Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Its not a secret that Italians talk with their hands.
Even I, (una mezza Calabrese) do this too, its impossible for me not to use my hands as I speak. If you have ever been to Italy or Sicily you know about this, and if you have watched Italians talking on their cell phones…you see the hands and who ever is on the other line knows good and well what is happening on the other side of the phone-hand gestures!
I am not just talking about expressive exaggerated hands flying around.
There are over 250 known and documented Italian hand gestures, supplemental to the Italian dictionary (thanks to Bruno Munari for documenting some of them).
I am so in love with the way the gestures live with the words, the facial expressions and energy of the Italian language. I love my ancestors culture of the hand gesture. I love so many, I wear two around my neck everyday. A favorite of mine is the quintessential Che Vuoi? This beautiful gesture adds emphasis to so much and feels right when asking someone What do you expect? I am also a sucker for this emoji.
So why does Italy have hundreds of hand gestures known to the entire population of the country? (this is different from ASL or Italian Sign Language)
Italy that we know of as a country didn't exist until it was unified in the mid-late nineteenth century. Up until that time, each region spoke their own language/dialect. The language known as Italian was not what most of the Italic Peninsula and Sicily spoke until post unification. There are still areas where they remain speaking in the original languages. So these hundreds of hand gestures are the original Italian language! Folks could communicate with the next town over, the next region, etc...since they didn't always speak the same dialect. Most of the population was illiterate, and so this enabled a deeper communication, and easier bartering, and for folk traditions to merge and happen organically without the elitism of education.
The Greeks colonized Southern Italy and they brought with them the practice of hand gestures they picked up from the Egyptians and Mesopotamians.
Chironomy, the origins of these hand gestures (that we know of) began in Egypt with temple music. These gestures birthed modern musical conducting.
A Conductor: A substance or medium that conducts heat, light, sound, or especially an electric charge.
In this case, the ancient use of hands to direct energy, beginning with music, a channeling of the divine.
The Greco-Roman world used their fingers and hands to count and show numbers. See images below and attached links for more on the complex Greco-Roman finger counting.
Greek orators used hand gestures while they were speaking. This was a way to communicate to a mass easily from a far and with diverse bodies.
We see the Gods and Goddesses hand gestures documented in statues, communicating more depth to their stories.
These specific Greek orator hand gestures continued into Christian imagery. We see them with imagery of Saints and most well known, John the baptist and of course, the hand symbol that Jesus holds up, and that modern popes continue to use.
My friend Lisa (the root circle) has written about a specific gesture that communicates one has bitten by a snake, and the trance/medicine state from the venom.
Hands have always been used to direct energy. An Italian example some may know, the Mano Corna/Cornuta; This gesture transmits the energy of the mal’occhio with the index and little finger and moves it into the earth instead of permeating our physical bodies through our energy sphere.
This same corna gesture with fingers pointing upward palm facing can signal there has been an agreement made.
This same corna gesture Mano Corna/Cornuto with extending your index and little finger, while holding the middle and ring fingers down with your thumb is a way to call someone a cuck. The common words for cuckolded in Italian, Greek and Spanish are cornuto, κερατάς (keratas) and cornudo – literally meaning "horned". the sign of the horns comes from "the cuckold's horns" – a gesture in which two fingers are placed over the head of a man whose wife has been unfaithful. Also known as the metal horns.
Of course there are so many crude, rude and vulgar gestures across the world; in the US it is the middle finger that means F you. And in Britain, the V sign known as the peace sign in US since the 1960s, is the two finger insult meaning F off (which may or may not come from the cuckold’s fingers, like the horns, later to become bunny ears in contemporary photos). In Greece, if you throw all five fingers up giving someone the hand palm facing is the same as the middle finger. In Italy, there is the mano fica, the vulva hand sign, that has a similar connotation.
All these gestures defy some kind of order, authority or request by saying NO in the most disrespectful way with the power of the hand.
There are many Mediterranean apotropaic hand gestures, including the ancient Hebrew Blessing (Priestly Blessing or priestly benediction) Shefa Tal. Later syncretized into the vulcan hand symbol.
This knowledge of the hands as conductors is universal. The wand is a symbol of magick conducting trough the hand known to many cultures. Many cultures across the globe have some sort of sacred and specific hand gestures, not just the Mediterranean. There are versions of this practice, most notably, the mudras from South Asia, the hand symbols in Buddhism and Hinduism. They all differ in meaning depending on location, but the root is the same: communicating with the hands, moving energy through them.
German folk medicine, much like in the Mediterranean, uses hand movements in conjunction with incantations when administering herbs. Specific hand movements and gestures are used when preparing herbal medicine and applying it to the body.
This has become watered down to the waving of a hand over a potion to solidify the magick.
Braucherei, the folk practice of the Pennsylvania Dutch is very similar to Italian Benedicaria; the syncretic layers of the Church and the pre-Christian folk medicine practices.
And so for now, I'll end here, with palms together as an almost global symbol of respect and prayer.
This post is just a portion of the history of hand gestures. I will be sharing and exploring more on this subject in the future!
Thank you for reading.
Below is more info to go deeper.
For anyone studying Italian, planning a trip to the Peninsula or Sicily, I recommend adding Speak Italian the fine art of the hand gesture by Bruno Munari.