Known around the world as the Hamsa Hand, the Hand of Mary, Hand of Fatima, Hand of Miriam and spelt alternately as ‘Khamsa’, the Hamsa is probably the most famous symbol whose name you have seldom (or never) heard.
It is also probably one that you might have seen many, many times but simply not realized what lay before your eyes. Attribute that to the widespread preference of depicting it as a stylized, artistic version with several embellishments instead of its most basic form of a human hand upon which an open eye is centered.
The eye, often in the context of an ‘All-Seeing Eye’ is not a novel concept; it is a well-known symbol that appears on objects and buildings throughout the modern world. However, the Hamsa Hand is more closely associated with worship of, and protection by, a Supreme Being than a symbol of money, power and influence that is more common today.
What Does the Hamsa Hand Look Like?
Despite the wide variation between illustrations of the Hamsa Hand that are seen around the world – often arising because how it has evolved from its ancient origins to be adapted by peoples and cultures across the planet – some features are almost universally present. The most prominent of these are:
- A hand with five fingers, pointing upwards or downwards
- The fingers are most often pressed together, not splayed
- At least one eye within the palm of the hand
The most common and widespread design of the Hamsa/Khamsa shows it as a symmetrical symbol where the thumb and little finger are shown as identical in shape and size. The more realistic version with the thumb and little finger depicted clearly and distinctly different is not unheard of but it is certainly much less common.
Some cultures prefer a clean, unadorned look devoid of any design enhancements (and even color) while most prefer a medium to high level of intricate artistic flair. The most common areas where this flair emerges is:
- On the palm – Various shape and designs may adorn and/or accompany the eye
- On the fingers – Most often in the design of the horizontal partitions of the fingers
Another less common variation is the depiction of four fingers between the little finger and thumb instead of just three. This is arguably more a creative way of showing the Hamsa rather than a symbol of something overtly profound.
When and Where Did the Hamsa Originate?
The Hamsa Hand has been a part of our world for untold millennia and its true origins are lost in the mists of time. This is a trait the Hamsa has in common with all of the most ancient of human symbols.
The primordial origins of the Hand of Hamsa are alluded to by the fact that the eye is central to most designs. The symbol of the eye is rooted in the primal fear among humans of the covetous, ill-intentioned sentiments of others on what we prize and love, be it our possessions or the people in our lives.
What we do know for certain is that the oldest known use of the Hamsa/Khamsa can be traced back to the people of Phoenicia, a Semitic (Jewish) civilization of the Mediterranean/North African region. Phoenicia was established in around 1500 B.C.; however, the symbol itself most likely was in use in the region before this period and was adapted by the Phoenicians to their own purposes.
Records show that the Phoenicians used the Hamsa Hand as a symbol of their revered goddess, Tanit. She was the patron of their capital city, Carthage, protecting it from those that intended her harm.
The Hamsa Hand in Established Religion
There is little doubt that the Hamsa Hand emerged as a symbol of oversight and protection long before established religions made their mark upon our world.
A common trait of all conquering religions is that ancient beliefs and motifs are subtly incorporated into their respective narratives to enhance the appeal they hold for the unconverted masses. The Hamsa/Khamsa is the perfect example – it was adopted chronologically by all the major religions that came in the wake of the simple animism where its roots lay.
However, such is the history of mankind that similar ideas spring from minds separated across the vastness of deserts and oceans. The Hamsa symbol also emerged further east, in the ancient world of India where Hinduism and Buddhism took root. These religions, too, have variations of the Hamsa in their beliefs.
For all established religions, it is generally accepted that the Hamsa is the symbol of an omnipotent Supreme Being who possesses the power to grant protection from evil and bless those over whom He rules. As such, it can be said that it is a representation of the ‘Hand of God’.
The Hamsa in Judaism – The Hand of Mary/The Hand of Miriam
Judaism is the first of the three Abrahamic religions, predating Christianity by around two millennia and Islam by over 2,700 years. The first recorded use of the Hamsa is in relation with the teachings of the Jews.
Hamsa is derived from the Hebrew word for the number ‘five’, hamesh. It is used in two contexts; firstly, to refer to the first five books of the Torah, the holy book of the Jews, and secondly, the Jewish teaching that asks that devotees use all five senses in their worship of God.
The people of Phoenicia were essentially Jewish but of a school that deviated from the original teachings of the Torah. Their use of the Hamsa Hand may have been inspired by Jewish tradition but it was enriched or diluted, depending on how you perceive matters of religion, by incorporating a worship of ancient pagan deities.
