Extract > Rosemary Friedman: ‘Hands’

The prolific author Rosemary Friedman reflects on the power of our hands in an essay taken from her latest collection Final Draft: Reflections on Life.



Hold infinity in the palm of your hand . . .

– William Blake


Hands, unexamined sexual symbols, are often the first things a woman notices about a man, and she will react accordingly. Strong well-manicured hands on the steering-wheel of a car, caressing the keys of a piano or manipulating the bow of a violin can send erotic signals as powerful as any other physical attributes in a prospective partner.

While many iconic painters and sculptors concentrated their attentions on wide foreheads, manly chests or firm buttocks, Michelangelo Buonarotti (The Creation of Adam), Albrecht Dürer (Praying Hands), Leonardo Da Vinci (the Mona Lisa), Salvador Dalí (Portrait d’une Femme Passionate) and Claude Rodin (Hands of Lovers), among other artists, understood the anthropology and the social and sexual significance of the human hand – the most frequently symbolized part of the human body – and conveyed the emotion of a lover’s touch with their depictions of hands, many of which will take your breath away.

‘Speaking with our hands’ is something we do without thinking, and hand signals can mean different things to different people in different situations and in different cultures. 

Hand gestures in art may be descriptive – ‘pointing’ to elucidate a story or narrative – symbolic – hands used in blessing – or rhetorical – gestures that reflect and illuminate the emotions. The interpretation of the simple ‘wave’ depends on the words accompanying the action, the body language and facial expression and also, importantly, the cultural, social, geographical and historical context of the gesture.

In some Asian cultures the left hand is symbolic of ‘yin’ energy and the right hand of ‘yang’ energy; hands folded together or clasped symbolize allegiance and friendship. 

Hidden hands in gloves or drapery – as depicted in art – indicate either that the artist has a problem with drawing or painting hands (with their twenty-seven bones), or humility and the showing of respect where it is due. Native Americans use hands as a way of symbolic communication and showcase their most eloquent speech via use of hand gestures, while in Buddhism, as well as in Hinduism, hand positions known as mudras are important in expressing transference of divine powers. Hands shown in various positions symbolize inherent energy such as in meditation, receptivity, unity and wisdom. 

The hand has long been thought of as a conduit of power – transforming unseen energy into the world of form – and the Latin manifestus (clear or plain) encompasses the word manus or hand. 

Rodin once said he ‘always had an intense passion for the expression of the human hands’, there ‘are times when they succumb to destiny’ and ‘times when they seize the void and, moulding it as a snowball is moulded, hurl it in the face of Fate’.

While some experts claim to be able to psychoanalyse someone by examining his hand, and biometric parameters of the hand have been quoted as an index of schizophrenia, there is none so convinced of his diagnostic and predictive powers as the palm reader.

Palm-reading – also known as ‘palmistry’ or ‘chiromancy’ – which is practised worldwide, has its roots in Indian astrology and Roma fortune-telling. Its objective is to evaluate a person’s character, or future, by studying the palm of the hand.

The ‘head line’, which ends near the centre of the palm, is purported to indicate ‘a fast thinker who reaches conclusions quickly’; a long, straight line (extending across the palm toward the little finger) indicates ‘someone who finds themselves turning things over and over before coming to a decision’. If the line splits in two, the person is sensitive, able to see another’s perspective and liable to change his or her opinion, while a long, curved line (running down toward the bottom corner of the palm) indicates a creative thinker who can imagine many possible outcomes or approaches to a situation.

Hands vary in temperature: they may be warm or cold, coarse or soft, moist or dry, while fingers may be thick and stubby or delicate and elongated. Their sex appeal must not be minimized, and the sight of them can be as evocative as a glimpse of female breast or manly chest. While eyes are the ‘windows of the soul’ or a barometer of emotions, and the mouth can suggest various character traits, hands are indicative of strength or weakness and are the most frequently symbolized part of the human body. They give blessing, are expressive and, according to Aristotle, are the ‘tool of tools’, suggesting strength, power and protection. Hands can indicate generosity, hospitality and stability, and they are used in gestures of greeting where they are often an indicator of a great deal more than friendship.

