What part of your body is affected in times of great emotion? (whether in sadness and stress or in joy and thanks)? In our culture we usually speak of our 'hearts' being the seat of emotion. But it was common in greek culture to attribute the seat of emotions to the intestines (σπλάγχνα), since that's where we feel emotions. Ulcers in times of stress, butterflies in times of joy—they affect our gut far more than our hearts. One could argue that the ancient understanding was better.
As evidence, here are some citations from common standard greek lexicons on the word:
- as often in the ancient world, inner body parts served as referents for psychological aspects (s. καρδία): of the seat of the emotions, in our usage a transference is made to the rendering heart,
“σπλάγχνον,” BDAG, 938.
Because strong emotions produce sensations in the abdomen, the bowels and other organs were regarded as the site of the natural passions (cf. the use of gut in [Vol. 4, p. 352] Eng.). Thus σπλάγχνα came to have the same fig. meaning as heart (see καρδία G2840), referring to the seat of the affections, both negative, such as anger and fear, and positive, such as love and compassion (cf. the use of σπλάγχνα alongside κέαρ [= κῆρ, “heart”] and φρένες [pl. of φρήν G5856, with a sim. meaning] when speaking of fearful premonitions, Aesch. Ag. 995–98).
“σπλάγχνον” NIDNTTE, 4:351-352.
As to the pairing of σπλάγχνον with οἰκτιρμός (compassion), the thought is the full extent and depth of compassion, not a half-hearted effort, but compassion shown from the depth of your heart (or in the original, gut). And that is a truly theological thought, that out of the great compassion that God has shown us in Christ, we extend that same compassion to others.