Photo by Rebecca Stadlen Amir featuring 555 Hamsas showcased at the Museum for Islamic Art.
One piece of jewellery that we most frequently get asked the meaning of is the Hamsa.
The Hamsa – also known as the Khamsa, the Hand of Fatima, the Hand of Miriam or the Humes Hand, is a palm-shaped talisman that dates back many centuries and is a significant symbol across the Middle East and Northern Africa. It can be found in the form of jewellery, art, and is also printed on objects ranging from clothing to homeware.
Its origin can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) in talismans of the goddess Ishtar or Inanna – the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, war, and justice. The symbol is also connected to the Phoenicians in honour of the goddess Tanit who was considered the patron of Carthage (modern-day Tunisia). She is said to have been in control of the lunar cycle.
Physical forms of the Hamsa are traditionally made from silver, which represents purity and was believed to hold magical properties. It appears in two main styles: one shaped like a regular hand and the other has two symmetrical thumbs on either side of the hand, with the three fingers in the middle. It can be depicted in two ways: with fingers pointing up to ward off evil or pointing down to bring good luck.
Meaning of the Hamsa in different cultures
The Hamsa has a variety of meanings depending on the culture referencing the symbol; it can range from conveying blessings or strength, to deflecting the evil eye. In conflict regions across the Middle East, it is used as a symbol of peace and acts as a gesture of hope.
In Hebrew, the word ‘hamsa’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘hamesh’ which means ‘five’. To some people this represents the five fingers on the hand-shaped talisman, while others believe it symbolises the first five books of the Torah (five books of Moses): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Either way, the number “five” is considered holy; the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is “Hei” which is one of God’s Holy names.
In Judaism the Hamsa represents the Hand of Miriam, sister of Moses (who led the Israelites out of Egypt) and Aron (the first High Priest). It was due to Miriam’s virtues that the Israelites always found water in the desert, hence Miriam represented protection, good luck and happiness – qualities that the Hamsa is best known for.
In Islam, the Hamsa symbolises The Hand of Fatima – the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed and in Sunni culture, it is associated with the Five Pillars of Islam: Faith, Prayer, Pilgrimage, Fasting and Charity. For the Shi’ites, it symbolises the Five People of the Cloak.
Some Christians call the Hamsa the “hand of Mary”, the mother of Jesus, which is regarded as a divine symbol of protection. For Buddhists and Hindus, the Hamsa represents the chakras, which is the flow of energy in the body, and its interplay with the five senses and the hand gestures (mudras) associated with them.
Other “evil eye” symbols
The “evil eye” is the eye that sees everything, and its look is said to cause harm, suffering, or bad luck. In some cultures, it is believed that receiving excessive admiration or praise can bring upon the scorn of the evil eye. However, wearing a talisman that features the evil eye symbol is thought to provide protection against evil forces, hence why the Hamsa is usually depicted with this symbol in the middle.
In some Latin American cultures, mothers have their babies wear Ojo bracelets to ward-off the evil eye, which they refer to as “mal de Ojo”. The symbol is also predominant in Turkish jewellery.
Modern day significance
The Hamsa has become both a staple and statement piece of jewellery, and has been seen on celebrities such Madonna, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Sharon Stone and Britney spears, to name a few. Its multi-faceted attributes, ranging from unity and peace to protection and fertility have made this symbol a meaningful charm that everyone can benefit from wearing. Next time you come across the Hamsa or any piece of jewellery or other ornamental form with the evil eye symbol, take a moment to reflect on the depth of its profound meaning.
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