The hamsa is a Middle Eastern symbol dating back to prehistoric times designed to give protection from the evil eye, bad luck that results from the attention or jealousy of others. Today it shows up in both Jewish and Muslim culture. The hamsa consists of a hand, usually pointing fingers down with an eye in the middle. The hand usually, but not always, appears to have two thumbs. The eye is generally blue; a color which is also associated with protection from the evil eye. The entire symbol is often made of or covered with a material that is somewhat reflective to reflect back the evil.
There are several names used for this symbol throughout the Middle East. The one I am most familiar with is “hamsa”, which I have heard used by both Arabian Muslims and Israeli Jews. “Hamsa” is an Arabic word (خمسة ) meaning five. “Hamesh” (חמש), the Hebrew word for five is also used as a name for this symbol. In Muslim culture, it is sometimes referred to as the “Hand of Fatima,” for Mohammed's daughter Fatima. In Jewish culture, it is sometimes referred to as the “Hand of Miriam” after Miriam the sister of Moses and Aaron. Despite these names, the symbol itself and its meaning comes from folklore and not anything in Islam or Judaism. This symbol is sometimes also called the “Hand of God” or “Hand of Friendship.” Other traditions say that five-fingers of the hand represent either the five senses or the arms, legs and head which are to be protected by the hamsa. There is some evidence that the symbol dates back to an ancient Middle Eastern goddess whose hand, or in some images vulva, was a protective symbol. The eye in the center of the hand is sometimes referred to as the “eye of god” or the “all seeing eye.”
This symbol appears to have originated in the Middle East or possibly in India, where it is also found; however it is most well-known and popular in the Middle East. 'The “Lucky W” Amulet Archive' and “the Eye in the Hand” display a number of similar symbols from throughout the world, including several pre-Columbian North American examples. A similar symbol of a blue eye in a hand, also intended to protect from the evil eye, occurs in Turkish culture, but the focus is on the eye, not the hand and the Turkish blue eye also occurs on its own.
The hamsa is usually worn as a charm or talisman, but also appears either directly painted on walls or as a plaque. Additionally, it is hung over doors and windows much like a horseshoe in Western folklore. Does the hamsa work? I received a hamsa charm as a gift many years ago and while I don't know whether or not it has been successful at protecting me from the evil eye; I value it for the memories of my friend so I must say it has been successful as a “hand of friendship.”
the Eye in the Hand - a beautiful page documenting cross-cultural examples of the eye in hand motif
The Lucky W Amulet Archive - a large site with illustrations and descriptions of amulets and lucky charms from all times and locations. The pages on hamsa, eye in hand and evil eye may be of particular interest to readers of this article.
The pattern for the embroidered hamsa pictured above is available on my stitchery website www.orangerugyarn.com.