If you're not familiar with the hamsa or the traditions surrounding the symbol, you'd be forgiven for not quite making out what you're looking at. Is it a flower of some sort? An elephant with three trunks? No, the hamsa is a depiction of a human hand, often, though not always, with a central eye motif.
The symbol is widely used across much of the Middle East and North Africa The Hebrew word hamesh means five, as does the Arabic word khamsah. In Muslim traditions, it is sometimes known as the Hand of Fatima, named for one of the prophet Muhammad's daughters, according to Frankel. In some Christian usages, it is referred to as the Hand of Mary. It's an image recognized and used as a sign of protection at many times and in many cultures throughout history, traditionally believed to provide defense against the evil eye, a powerful notion in many of those cultures.
As far as pronunciation goes, "technically if you were Muslim or an Israeli, you would pronounce it as 'cham-sa,' with a hard ch," according to Dr. Ellen Frankel, former CEO and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society and co-author of "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols," but "ham-sa" is also correct.
To be clear, the hamsa hand is highly stylized. It often appears to consist of three fingers with two thumbs, one to either side of the downward cast digits. This distortion, says Frankel, is likely intended to avoid its use as a graven image, or idol.
"There's a proscription in Judaism and Islam against making any kind of reproduction of the human form," she says. "So you won't find such images in mosques for sure. And in most synagogues, you won't find images of people and sometimes not even of animals because it might be mistaken for idol worship. You're not supposed to represent the human form."
Frankel states that while there are exceptions to this prohibition in Jewish tradition, we still see the idea reflected in hamsa iconography. This hand of God, symbolizing divine might and divine protection against evil, should not be depicted as a lifelike, human hand.
And then there is the matter of the eye. Not all hamsas feature an eye, but many do — especially those hung on walls or in cars. The eye is often blue, which would have been an exceptional or even uncanny eye color throughout the Middle East, where the tradition emerged.
"It's protection," Frankel says, "not only against illness and bad fortune, but against this notion of the evil eye, which is very powerful in almost all cultures, but especially in the Middle East and Southern Mediterranean. The hamsa is a protective eye that wards off the evil one."
You can think of the evil eye as an invisible, supernatural entity. Jewish superstition in particular holds that it lurks in the world at large, ready to afflict individuals with malignant force if provoked.
"The evil eye is envious of other people's good luck or happiness," Frankel says. "So to counter it, you have to either put something up that will be a bit of an antidote to the evil eye, or something that will hide your good fortune."
There are numerous examples of self-deprecating deflections in Jewish superstitions of the evil eye – such as insisting that a newborn baby is ugly as opposed to beautiful or refraining from calling on two families in a row at a wedding or bar mitzvah.
On one level, the hamsa hand can therefore be seen as a divine symbol warding off an unseen evil. It is associated either with the divine hand of God or with the hand of revered religious figures. In addition, the origins of the symbol seem to date back to older Canaanite traditions and worship of the horned god Ba'al, a chief deity in Canaan and ancient Mesopotamia, according to Frankel.
But there are also likely connections between the hamsa hand and a rude hand gesture invoking the symbol of the cuckold's horns. In this, we might well compare the idea of warding off the evil eye with 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther's accounts of farting at the devil, or the notion of, say, raising your middle finger at a spooky house. In this interpretation of the hamsa, you're essentially cussing at the evil eye.
"If you think about a magnet, and you put two negative poles together, they repel each other," Frankel says. "So it's often an effect referred to as an anti-demonic device or an anti-demonic symbol or amulet."
In this, the hamsa would fulfill a similar superstitious role to the use of Gorgonians (monstrous, gorgon heads) in Ancient Greek decoration or gargoyles in Gothic architecture. The monstrous repels the monstrous.
Either way, rude hand gesture or divine invocation, this doesn't mean hamsas displayed in the home are necessarily hung with the evil eye and unseen forces in mind. As with traditions of apotropaic magic in many cultures, various charms and amulets simply become part of the larger culture. Shaped by the artistic styles and values of a given culture, these symbols come to embody them.
And if they keep the evil eye away, all the better.