Updated: Apr 10, 2020
The Hamsa (Arabic: خمسة Khamsah, Hebrew: חַמְסָה, also romanized khamsa, Berber: ⵜⴰⴼⵓⵙⵜ Tafust), is a palm-shaped amulet popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa, originally from North Africa, and commonly used in jewelry and wall hangings. Depicting the open right hand, an image recognized and used as a sign of protection in many times throughout history, the hamsa is believed by some, predominantly Jews, Christians and Muslims, to provide defense against the evil eye. It has been theorized that its origins lie in Ancient Egypt or Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) and may have been associated with the goddess Tanit.
Khamsah is an Arabic word that means "five", but also "the five fingers of the hand". It may also be taken as a reference to the primary number itself.
The Hamsa is also known as the Hand of Fatima, after the daughter of the prophet Muhammad.
Early use of the hamsa has been traced to ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) as well as ancient Carthage (modern day Tunisia). A universal sign of protection, the image of the open right hand is seen in Mesopotamian artifacts in the amulets of the goddess Ishtar or Inanna. Other symbols of divine protection based around the hand include the Hand-of-Venus (or Aphrodite), the Hand-of-Mary, that was used to protect women from the evil eye and/or boost fertility and lactation, promote healthy pregnancies and strengthen the weak. In that time, women were under immense pressure and expectation to become mothers. The woman's upbringing was centered on becoming a mother as an exclusive role, and it indicated child bearing as necessary. It was also thought that marriage was a sense of protection for both the man and woman.
One theory postulates a connection between the khamsa and the Mano Pantea (or Hand-of-the-All-Goddess), an amulet known to ancient Egyptians as the Two Fingers. In this amulet, the Two Fingers represent Isis and Osiris and the thumb, their child Horus and it was used to invoke the protective spirits of parents over their child. Another theory traces the origins of the hamsa to Carthage (Phoenicia, modern Tunisia) where the hand of the supreme deity Tanit was used to ward off the evil eye. According to Bruno Barbatti, at that time this motive was the most important sign of apotropaic magic in the Islamic world, though many modern representations continue to show obviously an origin from sex symbolism.
This relates to the belief that God exists in everything. Another meaning of this symbol relates to the sky god, Horus. It refers to the eye of Horus, which means humans cannot escape from the eye of conscience. It says that the sun and moon are the eyes of Horus. The Hand of Fatima also represents femininity, and is referred as the woman's holy hand. It is believed to have extraordinary characteristics that can protect people from evil and other dangers.
The hamsa's path into Jewish culture, and its popularity particularly in Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities, can be traced through its use in Islam. Many Jews believe that the five fingers of the hamsa hand remind its wearer to use their five senses to praise God. This "favourite Muslim talisman" became a part of Jewish tradition in North African and Middle Eastern Muslim countries. The symbol of the hand appears in Kabbalistic manuscripts and amulets, doubling as the Hebrew letter "Shin", the first letter of "Shaddai", one of the names referring to God.
The khamsa holds recognition as a bearer of good fortune among Christians in the region as well. Levantine Christians call it the hand of Mary (Arabic: Kef Miryam, or the "Virgin Mary's Hand").