The Meaning of Hand

First, let me reiterate exactly why it’s probable that the word “hand” used to mean something different.

definingPaganism11. As explained in the previous post, the word for hand in the various languages descended from Proto-Indo-European are a very mixed bag, and do not derive from a single common ancestral word. The word for hand in PIE was probably “men”, but it is “handaz” in Proto-Germanic, “manus” in Latin, “lamh” in Proto-Celtic, and “cheir(o)” in Greek. Among the Slavic languages, they stopped mentioning the hand at all — to this day, most Slavic languages have no specific term for hand; they say “arm” (or “lower arm”) instead.

2. Why wasn’t the PIE word “men” retained in its daughter languages (except Latin)? The hypothesis is that “men” was a taboo word, a word of power, and people avoided it by using euphemisms. (Specifically, it was taboo because of its association with the sun god, who was imagined to have long or heavy hands, like the rays of the sun.)

3. A euphemism is some meaningful word (or phrase) in the language which is brought in to replace a word that cannot be spoken lightly. For example, “pushing up the daisies” is a euphemism for “dead”. The euphemism already has its own meaning, but when used as a euphemism, it takes on the meaning of the taboo word. And, notably, the original meaning of the euphemism is intended to be somehow reminiscent of the taboo word. For example, “pushing up the daisies” indicates being buried underground (and hence dead).

4. Therefore, the words used for hand in the daughter languages — “handaz”, “lamh”, and “cheir(o)” — already existed in PIE and already had their own meanings before being adopted as euphemisms for PIE “men”.

So — what did “hand” (or more accurately, “handaz”) mean before it was adopted as a euphemism?

The magnificent American Heritage Dictionary has a large section in the back which lists known (or conjectured) PIE root words. For example, if you look up “men” in the PIE roots appendix, you will find it there, along with a listing of some of its descendants that now live in English. Most of these come through Latin, and include “manipulate” and “manual”. (Interestingly, the PIE word “men” did survive in Germanic, but only with the specialized meaning “guarding hand”, and is the basis for the second element in the old names “Raymond”, “Edmund”, and “Osmund”, and possibly the word “mound”.)

Thus, using the AHD, one could in theory find the PIE word from which “handaz” is descended, and find out what it meant. But if you look up “handaz” in the appendix, you won’t find it. This is because “handaz” is from Proto-Germanic, not PIE. As PG broke away from PIE and became a different language in its own right, a cascade of sound changes (described in the formulation usually known as Grimm’s Law) altered the words significantly. For example, the PIE sound “k” became “h” in Proto-Germanic. Also, that “-az” ending — that’s not actually part of the root, that’s a grammatical suffix. Grammatical suffixes are endangered in most modern languages of Europe, and they are practically extinct in English; but one may still find them crouching in the shadowy corners of Romance sentences, and in German they still are an important part of the local ecosystem; while in Russian, as in classical Latin, they are so numerous as to be a positive nuisance. The “-az” is a suffix that corresponds to the Latin “-us”, found in “Augustus” and other nominative masculine singular individuals.

So to find the original PIE root of “handaz”, drop “-az” and change the “h” to “k”. The result is “kand”. Is there such a root listed in the AHD?

To the Dictionary!

Also kend-. To shine.

2. INCENDIARY, INCENSE1, INCENSE2; FRANKINCENSE, from Latin compound “incendere”, to set fire to, kindle (in-, in; see en in Indo-European roots), from transitive *candere, to kindle.

[Pokorny kand- 526.]

Very interesting. It does not say that “kand” developed into “handaz” in Proto-Germanic. In fact, it does not say that “kand” descended into any Germanic language at all. But it does say that “kand” meant “to shine”, giving rise (through Greek) to the English words “candle” and “incandescent.” Remember the sun god, the god with the long hands. Is it possible that the AHD is missing the connection?

I suggest that the word did enter Germanic, but its meaning changed drastically. This change in meaning is what obscures the connection today.

The speakers of Proto-Germanic were looking for a word to serve as a euphemism for “men”. It would be perfectly natural for them to choose a word that reminded them of the sun god, just as “pushing up the daisies” reminds one of being underground. “Kand”, “to shine” , would be a great choice. Over thousands of years, and dozens of generations of children, the word “men” was used almost never, and the word “kand” — which changed eventually to “hand” — was used frequently. At last “men” was forgotten, along with the old god himself and the taboo. Only “hand” remained.

But taboos and gods from thousands of years ago can still quicken our spirits if we allow them to. Look at your hand now. Imagine that the fingers are rays spreading out from the sun. Just as the long hands of the sun reach out through space and gently paint life upon the surface of the earth, your hands give life and reality to your thoughts. The ancient Germans nicknamed their hands “brilliance”. Let your hands, and the work you do with them, be worthy of that word of power.

Footnote 1: for the curious, the same exercise can be done with the other euphemisms for “men” in Proto-Celtic, Greek, and so forth. For example, the Celtic “lamh” comes from the PIE root “pela”, meaning “flattening”, referring in particular to the flat of the hand. In English, this root (borrowed from Latin) is the basis for the word “palm”.

