Friday, July 30, 2010

The Eye in the Hand revisited

"Hand and Eye" by Tylor Gore

A friend asked if I would re-print this article about the "Hand and Eye" Icon; since I"m about to continue work on my book "Spider Woman's Hands", it seems like a good reminder for me to do so. As I write this in a cafe, a Carly Simon record is playing, and she's singing "Itsy, Bitsy Spider". So funny sometimes......... I've been fascinated for years with the hand and eye motif. Last year, while visiting a healer who does massage and energy work, I saw that she had an ancient native American artifact. It was of thick shell, about 3"x 2", stained, carved into the shape of a hand, incised to show the fingers and joints, and with an eye and pupil in the center of the palm. A hole was drilled in the top of this medallion or amulet, presumably so it could be worn with a cord. Judith bought it at a show in Ohio.
hands 28Design engraved on Spiro shell; Hamilton, The Spiro Mound, Courtesy: Michael Fuller, Professor of Anthropology, St. Louis Community College (
I found myself continually holding it. It seemed to emanate a kind of "clarifying" energy, and being curved, fit into the palm of my hand. I don't have a photo of Judith's amulet, but the shell gorget above is from a similar source. The "Hand and Eye" motif, like the Spider with Cross, are found throughout prehistoric sites of the Mississippian peoples of the great river valleys, from Ohio to Alabama. These people have also been called the Mound Builders, leaving behind mounds and burial chambers (last year I visited Wickliffe Mounds in Kentucky). The awesome "Serpent Mound" in Ohio has been associated with these ancient peoples. For those unfamiliar, atop a plateau overlooking Brush Creek Valley, Serpent Mound is the largest serpent effigy in the United States. Nearly a quarter of a mile long, it apparently represents an uncoiling serpent; its "head" may also represent an egg in the mouth of the serpent. It has been variously dated from about 1,400 years ago to as long ago as originating in 5,000 bc. It's also geomantically interesting that this ceremonial mound was built on the site of a ancient meteorite strike. Some scholars also believe it aligns with the summer solstices, and also with the constellation "Draco", suggesting it was designed when the star draconis alpha was the pole star. Serpent Mound is certainly one of America's greatest archaeological mysteries. Judith's artifact, an ancient sacred image once ubiquitous among the Americas, is related to the prehistoric people who built Serpent Mound. Her carved shell talismen of a Hand and Eye is probably 500 years of age, or older. Why did they wear it, why did they engrave it in stone?
Rands' Hand-Eye Motif figure 1
Variants of the Hand and Eye motif. a, b, c, Southeastern United States (after Waring and Holder 1945, Figs. 1, 7 a-c); d,Lienzo de Tlaxcala: 40 (after Seler 1902-23, Vol. 2: 569, Fig. 99).
What did this iconic image mean to these prehistoric people, who were the ancestors of the Cherokee and many others? I am familiar with the "Hamsa", also called the "Hand of Fatima", a symbol used to ward off evil ( worn as an amulet, or over doors) in the Middle East, both by Muslim and Jewish peoples. This token is ubiquitous through the Arabic world. I wonder why this image is personally meaningful to me, so that I am continually incorporate it into my artwork. Perhaps it represents conscious mind in the works of our hands, in what we manifest. Beyond that, the Presence of God/dess, of the divine, the "one within the many", moving through the manifest creative and healing works of our hands, of our lives. An amulet not to avert evil, but to call forth divine vision and creativity. Does that make sense? Here's an amazing "Hands with Eyes" mask made by artist Dan Lyke, which I found on the fabulous web page "Hand and Eye" created by T.P. Kunesh, whose fascinating (and wry) website shows him to be a philosopher and visionary worth knowing. My great thanks to Mr. Kunesh for the images and commentary he provided me with.
"Hands Mask" by Dan Lyke at Burning Man (2000)
Here is some further information about the mysterious Mound builders of southeastern U.S. I have taken much of this information from the inspired writings of writer and Jungian psychologist Frank Adair, MD, who resides in Redwood City, CA. I love one of his comments in particular about this symbol:
(The) inner Self has been likened to God or to "God within us". It has been called the light of nature that creates our dreams. Whatever "it" is called will involve some degree of projection limiting meaning. Somehow, the eye as symbol captures the pivotal point between the opposites, between the conscious and unconscious - where "the land meets the sea." The hand adds richness to the symbol. Hands can build the bridge between our inner world and the external world...The hands are the mediators between spirit and matter, between an inner image and an actual creation. By handling, the existing energies become visible.
Large ceremonial centers were found in Moundville, Alabama, Etowah in Georgia, Spiro in Oklahoma and Cahokia in Illinois. These mounds are the greatest sources of the artifacts of this culture. The eye, usually a simple oval containing a small circular pupil, may have represented to these peoples the hand and eye of Creator. This famous disc below has a hand pointing upward, and appears to be both sides of the hand (perhaps suggesting non-duality?) There are two knotted rattlesnakes surrounding the hand. Being knotted, they could further suggest the forces symbolized by the snakes (the snake power contained, controlled, or organized by the hand?). In ancient Europe, as "snake" was associated with the Goddess, hence, the moving, serpentine, cyclical powers of the Earth. While we cannot know what "snake" meant to these people, and the meanings of the iconic hand is only suggested by archaeologists, I think it can be said with some certainty that it did represent shamanistic power and/or deity. As Dr. Adair points out in his article, the motif of the "eye in the palm" is found in paintings of the compassionate Bodhisattva White Tara of Tibet. He further points out that none other than the great mythologist Joseph Campbell (1) has mused and written this about possible meanings of this particular Native American stone disc:
"Interpreted in Oriental terms, its central sign would be said to represent the "fear banishing gesture" of a Bodhisattva hand showing on its palm the compassionate Eye of Mercy, pierced by the sight of the sorrows of this world. The framing pair of rattlesnakes, like those of the Aztec Calendar Stone, would then symbolize the maya power binding us to this vortex of rebirths, and the opposed knots would stand for the two doors, east and west, of the ascent and descent, appearances and disappearances, of all things in the endless round. Furthermore, the fact that the eye is at the center of the composition would suggest, according to this reading, that compassion is the ultimate sustaining and moving power of the universe, transcending and overcoming its pain. And finally, the fact that the hand is represented as though viewed simultaneously from back and front would say that this Bodhisattva power unites opposites.
Our picture depicts the dual aspects of psychic life which have been projected, since ancient times, as metaphysical realms. On the one hand, there is ordered consciousness symbolized by the regular appearance of the sun's "blazing eye;" on the other hand, there is the unconscious, a chaotic region of animal instincts, symbolized as "serpentine monsters" capable indeed of wrapping themselves around the ego and dragging it into its depths. Yet the American Indian projection preserves the fact that the unconscious is full of novelty and is a creative reality which can be harmonized with the structures of conscious living. That has been achieved aesthetically in our artifact. The image of a "hand" at the center reminds us that this beautiful piece was made by human hands and hints at the requirement of human effort if we are ever to unite the opposites within ourselves. Should what we say here be more than intuition, should it also be rooted in the facts of the psyche and in the requirement to withdraw projections, then sensation has also been served. Serving opposite functions and honoring the larger duality of the conscious and unconscious psyche is, then, the modest modern equivalent of the prayers, offerings, and correct ethical behavior of the Mound Builders. (1)"
References (From Dr. Adair and others): Campbell, J. (1990). The Mythic Image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Photos of artifacts from Spiro Mound courtesy Dr. Michael Fuller, Dept. of Anthropology, St. Louis Community College,( Fundaburk, E.L. & Foreman, M.D. (1985). Sun Circles and Human Hands: The Southeastern Indians. Art and Industry. Fairhope, AL: American Bicentennial Museum. Kunesh, T.P. The Eye in the Hand, Walthall, J. (1994). Moundville: An introduction to the archaeology of a Mississippian chiefdom. Tuscaloosa, AL: Alabama Museum of Natural History. Frank Adair, MD Tyler Gore, artist: 


Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Fascinating post. Those eye in the hand images are eerie. There's an acupressure point there. Could there be some correlation?

John Webb said...

There's something about 'one eye' which is ... well I don't know quite what it is.

A couple of days ago I posted an item about Dreams on my gardening blog. It's too complicated to explain why I posted it there. The post is here:

The front cover of the book I was reviewing shows - one eye, inside a circle.

On July 14th, I posted a trivial comment on another blog, about the book 'Here There Be Witches'. The front cover of that book shows an elderly witch with the fingers of one hand drawn over her eye. The back cover shows a young witch with one hand over her eye.

On July 24th, one of the blogs in my Blog List posted an item about the August 2010 issue of French Vogue. The photo printed shows a young woman's face, with the fingers of one hand of an elderly woman partly covering one eye. In the image in Vogue, both eyes are actually visible. What had actually caught my attention in that was how the photographer had combined the ideas of youth and age (the front and back covers of 'Here There Be Witches') into the single image. That little note is here:

It's just one of those things...

John Webb said...

Having thought about this a little bit more, I think that to say 'its just one of those things' is entirely the wrong attitude.

'something' is bringing this motif to our attention (to my attention repeatedly in the past two weeks) so we ought to listen to the message.

Honor Woodard said...

Thanks, Lauren, for your generosity here, and for sharing your patterns in the web. I was on a mound in NC last weekend and a friend showed me his heavy silver pendant which was none other than the Hand/eye with Rattlesnakes taken from the same Mississippian source, made by a Native American friend of his.Having recently been to Kincaid and Wicklyffe also, it's hard not to wonder why this is all coming up right now and continuing to bear its presence. Perhaps this symbol will provide the clarity we seek!

Gail said...

I am fascinated!

Lauren Raine said...

Thanks so much for your comments........this is a rather esoteric fascination of mine, but after all, I guess artists are engaged in icon and myth whether they realize it or not.

I know that there are acupressure points (and chakras) in the hands, certainly, that could be part of what the meaning is. Like all sacred symbols (like dreams too), the meanings are multi-dimensional.

Sometimes I feel we are all trying to learn to "swim" in the dreamtime, lately........don't know if I explain that very well, even to myself!

Lauren Raine said...

Thanks so much for your comments........this is a rather esoteric fascination of mine, but after all, I guess artists are engaged in icon and myth whether they realize it or not.

I know that there are acupressure points (and chakras) in the hands, certainly, that could be part of what the meaning is. Like all sacred symbols (like dreams too), the meanings are multi-dimensional.

Sometimes I feel we are all trying to learn to "swim" in the dreamtime, lately........don't know if I explain that very well, even to myself!

Cliff said...

The Eye-Hand combination found in the shell gorget from Moundville is a bit deceiving in that it distracts the present day viewer from the form found on the gorget.It is a far more complex message than one would expect. the Hand is the Hand of the Sun --a Sun-priest and the Eye is the Eye of the Sun --the morning-star -- Venus. But that is only part of the story. see URL:

Lee said...

Everything I have read about it so far indicates the hand represents a star constellation with Orion being the main part. The eye in the middle represents a gateway (that would open in the sky) to another world. Many ancient cultures even before the Mound Builders believed in such a thing.

Anonymous said...

Here is something I all have missed
Take a careful look at these hands count the joints etc
I think a detailed examination will show you that they are the back of the hand not the palm