This is evident from the position of importance allotted to the goddess, Tanit, as chief protector of the Phoenician capital, Carthage. The oldest surviving use of the Hamsa Hand is in reference to Tanit.
On the other hand, the traditional reference to the Hamsa in Judaism is also in reference to a female figure, but to the sister of the Jewish prophet, Moses. Her name was Miriam and this is why it is known also as the Hand of Miriam to the Jews.
The Torah says that Miriam was so righteous that she never experienced the ‘curse of Eve’, and credits her with spreading Talmudic teachings to the women.
When called the Hand of Mary, the Hamsa/Chamsa is used as a representation of Mary, mother of Jesus.
To receive the protection of either of these two women against the ‘evil eye’ was to be under the aegis of God Himself.
The Hamsa in Christianity – the Hand of Mary
The five books of the Torah after which the Hamsa/Khamsa is named also form the first part of the Old Testament of the Holy Bible. While Christianity generally frowns upon symbols other than the cross and its variants, the Hamsa may still be used without fear of falling foul because of this shared history with Judaism.
This is especially true with regards to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Bible tells us that God sent his Son down to earth as a savior for mankind through Immaculate Conception in Mary. In Christian tradition, this act happened only once in the past and shall never be repeated again.
Hence, it was only Mary who was given the incomparable privilege of being part of the birth of Jesus, Son of God, placing her in an exalted position over all women, and possibly all of mankind.
The Hand of Mary in this context becomes a powerful representation of the power of God to exert His will through the actions of ordinary human beings, imbuing them with gifts and capabilities far exceeding the ordinary.
The Hamsa in Islam – the Hand of Fatima
The third of the Abrahamic religions, Islam, likewise embraced the Hamsa Hand when it encountered the symbol in its spread across the Middle East and north Africa in the early seventh century.
As the preceding religions had done, it also endowed upon it a familiar name of its own to ease the transition into the new way of worship: The Hand of Fatima. The name ‘Hand of Fatima’ refers to Fatima, one of the daughters of the Islamic prophet, Muhamad, who himself did not have any sons that lived beyond infancy.
Islam specifically prohibits the representation of human beings in art, deigning it a challenge to God and leading to idolatry. For this reason, the symbol is not as well-known or as widely used in Islamic countries as it is with Judaism and Christianity.
However, visually, the Hand of Fatima diverges from the traditional artistic representation of the Hamsa and is drawn in a more lifelike manner. It is not depicted as a symmetrical shape where the thumb and little finger are indistinguishable but as a real human right hand.
Another important and obvious difference is that while other depictions generally show the Hamsa with the fingers touching, the Hand of Fatima is shown with the fingers slightly splayed.
Perhaps again because of the prohibition against human depiction, the Hand of Fatima seldom is shown with an eye at the center as is the case with the Hamsa Hand, Hand of Miriam and Hand of Mary. Instead, the eye is typically replaced with an Islamic seal.
In the Islamic context, the number five is symbolic of the five ‘Pillars of Islam’, five rules by which all Muslims are required to live their lives.
Specifically in relation to the Shia branch of Islam, the five fingers of the hand are taken to refer to the ‘Five People of the Cloak’, a reference to five early Islamic figures that this sect believes were pure and absolved of all sin.
Their holy book, the Quran, speaks of beings called jinn or djinn that inhabit the world of men but also interact with other supernatural beings. Muslims believe that these magical creatures are able to affect human lives either positively or negatively, and they were held responsible for tragedies and misfortunes that plagued the Arab world in the early days of Islam.
Because of this history of superstitious belief, the Hand of Fatima attained additional popularity as a warder against evil in the Muslim world. It is probably largely via this logic that the Hand of Fatima is even today called upon to protect Muslims against the ‘evil eye’.
The Hamsa Hand in Modern Culture
We often try to find meaning in ancient teachings when the modern world fails us despite its promises of ease and comfort. Many ancient symbols are rediscovered by individuals just like you in their search for a connection with the soul of the Universe.
It is perhaps the greatest proof that materialism and wealth put a void in our lives that the elite of Hollywood are often seen wearing this symbol prominently. Despite their success and wealth, they seek solace from negativity and evil in representations of something that is almost an antithesis of their world.
However, the Hamsa has long been an appealing symbol for the masses, too. There are few tourist markets and stalls in the Middle East that do not offer trinkets and tapestries on which it is emblazoned on imprinted.
It is probably also safe to say that the majority of people who purchase these souvenirs seldom delve into the meaning behind the symbology.
Fortunately for them, there is no requirement or onus upon the individual to understand its meaning or to invoke the protection of a particular God or entity to receive its benefits. The Hamsa Hand only gives and asks for nothing in return.