Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome

Contact between Ancient Greece and the ancient empires of India suggest lines of influence on the European tradition of handreading that considerably predate the stimulation of interest brought about by contact with Arabic civilisation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. That there was contact between India and Ancient Greece in those times is evidenced by what we know of the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka (c.260BC) and of the exploits and adventures of Alexander the Great (c.350BC), and it seems likely that much knowledge and wisdom would have been exchanged either through direct contact or via the trade routes established by the Arabs. In any case, it is clear that the practice of handreading was known in Greece by at least the fourth century BC.

However, despite the prevalent assertions that some form of chirology was widely practised in Ancient Greece, there are actually very few references to the study of the hand in the extant literature from this period. It is supposed by many that the art was known and practised by many eminent Greek figures including Homer, Anaxagoras, Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Galen and even Alexander the Great himself. However, there is virtually nothing mentioned of the art of handreading in the extant works of any of these authors. It may be that some of these authors did indeed write works on the study of the hand, but if that is the case, then nothing of these writings remain. In the absence of any proof to the contrary, we may suppose that whilst handreading may have been known to them, they were not practising chiromants.  This can easily be demonstrated by reference to the extant writings of Aristotle (384-322 BC) , who provides us with the only certainty from this period within his works 'De Historia Animalium' (Book I.15) and 'Problemata' (Books 10 & 34).

Aristotle 'De Historia Animalium' Bk 1:15

Of the limbs, one set, forming a pair, is 'arms'. To the arm belong the 'shoulder', 'upper-arm', 'elbow', 'forearm', and 'hand'. To the hand belong the 'palm', and the five 'fingers'. The part of the finger that bends is termed 'knuckle', the part that is inflexible is termed the 'phalanx'. The big finger or thumb is single-jointed, the other fingers are double-jointed. The bending both of the arm and of the finger takes place from without inwards in all cases; and the arm bends at the elbow. The inner part of the hand is termed the 'palm', and is fleshy and divided by joints or lines: in the case of long-lived people by one or two extending right across, in the case of the shortlived by two, not so extending. The joint between hand and arm is termed the 'wrist'. The outside or back of the hand is sinewy, and has no specific designation.


Aristotle 'Problemata' Bks 10 & 34

Book 10 (896a-896b)
But we must next consider length of life in relation to other conditions. Why then are men long-lived who have a cut right across their hands? Is it because animals whose limbs are badly articulated are shortest-lived, aquatic animals for example? And if those which are badly articulated are short-lived, clearly those that are well articulated must be the opposite. Now the latter are those in which even those parts are best articulated which are by nature badly articulated; and the inside of the hand is the least well articulated part of the body.

Book 34 (964a-964b)
Why is it that men are very long-lived who have a cut right across the hand? Is it because those animals which are badly articulated are short-lived and weak? As an instance of weakness we may take young animals, and of shortness of life the aquatic creatures. Clearly then those who are well articulated must be the opposite, namely, those in whom even those parts are best articulated which are by nature badly articulated. Now the inside of the hand is the least well articulated part of the body. Why it is that, in deep breathing, when we draw in the breath the stomach contracts, but when we expire it fills out? Is it because in breathing the stomach is compressed downwards by the flanks and then appears to expand again, like bellows?

 In 'De Historia Animalium', Aristotle is describing the anatomy of the arm from the shoulder down to the hand and includes a description of the lines or joints of the hand as well as giving an interpretation of the presence of lines which extend right across the hand as being indications of a long life. The references in 'Problemata' are but reitterations of one of the questions on longevity to which he was seeking an answer: "Why then are men long lived who have a cut right across their hands?" and "Why is it that men are very long lived who have a cut right across the hand?". Aristotle struggles to find an answer to these questions and suggests that it might be to do with the better articulation of the hand, since those animals with good articulations of the body are longer lived than those animals whose bodies are poorly articulated!

On the basis of Aristotle's extant writings on the hand, we should be most suspicious of the apocryphal tale reported by many palmists that Aristotle discovered an ancient Arabic treatise on the hand on an alter dedicated to Hermes. If he saw any such treatise, it would seem he either didn't read it or it didn't contain any knowledge of any value! The legend continues that Aristotle, being tutor to Alexander the Great, sent him this golden treatise for his edification. But if Aristotle was his tutor in these matters then we can be fairly sure that, despite the suggestions to the contrary, Alexander the Great knew very little about handreading either!

The small fragments contained in these works do not suggest that Aristotle really had a very comprehensive knowledge of the study of the hand at all nor, indeed, that he was the accomplished chiromancer that many modern and ancient authors assert that he was. Nevertheless, these short remarks do reveal that some form of handreading tradition was known in Ancient Greece and that at least some of the chiromantic significance of the lines of the hand were not unknown to Aristotle himself.

They also give an indication of the age of that old superstition that the length of the lines of the hand are indicative of the length of your life. Notice, however, that Aristotle refers to lines cutting across the hands, suggesting the head line or the heart line rather than the 'lifeline' of traditional palmistry. Although these references are not very extensive, they are enough to show that some form of handreading was indeed practiced in Ancient Greece; but moreover, they are particularly revealing in that within Indian palmistic traditions even today, it is the length of the heart line that is regarded as being the main lineal indicator of longevity. This is a further suggestion that the practice of handreading within Ancient Greece may well have had Indian origins.

Ancient Rome

It is also thought that some form of handreading was practised in Ancient Rome, but there are no remaining works outlining the extent or nature of the practice at this time either, for the only evidence we have of hand reading traditions from this period come from a few passing references made on the subject in various different Latin works. Pliny (23-79AD) mentions the idea that broken lines in the palm are indicative of a short life in his 'Naturalis Historia', citing the reference from Aristotle discussed above. The writer Juvenal (60-130AD) makes a deprecatory remark about chiromancy in one of his plays ( 'Satires vi.581' ) where he satirises the women of the day by describing how whilst women of the upper classes consult astrologers, women of the middle sort satisfy their curiosity and vanity by going to chiromancers. Suidas reports that a treatise on chiromancy was written by one Artemidorus c.240AD and the Emporer Hadrian reports in his auto-biograohy that his grandfather read his hands when he was a child, predicting great things for him - but other than than these few oblique references, nothing at all is known about the practice of hand reading in Roman times.

Popular understanding has it that handreading was so widely known and practised in Roman times that even Emperor Julius Caesar was an adept chiromancer, at one time refusing to receive a Prince for the lack of indications of his royal status within his hands. But as we can see, there is so little evidence for the practice of chiromancy at this time, we can almost certainly dismiss this story as yet another apocryphal tale; for there simply is no evidence to substantiate it.

These few references seem to be the sum total of known certainties to evidence the antiquity of chirology. If any of the supposed ancient authorities did have any real knowledge of the subject, they do not reveal it in any of their works that are still extant. If they did actually write about the hand, those works cannot now be found. Apart from the few references cited above, nothing more is known for certain about the early practice of handreading or of its origins. All claims to the great antiquity of the art are therefore really nothing more than elaborate guesswork, for no records remain of either the state of the art in terms of its form and content or of the manner in which it was disseminated from one country to another. It may well be true that there were strong oral traditions in these different countries, but this does not really help us trace the early history and development of chirology. All that we can really be certain about perhaps is that the study of the hand, like the study of the planets in the sky, is indeed an extremely ancient branch of human learning and one that has preoccupied the minds of men from the very earliest of times. It would seem that the art does indeed predate the written textual references that survive, but what the ancients knew about the hand and what they really thought about it perhaps we will never know.

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