The Hand

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


 Now there are besides these characters in our faces certain mystical figures in our hands, which I dare not call mere dashes, strokes a la volèe or at random, because delineated by a pencil that never works in vain, and hereof I take more particular notice because I carry that in mine own hand which I could never read or discover in another.

Thomas Browne

 Leonardo da Vinci's portrayal of the Last Supper is a brilliant and vital translation of sacred history into art. Through the hand of the artist flowed the sublime lines, the tone, the colour, the quality of light which gave projected life to the poignant relationship of Christ to his disciples. The ensouling energy that animates the figures has endured as though the expressions and gestures were too profoundly human to be obliterated by time and abuse. The vision that coursed through da Vinci's hand was the fruition of many years of meditation, and as it poured forth into his painting it found its most exuberant expression in the eloquent hands of his subjects. They are irradiated with life. We read in them even more meaning than is conveyed by the marvellously instructive faces of the disciples. With their hands they are pointing, revealing anguish, astonishment, resignation, uncertainty, fear, compassion - an encompassing spectrum of emotions and signs. Goethe once wrote an elaborate critique of all the hands in this glorious work of art but Leonardo's own description transmits a vivid enthusiasm for his subject. He depicted the disciples as they were captured by his eye, as they were exposed, caught off guard in the midst of their own response to their Saviour's words. He wrote of "one who was drinking [and] has left the cup in its place and turned his head to the speaker. Another twists the fingers of his hands together and turns with stern brow to his companion. Another, with hands opened, showing their palms, raises his shoulders to his ears and gapes in astonishment. Another speaks into the ear of his neighbour and he who listens turns towards him and gives him his ear, holding a knife in one hand and in the other the bread, half divided by this knife. Another as he turns holding a knife in his hand, overturns with this hand a glass onto the table. Another rests his hands upon the table and stares."

 The hand of Thomas points upwards, his index finger intimating that in heaven there is the Knower of all these mysteries, while the hands of Christ suggest a definitely intended message of appeasement and compassionate sacrifice. In the esoteric doctrines of all religions the position of the hand relative to the body and the arrangement of fingers convey certain precise symbolic meanings. This is particularly true of the mudras depicted in Hindu and Buddhist ritual and iconography where the exalted states of gods and sages are illustrated; but the attitude of the hands is also an unconscious mirror of inner states experienced by the ordinary man. Their movement may be interpreted as readily as the lines upon their palms and these conditions complement the overall configuration of the hand in endlessly unique combinations. The hands in all these respects are like statements descriptive of the distinct qualities of each and every human being. When a man gestures with his hand, be he a disciple, a great Spiritual Teacher or a tiller in the fields, he expresses his sense of being in relation to the world. He projects outwardly a clue to his inward sense of identity. Hence, men authorize decisions or articulate their opinions by raising their hands or casting their lots. By pressing thumbs up or down, various persons have exercised their individual power of authority in diverse kinds of situations and so determined the fate of others as well as of themselves.

 On the rough walls of well-concealed caves in the south of France and Spain, men of the Lower Paleolithic painted hundreds of human hands which are superimposed or placed over and between marvellous impressions of the animals they hunted. Although they did not render the human form realistically in these grottoes, they clearly marked their authorship with the imprint of their hands, not as personalities but as humans asserting their power over that of the animal world. People sometimes indicate a sacrifice of part or all of this power when they leave imprints of their hands with finger joints missing upon rocks and cliff faces, but they do this as individuals. American Indians commonly followed this custom when close relatives died or were killed in battle. They seemed to wish to relinquish a part of their physical being that could symbolize whatever within them was most unique and personal in its experience of grief. The loss of part of their hand echoed the loss of an individual who had been, in effect, a part of their own sense of self. The poignantly small handprints of the Rajasthani suttees placed over the gates leading to their husband's funeral pyre seem like helpless tokens of sacrifice. It is as if they left their mark in the world to record the fact that they had lived, but the imprints serve more to register their weakness and dependence than to make any assertion of individual will. Their hands, dipped in dye and pressed upon the suttee gates, proclaim the power and authority of royal lineages rather than their own. Their sacrifice of themselves was taken for granted and their identity was snuffed out in the flames, leaving behind only the small, faded red hands whose uncertain contours exude an aura of dreadful melancholy and poignant remembrance.

