Hand Portal ~ As Above So Below
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Seated Woman with Lions, at least 10,000 years old
Catalhoyuk, Anatolia, present-day Turkey
Very little is known about the spiritual beliefs of the people from Catalhoyuk, but the figurine, one of many like it found at the site leads to some interesting possibilities. She is enormously fat, like the Venus figurines (See earlier post on the Venus Figurines) but she does not look like a victim. She sits on a throne flanked by lions, two symbols of power. James Melhart, who excavated the site in the 1950s and 60s, claimed this figure and many others like it found at the site, carved from marble, limestone, basalt, alabaster, and clay, represented an Earth Mother deity. However, Ian Hodder, who worked on the site in 2004 and 2005, claimed “in fact there is very little evidence of a mother goddess.”
The map below shows the major settlements in the ancient Near East, including those mentioned in this post. (Map courtesy of Resources for History Teachers)
Al-Uzza, Al-Jauza, Al-Jabar
“What’s in a name?” Lots, as it turns out.
The constellation we know as Orion the Hunter was known to ancient Arabic astronomers as al-Jauza, a feminine form meaning the Central One. In ancient illustrations of the constellation, al-Jauza is clearly a woman. However, the name later changed to al-Jabar, a masculine form meaning “The Giant.” When the Greeks named the constellation, it became Orion the Hunter. However, echoes of the past remain in the star names, including Betelgeuse (“Bet-al-Jauza,” translated as the armpit of the Central One, the hand of the Central One, or the house of the Central One, depending on which scholar’s work you’re reading).
The ancient Arabic goddess called al-Uzza, meaning “The Mightiest One” or “The Strong,” was associated with both fertility and war. She was worshipped, along with Hubal (the chief of the gods) as well as Manat (goddess of fate) and Al-lat (goddess of the Underworld) at many important sites between Medina and Mecca, including the Kaaba, though all shrines, statues, and other evidence of their worship have been destroyed.
Inanna, Queen of Heaven, Goddess of Love, War, Fertility, and Lust
Sumeria – present day Iraq; main temple in Uruk, 6,000 years ago
The most powerful Sumerian goddess was Inanna, who may have been borrowed from an even earlier mother goddess figure. But Inanna was no loving mother figure. Often pictured standing on the backs of two lionesses, she was associated with both sex and war. It was said she could stir up confusion and discord. According to one story, a bully who drank blood and ate the flesh of his victims terrified the residents of Uruk until one of Inanna’s men defeated him, hitting him with an axe. The villain then begged forgiveness of Inanna, promising to praise her and make offerings at her temple in Uruk.
Her planet was Venus, the Morning and Evening Star, famous for its brilliant appearance in the western twilight sky, followed by its disappearance into the Underworld and reappearance in the eastern pre-dawn sky.
Ishtar, Queen of the Night, Goddess of Love, Fertility, and War
Akkad – center in city of Uruk, 4,300 years ago,
Sumeria – Uruk, in present-day Iraq
Assyria – Nineveh and Ashur, in present-day Iraq
The Akkadian Empire absorbed almost all of the land drained by the Tigres and Euphrates Rivers about 4,300 years ago, putting both the Semites and Sumerians under Akkadian rule and enforcing the Akkadian language. After the fall of the empire 140 years later, two main groups emerged: Assyria in the north and Babylonia in the south.
Ishtar was simply a later version of Inanna. She was an unpredictable goddess of love, fertility, sex, and war. She was incredibly powerful, capable of creating and destroying. While she was praised as the creator of the human race, provider of continuing sustenance, and giver of arts and culture, she also had quite a reputation as a cruel lover, often killing her partners. Like Inanna, she was associated with lions, often pictured standing on the backs of two lionesses. Venus, particularly as the Evening Star, was her planet. In the terra cotta plaque of her that is now located in the Louvre (pictured), she is also flanked by owls, an indication of her position as Queen of the Night. Her temple at Tell Bank in present-day Syria contained thousands of figurines of staring owls that were able to “see” justice.
Both Inanna and Ishtar were often portrayed with horns on their heads representing the crescent moon.
Astarte, Queen of Heaven, Goddess of Fertility, Sexuality, and War
Phoenicia – centers in Tyre and Byblos, 3000 – 5000 years ago
Astarte is the Phoenician version of Ishtar. Since the Phoenicians were great sailors and traders, they spread the cult of Astarte throughout the eastern Mediterranean from the early Bronze Age to classical times, when the Greeks made her into Aphrodite and the Romans made her into Venus. While these goddesses kept her sexuality and capriciousness, they downplayed the warlike aspects of Astarte.
