The Origin of the Common Handshake

The Creation of Adam (detail) - Sistine Chapel

The Creation of Adam (detail) - Sistine Chapel

The handshake has become a common form of communication all around the world. It is used to say “hello”, “goodbye”, “we agree”, as a greeting upon first acquaintance, and as a mutual sign of goodwill and peace. A handshake can establish a first impression with someone, whether it be good and firm, or limp and clammy. It has made its way to the highest levels of government and society where agreements between nations are sealed. This ritual has “become perhaps our most important non-verbal communicative contrivance” 1.

But where did it come from?

There are many conflicting reports of the possible source of the common handshake gesture. Some say that it originated in medieval times with the etiquette of knights, others say it appeared later in the courts of British nobles in colonial times. Still others say it dates to the Romans who would approach each other and grab the forearm to make sure the other man was not carrying a weapon2. Most agree, however, that the handshake predates written history, and is therefore somewhat difficult to track down. The earliest records we have of the handshake are from the Egyptians:

The Egyptian hieroglyphic of the extended hand represents the verb, ‘to give’. This symbol finds its derivation in the shaking of hands which represented the legend of the handing over of power from a god to an early [earthly?] ruler. Hence the Babylonian ritual (circa 1800BC) in which the king clasped the hand of a statue [the god Marduk] during the New Year’s festival so that his authority was transferred to the next year. When Babylon fell to the Assyrians hands kept right on shaking, with the new kings carrying on the ancient ritual for fear of offending the gods.3

Some claim that it is the Egyptian hieroglyph of the extended hand that inspired Michelangelo when he painted his famed fresco “The Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel. In it, Adam stretches forth his hand towards God’s hand.4

Another source tells us more about how the ancients viewed the hand symbolically:

In esoteric doctrine, the position of the hand in relation to the body, and the arrangement of the fingers, convey certain precise symbolic notions. . . . two hands joined signifies mystic marriage. . . . According to Berber thought, the hand signifies protection, authority, power and strength.5

Notes:
  1. http://assyriatimes.com/engine/modules/news/article.php?storyid=63 []
  2. ibid. []
  3. ibid. See also http://www.nzgirl.co.nz/articles/983. And http://www.africanhiphop.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?p=9614&sid=0ee7b6c3323d13d81eb948398253b73d []
  4. Doug Lennox, Now You Know: The Book of Answers, 42. See also http://www.africanhiphop.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?p=9614&sid=0ee7b6c3323d13d81eb948398253b73d. And http://www.nzgirl.co.nz/articles/983. []
  5. Juan Eduardo Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 137 []

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