 The hand of a king holds the sceptre of rulership and its touch has the power to heal. That, at least, was believed in Samuel Johnson's day when he among many others sought the royal hands as a cure for scrofula. The belief that powerful and potentially beneficent magnetism coursed through the hands and emanated from the fingertips of divinely gifted individuals goes back to the earliest period of human history. The 'laying on of hands' is mentioned in the Bible in connection with Paul and particularly Jesus. A description in Luke indicates that "when the sun was setting, all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them". Paul, laying hands on some, caused the Holy Ghost to enter into them so that "they spake in tongues, and prophesied". It would seem from this that the human power related to the hand is not merely that of self-determination or authority or even willing sacrifice. It is that which takes its credentials from an even greater power and one which can come to be stored and directed by the magic wand of the human hand.

 The Egyptian word for hand is related to that which means 'pillar, support or strength'. Its hieroglyph depicts the union of masculine fire with feminine water in the form of two triangles faced together in the shape of an hourglass. One moulds substance, the other is the substance taking shape. It is an idea akin to the American Indian notion of God as the Great Transformer, the Earth-Shaper, whose hands create and cultivate the manifesting world. Very close to this meaning lies the Latin word manus, which means 'hand' and is related to 'manor', 'manorial', 'management' and to 'manure' or enriching through administration and husbandry. The whole idea of hand is linked up here with the earth and its cultivation, whereas the Greek word χερι is more expressive of taking in hand, guiding, control, leadership, crafting and conquest, as well as of the hand itself. In all these examples, however, we have a central basis for the richly endowed symbolism associated in various cultures with the human hand.

 The Egyptians thought of the hand as a symbol of manifestation and donation, the divine power of God transmitted into the world in protection and with justice. Its outstretched fingers reminded them of the rays of the sun, which reinforces their association of the hand with the idea of creation and preservation. In the Japanese tradition this notion was well developed. It is said that the Zen Master Hakuin often showed his hand while asking his disciples to "hear the sound of one hand". They came to understand this to refer to that of God stretched out in the darkness. When a man takes hold of it, he can hear the sound of one hand. The identification of the hand with the creative power of God is made frequently in the Bible, as in Genesis where it is stated that "the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand". One glimpses here the magnitude of the symbol which contributes a sense of mystery to the broad analogy which can be drawn between the five fingers of the hand and the human figure, the five senses and the attribute of mind.

 One is led to ponder how man possesses a hand rather than a fin, wing, claw, hoof or paw. Instead of using a beak or jaw to kill and take food, man uses his hands which are, as Aristotle noted long ago, "the tool of tools". He uses a mechanism developed over millennia from a five-rayed fore-paw of early vertebrates which expressed itself in evolution through increasingly refined activities associated with a growingly complex brain. The development is traceable back to fins, which perform the function of moving, propelling, balancing and guiding. In mammals the forelegs came to be used as means of quick locomotion or - as in the case of elephants - as pillars of support. The number of digits varies among mammals, depicting a pattern of growth from the one middle digit of horses to the two of a camel, which includes the equivalent of the middle finger and the fourth or ring-finger in man. The three digits of a rhinoceros include the ancestor of the index finger along with the previous two, while the four digits of the pig add to this the little finger. It is fascinating to ponder the inner nature of such forms of life that would cause them to express various degrees of intelligence in this telling manner, and it is of great significance that none of these forms possesses a digit equivalent to that of the human thumb.

 Only primates possess a thumb and only in man is true opposition of this most important feature of the hand fully developed. The thumb of a gorilla is shorter than that of man's and, as with other great apes, it is clumsier in its action. The hand of a monkey looks very similar to man's but it has a different system of muscles which does not permit the palm, thumb or fingers to function separately from one another. This difference between the hands of other primates and that of man becomes more apparent when one considers the function of the latter. First, the hand has ministered to the necessities of man; but then it becomes adapted to the needs and desires of culture. It develops technology and the arts. Eventually, it controls sources of great physical energy. Through delicate symbolic nuances it communicates increasingly refined intelligence and ultimately becomes the instrument of extremely subtle forces that can curse or heal. The human hand can thus be seen as a fully endowed expression of consciousness, and by its power as the instrument of mind man is accommodated to every condition through which his destiny may lead him.

  Immanuel Kant referred to the hand as "the outside brain of man". Indeed, it is the most pliable and adjustable part of human anatomy and every newborn baby begins the process of discovering the world through reaching out with it. The mastery of the hand develops simultaneously with the brain and the infant recapitulates the process of the hand's development in evolution as it perfects the actions of grasping and discriminating. Through touch, the growing child enlarges his concepts and the fingers can become willing expressors of notions of art or communication. The hands of a pianist or typist come to be controlled by reflexes which have been so thoroughly internalized in thought and act that they become unconscious. Also unconscious is the tendency people exhibit in using their right or left hand. Some have thought that the numerous silhouettes of the left hand and the animal figures facing to the right in the famous cave paintings are indications of a preponderant use of the left hand among Paleolithic people. The problem with this interpretation lies in the fact that the left hand has always been intimately connected with magical practices and it is assumed that the cave paintings were executed as part of rituals related to hunting. The question of the tendency towards left-handedness is fraught with complications made no less clear by the knowledge that anthropoids in general are ambidextrous or that roughly ninety-two percent of the human race at this time seem to favour the right hand.

