The Hand and the Eye: the story of an amulet

10 February 2016

People seek medical help from higher powers. They look to gods, spirits, saints or magical forces. Our Medicine Man gallery and Reading Room both feature fascinating objects related to higher powers. In this post, Sarah Bentley talks about a specific type of amulet found in our collection.

“Do you have any objects with magical powers?” Visitors joining my tour of the Medicine Man gallery may be surprised by the question until I produce a magical object of my own; one so powerful that wearing it to my interview helped get me my job at Wellcome Collection. Then they too bring out their jade charms, prayer cards or lucky pencils to share with the group.

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You’ll find the equivalent of my magical object (a mysterious metal hand) in our Medicine Man and Reading Room galleries, surrounded by other enigmatic objects: a Neapolitan seahorse, a shark’s tooth set in silver and a cloth heart said to contain olive leaves, incense and salt.

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Amulets and charms in Medicine Man gallery.

These magic hands are beautiful: small pools of intense decoration, frequently inscribed with sacred calligraphy in Arabic or Hebrew. They are found across North Africa, throughout the Middle East and in parts of Central Asia.

The hands are named for some very powerful female figures. ‘Hand of Fatima’ is the name best known to visitors. Adhaf Soueif’s audio commentary in the gallery tells us this is “… the open palm of the Lady Fatima, who is both the daughter of the Prophet and the wife of Ali ibn Abi Talib.” In Jewish communities the objects are sometimes known as ‘Hand of Miriam’, after Moses’ sister. And according to Walter Hildburgh, who passed on this collection of amulets to Henry Wellcome, in Levantine Christian communities they were known as ‘Hand of Mary’. I’ll call it a ‘Hamsa’, the Arabic word for ‘five’.

What does the hamsa do? It’s an amulet. This isn’t the same as a charm or a talisman; there are technical differences. An amulet wards off harmful forces, while a charm attracts good fortune; a talisman needs to be charged up with magic before it works. Whoever wears the hamsa as jewellery, dangles it on car or camel, or paints it over a threshold, may not worry too much about this distinction.

The hamsa did have a definite function, though: to protect against malign force. Not just any old undifferentiated evil, but very specific one. The Evil Eye.

The Evil Eye is ancient. It withers crops and wizens flocks. It weakens pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants. When in Italy, a wise man covers his testicles with his hands if he feels the Eye may be in range. Its gaze may be malevolently wielded by an accomplished Jettatore, or innocently drawn to a target by a careless compliment when the traditional Masha’Allah (‘God has willed it’) would have sufficed.

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The Evil Eye (John Phillip, 1859).

Fortunately a number of strategies can be used to counter the Evil Eye’s effects. The folklorist Alan Dundes, speculated that its odd remedies (spitting, scattering salt water around a room) are less bizarre if the Eye is seen as a force able to dry up vital fluids: water, milk, sperm. He drew on research about the geographical reach of the Eye and saw an overlap with cultures that had at one time adopted the Four Humours model of medicine and its pairs of climatic correspondences: hot/cold and wet/dry. Hamsas are often embellished with symbols of watery creatures that might counter the Eye’s fire: “the water covers the fish of the sea so the eye has no power over them” (Berakhot 55b).

 L0075444 Gilt Silver Hand
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Tunisian gilt silver amulet in our Reading Room. (Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.)

If the power of ‘opposites’ didn’t work, then perhaps Sympathetic Magic might. Specifically the James Frazer’s Law of Similarity, “that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause”. Hamsas are often decorated with an eye-shape or a blue stone eye – like for like.

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Eye symbolism on amulets (image: author’s own).

If the magical laws of ‘opposites’ and ‘like for like’ don’t work, then there is power in the image of the hand itself. If vision is an active force, if it can reach out like a hand to encounter the world, as in the old emission theory of sight, then this force could, perhaps, be directed with malevolence. The hamsa hand can shield us; its fingers can poke. Waving your hand, open-palmed, in certain parts of the world (Greece, parts of Africa and the Middle East) is highly offensive; our amulet isn’t gentle.

 L0058983 Brass hand, Iran, 1880-1925
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Persian brass hand, 1880-1925. (Image credit: Wellcome Images, London.)

Incorporating holy texts and invoking powerful names is another strategy. Amulets are problematic both in Islam and Judaism, but the hand’s five fingers may represent important doctrines of the owner’s faith, such as the five pillars of Islam. The hand can become very abstract if it needs to: a necklace of a large circle surrounded by five smaller ones in common; the Tuareg Khomeissa pendant with five diamonds, shown below, is said to be an abstract variant.

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Toureg Khomeissa (image: author’s own).

How ancient is the hamsa? There’s a tendency to conflate hand symbols that express quite different things at different times. Hands appear mysteriously amongst bison and horses in cave art; out of clouds in grand gestures of benediction in Christian art; as Votive objects; and even as a means of divination, such as the hand with Cabbalistic symbols on a small square of paper in our Medicine Man amulet case.

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Divinatory hand in Medicine Man. (Photo by Colin Walker.)

There is a reference to what I think is our magical hand in early sixteenth century Spain, the period after the Reconquista, where it had become ubiquitous enough for an Episcopal junta in Granada to decree that open hand images “… with or without a crescent moon…should be replaced by images of the cross or a blessed medal.” (Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, 2005).

When the hamsa was banned it seems to have left a magical-hand-shaped gap, because nearly a century after its disappearance, portraits of royal infants by Velazquez and Juan Pantoja de la Cruz show an array of magical objects hanging from their clothes, including jet amulet hands of a different type.

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Portrait of the Infantin Maria Anna, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz.

The hands in these portraits are Higa or Figa hands – thumb pushed through two bent fingers that represent a vulva – an obscene gesture, yet one seemingly acceptable to the Catholic Church, as the objects below demonstrate.

 M0016754 Fig-hands attached to other things.
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Fig hands, some attached to Christian symbols. (Image credit: Wellcome Images.)

The goddess Tanit is sometimes cited as the pagan mother of the hamsa, but evidence for this is far from clear. Geographically, her former domain is probably the epicentre of the amulet. In her role as Phoenician goddess-protector of the city of Carthage she had the means to spread her images around the Mediterranean and to further-flung cultures like the Persians through Phoenician shipbuilding links. Tanit had many symbols, both Middle Eastern and Berber in origin: fish, rosettes, spirals, moons, doves, flowering poles and her own unique symbol, an ankh-like human form. Hands do appear on her stelae, specifically at a controversial site called the Tophet in Carthage (either a conventional graveyard for infants or a site of sacrificial burial), but we can’t be sure these are the same amulet hands.

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Tanit stela from the Tophet, Cathage. (Photograph by Michel-Georges Bernard.)

“We don’t grow out of our childish magical thinking.” the science writer Matthew Hutson says, “We learn to correct for it.”

Our ability to ‘vitalize’ objects, to fill them with magical power, goes back to a very early stage, perhaps to the stage where the infant learns to distinguish between its inner world and the external world – and to survive the contradictions this throws up – by creating what the psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott called a transitional object (often a blanket or cuddly toy) that is both ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’. In children, this third space continues to exist in the form of play. In adults this also survives as play, but in forms we call Belief, Creativity, the Arts. And as storytelling too. There are many stories about the magical hand amulet and this was just one.

Thanks to Colin Walker for some of the photography; thanks also to Clare Maxwell-Hudson and Ramsay Wood for helping with my research.

Sarah is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.