As with handwriting, how a person shakes hands can be a clue to their inner nature. Sweaty palms can be the sign of an anxious person whose sympathetic nervous system has become overactive. A limp handshake – which can give the impression that you are making contact with a dead fish – may indicate low self-esteem. A quick grasp, followed by a release, as if your hand is being shoved aside, suggests ‘my agenda matters and yours does not’. The two-handed shake – popular with politicians – is thought to convey the meaning of warmth, friendship and trust: if his or her left hand stays on your hand, however, it is sincere, while if it creeps up your wrist, your arms or your elbow he or she is trying to get something from you. If you feel your hand being pulled towards the person or being guided in a different direction – towards a chair or a corner of the room – you are shaking hands with a control freak who wants to dominate everything (including you).

When someone grabs your fingers – rather than your hand – he or she means to keep you at a distance and may be insecure. If, in addition, that person crushes your fingers he or she is adding a show of personal power in order to keep you at arms’ length.

The ‘bone crusher’ will squeeze your hand until you cringe, which is designed to intimidate you. He or she may respond positively to you if your grip is equally strong. If another person’s thumb and fingers touch only the palm of your hand, he or she may fear connecting at a deep level and have difficulty in building relationships. If the hand-shaker holds his or her hand horizontally – and above yours – he or she feels superior to you. If the person extends the arm so that you can’t get close, he or she needs space and is not letting you in. If you want to be that individual’s friend you must give him or her the physical and emotional distance required.

Hands are an important component of sex appeal and are closely associated with touch and sensuality. There are more nerve endings in the hand than in any other part of the skin.

‘Speaking with our hands’ is something many people do without thinking, and hand gestures can mean different things to different people in different situations. The meaning of a simple ‘wave’ varies according to the speech which accompanies it, as well as the body language, the facial expression and the cultural, social, geographical and historical context of the gesture; while to the conductor of the orchestra a swishing hand gesture indicates that the strings must play louder, a similar signal from the slave-master will be interpreted as a command to increase the lashes of the whip.

The disparate roles of the right and the left hand are made manifest in the Old Testament. They play an important part in Jacob’s final blessing to his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, whom Joseph places at the left and right side of the patriarch, expecting his father to place his right hand on Manasseh (the first-born) and his left hand on Ephraim, in order to give them his blessing. Jacob, however, crosses his hands and places his right hand on Ephraim and his left hand on Manasseh. Despite Joseph’s objections, Jacob explains his action by asserting that Ephraim will be greater than Manasseh. 

According to the Old Testament, the torah was given with the right hand of God – representing the Attribute of Mercy – while his left hand signified the Attribute of Judgement. 

The significance of hands throughout literature is illustrated by Emma Bovary’s gloved ‘hand’ seen trailing outside the carriage window, as she presumably gets up to no good with her lover Léon; the ultimate goal of the Bennet sisters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, to achieve a wealthy man’s ‘hand’ in marriage, foreshadows the fact that Elizabeth does eventually win Darcy’s ‘hand’. 

The hand is the most frequently symbolized part of the human body. It can represent strength, power and protection as well as generosity, hospitality and stability, and the act of ‘shaking hands’ symbolizes both greeting and friendship.

We use our hands to demand, promise, summon, dismiss, threaten, supplicate, express aversion and fear, to question and deny: we employ them to indicate joy, sorrow, hesitation, confession and penitence, to measure quantity, number and time. Hand gestures vary as symbols. They can bless, consecrate, transfer guilt and bestow healing. We raise them to swear honesty, love, adoration and salutation; clasp them to embrace peace, alliance and friendship; associate them with negligence, arrogance, purification, cleanliness and innocence. Using them we are able to excite and prohibit as well as express approval, wonder and shame. 

It is little wonder that hands are said to speak. 


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