Stephen Ricks On The Ancient Sacred Marital Handclasp

Grave stele of Philoxenos with his wife, Philoumene, about 400 B.C.The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU posted a short featured article on their homepage yesterday by Dr. Stephen Ricks on the subject of the dexiosis (Greek) or dextrarum iunctio (Latin), which was a peculiar Greek, Etruscan, Roman, and Early Christian practice of joining the right hands in a solemn and ceremonial handclasp. In antiquity such a practice was often associated with marriage and fidelity. It is often seen in artifacts and art dating from these time periods.

Dr. Ricks explains what this practice of clasping the right hands meant to the Romans:

In the Roman world, the right hand was sacred to Fides, the deity of fidelity. The clasping of the right hand was a solemn gesture of mutual fidelity and loyalty at the conclusion of an agreement or contract, the taking of an oath of allegiance, or reception in the mysteries, whose initiates were referred to as syndexioi (“joined by the right hand”).1

Why is this practice so common among the early Christians? Dr. Ricks informs us:

They did so in part because they agreed with the non-Christian Romans that “fidelity and harmony are demanded in the longest-lasting and most intimate human relationship, marriage.” But they also did so because they accepted, perhaps, the ancient Israelite view that marriage was a sacred covenant and, further, because they understood “marriage,” in the words of the Protestant scholar Philip Schaff, “as a spiritual union of two souls for time and eternity.” A sacred handclasp-the dextrarum iunctio-was a fitting symbol for the most sacred act and moment in human life.2

Dr. Ricks’ article is entitled “Dexiosis and Dextrarum Iunctio: The Sacred Handclasp in the Classical and Early Christian World.” Read the full study here. The PDF version contains several more illustrations of the dextrarum iunctio.

I have found additional material in conjunction with this practice that I will share in a future post.

Notes:
  1. “Dexiosis and Dextrarum Iunctio: The Sacred Handclasp in the Classical and Early Christian World,” <http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=review&id=616>. []
  2. ibid. []

7 Comments

  1. Posted February 27, 2008 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    “They did so in part because they agreed with the non-Christian Romans that…” But I would bet that both the Romans, the Christians acquired that view from the same source. People have been sealed together since Adam and Eve.

    An understanding of different aspects (fragments) of the Eternal Union can be found throughout many cultures. Of course the early church was an authorized custodian of the practice.

    -David

  2. Posted February 27, 2008 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I’m sure they did come from the same source. In fact, I’ve got an example from early Christianity which projects the practice back to the beginning, with diety uniting the hands of Adam and Eve. It’s fascinating.

    Thanks for your insights!

  3. Justin Martyr Jr.
    Posted March 3, 2008 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    I noted that many early Christian writers and art works present a journey of the soul through different realms of existence as including a drama of ritualistic types of that journey too. Art works that helped the person going through “the mysteries,” understand the ritualistic type of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, victory march throughout the world, and ascension into heaven! They were types of this. These types included different types of hand and wrist grip in being raised up out of the lower realms, (hades, limbo, purgatory, the pit, abyss, underworld, grave, tomb, etc, etc). Plus, in ascension into the higher after life realms, where the hand of God, Christ, or angels grips the hands or wrists of those ascending.

  4. Posted March 3, 2008 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your comment. I too have noticed many works of art which depict Christ raising up man out of the lower realms into heaven by extending His right hand to them. Sometimes it is just the right hand of God that extends out of heaven, often a cloud, to help the one that is ascending. I saw several examples of this in Eastern Orthodox churches on a recent trip to Ukraine. Clearly the dextrarum iunctio had a place in early Christianity, but has since almost disappeared.