 The ancient Greeks held that the right hand was the principal hand of man and the left that of woman. This distinction echoes the virtually universal association of the solar-lunar distinction between right and left. Even the words 'right' and 'left', connoting justice, right and correct action, or dextrous movement as opposed to left, leftover, gauche or sinister, suggest this distinction. It is hardly surprising that most cultures encourage the use of the right hand, especially when it pertains to matters of the mind or spirit. In Hindu and Buddhist iconography the action of the right hand usually depicts benediction, rulership and control, while the left points upwards or engages in purification. The shaman usually touches his patient with his left hand in the act of drawing out the cause of illness or possession, but the sage will bless with his right hand in an assertion of conscious will. Plato said that man was endowed by nature to use both hands with equal facility, and perhaps this will be the condition of the future human race when a balanced androgynous state of consciousness has been won, when the forces of magic have become a single beneficent and consciously directed energy. In the meantime, the purity of the hands is directly associated with an inner condition. Men speak, like Pilate, of washing their hands of things. Immoral thoughts and deeds are believed to taint them and obsessive cleansing of them often reflects the intensity of one's desires to purify oneself. That this can fail is dramatically borne out in the words of Lady Macbeth, who lamented that "all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand".

 The eye staring out of the palm of an opened hand cures and protects. The association of the hand with intent links it closely to the eye, which is also expressive of the inner condition. Combined in one potent symbol, the evil eye is projected forcefully by the open hand and is the sign of overt sorcery. Worn as an amulet or painted on the wall of a house, this symbol is believed to ward off the evil by propelling it back from whence it came. The power of the hand to do this is echoed in the more common act of raising the hand, palm out, to stop some action or subjugate elements within a field. The signs conveyed by hand movements are so numerous that they compete with verbal expression and some are so widely understood by people in many cultures that they seem to be reflective of an innate expression of human consciousness. The hand on the heart, the outstretched hand, the open, closed, clenched, raised or folded hand can communicate powerful emotions and social attitudes. There is no mistaking the gesture of the king compared with that of a servant, nor is it difficult to understand the solidarity expressed in clasped hands or the mental exertion signified by the fingers raised to the brow.

 Although some scientists have calculated that the number of human gestures extends into the range of seven hundred thousand recognizable movements, others have downgraded them, believing - as Addison did - that gestures were "unsuitable to the genius of the Englishman even in rhetorical utterances". Thus there are cultural prejudices that play a strong role in determining manual expression and whole classes of people have come to be singled out by the use or non-use of their hands. But even in circles where restraint of gesture is considered a mark of refinement, hands betray a multitude of psychological and spiritual tendencies. A sheltered thumb reveals the desire for protection, while its resting comfortably beside clenched fingers indicates a mind that dominates the emotions. Open, flexible fingers reflect an openness and agility of mind, whereas bent or stiff digits betray a lack of this and perhaps an insecurity or self-centeredness. A highly conscious display of signs is demonstrated through hand language - the numerous vocal dialects of the American Indians, for example, necessitated a more universal mode of communication. The Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes developed the finest nuances in this mode which involved a uniquely different word sequence from those used in spoken systems. A brave could approach another party, his face a mask of calm gravity, while his sign talk teemed with rich metaphors.

 The hands can be said almost to speak. When Leonardo da Vinci's right hand became crippled by paralysis, he could still draw and paint. Using the brush-stroke method of the Flemish style, his hand continued to express faithfully his genius. It is said that only with his own maturity as an artist was he able to render beautiful hands, as though it were a necessary aspect of his spiritual and creative development to be able to do so. The correspondence between creativity and the intimate knowledge of the mode of creativity is suggested here; if one could 'read the hand' of da Vinci one might expect to find all the characteristics indicative of this great fusion of muse and method.

 In palmistry or chiromancy (from the Greek χερι, 'hand') the fingers are related to various planetary influences correlated with human characteristics. Thus, the thumb is associated with Venus and its conformation indicates traits related to the self, love and sex. The index finger is ruled by Jupiter and wields the power of discriminative will and governance, while the middle finger of Saturn balances and marks the line of destiny that lies between worldly ambition and the spiritual expression symbolized by the fourth (ring) finger dedicated to the sun. The little finger has to do with community and sacrifice. It is the bearer of the beneficent influence of Mercury and it was the last to develop in evolution before the appearance of the thumb. That the five fingers can be linked with the five senses is significant in the light of the possible evolution that lies ahead. If further senses develop, involving the powers associated with other planets, one would wonder if man may some day possess a seven-fingered hand. There are, however, sufficient complexities to be interpreted in the hand as it is, the five fingers being divisible in terms of their phalanges as well as in terms of their relation to one another.