Footnote 2: I wondered whether “kindle” is also related to “candle” and “kand”. According to the excellent Online Etymology Dictionary , “kindle” derives from Old Norse “kynda”, dating approx. 1200 CE. But “kynda” itself is of unknown origin. It could not have come directly from PIE “kand” because of the sound changes mentioned before — anything starting with “k” in Old Norse must have started with “g” in PIE, so if “kynda” comes from PIE, in PIE it would have been “gunda” or perhaps “gundha” (I’m not sure whether the “d” would have been aspirated, and I don’t know how the vowel would have changed — I’m not actually an expert on this…) I can’t find evidence for such a PIE root. So four possibilities remain: (1) There was such a PIE root “gund-“, but it hasn’t been discovered; (2) the Old Norse simply made the word up; (3) the Old Norse borrowed the word from some local language, now lost to history; and (4) the Old Norse borrowed the word from Latin (recall from above that Latin “candere” meant “to kindle”). My money would be on (4). If that’s the case, then “kindle” is related to “candle”, PIE “kand”, and “hand”, though distantly.

7 responses to “The Meaning of Hand”

  1. Hi, Jeff 🙂

    I find the connection between the word hand and sunlight, really interesting. I’ve been aware of a possible connection for a while, mainly from the Irish God lugh, who has solar connections, and was known as ‘long-armed’.

    Something else that interests me is the relationship between Lugh and king Nuadu of the Tuatha De Danann, who lost his hand (or arm) in battle, and was also temporarily replaced By Lugh, who led the tribe into battle against the Formorians.

    I interpret the loss of Nuadu’s hand as a reference to the waning moon, and his replacement hand of silver as a symbol of the the waxing moon. The loss of a hand could perhaps mean a loss of sunlight when the moon dies.

    Anyway, it’s interesting stuff 😉


  2. Wow, Mahud — what an amazing site you have! I’m setting up my feed reader immediately! You have a tremendous amount of information and insight there.

    While I like your idea that the hand of Nuadu is connected to the moon, I’m always a little suspicious of astronomical explanations for myth. I don’t deny that the explanations work, and may even be entirely true; but I don’t see how they can be the whole story.

    After all, this myth resonates on a deep level. People in Ireland told it to each other for eons, and after Ireland became Christian, they still thought the story was worth writing down. Why do that if the story is only a metaphor for the changing moon? After all, everyone knows the moon waxes and wanes; you don’t need a myth to remind you of it!

    There must be something deeper going on — something connected with our own sense of vulnerability, our dependance on our limbs… The silver hand may be the moon, but silver is also associated with water, the Otherworld, and the Sidhe: is Nuadu’s new hand somehow associated with these things? And of course Nuadu was judged unworthy of kingship because he’d lost his hand — which speaks to the old Celtic ideas of kingship, in which the health of the king was representative of the health of the land.

    One further example to show that something deeper is going on in this myth: notice the parallel with Star Wars? Both Vader and Luke lose their hands, and they’re replaced with “silver” ones — mechanical ones. This is such a powerful symbol; it’s something that resonates with us very strongly. Why? I don’t have a satisfactory answer!

    What do you think?


  3. Why was it a mechanical hand? is a good question, and I’m not sure either. I know that Dian Cecht (the physician who created the silver hand), killed his son Miach for giving Nuadu a superior hand of flesh and blood. Was it merely professional jealousy of his son’s knowledge of herbs, or was there a deeper wisdom, that superseded Miach’s knowledge as to why the imitation hand was more fitting.

    I agree that there is a deeper meaning behind the loss of Naudu’s hand, that extends beyond the waxing and waning of the moon. The Norse myth of the god Tyr, whose hand was bitten of by the wolf Fenrir, is probably related, which contains no immediate lunar reference, other than the usual association of wolves and moons, that is :). Fenrir was a threat to the god’s existence, and their destruction would eventually come to pass at the end of the old world age to make way for a new. It is this idea of the cosmic cycle, that I think relates to the lunar cycle, and the old moon dies and is reborn anew. Although whether that was how the Irish themselves understood it, I’m unsure. I’m betting those wise in such matters had a much more profound understanding 😀

    For me the moon is a symbol of the cosmos as we experience it, with Naudu as presiding deity. The sun symbolizes a higher level of reality, presided over by Lugh the god of ‘solar’ light. And both gods are actually two aspects of the same god, that are united within the threshold between death and life, and it is here that the solar reality breaks through into our own.


  4. Mahud, I like your symbolism — the moon as the variable, illusion-wracked experience of reality, and the sun as the higher reality. It fits well with the astronomical realities as well, doesn’t it?

    If we take your symbolism and turn it back to the matter of silver/mechanical hands, then the natural hand — which is a solar symbol, we agree — is replaced by a lunar symbol; it is thereby made imperfect. Very nice!

    I don’t know whether I agree about both Naudu and Lugh being aspects of the same god. It comes to me that I have never really understood what people mean when they say one god is an “aspect” of another… 🙂


  5. As I read your article I thought man = kand = kindler i.e the fire maker from the hand. Presumably a man’s job and thus a good euphemism. Making fire by hand (with stick) is the magic you are missing. Sometimes it does not come (if you have ever tried). All sorts of taboos can come from this mechanism and if you can forget your science education making fire from rubbing sticks is just about the most magical thing in the world. You have made heat (like the sun). It all fits. But you had a different conclusion.


    1. David — interesting thoughts! “Kindle” may well be related to “kand”, but the vowel change is an unusual one, so the connection is tenuous. As for man = firemaker, remember that in Proto Indo European, the word we’re talking about is “men”, not “man”. While it’s true that “man” meant “human” in Proto Indo European, “man” (human) and “men” (hand) were different words, as different as “bed” and “bad” in English. (In any case, “man” referred to both males and females; so there would be no implication that kindling fire was only the job of males.) Nevertheless I think your connection of “kand” with firemaking is probably a good one.


  6. […] discussed this at length last year in a couple of my first posts, Taboos in Proto Indo European and What did Hand Mean Before it Meant Hand?. I suggested that the Indo European god of the sun was associated with hands — both because of […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: