‘The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost…’ Galadriel’s voice, The Lord of The Rings, J R R Tolkein
And so the priest raised a hand and conferred a blessing, sometimes both hands were raised; the parent or guardian would say goodbye to their small child by bringing the palm of their hands to their mouth, bring that palm forward just a little and blow, to blow a kiss in the child’s direction; my grandmother would pretend to put her hand too close to the open fire and frown, blow her hand as she shakes it as if it is burnt. Such is the power of this type of symbolism.
From the small sample of the three actions of hand symbolism mentioned there is the conferment of a blessing, the issuing forth of love, and a warning instruction to be careful. Symbolism – we take it for granted but it is powerful as a symbol, but so much more. There is power there!
In the clearing, in ancient England the Druid stood next to the table, the altar, and there to one side was the cauldron. Opinions differ to its usage, but some believe it could have been used to burn fragrant herbs to be used as an offering. Smoke and a wonderful fragrance would fill the air and denote that this was a pure place, a special time, a liminal place, a ‘thin place’. Interestingly, the tribes of the First Nations of America would, at that time, be using their smudge sticks, ‘saging’, in a similar way. And, yes in Scotland similar practices would take place, except there it was (and still is) called saining. Great symbolic ideas seem to come alive, move and are adapted by many, and they gain from it. We gain from it.
Why concern ourselves with symbolism now?
As you know I do like to hug, or at more formal settings I like a handshake, or a combination of the two which is known as the pound hug, the man-hug, the dude hug or one-armed hug. None of which can be done today, and for some months to come, because of the coronavirus and the need for no physical contact.
‘We are symbols, and inhabit symbols.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson
So, what do we do? The world is changed. How do we use different hand and other symbolism and actions to greet others?
Well, over the past few weeks there have been a variety of new options for greetings. The elbow to elbow tap is one, and some of the friendliest of people would do that with their right elbow to another’s right below, and then left to left. Others would tap their right foot against another’s right foot, and then left to left. And some combined the two so it became a little, comical dance. None of which can be done today and for some months to come because of the coronavirus, and the need to keep some social distancing (which, here in the UK is 2 metres apart, at least).
So, what do we do?
Below, are some fascinating alternatives from around the world, from ancient cultures and new, full of symbolism and power. There are many which can be used and adapted, imaginatively, to greet other people in this non-tactile period and so confer respect and act as a greeting from a distance (unless we’re in ‘lockdown’ in which case we shouldn’t be meeting people)… but these suggested symbolic greetings can also be used when communicating by video links such as FaceTime. Time to change. Time to experiment.
’Symbols are the imaginative signposts of life.’ Margot Asquith
Hand over the heart. The Bellamy salute was used in America, especially in respect to the flag when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It meant extending and lifting the right arm just above the horizontal. Some may now think of this as the salute by Nazis and right-wing extremists. Not so, until the rise of Nazism in the second world war. But, around 1942 the Bellamy salute was superseded by placing the right-hand palm on the left side of the chest and over the heart to show love and respect to the American flag and for which is stands. What a wonderful gesture, and a good gesture to others we meet (online) to do the same as an initial greeting as we speak words of greeting, too. A heartfelt gesture?
For some, a variation of this might be a double tap over the heart with an open palm, to denote greeting. A heartbeat, perhaps, denoting the blessing of life? I think a double tap with a closed fist is acceptable too.
Bowing or head-nod. How many times have you crossed a busy street with bags of shopping, whilst a car ddriver has stopped to let you across. You say ‘thankyou’ but it’s unlikely the driver will hear you, and so in all probability you do a slight nod of the head in the drivers direction. That visual ‘thankyou’ can also be used as a greeting. As is the case in countries such as Japan though the nod may be a bow from the hip upwards. That may be too formal for many of us, but the slight, brief head nod as a greeting seems special enough to be used.
It is customary when meeting the Queen of Great Britian for women to curtsey and for men to do that slight head-nod as she passes by. If you’ve seen the Queen move along a line of dignitaries you will see a myriad of curtsies and head-nods like pistons in and engine. However, there is a story, allegedly true, that Dennis Skinner, an MP (then) and not one for giving to respecting the office of the monarch, was determined not to head-nod as she passed by. It is said that the Queen, who occasionally stops to talk to some of the line of dignitaries, and having spied Skinner in the line, deliberately stopped to speak to him in the quietest of voices. His immediate and reflex action was to move his head closer to the Queen’s to catch her words to give a reply. Yes, the Queen in that one brief moment gained a head-nod of respect from Skinner even without him knowing it. Allegedly.
Hand wave. In British Sing Language the typical greeting of ‘hello’ is a simple wave of the hand. With the elbow bent and the hand brought up to shoulder level, you simply wave your hand. I believe in American Sign Language the right hand is brought up to the side of the head and the action resembles a military salute. Perhaps done with less formality and covering a shorter distance before the salute ends.
’As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelite were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalakites were winning…. When Moses’ hands grew heavy…then Aaron and Hur held his hands up, one on each side’. Exodus 17:11-12 part, The Book
The ‘v’ sign. Popularised by the hippie movement of the 1960’s the ‘peace’ sign, which can be used in these weird times, consisted of making the letter ‘v’ with the index and middle fingers, the other digits brought together, and with the palm of the hand facing the recipient. Ofcourse, many will now that to do this sign with the back of the hand to the recipient is a grave insult. Odd that Winston Churchill, the UK’s wartime Prime Minister used it that way when addressing crowds of supporters and at rallying speeches throughout the country! Perhaps, intentional and directed at the enemy at the time?
The ‘vulcan’ salute is a novel one. One your right hand bring all your fingers together, thumb apart, and then separate the middle finger from the ring finger. You can say or mouth the words ‘Live long and prosper’, or even say that in the Vulcan language and then it would be, ‘dif-tor heh smusma’, but that may be taking things too far.
Used copiously by Leonard Nimoy who played the Vulcan known as Spock in Star Trek, and by many others since, its origin comes from ancient Hebrew. At a certain part in their ritual the Jewish Kohanim, the priest, would raise his right hand and make that sign. It resembles the Hebrew letter ‘shin’ which has three upward strokes and refers to the deity.
Double-handed heart. Cupping the fingers of the left hand to form the shape of a ‘c’, and doing the same cupping action with the right hand and bringing them together forms a heart shape. Maybe best used for those you know affectionately, rather then the CEO of your company during a teleconferencing session. To ‘add’ power to that symbolism the hand ‘heart’ can be moved several inches toward the recipient to show the act of giving.
‘I think that a symbolism is attached to particular images, becomes marked in the unconscious. To exorcise it, to rearrange it, to reshape it, to make it my own, involves unearthing it, describing it, deploying it in form, and then rearranging it [again].’ Sarah Charlesworth.
Namaste. This is one of my favorites and is used by many throughout the world and in the west. It’s simply bringing both the palms of your hands together, in front of your chest, usually with arms as close to horizontal as appropriate, coupled with the spoken word ‘namaste’ (pronounced nam-ass-stay), which means something like, ‘I bow to the divine within you’.
However, there are some symbolic actions of greetings that might not quite make assimilation into western thought. In one ancient Asian country, a ninth century cruel king had a black tongue. Monks, after he died, would poke out their tongues to greet people to show they were not the reincarnation of that callous black-tongued king, and that action of greeting passed onto the people, even today.
‘What I want to tell people is that you can mix the culture a little bit and it’s not always appropriation.’ Jain
I hope the abovementioned has given you a passion to take what is out there and adapt it appropriately to your need and sensitively depending on its origin. For thousands of years action and symbolism has passed from one tribe to another, one country to another, and each have shared their beliefs and actions, which , in turn, have ‘evolved’ over time. And, we are the better for it. In the tough days ahead of temporary self-isolation and ‘lockdown’ because of the coronavirus we need a new ‘alphabet’ of symbolic greeting, and I do believe that societal journey, a remarkable one, has only just begun.