 The tip section of the finger is associated with emotion, the middle with intellect and the root with strength and constitution. Size, flexibility, shape and attitude of these parts can be analysed together with the lines and elevations of the palm to provide a very detailed picture of an individual, as none of these characteristics are believed to be fortuitous. The fingers and upper portion of the palm are thought to have more to do with the conscious nature, while the central zone is a balance between it and the unconscious base of the palm. Thus, the balance zone feeds the conscious zone with a balanced selection of thought and feeling. It acts as a buffer and must absorb unconscious forces as well as the tactile experiences of the outer world. The second phalange of the thumb belongs in this zone and is the seat of logic acting as an equilibrating force between the primary drives of the individual and the ambitions and will-power expressed by the joint just below the thumb-nail. It is said that great men have great thumbs; certainly, a longer, more powerful, thumb can exert more influence over the other fingers. The symbolic importance of the thumb is perhaps best expressed in the fact that it can operate at right angles to the other fingers. This total opposition is a clear expression of the analytical mind that illustrates eloquently the degree of manifest intelligence exemplified by man in this period of evolution.

 Another distinctly human characteristic that separates thinking man from other forms of life is the presence of three major lines on the palm. A clear separation of mind from emotion is achieved and marks a giant step forward from the fusion of these lines in the great ape. A possible indication of future changes has been suggested in the observation that "the overwhelming majority of human beings still have the lower transverse (brain) line closely connected with the thenar (vitality) line, which embraces the thumb. The trend of man's development seems to suggest that these two lines are about to be separated from one another." It is possible that this would indicate a fully independent state of mind. Such a configuration holds the promise of a free flow of exchange and a conscious balance of our thoughts and feelings. There could develop a spontaneity of reaction without a disturbance of the mental nature which would be possible only if the synthesizing higher mind dominated. In searching for the signs of such interesting possibilities, students of chiromancy have noticed that there seem to be distinct categories of hands, ranging from the receptive and aesthetic to the realistic and elementary types. A palm of unusual length, or fingers that are very short, are thought to be atavistic traits, while unduly long fingers indicate decadence and self-indulgent refinement. That characteristics of different types may be found in combination in one hand indicates the complexities of inherited spiritual and biological traits that every human being exemplifies. And while the left hand reveals the ancestral limitations and assets, the right bears the marks of potentials and will undergo subtle changes during a lifetime.

 Thus the destiny of man is created and recorded. As Seneca once wrote, "He (God) was the author, our hand finished it." The taking into hand of one's own destiny necessarily involves a conscious effort to emulate the effortless control attributed to great sages and gods. Thus the study of sacred mudras can become a means of penetrating the deeper and more archetypal mode of being expressed by the attitude of their hands. The very word mudra refers to a seal or its imprint, and gestures which are 'seals' are those which authenticate. Thus, the position of hands in magical ritual and iconography guarantees the efficacy of what is being attempted. It also authenticates the deeper identity of the subject, so that certain mystic poses of the hand become identified with precise intentions, eloquent expressions of power or states of consciousness. In the Japanese Buddhist tradition precise gestures indicate events in the life of the Buddha as well as qualities of charity, appeasement and benediction. The same is true of the parent system of these mudras that developed in India and proliferated through various forms of magic, dance and iconography since Vedic times. They have the power to bring together in one expression thought, word and act. The three in one are fused and their execution carves into the astral of the mind the forms of sacred ideas.

 As the hand prepares to pick up an object, it assumes the shape of the thing to be grasped. Just so, the hand of the mind shapes out the substance of an intuitive insight which casts its outline upon the matrix of consciousness. Just so, man takes his life into his own hands and begins to manipulate wisely the forces that operate through the sevenfold nature of his being. His touch becomes vibrant with deliberately controlled and beneficently alchemized magnetism. He becomes capable of moulding and shaping energy-fields and creating, out of the dust of subtle matter, the forms of things to come. The supremely beautiful expressions on the faces of Leonardo's madonnas were rendered by his hand, yet they enliven the hope and desire to experience and exemplify such love in the breast of any sensitive observer. This is the potential ability of all persons, to blend as one the hand, mind and heart and to create a better world. Even so will the spider lines of destiny be altered into more harmonious patterns and the hands of all human beings come to bless and soothe and point out the way.

Look at the hand.
It is a map of a hidden land,
The receptacle and moulder of destiny,
The unique and infinitely potential
Mark of man.