Astarte’s symbols are the lion, horse, sphinx, and dove. The statue of the Lady of Galera in Spain (left) shows Astarte flanked by sphinxes. Her statue now housed in the Louvre (pictured) shows her naked except for her necklace and long earrings, with blazing eyes and a blazing navel. The crescent moon on her head looks like horns. In Phoenicia, she was sometimes portrayed leaning forward at the bow of a ship, becoming the original for the figureheads on many later boats.
Astarte appears in Egypt as a warrior goddess, often conflated with the lion-headed goddess Sekmet and with Isis.
She appears in the Bible as Ashtoreth, combining Astarte with bosheth (abomination), who is condemned as a female demon of lust.
Sekhmet – Powerful One, The Destroyer, Lady of Terror, Eye of Ra, One Before Whom Evil Trembles, Lady of Life, Protector of Pharaohs
Centers – Memphis and later Thebes, Ancient Egypt
Depicted as a lioness or a woman with a lion’s head, Sekhmet (also Sekmet), daughter of the sun god Ra, was one of the oldest deities in the Egyptian pantheon. Nothing soft about this lady; her hot breath was said to create the desert. When Ra felt that humans had failed to live correctly, he sent Sekmet as his avenger. She killed so many people that Ra tried to stop her, but her blood-lust drove her to more killings. Finally, Ra poured thousands of gallons of pomegranate-stained beer in her path. Thinking it was blood, she drank it until she passed out and the killing stopped. In her honor, public drinking festivals were held each year, which might be one reason her cult lasted 3000 years.
Since she was associated with lions, tame lions were often kept in her temples.
Later on, Sekhmet’s image changed when she was merged with Hathor, particularly at the Temple to Sekhmet-Hathor at Kom-el-Hin. Hathor was the mother goddess, pictured as a sacred cow or a woman with cow’s horns on her head. Unlike the warlike Sekmet, Hathor was associated with joy, sex, music, dance, pregnancy, and birth. The combined figure was known as “Destroyer of Rebellion,” “Mighty One of Enchantment.”
Tanit – Virginal Mother, Fertility Goddess, Goddess of War
Center – Carthage, present-day Tunisia, on the Mediterranean coast across from Sicily
Tanit was the Carthaginian version of Astarte, worshipped from Malta to Gades (Cadis) on the coast of Spain. She is usually pictured with a lion’s head.
Many of these goddesses obviously share some characteristics. It’s easy to see the shared qualities of Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Sekmet, Ariadne (Crete), Neith (Lybia), Asherah (Hittite), and Anat (Assyria).
In all of these, she shares heavenly titles such as Goddess of the Heavenly Upperworld, Lady of Heaven, Queen of Heaven, Ruler of Heavens, Shining One, and the Torch of Heaven. To recognize her fierce qualities, she was referred to as Goddess of War, Lady of Victory, Lady of Sorrows and Battles. She was also Goddess of Love and Goddess of the Evening.
However, as the goddess morphed over time, her warlike qualities began to disappear.
Ba’alat Gebal – Goddess of love, Goddess of Byblos
Center – Byblos, Phoenicia, Temple built 4700 years ago
As the Greeks made Astarte into Aphrodite, she became the love goddess, a physical beauty. The first century AD statue of Ba’alat Gebal now housed in the Louvre, shows the transition. The Phoenician goddess stands in a classical Greek pose. Her symbol is no longer the lion but the dove, included in her headdress, which also includes a sun disk, a symbol of the Egyptian goddess Isis. She retains two feathers in her headdress, reminiscent of Astarte.
Hathor – Celestial Cow, Personification of the Milky Way, Lady of Stars, Mother of Mothers
Isis – Nurturing mother, Patroness of Nature and Magic
Hathor, the Celestial Cow, was an ancient Egyptian goddess probably morphed from Bat. She is shown early on as a full cow with a sun disk between her horns. Later, she appeared as a woman with a sun disk between cow horns (pictured, right). She was the patron of music, dance, and sexual delight, also associated with cosmetics and incense.
In many ways, Isis absorbed the qualities of Hathor but added the dimension of loving wife and mother. As mother of the falcon-headed god Horus, she is often pictured holding or suckling the infant (pictured, left).
The fierce goddess, the lady of terror, has gradually disappeared.
With the rise of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the goddesses disappeared almost completely. The name Queen of Heaven was applied to Mary, the virginal mother of Jesus wearing a mantle of stars, often pictured holding or suckling the infant Jesus. In Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe continued the heritage of the Aztec Mother Earth goddess Tonantzin. However, the Reformation downplayed the role of Mary and outlawed statues of her or the saints as idolatry in Protestant churches.
The sea is still referred to as female though the figurehead on boats has disappeared. The terms Mother Earth and Mother Nature survive though in most uses they engender none of their original respect.
Many of the areas where the goddess cults once flourished now practice extensive discrimination against women that has become accepted as part of the culture.
I miss the fierce goddesses. I wander through the local toy store, looking at endless rows of pink Barbies looking like so many perky prostitutes, and wonder what happened.
The Eye in the HandPosted on January 3, 2012
The Eye in the Hand
It’s curious how the past inhabits the present. The Eye in the Hand is a good example. It’s currently found in corporate logos, music promotions, edgy fashion, and scary movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, but the history of the symbol is complicated and global.
Perhaps the symbol works because it’s arresting. It combines two of our most powerful data receptors, but the two don’t belong together. It’s not possible to have an eye in a hand or to see through a hand, so the image conjures up something beyond normal life. In that sense, the Second Life logo, which features the eye in the hand, is very close to the historical roots of the symbol that is clearly connected to something beyond life.
It’s hard to talk about the eye in the hand without also considering The Evil Eye. While the ancient artifacts that include the eye in the hand don’t necessarily invoke a protective charm against the evil eye, the current charms certainly do. Currently, people have two popular choices in charms to ward off the Evil Eye: The Evil Eye charm or the Hamsa Hand.
The Evil Eye
The blue glass eye, known (rather confusingly) as The Lucky Eye or The Evil Eye, promises to protect the bearer from negative energy such as resentment or envy as well as general misfortune such as accidents and disease. The concept of the Evil Eye, the belief that others have the power to curse you by giving you a malevolent stare, is widespread in the Middle East, Africa, India, Central America, North America, South Asia, and Europe, especially the Mediterranean area. Damage from an evil eye can include withering, sickness, even death. Even those who don’t believe in the Evil Eye may refer to the concept in sayings like “She gave me the evil eye,” or “If looks could kill, I’d be dead now.”
Because the evil eye is generally thought to be blue, the charms that are meant to protect the bearer are usually blue as well.
The Hamsa Hand
The other popular protective talisman is the eye in the hand charm known as Hamsa (Arabic), Hamesh (Hebrew), Humsa (Hindu), Mano Ponderosa (Italian), or Helping Hand (hoodoo). In Jewish folk tradition, it is known as the Hand of Miriam (the sister of Moses). In some Muslim areas it is commonly called the Hand of Fatima (the daughter of Mohammed), despite Islam’s official ban on talismans. Some Catholic groups refer to it as the Hand of Mary (the mother of Jesus).
Hamsa hands come in a very wide variety of forms, some very male, some very female, some with five fingers, some with three fingers and two very small appendages, some with barely differentiated fingers. Some have a very large eye; others replace the eye with a circle or star. Some include other symbols in the fingers and palm. Most point down but some point up.
There is great debate over the origin of the Eye in Hand. Some say it comes from The White Tara, the Hindu representation of motherly protection and generosity who is often pictured with eyes in her forehead, hands, and feet. In some images, she holds the lotus of compassion in one hand.
Others connect the Hamsa to Hathor, the Egyptian Earth Mother, sometimes pictured as a woman wearing a red dress and a headdress of cow’s horns, other times as a cow with a sacred eye, other times as the Milky Way. The ancient Greeks morphed Hathor into Aphrodite; the Romans made her into Venus.
The Phoenicians used the hand of Tanit, a powerful female sky goddess, to ward off evil. A fierce warrior, she was sometimes depicted with the head of a lion. Tanit’s equivalents include Astarte (West Semitic), Anat (Mesopotamian), and Inana (Sumerian), all powerful females associated with love, fertility, and war.
The Female/Sky/Milky Way/Orion Connection
Since we seem to have a female, heavenly connection with Hathor, Tanit, and others, it’s interesting to note the Arabic origin of the named stars Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Belatrix, all in the constellation Orion.
Betelgeuse comes from yad al-jauza (mistranslated originally as bat al jauza) meaning “the hand of the Central One,” referring to a mysterious and powerful female entity who kneels in the night sky with the Milky Way at her shoulder(pictured). Rigel comes from the Arabic rijl al-jauza, meaning “the foot of the Central One.” Belatrix, another star in the constellation, means a fierce female warrior (which suited her character in the Harry Potter stories).
The New World
But the eye in hand symbol also has a New World history. If you look at the images associated with The Eye in Hand on your computer, you’ll come across several from pre-Columbian North America. The most famous is the engraved gorget (collar ornaments) from Moundville, Alabama, featuring a hand with an eye (pictured above). The hand is surrounded by two intertwined, knotted horned rattlesnakes. A similar piece, also from Moundville, includes the hand with the eye but leaves out the snakes and places the hand between a symbol of a cross inside concentric circles at the top and what looks like an earthen mound at the bottom (pictured).
The two Moundville gorgets shown in the illustrations are quite similar. Both have concentric circles at the top and a link to the eye in hand. However, the illustration from Vernon James Knight’s book Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, detailing the finds of the 1905 excavation of the area, has a slightly different design inside the circles and omits the mound at the bottom.
Other pieces found in the southeastern US include the hand in the eye in different though related forms.
Although the designs on the Mississippian gorgets look similar to the modern-day Hamsa Hands, there is no indication that the North American pieces had the same function. Actually, it’s hard to know how the symbol functioned for those who wore it. Between 500 and 1500 AD, the Mississippian culture included trade-linked settlements that ranged from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, but after the arrival of the Europeans, many of the Mississippian settlements failed due to disease and warfare, and the flat-top mounds typical of their cities were destroyed by the settlers.
However, many anthropologists now believe that The Hand constellation, made up of the lower half of Orion, was considered a portal to the Otherworld in Southeastern US cosmology. (See “Mississippian and Maya cosmology: The Hand constellation and the Milky Way” at anthro-lingblogspot.com/2010/01mississippianandmayacosmology.) The stars that make up Orion’s belt formed the wrist (top) of the severed hand.
The Lakota and other Plains Indians also saw a star grouping they called The Hand in the bottom half of what we call Orion.
In researching some Mississippian sites, experts have suggested that marks on the palm of the hands symbolized points where the spirit may enter or leave the body.
The snakes in the Moundville pieces have been identified as tie snakes, horned serpents that play an important part in the oral history of tribes from the Great Lakes to the southeastern woodlands. These Great Serpents were powerful beings from the Underworld who were in constant battle with the forces of the Upperworld, usually represented by the Thunderers, falcon-men. The combination of these two opposite forces resulted in the winged, horned serpents that wheeled around the center of the world in the swastika, powering the motion of the world through the energy of their opposition. (See earlier entry “The Flight of the Eagle, The Power of Symbol.”)
The Eye in the Hand
According to the “Southeastern Ceremonial Complex” entry in Wikipedia, “The Hand and Eye Motif was common in Mississippian symbolism and may be related to the Ogee Motif, suggesting it represents a portal to the Otherworld.”
The Road across the Sky
For many ancient North American, Central American, and South American peoples, the Milky Way was the path the dead took to the Otherworld. The Maya saw the Milky Way as having four arms that spread out across the world. At the center of the Milky Way, the three hearthstones were placed at the moment of Creation. These three stones are part of the constellation we know as Orion and they became the portal through which the dead entered the Milky Way, the great river of stars that flows next to the hearthstones.
The Apache believed that Yolkai Nalin, the feared goddess of death and the afterlife, controlled the path of souls after death. The road to the Otherworld that we call the Milky Way passed over her shoulders.
If we put all of these parts together, it seems fairly defensible that we have a Moundbuilder piece that makes reference to a Hand constellation that serves as a portal to the Otherworld, the boundary between this life and the beginning of the next life.
And it’s the logo for Second Life. Irony abounds.
It’s impossible to tell how much of the symbolism of the New World continues, overlaps, or reflects that of the Old World. Perhaps the two developed along parallel lines without ever intersecting. Perhaps not. Certainly, the modern Hamsa charm, which is most popular around the Mediterranean, bears an eerie resemblance to the ancient Moundbuilder gorget. Even more interesting is the invocation of the very powerful female figure (Mary, Fatima, Miriam) for protection. It’s hard not to see parallels between them and The Central One who guards the portal to the Otherworld and bears the Path of the Dead on her shoulder.
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