c o n t e m p l a t i o n s a n d i n s p i r a t i o n s o f a n a r t i s a n j e w e l r y d e s i g n e r

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Symbolism of Hands

By Intern and Guest Blogger, Jenny Kaplan

We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other's arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance,
And the larger circle of all creatures,
Passing in and out of life,
Who move also in a dance,
To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
Except in fragments
-Wendell Berry

In everyday life I don’t think most people think about the value of their hands or their symbolic actions—the handshake, for example, is perhaps the most frequently used symbolic gesture to represent friendship, greeting, or the closing of a deal. However, hands are a big deal in art and jewelry all over the world and are represented well in many Judith Altman Designs pieces. Therefore, I decided to investigate what hands mean to these different cultures from all corners of the world.

In Asian cultures, the left hand represents yin and the right represents yang. The left is softer, symbolizing passiveness, justice, emotion, receiving, and the unconscious while the right is harder, symbolizing assertiveness, mercy, logic, giving, and the conscious. Together the hands represent allegiance, friendship, and the balance of the two sides. The positioning of hands is also extremely important in expressing the transference of divine power in Buddhism and Hinduism making hands major symbols in talismans of those religions.

In a totally different part of the world, in Celtic lore hands were a connection to power and a symbol of authority. They show balance and good judgment. Legend says that a Celtic King was actually dethroned because he lost one of his hands in battle. He was returned to the throne after one of his daughters gave him a silver hand to wear around his neck.

Moving back around the globe, hands are similarly significant in Middle Eastern culture. Though I always thought that the Hamsa was a Jewish symbol, it actually came from Islamic culture but can even be traced back further to a time before monotheistic faiths. In Islam the symbolic hand is called the Hand of Fatima and commemorates Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The Hamsa/Hand of Fatima represents blessings, power, and strength and is thought to ward off the evil eye.
In North America, Native Americans use hands in art to show the presence of man and man’s work, achievements, and legacy. Mexican people made small gold or silver votive offerings in the shape of body parts as a prayer for that part of the body or in thanks for the ability to use that limb called Milagros. The most popular kind of Milagros was of the hand or the heart, hands because they are absolutely necessary for the agricultural life lived by many people in that region.

It seems to me that if cultures from everywhere around the globe value the image of a hand as protective or a sign of balance, there must be something universally true and important about our hands—something we should value more highly! So today think about all the things you do with your hands and the meaning you add to your life through that work, better yet think about the hand symbols in the art and jewelry around you (easily accessible examples are located at www.judithaltman.com!) and for one day try not to undervalue your frequently unappreciated hands.

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