by Katya Miller
The Hamsa caught my eye early in my formative years as a jeweler, symbolist, and amulet maker. It was much more exotic than the Star of David that represented Judaism. It evoked a middle eastern world of colorful clothing, sacred architecture and the three faiths of Jerusalem, but I didn’t understand how it related to my own beliefs. I knew it was an abstract hand shape, inverted with thumb and pinky pointing outward and similar to the many such indigeneous hand designs in cultures worldwide.
The Khamsa, (in Arabic: Khamsa means “five”) is an icon in amulets, charms, and jewelry, to protect against bad eyes. The Islamic name for the charm is the Hand of Fatima or Eye of Fatima, referring to Fatima Al-Zahra'a, Prophet Muhammad’s small and most beloved daughter. She married Ali, the son of Abu Taleb who was especially loved by Mohammad as the first one who accepted him. Only from her Mohammed had grandchildren and all of her sons were important leaders. She is very important in the Shiite Islam and there only her descendants can be Khalifs. Many girls are named Fatima, meaning a rose, considered holy. She must have had healing hands.
An alternative Jewish name is the Hand of Miriam, in reference to Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. It is a kind of "protecting hand" or "hand of God". The Jewish silversmiths who lived and worked in Morocco and other Arab countries before settling in Israel, adapted it as their own symbol over the years and sometimes put a six pointed star in the palm for religious identity. With an eye in the palm, they say it protects against “the evil eye.” Some associate the significance of the five fingers to the five books of the Torah for Jews, the Five Pillars of Islam for Sunnis, or the five People of the Cloak for Shi'ites. It can be seen all over the Arab nations, and is popular as charms and decorations in Israel’s markets as wall plaques, mobiles, keychains and necklaces. Among Jews, many hamsas are also decorated with fish images, considered to be a symbol of good luck and sometimes they are inscribed with Hebrew prayers, such as the Sh'ma, the Birkat HaBayit (Blessing for the Home), or the Tefilat HaDerech (Traveler's Prayer).
My walks through the Old City of Jerusalem, showed how many forms it took. It was fashioned out of different metals and clay, with stones embedded for hanging around the house or as jewelry around ones neck. It was everywhere I looked and more powerful than just the evil eye that was sometimes etched into it. It was a kind of ancient stop sign, the hand in a position to ward off negative thoughts and other undesirable forces. STOP, it said, to jealousy, theft, and other daily hazards which we still face today.
This ancient motif is in northern Africa and Middle Eastern art and architecture, being rich in cultural meaning. It is sold in many different forms in the in the Arab marketplaces of Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and often painted on the fronts of homes, and other architectural details. Hamsa plaques, often made of turquoise-colored ceramics, are very common in modern Egypt to protect and bring in magic. This symbolism may have evolved at a later stage, since archaeological evidence suggests the hamsa predates both religions. The symbol may have originated in Punic religion which is a group of Semitic-speaking peoples who were associated with Tanit, a Phoenician lunar goddess, whose heartland was along the coastal regions of modern day Lebanon, extending to parts of Israel, Syria and Palestine. Her symbol, found on many ancient stone carvings, was a woman raising her hands to the moon.
I have always liked the customs, beliefs and practices of using healing stones in silver hands to draw benefit during times of illness or personal challenge. The rich blue of Lapis Lazuli, color of the night sky brings dreams into reality, turquoise is an earthly protector and manifesting stone, amythst magnetizes heavenly dreams, and the transparent moonstone shines light through darkness. For centuries humans have used stones for adornment, healing, jewelry, spiritual work, décor and meditation. Fingers point upwards or downwards, patterned etchings swirl healing powers from the center outward, a reminder of the Henna patterns which Indian women use to dye their hands, feet, and face for rituals. Many of us use these neck amulets like worry beads, and are lucky to not wear off the etched symbols.
In June 2006 Iranian/ Australian artist Farideh Zariv held a Hand of Fatima exhibition in Cape Town’s Bo Kaap, a predominantly Muslim district. In her art, each hand has a message for humankind of spiritual and mystical meanings. These are hands of light, showing humankind the way to brightness and peace, and directing human attention to inner spirituality.
In the pop television series, Charmed, the Hand of Fatima was used against the demon Javnah in the second episode of Season One, "I've Got You Under My Skin." Here it was represented as a hand made up of living animals including a snake, turtle, and frog warding off evil by destroying the demon.
In recent years, Middle East peace activists have chosen to wear the hamsa as a symbol of the similarities of origins and tradition between the Islamic and Jewish faiths.
The world looks to Jerusalem to be a place of light unto the nations. We need this relevant Peace symbol of the hamsa as a cultural link for the two peoples of Israel and Palestinian, as a recognition of the spirit held within their common love of the Holy Land and a peaceful future together.
Katya Miller is a peace activist, writer, videographer and jeweler. Her most popular creation is the hamsa called the Jerusalem Peace Hand. It includes the symbols of Judaism, Islam and Christianity in silver and gemstones. To learn more, visit www.culturalimages.net