It’s curious how the past inhabits the present. The Eye in the Hand is a good example. It’s currently found in corporate logos, music promotions, edgy fashion, and scary movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, but the history of the symbol is complicated and global.
Perhaps the symbol works because it’s arresting. It combines two of our most powerful data receptors, but the two don’t belong together. It’s not possible to have an eye in a hand or to see through a hand, so the image conjures up something beyond normal life. In that sense, the Second Life logo, which features the eye in the hand, is very close to the historical roots of the symbol that is clearly connected to something beyond life.
It’s hard to talk about the eye in the hand without also considering The Evil Eye. While the ancient artifacts that include the eye in the hand don’t necessarily invoke a protective charm against the evil eye, the current charms certainly do. Currently, people have two popular choices in charms to ward off the Evil Eye: The Evil Eye charm or the Hamsa Hand.
The blue glass eye, known (rather confusingly) as The Lucky Eye or The Evil Eye, promises to protect the bearer from negative energy such as resentment or envy as well as general misfortune such as accidents and disease. The concept of the Evil Eye, the belief that others have the power to curse you by giving you a malevolent stare, is widespread in the Middle East, Africa, India, Central America, North America, South Asia, and Europe, especially the Mediterranean area.
Damage from an evil eye can include withering, sickness, even death. Even those who don’t believe in the Evil Eye may refer to the concept in sayings like “She gave me the evil eye,” or “If looks could kill, I’d be dead now.”
Because the evil eye is generally thought to be blue, the charms that are meant to protect the bearer are usually blue as well.
The other popular protective talisman is the eye in the hand charm known as Hamsa (Arabic), Hamesh (Hebrew), Humsa (Hindu), Mano Ponderosa (Italian), or Helping Hand (hoodoo). In Jewish folk tradition, it is known as the Hand of Miriam (the sister of Moses). In some Muslim areas it is commonly called the Hand of Fatima (the daughter of Mohammed), despite Islam’s official ban on talismans. Some Catholic groups refer to it as the Hand of Mary (the mother of Jesus).
Hamsa hands come in a very wide variety of forms, some very male, some very female, some with five fingers, some with three fingers and two very small appendages, some with barely differentiated fingers. Some have a very large eye; others replace the eye with a circle or star. Some include other symbols in the fingers and palm. Most point down but some point up.
There is great debate over the origin of the Eye in Hand. Some say it comes from The White Tara, the Hindu representation of motherly protection and generosity who is often pictured with eyes in her forehead, hands, and feet. In some images, she holds the lotus of compassion in one hand.
Others connect the Hamsa to Hathor [HetHeru], the Egyptian Earth Mother, sometimes pictured as a woman wearing a red dress and a headdress of cow’s horns, other times as a cow with a sacred eye, other times as the Milky Way. The ancient Greeks morphed Hathor into Aphrodite; the Romans made her into Venus.
The Phoenicians used the hand of Tanit, a powerful female sky goddess, to ward off evil. A fierce warrior, she was sometimes depicted with the head of a lion. Tanit’s equivalents include Astarte (West Semitic), Anat (Mesopotamian), and Inana (Sumerian), all powerful females associated with love, fertility, and war.
But the eye in hand symbol also has a New World history. If you look at the images associated with The Eye in Hand on your computer, you’ll come across several from pre-Columbian North America. The most famous is the engraved gorget (collar ornaments) from Moundville, Alabama, featuring a hand with an eye (pictured above). The hand is surrounded by two intertwined, knotted horned rattlesnakes. A similar piece, also from Moundville, includes the hand with the eye but leaves out the snakes and places the hand between a symbol of a cross inside concentric circles at the top and what looks like an earthen mound at the bottom (pictured).
The two Moundville gorgets shown in the illustrations are quite similar. Both have concentric circles at the top and a link to the eye in hand. However, the illustration from Vernon James Knight’s book Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, detailing the finds of the 1905 excavation of the area, has a slightly different design inside the circles and omits the mound at the bottom.
Other pieces found in the southeastern US include the hand in the eye in different though related forms.
Although the designs on the Mississippian gorgets look similar to the modern-day Hamsa Hands, there is no indication that the North American pieces had the same function. Actually, it’s hard to know how the symbol functioned for those who wore it. Between 500 and 1500 AD, the Mississippian culture included trade-linked settlements that ranged from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, but after the arrival of the Europeans, many of the Mississippian settlements failed due to disease and warfare, and the flat-top mounds typical of their cities were destroyed by the settlers.
It’s impossible to tell how much of the symbolism of the New World continues, overlaps, or reflects that of the Old World. Perhaps the two developed along parallel lines without ever intersecting. Perhaps not. Certainly, the modern Hamsa charm, which is most popular around the Mediterranean, bears an eerie resemblance to the ancient Moundbuilder gorget.
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