I would like to introduce this post with a little bit of information on 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. Tanit was worshiped in Punic contexts in the whole Mediterranean, from Phoenicia in the east to Malta and southern Iberia in the west. She was very popular in the Carthaginian empire, the north-African realm of the Phoenician people. Tanit was considered to be the consort of Baal Hammon, the chief deity of Carthage. Like most mother-goddesses, she was associated with healing, fruitfulness and nursing. On several of her steles, an open hand appears above or next her sign. The worship of Tanit continued in North Africa long after the fall of Carthage, the goddess’ cult being adopted by the native Amazigh people. The Romans worshiped her as Caelestis, the supreme Heavenly Goddess that embodies the aspects of several pre-existing goddesses.
Another major deity is also often depicted with both her hands open showing their palms, namely the Sumerian goddess Inanna, known as Ishtar in the Akkadian language of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Ishtar was a prominent deity in Mesopotamian pantheon, especially among the Assyrians 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. Again, just like Tanit, Ishtar was seen as the Queen of Heaven and associated with love, desire, fertility and beauty. Note that both goddesses are women, the open hand for protection increasingly bearing an exclusively female connotation.
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. Remember the gender of both Tanit and Ishtar, confirming the fact that the khamsa hand is in fact a female hand. In Arabic as well as in Hebrew, a common name for the Hand is respectively khamsa (خمسة) and khamsa (חמסה), the word for the number five, a reference to the five fingers of the hand.
Beside the Muslim cultures, the khamsa is an important symbol in Jewish art, mysticism and certain rituals as well, and commonly appears in the daily life of Jewish households, at times being as ubiquitous as the Star of David. The function is the same: to protect against evil, black magic and bad luck. The khamsa’s popularity is particularly high 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.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.