By Sarah Corbett
The Khamsa or Hamesh is an amulet in the form of a hand, which is popular throughout North Africa and the Middle East. It is worn by those of Islamic and Jewish faith alike.
Historically the symbol as a form of amuletic protection has been traced to Carthage, where the representation of the hand of the supreme deity Tanit was believed to ward off the evil eye.
In the Arabic Language khamsa means five, and signifies the five fingers of the hand and also the five pillars of Islam. In the Jewish religion, the hamesh symbolizes the hand of God.
Many Jews believe the khamsa pendant symbolises the Hand of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. In the Islamic faith, the khamsa symbolises The Hand of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.
Today I would like to share with you the significance of the Khamsa pendants which I wear on a daily basis and the symbolism hidden within them. The pendants were a gift to me from a dear friend in Marrakech. and I wear them just as they were strung when given to me.
The first of the pendants is a Berber piece, and bears the image of a lizard or salamander. This is unusual within Islam where there are concepts which do not accept the representation of living things in art. This in itself illuminates the rural Berber mixture of Islam and earlier pagan beliefs which were in tune with nature and the environment. In Berber culture the lizard is a symbol of long life and survival. A lizard can withstand the fierce desert heat without burning and is also capable of surviving without water for prolonged periods, seemingly reborn when the rain returns following times of drought.
There are very ancient beliefs that to wear a piece of dried lizard around your neck is a good protection against snake bites. This ancient theory has been developed to include not only the literal sense, but also to be perceived as protection against the venom of other persons, and a talisman to neutralise their ill will and negativity which could have a bad effect of your health, wealth or happiness.
The background of my lizard khamsa has 4 further main designs incorporated within it. We see an etched protective eye,and undulating lines which are called ‘Zill’ ( ‘Zill’ is the name of the sound which Berber women make when there is an occasion of joy) These lines frame the design on the pendant, and therefore symbolically surround the wearer in joy. Within the Zill border we find zig zag lines which denote a long journey, and also a representation of reptile scales ( an echo of ancient traditions using real lizard skin to protect).
The second pendant on my necklace is of Moroccan Jewish origin and is the type which is found on a Synagogue lamp. The piece bears the Star of David and three pierced portals representing birth, life and death. When inverted the hand reveals the form of a bird, the symbol of fertility.
Although neither of the Khamsa I wear are extremely old I treasure them for the significance of the meaning behind the gift. When worn one hangs at my front and the other at my back, ensuring I am safe from all angles at all times!
There are as many different styles of this form of adornment as there are people who may wish to wear them. And there are collectors devoted to gathering different styles of the pendant.