I would like to introduce this post with a little bit information about the prehistoric origin of the open hand. It might be interesting to consider this when reading about the khamsa symbol. Cave art featuring hand stencils are as old as cave art itself, the oldest paintings being over 40.000 years old. Given that the images exist around the world, and cover a great time span, clearly means that there must be a variety of meanings. A research project from the Department of Archaeology of Durham University states that “there is much evidence that the art left on their walls was magico-religious in nature. Humans interacted with cave walls in many ways during the Upper Paleolithic, possibly because they were thought to form the thin veil which separates this world from others, a remarkably common notion across the world.”
The Bradshaw Foundation, which documents and preserves rock art across the world, states that “where there is a spiral incorporated into the motif, as at La Cienega and Three Rivers for example, they may be depictions of healing energy that channels through the hands – the ancient practice of Reiki.” Indeed, maybe the hand stencils are the remnants of ancient shaman rituals, we can’t know for sure. Maybe it was just a way to say: “I was here”, as researchers from Griffith University stated, based on research into the most recent hand paintings made by the Indigenous Australians. Whatever it may be, the open hand with the palm towards the viewer is an international symbol, from native American cultures all the way to Buddhist, Hindu and Jain symbolism. However, this post is about the khamsa, also known as the Hand of Fāṭima.
The origins of the open hand as a symbol for protection against the evil eye and black magic is very old. The Phoenician goddess Tanit was one of the chief deities of Carthage, functioning as a mother goddess and a symbol of fertility. On several of her steles, an open hand appears above or next her sign. The worship of Tanit continued in North Africa after the fall of Carthage, the goddess being adopted by the Amazigh people. The Romans worshiped her as Caelestis. Another major deity is also often depicted with both her hands open showing their palms, the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. Ishtar was a prominent deity in the Sumerian and Akkadian and especially the Assyrian pantheon, who elevated her to become the highest deity they worshiped. On the so-called Ishtar Vase, currently at the Louvre in Paris, she is depicted with both her hands showing their palms. The famous Burney relief at the British Museum in London shows her holding rod-and-ring symbols in both her open hands. The worship of Ishtar was introduced in the kingdom of Judah and survived in parts of Anatolia and upper-Mesopotamia as late as the eighteenth century.
It’s needless to say that the worship of Tanit and Ishtar left its traces in the whole region, and the symbolism of the open hand for protection continued being used, resulting in the so-called khamsa symbol, tafust in the Berber languages. It is used as a palm-shaped amulet or simply a human hand to provide protection against the evil eye and black magic. Silver khamsa talismans and pendants are very common and popular, especially in North Africa. Hands can also be seen painted above doors, being used as door knockers or incorporated in the house’s wall. Several late-19th to mid-20th century khamsa talismans are displayed in famous museums like the British Museum or the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. The hand of Fāṭima is also depicted above the Gate of Justice in the Alhambra fortress in Granada, which was the original entrance gate to the Alhambra, built by Yūsuf I, sultan of Granada, in 1348. The position above a door is a common practice, to keep evil out.
While Muslims call it the Hand of Fāṭima, referring to the Prophet Muḥammad’s daughter, Jews call it the Hand of Miriam, referring to the Prophet Moses’s sister. Both women with a significant historical role, both relatives of important prophets. Notice that Tanit and Ishtar are also both women, confirming the fact that the khamsa hand is in fact a female hand.
The khamsa is an important symbol in Jewish art, mysticism and certain rituals and commonly appears in the daily life of Jewish households, at times being as ubiquitous as the Star of David, especially in Israel. The function is the same: To protect against evil, black magic and bad luck. The khamsa’s popularity is particularly with Sephardic (North-African) and Mizrahi (Eastern) Jewish communities. Both these communities were exposed to respectively the cult of Tanit in the Phoenician lands and the Babylonian cult of Ishtar in the East. During Sephardic henna parties for example, the khamsa is recreated by painting an “eye” on the palm of the hand.
Some examples featuring the khamsa:
For more examples, please visit this thread on my Twitter.