Hands represent ones absolute manipulation of the world around them. In fact, the latin root of the word manipulation is ‘movement of hands’. Moreover, a person ‘handles’ situations, which means that person either fixes or copes with the problem at ‘hand’. Naturally, we see how hands are fundamental archetypes of our overall behavior, both psychologically as well as physiologically. In the spiritual plain, the movement of fingers represents magic as well as music. The hand, in the archaic sense, became the map of our entire life, allowing palm readers, (otherwise known as palmists,) to read the future of our love, health, family and creative disposition. The hand became so prominent in our historic and psychological expression of self, that rings (made specifically for fingers) and scepters (made especially for hands) were chosen as the instruments fully indicative of ‘divine’ royalty and ‘holy’ matrimony. Taking all this into account, we need to examine the use and intent of all hands which figure into our overall dream landscape.
In Far Eastern languages such expressions as ‘setting one’s hand to’ or ‘taking one’s hand from’ still have the meaning of starting or of ending a piece of work. Nevertheless, some Taoist writings, such as The Secret of the Golden Flower, impart an alchemical meaning of ‘coagulation’ or of ‘dissolution’ to these words, the first phrase corresponding to the effort of spiritual concentration, the second to ‘non-intervention’ and to the free development of inward experience in a microcosm released from the fetters of space and time.
In China the right generally corresponds with action and the left with non-action and wisdom (Tao Те Ching 31).
In the canons of Buddhism the ‘closed hand’ is the symbol of dissimulation, secrecy and hermeticism. The Buddha’s hand ‘is in no wise closed’ (Digha-nikaya 2: 100), that is to say that there are no hidden points in his teaching.
However, in both Buddhism and in Hinduism, the basic symbolism is that of the mudra, poses with the hand, of which the most important are listed below. Hindu iconography makes special use of:
varada-mudra (‘giving’): hand pointing downwards with fingers extended and palm facing forwards; Kali who destroys the transient elements in the universe and who is thus the fountain of happiness; tarjam-mudra (‘threat’): fist clenched and index finger pointing upwards.
In addition, there are esoteric mudra, such as the swastika mudra, as well as large numbers of ritual mudra, some of which are employed in classical theatre and dance.
The abhaya- and varada-mudra (also called darn or ‘gift’) are also used in Buddhist ritual. They stand respectively for spiritual appeasement and the gift of the Three Jewels of Knowledge, the first being generally performed with the right hand, the second with the left. To them should be added:
anjali-mudra (gesture of adoration and of prayer): hands joined in the well-known attitude;
bhumisparsha-mudra (taking Earth to witness): hand pointing downwards with fingers touching the ground and back of the hand facing outwards;
vitarka-mudra (the gesture of controversy or dissertation): similar to the abhaya, but with the index or middle finger touching the tip of the thumb. There are numbers of variations on these poses.
The symbolism of the mudra is not simply that of gesture if it is true that the word means both bodily and spiritual attitudes which the movement expresses and develops.
All civilizations, with a greater or lesser degree of subtlety, employ this language of hands and gestures or poses. In Africa, placing the left hand with fingers bent in the right is a sign of humble submission; in Ancient Rome, having the hand covered by the sleeve was a mark of respect and acknowledgement of servitude; and so on.
In the Celtic world, the symbolism of the hand is linked with that of the arm and it is impossible to distinguish clearly between the two. In any case, the Irish word lam (‘hand’) is often used to mean the whole arm. What Caesar in his Gallic Wars calls passis manibus, that is, arms raised with the palms of the hands facing forwards, was a supplicatory gesture. It was employed by Gaulish women several times during these wars - at Avaricum and Bratuspantium, at least - sometimes baring their breasts at the same time. The hand also had a magic quality. When King Nuada lost his right arm he could rule no longer, since in the Celtic world it was unimaginable for a king to be endowed only with dangerous powers, his remaining hand being the left. Apart from a few hands depicted on Gaulish currency, there is no literary or iconographic evidence for the ‘Hand of Justice’, that symbol of the other aspect of the royal function of preserving the balance of society. However, Celtic kings were also judges and the good king was the one who pronounced equitable sentences. Calatin’s children, who were by definition fomorians, in other words malign creatures of darkness, had only one eye, one hand and one foot each, because they had been subjected to counter-initiatory mutilation. As the legend of the red hand in the arms of Ulster shows, the hand was employed in formally taking possession. A motif in the cross of Muiredach at Monasterbuice in County Louth is the carving of a left hand within four concentric circles. Lastly, the hand was used in invocation. The British queen Boudicca invoked the war-goddess Andraste by raising a hand to Heaven (Dio Cassius 60: 11, 6); and the druids on the Isle of Anglesey (Mona) raised their hands to Heaven when they prayed and rained curses and spells down on the invading Romans (Tacitus, Annals 14: 30;).
