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A decorative Hamsa

The hamsa (Arabic: خمسة ‎, khamsa, lit. five, also romanized khamsa and chamsa) is a palm-shaped amulet popular throughout the Middle East[1] and North Africa[2]. The hamsa is often incorporated in jewelery and wall hangings, as a defense against the evil eye.[3] It is believed to originate in ancient practices associated with the Phoenicians of Carthage.[3]

Contents

Symbolism

Another Arabic name for the hamsa (or khamsa) is the hand of Fatima, commemorating Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad.[4][5] Hamsa hands often contain an eye symbol. Depictions of the hand, the eye, or the number five in Arabic (and Berber) tradition is related to warding off the evil eye, as exemplified in the saying khamsa fi ainek ("five [fingers] in your eye").[6] Another formula uttered against the evil eye in Arabic is khamsa wa-khamis.[7]

The khamsa is the most popular of the different amulets to ward off the evil eye in Egypt — others being the Eye, and the Hirz (a silver box containing verses of the Koran).[4] The Hand (Khamsa) has long represented blessings, power and strength and is thus seen as potent in deflecting the evil eye.[8] It's one of the most common components of jewelery in the region.[4]

Archaeological evidence indicates that a downward pointing hamsa used as a protective amulet in the region predates its use by members of the monotheistic faiths.[9] It is thought to have been associated with Tanit, the supreme deity of Carthage (Phoenicia) whose hand (or is some cases vulva) was used to ward off the evil eye.[9]

The hamsa's path into Jewish culture, and its popularity particularly among the Sephardic Jewish community, can be traced through its use in Islam.[9] Jews sometimes call it the hand of Miriam, referencing the sister of the biblical Moses and Aaron.[9] Five (hamesh in Hebrew) represents the five books of the Torah for Jews. It also symbolizes the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, "Heh", which represents one of God's holy names. Many Jews believe that the five fingers of the hamsa hand remind its wearer to use their five senses to praise God.

Clay hamsa on a wall, inscribed with the Hebrew word "behatzlacha"" - literally "Good Luck" or "In success"

Usage

There are two main styles of a hamsa hand: the stylized hamsa hand with two symmetrical thumbs, and hamsa hands that are not symmetrical and shaped like actual hands.[10] Either hamsa hand can be worn with the fingers pointing up or down.

The hamsa is popular as a charm most often worn as a necklace, but can be found as a decorative element in houses, on key chains, on other jewellery items.[2] Many artists use the image of the hamsa hand in jewelry, paintings, sculptures, wall decorations, and amulets.

The renewed interest in Kabbalah and mystical Judaism is a factor in bringing the hamsa pendant back into vogue. In Jewish mysticism, fish are a symbol of good luck, so many hamsas are also decorated with fish images. Sometimes hamsas are inscribed with Hebrew prayers, such as the Sh'ma, Birkat HaBayit (Blessing for the Home), or Tefilat HaDerech (Traveler's Prayer).

See also

Notes

References

  • Badawi, Cherine (2004). Footprint Egypt (4th, illustrated ed.). Footprint Travel Guides. ISBN-10: 190347177X, ISBN-13: 9781903471777. 
  • Ham, Anthony; Bing, Alison (2007). Morocco (8th, illustrated ed.). Lonely Planet. ISBN-10: 1740599748, ISBN-13: 9781740599740. 
  • Lent, J. M.; Bearman, Peri J.; Qureshi, Hakeem-Uddeen (1997). The encyclopaedia of Islam, new edition (2nd ed.). Brill. ISBN-10: 9004107959, ISBN-13: 9789004107953. 
  • McGuinness, Justin (2002). Footprint Tunisia Handbook (3rd, illustrated ed.). Footprint Travel Guides. ISBN-10: 1903471281, ISBN-13: 9781903471289. 
  • Rajab, Jehan S. (1989). Palestinian costume (Illustrated ed.). Kegan Paul. ISBN-10: 0710302835, ISBN-13: 9780710302830. 
  • Silver, Alan (2008). Jews, Myth and History: A Critical Exploration of Contemporary Jewish Belief and Its Origins. Troubador Publishing Ltd. ISBN-10: 1848760647, ISBN-13: 9781848760646. 
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