'The heart of your servant was sick'

the use of embodied metaphors to express emotions in classical Hebrew

Gareth Wearne, Natalie Mylonas

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Classical Hebrew exhibits a remarkably small number of lexemes that denote emotions or emotional states. This limited emotional vocabulary has even led some scholars to argue that ancient Israelites did not have a concept of ‘inner depths’ – that sense of interior subjectivity which for ‘moderns’ seems to be the seat of the emotions and personal identity (e.g. Di Vito, 1999).

Be that as it may, Classical Hebrew prose and poetry is replete with poignant expressions of emotion, ranging from the extremes of anguish to exuberant joy. In such cases it was usual practice to use embodied metaphors to describe the physical sensations that we tend to associate with emotional experiences: e.g. ‘my soul is bowed down upon me’; ‘my kidneys will exult’; ‘all my bones will say, “Y HWH , who is like you?”’; and ‘my anger (lit. my nose) burns’.

The paper will take as its point of departure the lexicalised metaphor ‘the heart of your servant was sick’, which occurs in the midst of an agonised and impassioned outburst, in the context of a personal letter (Lachish Ostracon 3, ca. 586 BCE). It will be argued that this pragmatic function is vital for understanding how such emotional experiences were perceived, since the pathos of the expression is predicated on the ability of the recipient to empathise with the subjective experience of the sender. In other words, by using the metaphor the sender could (and evidently did) expect the recipient to understand his meaning. Consequently, given the widespread use of such metaphors, it seems reasonable to infer that the ancient Israelites held the seat of emotions to be internal and that emotional experiences were essentially universal.

The paper will then examine a range of similar embodied metaphors, which occur throughout the Hebrew Bible, together with cognate metaphors in other languages (e.g. ‘I am sick at heart’, Hamlet 1.1.10). These will be considered with reference to the work of cognitive linguists such as Zoltán Kövecses, who argue that embodied metaphors are a necessary and universal feature of the human conceptualisation and processing of emotion.

Significantly, this comparative approach suggests that the emotional experiences described by the Classical Hebrew writers are more or less analogous to our own, inasmuch as the poignancy of the metaphors lies precisely in the fact that we ‘moderns’ feel we can identify and empathise with them. To be sure, there is a danger that in interpreting such expressions we will anachronistically transfer sensations and concerns other than those experienced by the authors; but this is mitigated by the universal nature of such metaphors, which suggests that the experiences are phenomenologically related.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016
EventMoving minds: Converting cognition and emotion in history - Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, Sydney, Australia
Duration: 2 Mar 20164 Mar 2016


ConferenceMoving minds

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