In pre-Columbian Central America, an open hand, often with the thumb sticking up, is often depicted both in hieroglyphics and in low-relief carvings. Its primary, numerical meaning is five, and it is the symbol of the god of the fifth day. However, he was an Underworld deity and this is why the hand became the symbol of death in Mexican art. In fact, hands are often to be met with in association with death’s heads, hearts, bleeding feet, scorpions and sacrificial knives with flint or obsidian blades. This knife is called, in the Yucatec language, ‘the Hand of God’. In Mayan hieroglyphics, jade, the symbol of blood, is depicted by a hand.
In connection with the association of the hand with human sacrifice, Thomson emphasizes that during sacrifices to Xipe Totec, the priest would dress in the skin flayed from the human victims. However, since he was unable to slip on the fingers, the flayed skins were cut off at the wrist so that the priest’s own hands could be seen in shocking contrast with his sinister costume. This visual detail could, therefore, suffice to make the hand the symbol of the whole and perfect the rite of substitution belonging to the sacrifice.
Elijah upon Mount Carmel saw a slight cloud rising from the sea and felt the hand of the Lord upon him. Faithful to the Covenant, Abraham refused to accept bribes and, when the King of Sodom offered him wealth, ‘lifted his hand unto the Lord’, not solely to beseech his protection but because it was the Lord alone who possessed Earth and Heaven. The Midrash lays emphasis upon Abraham’s attitude towards his son, Ishmael, whom he sent away ‘empty-handed’ - without rights or inheritance.
When the Old Testament alludes to the hand of God, the significance of the symbol is that of God in the wholeness of his power and instrumentality. The hand of God creates and protects, but if God’s will is thwarted, it also destroys. It is important to distinguish between the right hand, the hand of blessing, and the left hand, the hand of cursing. The hand of God is often depicted emerging from a cloud which hides his body. To display its divine nature, it is often surrounded by a cruciform halo. To fall into the hands of God or of some man means to be at his mercy, to be raised up or annihilated by him.
The hand is sometimes compared with the eye - it sees. Psychoanalysis has made this interpretation its own, regarding the appearance in dreams of a hand as being the same as that of an eye.
St Gregory of Nyssa regarded human hands as being linked to sight and to knowledge since, ultimately, they were designed for communication. In his treatise on the creation of mankind he wrote that:
a man’s hands are of especial use to him in communication. Whoever regards use of the hands as one of the properties of natural reason is not deceived. All agree, and it is easy to see, that hands allow us to display our words in writing. It is, in fact, one of the marks of a rational being to express thoughts in writing and, in some sense, to talk through the hands which give a permanent form to sounds and gestures.
To place one’s hands in those of another is to surrender one’s freedom, or rather to resign one’s claims to it by entrusting it to that person, and to lay down one’s power. Two examples of this may be given. The act of homage in feudal times involved the immixtio manuum when the vassal, generally kneeling, bareheaded and unarmed, placed his hands in those of his overlord, who gripped them. In the ritual act of homage there is on the part of the vassal a radiation of self and its reception by the overlord. The obligations which ensued were reciprocal.
There is something similar in the final vows of a nun or the ordination of a priest, the Rituale laying down the ceremonial in which the nun or priest clasps their hands togethes and places them in those of the bishop. The significance of this re-echoes Christ’s last words: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’
The laying on of hands expresses the transfer of energy or power. Thus, early in the second century, the Christian community in Rome included a number of women who had renounced marriage and wished to profess the vocation of virginity. They made their request to a bishop to lay his hands on them to obtain formal consecration of their vows. For fear that this laying on of hands might be confused with that used in ordination to the priesthood, it was subsequently forbidden. This shows the importance attaching to this ritual action and the depth of its significance, factors confirmed by The Apostolic Tradition of St Hippolytus (early third century). In his treatise De virginibus, St Ambrose tells the story of the girl who wished to dedicate her life to God. Her parents, however, wanted her to marry. To thwart their wishes, she stood beside the altar, took the priest’s right hand, placed it upon her head and asked him to say a blessing over her. She was thereafter regarded as linked to and endowed with divine power.
Lastly, the hand is a symbol of ‘action that differentiates. Its significance is akin to that of the arrow and echoes the name of the Archer, Chiron [cheir = hand (Greek)], whose ideogram is an arrow’. The hand is, as it were, an exclusively human synthesis of male and female. It is passive in what it contains; active in what it holds. It employs weapons and tools and extends its activities through their instrumentality. However, it differentiates man from all animals and serves to differentiate the objects which it touches or shapes.
Even when it is the sign of taking possession of something or of confirming the powers of someone, as hand of justice, hand taking seisin of land or goods, or hand given in marriage, it sets its owner apart either in the performance of his or her duties or in some new office.