“If you go to the western wall in Israel there’s always people who are there—like around there and basically, like, they give you, um, like you’ll give them money, like, if they’re like begging and then they give you a red string and then they make a blessing on it and then you can’t take the red string, like you can’t remove it until it falls off. And that’s to keep the evil eye away. Like Jews are super into that, about keeping the evil eye away.”
The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition and related practices within her family. When I asked the informant to further explain this practice, she said, “Lot of times there’s this thing—have you ever seen, like, the hand? Like the image? So it’s called a ‘hamsa’ in Hebrew and like it’s the same thing, it’s to keep the evil eye away.”
The informant had seen this practice occur a lot during her travels to Israel and says she first learned about it from her grandmother who “would [do that] right before she died, she was super into that.” However, at the end of the interview she told me, “I don’t do that, I don’t do evil eyes and I don’t do the hamsa . . . I don’t like it because I feel like it’s idolatry, and I don’t . . . I’m not into that. But I would do the red string ‘cause it’s kind of a cultural thing.”
I found this practice to be fascinating because it seems like the greater religious/spiritual meaning of it has become somewhat divorced from the physical act. Something that started as a way to “keep the evil eye away” is still done for that purpose, but also because it has become a cultural thing that someone just does. This is revealed in the fact that an informant who is quick to assure me that she does not believe in the hamsa or the evil eye on the basis of her seeing them as idolatry would still willingly participate in this practice. In addition to it being performed for the previously stated spiritual purpose, I also think there is something to the fact that someone is given these red strings by people who are begging. Because it is now considered a normal cultural practice, it has become an expected social interaction between two people of differing class status in this part of Israel. Essentially, while giving a red string and a blessing might have been an organic way of thanking someone before, it is now almost a required act of gratitude by beggars near the western wall.
“M” is 21 year old male student at the University of Southern California, where he is a Junior studying Animation and minoring in Philosophy. M is originally from the outskirts of New York state where he describes himself as living in a rural area. He described himself as going to a high school of ~60 students, where cliche formation was rare as students could ‘jump from social group to social group’. He describes his parents as ‘hippies’ that were very relaxed in their parenting style as well as their personal approach towards life. He is of Irish descent on both sides and describes this aspect of his life as very active in his life.
“M: There was this kid my friend heard about, he would pretend to carry a lizard around and show people his lizard. Um… but obviously his hand’s empty so no one can actually see this… lizard. Most people that knew him were like, alright, here’s this lizard, just say hi… than like fuck off man
He met a new guy once who had no idea about the imaginary hand-lizard. So he held out his hand, and looked at him [the man who was ignorant of the lizard] and the guy gave him a high five.
Me: (start laughing, ends up interrupting his talking)
M: From that day on, the kid just talked and didn’t have a lizard… the lizard died and he became a normal human being.
Me: How did you hear about this?
M: From a kid in high school, he said it was one of his friends.
Me: Do you think it’s real?
M: No way, someone like that can’t really exist haha.”
The appeal of the legendary figure above appears to be the absurdity of the original gesture, introducing an imaginary lizard to people who obviously knew it was no real. This contrasts sharply as well with his apparent transformation into normalcy upon having his imaginary lizard killed by an ignorant stranger. Though the contrast itself isn’t interesting, the further claim that this may have been an actual person makes the situation peculiar and something that peaks interest. It seems to contradict our basic assumptions about how a person normally acts, and acts as a source of speculation (could he have been joking, suffering from mental illness, was the story made up?).
Some further aspects that make the legend fascinating is the apparent non-reaction of the lizard carrying man to having his lizard killed, despite the massive time investment in keeping the gesture going. It’s an abnormal reaction for someone who sees a pet killed, but not for someone who may have been joking. At the same time, why would he invest so much time into something he did not believe to be true? This abnormality, mixed with the humorous parallel serve to make the tale interesting to the listener.
Information about the Informant
My informant is an undergraduate student majoring in Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He is half-Columbian and was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian denomination.
“It’s called, um, ‘El Mano Peluda [sic?],’ and that’s supposed to mean ‘The Hairy Hand.’ And, um, I think that was so I wouldn’t get up at night, or, like, move around or make too much noise. But basically, um, when you’re sleeping, this hairy hand would come in through the windows or through the vents or something.”
Collector: “Just a hand?”
“It’s just a hairy hand. That’s it. Um, and I actually Googled it. Apparently, it’s some guy had his hand cut off during the Inquisition and he revenged–he said he would get revenge on the people who were the culture that killed him. So, um, the hand would come out of its grave and it would grab children or it would grab their legs from either under the bed or it would crawl up their blanket. It was just really scary. Um, and yeah, occasionally my mom would use it as kind of like a, um, you know when you rile up little kids, you say something like ‘The hand’s coming, the hand’s coming,’ and she’d grab my leg and I’d go like, ‘Oh my god!'”