  5. Justin Martyr Jr.
    Posted March 3, 2008 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Thanks Bryce. I’ve also noted this sort of thing too. It’s too bad that the communists have destroyed a lot of the churches in Romania & other areas, for not only the peoples’ religious sanctuaries, but the people themselves have been deprived of their religious heritages. It’s sad that also a lot of religious artifacts, and art works have been lost too. I’ve also noted that in the Eastern Orthodox churches, one of the most common hand & wrist grasping depictions in iconography there, is “the Anastasis,” the lifting up of Adam or the saints of old out of their underworld realm to resurrect them by Christ. Christ is often depicted as having back up, in that his angels are also there down in the pit, or underworld, to cuff or put in irons, the devil. Christ often stands on the doors of hell, or tramples under his feet, the monsterous looking devil, symbolic of his victory march that is about to begin, for after showing the resurrected souls to his Mother (a theme more common in the Latin & Spanish art works), and leading these souls “to God,” (1 Peter 3:15–21; 4:6; 1 Cor. 15; Isaiah 42:6–7 , note the words: I the Lord will hold thy hand and give thee a covenant and bring souls out of the prison house); then Christ, a newly resurrected glorious son of God, begins his victory march throughout the world. Here again is where we see a lot of hand and wrist grasping as Christ invite his followers to come forth and feel the nail marks in his hands, and this other wounds. Monks would greet each other and wandering pilgrims, etc., as if they were greeting Christ who was in different guises to test them (Matthew 25). Thus he appears to peasants in Russia to test them and preach to them. Legends say he wanders about there with his apostles, art works show the hand clasps in these greetings. See for example 1896, Nesterov’s depiction of Christ visiting peasants in Russia. This is another area where evidences for the restored temple is clearly seen. If I had more time, I’d give more information. I’m making a video presentation of this for You Tube and will offer a link to it when I’m done. Thanks, and may God bless the entire world to stop it’s wars and may the Prince of Peace the Christ, bless and heal us all!

    Ohler, THE MEDIEVAL TRAVELLER, pp. 82, 84, 85, & 89; Dom Hubert Van Zeller, The Holy Rule, Notes on St. Benedict’s Legislation for Monks, (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958 Zeller), pp.331 & 333, see also note 1 on p.331, & p.467; Schroll, Sister M. Alfred. Benedictine Monasticism, as reflected in the Warnefrid-Hildemar commentaries on the Holy Rule, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941), p.147; David Knowles, Christian Monasticism, (New York, Toronto: World University Library, McGraw-Hill Company, 1969, reprinted 1972 & 1977), p.35, & note 12 on p.245, Rule of St Benedict. The Book of Art, A Pictorial Encyclopedia of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture, Volume 2, ITALIAN ART TO 1850, Edited by Professor Mario Monteverdi, (Grolier Inc., 1965), see: Filippino Lippi, The Madonna Appearing to St. Bernard. About 1486, Florence, Badia. A portion of a scene in the background shows two
    Christ-wandering-legends monks greeting each other in a very interesting way for endowed members to consider. The one supports himself with a crutch or walking staff as though to represent the traditional way in which they were to greet each other as if each wanderer was Christ himself in the guise of a cripple, beggar, pilgrim, leper, or fellow servant. Christ’s hidden and true identity would be known only to those who knew about how he was wounded.
    Hood, 1933, Fra Angelico at San Marco, pp. 158, & 160, pl.152. Fra Angelico, Christ Being Received as a Pilgrim. Florence, San Marco, cloister; The Bible In Art, Twenty Centuries Of Famous Bible Paintings, (New York: Covici, Friede, Edited with Commentary by Clifton Harby).

    http://vrcoll.fa.pitt.edu/uag/Art-Anytime-Page/Lochoff-pages/pages/13-Angelico-Pilgrim.htm

  6. Posted March 3, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Thanks Justin for your insights and references. These things are very interesting to see.

    A good example of the “Anastasis” icon of the resurrection can be seen at this link, and is written about here. This particular example is a “fresco in the apse of the arekklesion or funerary chapel, of the Monastery of Chora at Istanbul.”

    I’ve seen a couple of your videos on YouTube, and it would be good if you worked on them a bit more. They seem a little “dark” and not very inviting from an LDS apologetic standpoint.

  7. Melissa
    Posted August 1, 2009 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I am looking for the reference and illustration I once saw of Enoch receiving a handclasp from God through a rainbow in the sky. It was memorable to me because of the veil reference as well as illustrating a rainbow before the Noah story.
    Does anyone know where it may be?

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