Hamsa - The power of 5


Talismans and symbols surround us even in our high tech 21st Century lives, their origins often forgotten or reinterpreted, date back to the earliest of human cultures. There is an innate need in many of us to seek order and the familiar amongst the unknown. These symbols can help to ground us and connect us back to a spiritual world.

In the belly dance world many dancers have been drawn to the ever popular and instantly recognisable symbol, known by many names, according to its cultural origin, including; the Hamsa (Khomsa), the Hand of Fatima, the Hand of Miriam, the hand of Tanit and the hand of Mary. It is one of the world's oldest icons. A five-finger hand, the Arabic word for "five" being hamsa, its symbolism pre-dates the rise of monotheism. Powers of healing and protection are ascribed to amulets in its image, which can be found placed on doors, walls, and worn as jewellery. 

Representations of this symbol are to be found far and wide but particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, within the Islamic and Jewish faiths, in cultures which our dance styles have their origins. The hand used in actual gesture in dance, yoga, prayer or in symbolic form in art and objects, does appear across the world. Hands are a primary means of communication and their image has universal appeal, they are translated into talismans by a host of cultures.

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The Hamsa appears in two forms: stylised with two symmetrical thumbs and asymmetrical, with a clearly defined thumb and little finger. Either form may be displayed with the fingers pointing up or down. The centre of the hand often contains other symbols, especially an eye, however different cultures may fill the hand with images relevant to them.

The first known use of the symbol can be traced to the civilization of Phoenicia that spread across the Mediterranean between 1550 – 330 BCE. The Phoenicians used an image of the hand to represent Tanit, patron goddess of their capital Carthage and controller of the lunar cycle. With time, her hand became a protective amulet in its own right and was used to ward off the evil eye, one of the oldest manifestations of human fear. The symbol was adopted by the ancient Sephardic Jewish community of the Iberian Peninsular, who named it the Hand of Miriam after the sister of the biblical Moses and Aaron and associated it with the number five (hamesh in Hebrew) to represent the five books of the Torah. It also symbolizes the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, "Het", which represents one of God's holy names, and further reminds Jews to use their five senses when praising God.

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The hand, the eye, and the number five figure significantly in Arabic and Berber tradition and also relate to warding off the evil eye. Here, the Hamsa is called the Hand of Fatima after Fatima Zahra, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The five fingers of the hand are further associated with the Five Pillars of Islam. Stylised versions of the Hamsa are also found, incorporating five shapes, diamonds or dots into their design. While Qu'ran law prohibits the wearing of charms and amulets, the Hamsa symbol is often depicted in and associated with Islamic cultures.

It remains popular as a protective charm in both Middle Eastern and Western cultures, it can be found incorporated into many fashion items and household decorations (even appearing in Primark!). But more significantly, the Hamsa is being worn as a symbol of peace by many people from differing religious backgrounds to demonstrate a common ground. The Hamsa is no longer just a talisman but has become a symbol of peace and hope in our troubled world.

If you are interested in reading more and looking at fabulous photos of Hamsa’s a beautiful book The Hand in Morocco by Khalid El Gharib is worth getting hold of.

Emma George