Your Tattoo is So Cool and Ethnic, but What Does it Mean? The Origin of the “Hamsa Hand”

The “Hamsa hand”, a Romanised version of the word ‘Khamsa’ meaning five in Arabic, is a widely used and misunderstood motif that stems from the Middle East. The earliest traces of the hand as a symbol of protection and power have been found in Mesopotamian and Ancient Egyptian writing and imagery. The Khamsa is still used predominantly in Middle Eastern and particularly North African cultures for the same purpose.

Mesopotamia was an affluent civilisation whose extensive travel and trade routes with other nations across the region is a plausible cause for the adoption of the Khamsa amongst those they came into contact with. Similar use of this icon can be seen in the hand of Aphrodite and the Hand of Mary, which both project similar messages of protection.

KHAMSA
Left: Istar, Mesopotamian Goddess Right: (Left to right) Horus, Osiris and Isis

As Islam spread throughout the region centuries later, the large majority that had converted redefined this cultural symbol inherited from their forefathers. The Khamsa is most outwardly used in Berber and North African dress and culture where it has either guarded its original meaning or it has been almost entirely reassigned with a message more harmonious with certain Islamic beliefs. In Shia Islam, the ‘Khamsa’ has come to be known as the Hand of Fatima, in memory of the Prophet Muhammed’s daughter. This is not to say that the Khamsa is not used amongst other Muslim sects and in Morocco, Egypt and Jordan it is also used to the same effect as the ‘evil eye’ talisman. In certain Islamic cultures, the five fingers of the Khamsa represent the five pillars of Islam; the profession of faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. Each finger is also used to represent five members of the Prophet’s family.

KJHAMSA1
Islamic religious use of the ‘Hand of Fatima’.

The Khamsa was accepted much later in Jewish religious folklore through its popular use within Islamic communities in the Middle East and North Africa. Jews that lived along the Mediterranean and Morocco adopted the symbol equally. Considering its cultural importance to both Berbers and Arabs, the Khamsa has become one of Algeria’s national symbols. The establishment of the Israeli state led to its widespread use amongst Jews. Mass immigration over to the East meant that Jews with Arab and North African origin brought the Khamsa with them, using it to distinguish their ‘Eastern’ identities in sea of European immigrants. The exclusivity of the Khamsa attracted the rest of the society and was quickly appropriated as a symbol of Israeliness for those born in the state.

“The change in Israeli society called for the adoption…of new symbols of identity – less nationalistic, burdensome and binding than the flag and to the Israelis born in Israel, the Khamsa filled the gap. Indigenous to the region and used in Muslim and Jewish symbolism…it provided an immediate pleasing symbol such as hummus and pitta bread, which were culturally selected to represent Israeliness in advertisements and cultural visualisations.” (1)

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Various celebrities wear this as a symbol of their Jewishness and/or as fashion accessories.

The Khamsa’s origins are based in mysticism and ancient religion, however the eternal desire for protection and power in addition to cultural dependence on symbolism has contributed to the survival of this ancient emblem. As the Khamsa has become an increasingly popular fashion statement just as the sugar skull or ‘Om’ symbol, the meaning has been slowly stripped from such a charged and culturally significant motif, which is too often used and abused by fashion houses and tattoo aficionados.

What are your thoughts on the free use of the Khamsa in Western fashion and culture? Does one even have to understand the meaning behind this beautiful motif before it is used? Leave your thoughts below!

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3 Comments

  1. I’m an Iranian and I come from a Muslim family but I don’t identify as Muslim myself. My mom brought me a Hamsa necklace from Iran recently and I love it, and I use it for its actual purpose in the sense of warding off the evil eye. Is it considered cultural appropriation since I’m not Arab/Berber and/or Muslim (I’m middle eastern though)?

    1. Hello,

      It is fascinating that the khamsa has managed to survive the constant shift in borders – the fluidity in our past frontiers has naturally allowed cultures to blend into each other. Iran has attached its own meaning to the khamsa, which bears close similarity to the North Africans and clearly, Iran does not use the symbol in a flippant manner to degrade another culture into a fashion statement/impose its culture onto others.

      As it is part of your heritage and you believe it protects you from the evil eye, then surely you are using respectfully it for its intended present day purpose – I do not personally believe it could be considered appropriation.

  2. Hello, I found your article really interesting and insightful. Here’s the thing, I am neither Middle Eastern nor Muslim. When I was 12 years old (9 years ago), a close family friend traveled to Israel and brought back a Hamsa necklace for me as a gift. Now, I was 12 years old and ignorant, and simply thought it was beautiful. My country is predominantly Buddhist, so I had no one to point out to me that wearing it might actually be offensive. It wasn’t until years later that I found out what the symbol stood for, and now I feel like a complete asshole.

    I just wish I could still continue wearing it, as it was a treasured gift and it’s been with me for a long time. Oh well, at least I’ve been enlightened. Better than to accidentally hurt someone because of my ignorance.

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