This, unlike the other stories this informant told me, does not seem to be a case where the parent scares the child in order to get them to behave, but is more of a ghost story with purpose of entertaining/scaring rather than coercing. This story does give the figure in it a backstory, according to my informant’s research, which also supports its position as more of a ghost story than a story to get children to behave with. The strange part of this is the commonality of the concept of a “hairy hand,” with disembodied hand stories all over the world constantly needing the hand to also be hairy. This is possibly a remnant of the historical theory that criminals were closer to our purported ape ancestors and thus displayed features that are more akin to those of primates, including excessive body hair.
For another “hairy hand” story, see:
Gilbert, Jane . “Letterboxing on Dartmoor: An Addictive Pastime… for the Brave!”. Time Travel-Britain. Web. 01 May. 2014. <http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/country/dartmoor.shtml>.
Something she learned as a kid, my informant remembers this piece of folklore from middle school. The way it works is someone says that if your hand is bigger than your face, you have cancer. Then, when you put your hand up to your face to check, they push your hand into your face. It’s painful and annoying and it makes my informant remember why she hated things like that when she was younger, tricks kids would make up to hurt others. Because the kid the prank is pulled on fails to realize they’re being tricked, it becomes almost acceptable to hurt them. The pain comes as a result of the person’s failure to realize it’s a trick. This is why many people accept it when they get hurt from a prank like this, versus if someone randomly just hit you in the face, in which case you might less readily let it go. My informant remembered being a kid and not differentiating between the two cases, though. When a peer did this to her, her response was to kick him in the leg. The prank is something she hasn’t forgotten because it serves as a reminder of that human desire to hurt others and be in positions of power over them, where it becomes acceptable to hurt them. My informant dislikes that quality of humanity but finds it interesting that it exists and that things children do often reflect it.
The prank also acts as a kind of initiation into the group of people who know it. Once it’s been done to you, like a college hazing ritual for example, you want to do it to the person who doesn’t know about to get revenge upon whoever did it to you. And once the prank’s been done to you once, it can’t be repeated unless you forget how it works. This makes it not seem as bad, since even if it hurts you, it also teaches you what it is so you feel like you gained some knowledge from the experience. Humans learn from pain, and this is an example of that. The prank’s existence also shows how children like to push limits to see what’s socially acceptable. Mature adults would be less likely to perform this prank because it is against social codes to malevolently trick someone like that.
In Japan, students nervous for a presentation are often told to draw the Chinese character for “person,” 「人」three times on their hand. They are then supposed to pretend to eat those “people” by putting their hand in front of their mouth, in the belief that this will ease their anxiety.
My informant spent most of her life in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan, where her mother informed her of this folk belief when she was in middle school, preparing to give a speech in front of her whole class. Her mother drew three broad, sweeping 「人」characters on her hand and said, “now eat them.” The idea was that those three 「人」characters represented the audience in the palm of her hand, and eating them made them seem irrelevant, undeserving of her anxiety. My informant said, however, that it was less the actual gesture and more the fact that it invoked her mother’s continuous caring, that soothed her when she saw the characters on her hand while giving her presentation (and subsequent nerve-wracking situations after that). Because it is widely known and understood to be a prominent folk belief, she said, it gave her a sense of camaraderie with her audience–that she was connected to them even as she stood in front of the class, because she knew that many of her classmates had learned the same tactic from their parents as well.
This folk belief is influenced obviously by the Chinese characters in the Japanese language. Each Chinese character possesses a meaning independent of sentences or words, and can be used alone to convey messages and serve as symbols. The three 「人」characters, as mentioned earlier, illustrates a literal crowd in the palm of one’s hand, at once minimizing the audience and making the performer feel more in control–the palm of the hand is a very controllable space, after all. Pretending to eat the audience only empowers the performer further, by giving them an opportunity to at least fake power over their own anxieties and the judgments of others. My informant mentioned, furthermore, that in her time in the seventies, the 「人」characters on her hand had served as a kind of symbol for wishbones as well, supposed to give the performers good luck–so the characters served a double purpose.
By now this practice has become so widespread around Japanese society that, my informant said, nobody really knows where it originated from. She had heard it from her mother, who had heard it from her teacher, and so on.
Most importantly, however, this highly ritualistic gesture is something that is performed usually in anxiety-ridden situations. When one is under a great amount of stress, even half-hearted trust in a certain folk belief can be enough to soothe one’s mind immensely. My informant said that, depending on how nervous she was, the simple act of performing that gesture repeatedly could calm her down, if only by reminding her of the futility of worrying, and of her mother’s support.