Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The mantis problem: why do people clasp their hands when praying?

The thoughts of a praying mantis may not be beyond all conjecture and we may not even completely exclude that when the creature stays in this position it is really praying to an all-powerful Mantis God. However, it may be safer to assume that in defining this insect as "praying" we simply engaged in an exercise of anthropomorphization. If mantises were to give a name to praying humans, they might fall into the same mistake ("mantimorphization") and they would call us "Insect Hunting Apes" noting how we, sometimes, clasp our hands together.  But why do humans pray in that way (at least in the West)?

In the West, we are so used to the concept that praying means joining one's hands together that we project this idea over other cultures, and even to non-human creatures such as the "praying mantis". But are we sure that this is the standard way to pray?

Do a test: exclude Western Christianity and search all over the Web for images of people praying. Look at Hinduism, Islam, Orthodox Christian, Jews, whatever you can think of in terms of religions. I did it, and I couldn't find images of people praying in that way, except occasionally. Outside Western Christianity, people face their God(s) in a variety of postures, kneeling, prostrating, with their hands raised up, or down; but rarely, if ever, joining them together.

Now, try to go back in time. Look at ancient images: Byzantine Christian art; for instance. You'll find that they were not praying by joining their hands together. Look at the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy, one of the earliest examples of Christian art in Europe: you won't find anyone in its mosaics who is praying in this way. In Byzantine art, people were mostly praying in the "Orans" posture, hands raised up, well separated. They still do that in the Orthodox religion. Here is a classic example from Ravenna:

Now go all the way back to the earliest times for which we have images. Look at Sumerian art: you do find people who are often described as "praying" with clasped hands:

But are we sure that these people are "praying"? If you ask me, I'd rather say that they are singing and that we are doing the same mistake with them that we do when we talk of a "praying mantis." Besides, these people are not joining their hands in the same way as modern Christians do. When Sumerians were addressing their Gods in what we could call "prayer", they were using a completely different gesture; more similar to the "Orans" one, but normally with only one hand raised. Here you see a typical example, from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal:

In the end, the result of this exploration is that praying by joining hands kept in front of one's body is very rare in history. Not that it is completely non-existent, it may be seen as a generic gesture of submission, but it is common only in one culture: Western Christianity from the Middle Ages onward. If you look at the images in miniated codices, you find plenty of examples. Not everyone prays in this way, but the classic image of joining hands is common. Here is an example from the 14th century (from Wikimedia)

By perusing art over the centuries, you get the impression that this way of praying becomes more and more common until it has become the standard way of praying for Christians in the West, spilling over also to other faiths that had not practiced it so far. So, we know now where this posture came from; the next question is why. Why did people start praying in this way in the early Middle Ages in Europe and what does it mean?

It is, of course, difficult to provide a definitive answer, but I think I can propose something as food for thought. Let's start with a well-known Christian symbol, the fish. Here it is:
We are often told that ancient Christians used this image as a symbol; the result of acronym the Greek letters standing for Ichthys, Iesus Christ, son of God, savior. Now, turn the fish on its tail, and here is what you get.

So, what does it look like? Well, doesn't it look like so much like......?

Could it be that the joined praying hands are a representation of the ancient fish symbol? Let's assume that it was used as we are told it was, as a sort of "secret symbol" for the secret sect that Christianity was at the beginning. Then, joining the hands together in this way could have been a sign of one's belonging to the Christian faith.

There may be something in this interpretation, although with many caveats. One is that the ancient Christians may have used the acrostic Ichthys, but there is little archaeological evidence (if any) that they used as a symbol a fish as it is drawn today. And there is zero evidence that they would pray with joined hands. So, it is unlikely that the medieval way of praying is a direct consequence of a symbol that was in fashion - if ever - about one thousand years before.

It is not impossible, however, that the fish and the joined hands were the results of the medieval interest in the relation of the fish symbol and Christianity. Consider, for instance, the figure of the "Fisher King"; which is a typical Medieval legend. It seems that there was, indeed, a wave of interest in how Christianity was related to fish concepts and symbols. Of course, the fish as a symbol is a complex set of interlaced elements, and it would take a lot of work (assuming that it were possible) to deconstruct this ancient medieval story. Yet, I do think that there is something in this idea; at least as an illustration of the fascinating history of symbolism.

Then, there is another problem: why do people kneel down with their joined hands in front of non-existent beings? Who knows? Maybe mantises know better than us about this. (Below, a sculpture by Anne Shingleton)


  1. A mio avviso - tralasciando gli esoterismi sul flusso di 'energie sottili' - le mani giunte favoriscono la concentrazione e il raccoglimento: pensa alle posture di meditazione zen, ecc. Da vecchio praticante di meditazione noto una differenza sostanziale tra tenere le mani separate o congiunte mentre medito.
    Sulla questione degli "esseri non-esistenti" la mia teoria è che l'Assoluto - che costituisce la nostra vera essenza - ci si presenta sotto l'aspetto col quale l'immaginiamo (anche piuttosto ingenuo), per poi portarci a livelli di comprensione più elevati. Opinione/intuizione personale, naturalmente.

  2. Sul libro di storia di mio figlio della scuola media, ho trovato che l'uso delle mani giunte ci è arrivato dai Franchi. Presso i Franchi era uso che quando un vassallo faceva omaggio al Re si presentava a mani giunte e il Re lo accettava prendendo le mani del vassallo tra le sue. Quando poi i Franchi si sono convertiti al Cristianesimo è stato per loro naturale rivolgersi al Signore nello stesso modo in cui si rivolgevano al loro sovrano.

    1. Ci può stare. Interessante. Grazie per la segnalazione