Saturday, March 28, 2015

Looking Into the History of Palm Reading (Chiromancy)

Charles Andre van Loo Painting, Fortune Teller
Circle of Charles-AndrĂ© van Loo [Public domain], 
via Wikimedia Commons

What's That in Your Hand? : The Purpose and Practice of Palm Reading

By Race MoChridhe

Among the many hundreds of divinatory systems devised through history, there is likely one for every occasion. If you have only a pack of cards, there is cartomancy. If all you have is a rooster, there is alectryomancy. Shoulder blade of an ox? Scapulimancy. And for when all you have to hand is the hand itself, there is chiromancy, more popularly known as palmistry, or palm reading.

It is impossible to say how long people have been tracing the lines in each others' hands. The legendary Hindu sage Valmiki is credited with a work on the subject; and it was among the arts taught by Aristotle to the young Alexander the Great, who later delighted in taking the measure of his generals by it. Although banned by the Catholic Church, it was a favorite method of witch hunters for locating their prey, and in early modern times a number of German universities devoted whole departments to laying a scientific basis for the art. After a lull in interest during the Enlightenment (which had little patience for any of the mantic disciplines) palmistry once again gained a mass following in the 19th century, and in the 20th Carl Jung developed an interest in the ways in which the hand might grow to reflect the currents of the unconscious mind. 

This is the essence of palmistry—the belief that, in keeping with the many variations upon the old Hermetic maxim “as above, so below”, the actions of the mind and spirit must leave their mark upon the body, and that the most sensitive and adaptive parts of the body may therefore be read for evidence of those actions. Anyone who has noted the difference in the faces of the elderly who have smiled and laughed much in their lives and those who have not will know the unquestionable truth of the most basic level of this assertion, and it is not a great stretch to imagine that our bodies may make other, subtler records of our heads and our hearts than this. This author, in fact, possessed no visible life lines on either hand until he had resolved to marry his present wife, at which point they appeared, deeply furrowed, in only a couple of days.

Where the palmist goes beyond these kinds of ordinary experiences is in claiming to have a system that can analyze such changes in minute detail, with repeatable accuracy, to produce a coherent and descriptive account of a person's character and likely course in life—a feat achieved by noting not only the lines of the hand (which have become the most important element in popular culture depictions of palm reading) but also the proportion of its parts, the quality of the skin, bumps of muscle and tissue, the movement of the fingers, and many other traits, the number and relative importance of which vary from school to school. These are correlated with the classical elements, aspects of the deep psyche, the medieval humors, the visible planets, or other systems in order to relate them intelligibly to qualities of character or habits of mind.

Palmistry, palm reading, chiromancy
CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons;
file from 
Wellcome Images

In the most popular traditions of palmistry, the various parts of the hand are assigned to the governance of Greek gods whose traits reflect those qualities of a person that their assigned part of the hand may reveal. Thus, for example, the ring finger is assigned to Apollo, and yields information on a person's artistic tastes, musical ability, and the like.

Though often dismissed as unscientific at best and charlatanism at worst, many have found great value in the insights to which a palm reading has led them. Even the deeply skeptical Mark Twain wrote in the guest book of the now legendary palmist Cheiro that he had “exposed my character to me with humiliating accuracy.” It is devoutly to be hoped that all who choose to use the palm reader's art as a tool of self-discovery might receive such penetrating results, and that they might find the knowledge gained to be less embarrassing.

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