilities. However, his thirst for power eventually consumed him, and led him to forcibly occupy the city of Panopeas. During the occupation process, he attempted to rape the Olympian goddess Leto, who was on her way to visit the Oracle of Delphi. Although Tityus was psychologically manipulated by Hera into assaulting Leto (who was jealous of her husband’s extramarital affairs), Zeus was still forced to impose a punishment on Tityus. The punishment Zeus decided upon his son was to have him bound in the underworld, where two vultures would come every new moon to feed on his ever regenerating liver.
The eternal nature of the punishment in both stories poses an interesting question– ”Did the ancient Greeks really know about hepatic regeneration?” I guess these two fantastical stories are all we have to look towards.