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The Art of Reading Hands

Posted by on 27/11/2017

Did you know that our Institute has over 28 PhD students? Thauma is very excited to present to you the work of our current Phd students. To start us off, we present Alexandra Nagel’s project on handreading. Palm reading, palmistry or hand analysis has a specific philosophy behind it, but we still do not know a lot about the theory behind this art form. Alexandra Nagel tries to shed light on the philosophy behind handreading.


After five years of digging into the art of reading hands – without having mastered the art myself! – I am still amazed as to how little we know about its history and the theoretical ideas behind it. What we do know, is that for hundreds of years chiromancy, as it is usually referred to, has been practised by men and women throughout Europe. It has ranked among the most popular fortune-telling methods, and its roots can be traced to Aristotle, passages in the Bible, India and ancient China.

The connection to Aristotle is scant yet relevant, while medieval treatises on chiromancy referred to and built forth on Aristotle. In Historia animalium we can read that the inner surface of the hand is “fleshy and divided by lines”, and that “long-lived individuals have one or two lines (…) extending through the whole palm, while short-lived have two lines which do not extend all the way.”[1] The statement clearly relates certain lines in the palm to a person’s life duration, but is too flimsy to claim that Aristotle was a chiromancer – even though many believed that he was.

The oldest reference to chiromancy in the West dates to the second half of the 12th century. John of Salisbury (1120-1180), secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald of Bec (c. 1090-1161), lamented that chiromancers forecast events based on the inspection of the hands. John of Salisbury also suggested that Thomas Becket (c. 1119-1170), who in 1162 became the archbishop of Canterbury, consulted a chiromancer “before setting out on an expedition against the inhabitants of North Wales.”[2] Presumably this expedition concerned the one Henry II embarked upon in 1157 to defeat the king of Gwynedd.

It was in Canterbury that the Note on Chiromancy was written. Dated c. 1160 it is the oldest document in the West dealing directly and solely with chiromancy. The author, a monk named Eadwine, dotted down which signs in the palm indicate particular character trades, illnesses, a long journey, conversion, the cause awaiting a person’s death, and so on.

By the end of the 14th century, chiromancy, just like physiognomy, had become intimately linked to astrology. Since then the fingers, the ‘mounts’ and certain lines in the hand’s palm are named after the sun and the moon, and the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Mercury, and Venus. People believed that the characteristics assigned to the heavenly bodies correspond with the human body. Hence, the inner surface of the hand became the ‘interface’ of the macrocosm (heavenly spheres) and the microcosm (human body). After the connection hand-astrology was broken, the names of the fingers, the lines and ‘mounts’ remained the same. The index finger, called Jupiter, nowadays represents the self, and the ring finger, Apollo (the sun), usually relates to beauty, relationships, creativity.

During the 19th century study of the shape of the hand, called chirognomy, became an intricate part of the art of reading hands. At the end of that century hand-reading was extremely popular in England. Adolphe Desbarrolles (1801-1886) gave it a new boost in France by incorporating elements like the kabbalah, mesmerism, and numerology. Thus, the art of reading hands became more complex, leading to the introduction of new terms. Chiromancy (predicting the future and/or divining a person’s character through the palm of the hand) and chirognomy (the study of the form of the hand) were incorporated as two separate branches of either chirosophy (wisdom of the hand) or chirology (knowledge of the hand).

From the 1920s onward, hand-reading suddenly became fashionable in the Weimar Republic. And we are not just talking about the inner surface of the hands, the shape of the hand as a whole, the nails, the length and form of the individual fingers and thumb; hand gestures were studied as well. Also, the way in which people carried their hands led to deductions about their character. The art was so popular that Albert Einstein got his hands analysed on at least four different occasions by four different hand-readers.[3] Apparently, Adolf Hitler also had an interest in the matter. He seems to have judged people by their hands. During an initial conversation with someone, he would carefully observe the others extremities. When he did not like what he saw, he became cool, “and often closed the discourse curtly or abruptly”.[4]

Since the art of reading hands is a rather neglected subject within academic discourse, much of what I have been able to find concerns plain books explaining in an encyclopaedic manner the correlations between specific features of the hand and their significances, along with mere anecdotes like the ones about Einstein and Hitler. Even though at times hand-reading was extremely popular, the art in general has been looked down upon ever since John of Salisbury’s critical comment about it.

Although there are many stories among hand-readers about correct medical diagnoses and forecasts, it is completely unknown how the hand can yield information. Or, phrased differently, hand-readers know that certain lines, fingers, nails, etcetera, offer information, but how those elements of the hand can tell if someone is gifted as a writer, or had a difficult relationship with a parent, or is likely to get problems with the heart, is still a mystery. Yet there is a ‘grey’ medical area: a first inspection of the hands can lead to a diagnosis of arthritis, leprosy, certain lung diseases, and more. In my thesis I will not delve into the area of how hand-reading ‘works’. Instead, I will unravel a small area of the long history of hand-reading by exposing the main practitioners between 1900-1940 in Germany and the Netherlands. By doing so, I have been able to come to understand as to how it happened that Einstein had his hands read more than once…


[1] Roger A. Pack, ‘On the Greek chiromantic Fragment’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 103, 1972, 367-380, 367-368.

[2] Charles S.F. Burnett, ‘The Prognostications of the Eadwine Psalter’, in: Margaret Gibson, T.A. Heslop & Richard W. Pfaff (red.), The Eadwine Psalter: Text, Image, and Monastic Culture in Twelfth-Century Canterbury, London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 1992, 165-167, 165-166.

[3] Alexandra Nagel, ‘The Hands of Albert Einstein: Einstein’s involvement with hand-readers and a Dutch psychic’, unpublished paper, 34 p., 2017.

[4] Frederick Oechsner (1942) cited by Timothy W. Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped His Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, 239.

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