1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Palmistry

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PALMISTRY, (from “palmist,” one who studies the palm, and the Teutonic affix ry signifying “art”; also called Chiromancy, from χείρ, the hand, and μαντεία, divination). The desire to learn what the future has in store is nearly as old as the sense of responsibility in mankind, and has been the parent of many empirical systems of fortune-telling, which profess to afford positive knowledge whereby the affairs of life may be regulated, and the dangers of failure foretold. Most of these systems come into the category of occult pursuits, as they are the interpretations of phenomena on the ground of fanciful presumptions, by an appeal to unreal or at least unverifiable influences and relations.

One of the oldest of this large family of predictive systems is that of palmistry, whereby the various irregularities and flexion-folds of the skin of the hand are interpreted as being associated with mental or moral dispositions and powers, as well as with the current of future events in the life of the individual. How far back in prehistoric times this system has been practised it is impossible to say, but in China it is said to have existed 3000 years before Christ,[1] and in Greek literature it is treated even in the most ancient writings as well-known belief. Thomas Blackwell[2] has collected some Homeric references: a work by Melampus of Alexandria is extant in several versions. Polemon, Aristotle and Adamantius may also be named as having dealt with the subject; as also have the medical writers of Greece and Rome — Hippocrates, Galen and Paulus Aegineta, and in later times the Arabian commentators on these authors. From references which can be gathered from patriotic writings it is abundantly evident that the belief in the mystical meaning of marks on the " organ of organs " was a part of the popular philosophy of their times.

After the invention of printing a very considerable mass of literature concerning this subject was produced during the 16th and 17th centuries. Praetorius, in his Ludicrum chiromanticum (Jena, 1661)[3] has collected the titles of 77. Other works are quoted by Fulleborn and Horst, and by writers on the history of philosophy and magic; altogether about 98 books on the subject published before 1700 are at present accessible. There is not very much variety among these treatises, one of the earliest, valuable on account of its rarity, is the block-book by Hartlieb, Die Kunst Ciromantia,[4] published at Augsburg about 1470 (probably, but it bears no imprint of place or date). In this there are colossal figures of hands, each of which has its regions marked out by inscriptions. Few of these works are of sufficient interest to require mention, The best are those by Pompeius, Robert Fludd, John de Indagine, Taisnierus, Baptista dalla Porta, S. Cardan, Goclenius, Cocles, Frölich, Summer, Rothmann, Ingebert, Pomponius Gauricus, and Tricassus Mantuanus. There are also early Hebrew works, of which one by Gedaliah is extant. An Indian literature is also said to exist. Some of these authors attempt to separate the physiognomical part of the subject (Chirognomia) from the astrological (Chiromantia); see especially Caspar Schott in Magia naturalis universalis, Bamberg, 1677. Since the middle of the 19th century, in spite of the enactments of laws in Britain and elsewhere against the practice, there has been a recrudescence of belief in palmistry, and a new literature has grown up differing little in essence from the older. The more important books of this series are K. G. Carus, Über Grund u. Bedeutung der verschiedenen Formen der Hand, 1846; Landsberg, Die Handteller (Posen, 1861); Adolf Desbarolles, Les Mystères de la main (1859); C. S. D'Arpentigny, Chirognomie, la science de la main (1865), of which an English version has been published by Heron Allen in 1886; G. Z. Gessmann, Katechismus der Handlesekunst (Berlin, 1889); Czynszi, Die Deutungder Handlinien (Dresden, 1893); R. Beamish, The Psychonomy of the Hand (1865); Frith and Allen, The Science of Palmistry (1883); Cotton, Palmistry and its practical uses (1890). Some of the older writers appealed to Scripture as supporting their systems, especially the texts Exod. xiii. 16; Job xxxvii. 7; and Prov. iii. 16. A considerable amount of literature pro and con was devoted to this controversy in the 17th and 18th centuries.

At the present day palmistry is practised in nearly all parts of China. The criteria of judgment used there are referred to in the article by Professor H. A. Giles, already quoted. It is also extensively practised in India, especially by one caste of Brahmins, the Joshi. In Syria and Egypt the palmist can be seen plying his trade at the cafés; and among the Arabs there are chiromantists who are consulted as to the probable success of enterprises. It is probably from their original Indian home that the traditional dukkeripen (fortune-telling) of the gipsies has been derived.

This system of divination has the charm of simplicity and definiteness, as an application of the “doctrine of signatures” which formed so extensive an element in the occult writings of the past six centuries. In the course of ages every detail has been brought under a formal set of rules, which only need mechanical application. There have been in past times considerable divergences in the practice, but at present there is a fairly uniform system in vogue. One school lays special stress on the general shape and outline of the hand. Corvaeus enumerates 70 varieties, Pamphilus cuts them down to 6, John de Indagine to 27, and Tricassus Mantuanus raises them to 80. The characters of softness or hardness, dryness or moisture, &c., are taken account of in these classifications. The lines of cardinal importance are (1) the rasceta or cross sulci, which isolate the hand from the forearm at the wrist, and which are the flexion folds between the looser forearm skin and that tied down to the fascia above the level of the anterior annular ligament. (2) The line which isolates the ball of the thumb, where the skin ceases to be tied to the front of the palmar fascia, is called the line of life. (3) A line starting above the head of the second metacarpal bone and crossing the hand to the middle of its ulnar border is the line of the head. (4) The transverse line below this which passes from the ulnar border a little above the level of the head of the fifth metacarpal and ends somewhere about the root of the index finger is the line of the heart. (5) The vertical line descending from the middle of the wrist to end about the base of the middle finger is the line of fortune. (6) The oblique line which begins at the wrist end of the line of life and descends towards the ulnar end of the line of the head is the line of the liver.

These lines isolate certain swellings or monticuli, the largest of which is (1) the ball of the thumb, called the mountain of Venus; (2) that at the base of the index finger is the mountain of Jupiter; (3) at the root of the middle finger is the mountain of Saturn, while those at the bases of ring and little finger are respectively the mountains of the (4) Sun and (5) of Mercury. Above the mountain of Mercury, and between the lines of head and heart is (6) the mountain of Mars, and above the line of the heart is (7) the mountain of the Moon. The relative sizes of these mountains have assigned to them their definite correlations with characters: the 1st with charity, love, libertinage; the 2nd with religiosity, ambition, love of honour, pride, superstition; the 3rd with wisdom, good fortune, prudence, or when deficient improvidence, ignorance, failure; the 4th when large makes for success, celebrity, intelligence, audacity, when small meanness or love of obscurity; the 5th indicates love of knowledge, industry, aptitude for commerce, and in its extreme forms on the one hand love of gain and dishonesty, on the other slackness and laziness. The 6th is related to degrees of courage, resolution, rashness or timidity; the 7th indicates sensitiveness, morality, good conduct, or immorality, overbearing temper and self-will.

The swellings on the palmar faces of the phalanges of the several fingers are also indicative, the 1st and 2nd of the thumb respectively, of the logical faculty and of the will; the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of the index finger, of materialism, law and order, idealism; those of the middle finger, humanity, system, intelligence; of the ring finger, truth, economy, energy; and of the little finger, goodness, prudence, reflectiveness.

Over and above these there are other marks, crosses, triangles, &c., of which more than a hundred have been described and figured by different authors, each with its interpretation; and in addition the back of the hand has its ridges. The Chinese combine podoscopy with chiromancy.

To the anatomist the roughnesses of the palm are of considerable interest. The folds are so disposed that the thick skin shall be capable of bending in grasping, while at the same time it requires to be tightly bound down to the skeleton of the hand, else the slipping of the skin would lead to insecurity of pretension, as the quilting or buttoning down of the covers of furniture by upholsterers keeps them from slipping. For this purpose the skin is tied by connecting fibres of white fibrillar tissue to the deep layer of the dermis along the lateral and lower edges of the palmar fascia and to the sheaths of the flexor tendons. The folds, therefore, which are disposed for the purpose of making the grasp secure, vary with the relative lengths of the metacarpal bones, with the mutual relations of the sheaths of the tendons, and the edge of the palmar fascia, somewhat also with the insertion of the palmaris brevis muscle. The sulci are emphasized because the subcutaneous fat, which is copious in order to pad the skin for the purpose of firmness of holding, being restricted to the intervals between the fines along which the skin is tied down, makes these intervals project, and these are the monticuli. The swelling of the mountain of Venus is simply the indication of the size of the muscles of the ball of the thumb, and can be increased by their exercise. Similarly the hypothenar muscles for the little finger underlie the three ulnar marginal mountains, the sizes of which depend on their development and on the prominence of the pisiform bone.

That these purely mechanical arrangements have any psychic, occult or predictive meaning is a fantastic imagination, which seems to have a peculiar attraction for certain types of mind, and as there can be no fundamental hypothesis of correlation, its discussion does not lie within the province of reason.

(A. Ma.)

  1. Giles, in Contemporary Review (1905).
  2. Proofs of the Inquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer, p. 330 (London, 1736).
  3. This book is worthy of note on account of the quaint and sarcastic humour of its numerous acrostic verses.
  4. There is a copy in the Rylands Library, Manchester. See also Dibdin's Bibliographical Decameron (1817), i. 143.