The Eye in the Hand

The Eye in the Hand

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 Evil Eye

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 Hamsa Hand

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.

 

 

Origins

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, 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.

The Female/Sky/Milky Way/Orion Connection    

Since we seem to have a female, heavenly connection with Hathor, Tanit, and others, it’s interesting to note the Arabic origin of the named stars Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Belatrix, all in the constellation Orion

Betelgeuse comes from yad al-jauza (mistranslated originally as bat al jauza) meaning “the hand of the Central One,” referring to a mysterious and powerful female entity who kneels in the night sky with the Milky Way at her shoulder(pictured).  Rigel comes from the Arabic rijl al-jauza, meaning “the foot of the Central One.”  Belatrix, another star in the constellation, means a fierce female warrior (which suited her character in the Harry Potter stories).

The New World

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.

The Hand

However, many anthropologists now believe that The Hand constellation, made up of the lower half of Orion, was considered a portal to the Otherworld in Southeastern US cosmology.  (See “Mississippian and Maya cosmology: The Hand constellation and the Milky Way” at anthro-lingblogspot.com/2010/01mississippianandmayacosmology.)  The stars that make up Orion’s belt formed the wrist (top) of the severed hand.

The Lakota and other Plains Indians also saw a star grouping they called The Hand in the bottom half of what we call Orion.

In researching some Mississippian sites, experts have suggested that marks on the palm of the hands symbolized points where the spirit may enter or leave the body.

The Serpents

The snakes in the Moundville pieces have been identified as tie snakes, horned serpents that play an important part in the oral history of tribes from the Great Lakes to the southeastern woodlands.  These Great Serpents were powerful beings from the Underworld who were in constant battle with the forces of the Upperworld, usually represented by the Thunderers, falcon-men.  The combination of these two opposite forces resulted in the winged, horned serpents that wheeled around the center of the world in the swastika, powering the motion of the world through the energy of their opposition.  (See earlier entry “The Flight of the Eagle, The Power of Symbol.”)

The Eye in the Hand

According to the “Southeastern Ceremonial Complex” entry in Wikipedia, “The Hand and Eye Motif was common in Mississippian symbolism and may be related to the Ogee Motif, suggesting it represents a portal to the Otherworld.”

The Road across the Sky

For many ancient North American, Central American, and South American peoples, the Milky Way was the path the dead took to the Otherworld.  The Maya saw the Milky Way as having four arms that spread out across the world.  At the center of the Milky Way, the three hearthstones were placed at the moment of Creation.  These three stones are part of the constellation we know as Orion and they became the portal through which the dead entered the Milky Way, the great river of stars that flows next to the hearthstones.

The Apache believed that Yolkai Nalin, the feared goddess of death and the afterlife, controlled the path of souls after death.  The road to the Otherworld that we call the Milky Way passed over her shoulders.

So…

If we put all of these parts together, it seems fairly defensible that we have a Moundbuilder piece that makes reference to a Hand constellation that serves as a portal to the Otherworld, the boundary between this life and the beginning of the next life.

And it’s the logo for Second Life.  Irony abounds.

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.  Even more interesting is the invocation of the very powerful female figure (Mary, Fatima, Miriam) for protection.  It’s hard not to see parallels between them and The Central One who guards the portal to the Otherworld and bears the Path of the Dead on her shoulder.

Interesting sources include

The First Maya Civilization: Ritual and Power before the Classic Period, by Francisco Estrada Bell

“Mississippian” bama.ua.edu/alaarch/prehistoricalabama/mississipian.htm

“The Southern Cult, Southeast Ceremonial Complex” archaeology. about.com/od/sterms/southerncult.htm

“Southeastern Ceremonial Complex” in Wikipedia

“Mississippian Culture” in Wikipedia

“Mississipian and Maya Cosmology: The Hand Constellation and the Milky Way” http://anthro-lingblogspot.com/2010/01mississippianandmayacosmology

5 thoughts on “The Eye in the Hand

    • Thanks! The more I read about the symbol, the more the influence kept spreading. I’m working on the Milky Way now – another huge subject, literally and figuratively : )

      Thanks for the guest blog opportunity. The comments from your readers were really interesting.

  1. Special thanks to Randy J. Arnold for providing the background on the image of the eye in hand gorget from Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom by Vernon James Knight, Jr. Randy’s blog is In Praise of Shadows.

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