A Brief History of Palm Reading

Palm Reading is one of the most remarkable and most misunderstood methods of divination in the world. Let’s be honest: so many people feel Palm Readers are deceptive crooks or lunatics. Say the words “Palm Reader” and someone is bound to conjure up images of impoverished Gypsies begging to deal a fortune in some dimly-lit alley. Why is this? Why do we hold such a prejudice against this metaphysical science? Why isn’t Palmistry well respected and widely practiced to this day?!

“Since the beginning of time people have contemplated their hands. Our prehistoric ancestors likely knew that each hand was unique, as evidence by the many hand shapes that accompany the pictures of animals and people on cave walls. It is as though the artists used their handprints as signatures of magical talismans.” Writes Ellen Goldberg in her book The Art and Science of Hand Reading.

“There is evidence that palmistry was practiced as a serious art in every ancient civilization. But if you trace its roots to the very beginning, it is probable that the art and science of palmistry had its birth in India. References to palmistry appear in texts that were written in Under more than four thousand years ago. The Indian Vedas, amount the oldest religious texts in the world, make reference to hand reading. Some ancient scriptures instruct monks not to read palms for money. This caution to the monks lets us know that palmistry was already a profession in 2000 BCE.

Hand print from my personal collection, 2019

A science of palm reading for use in medicine and healing emerged in China at approximately the same time as Indian palmistry. Chinese medical texts were the first to mention the importance of the lines in the hand and their use in diagnosing disease. The Chinese were also the first to make use of fingerprints for identification. A thousand years before fingerprints were used in the West, Chinese emperors used their thumbprints to sign and seal documents.

From India palmistry migrated both east and west. There was much cross-pollination spiritually and philosophically between India and other countries. Palmistry was practiced throughout the Middle East long before the birth of Christ; both Arabs and Jews developed palm-reading traditions. References to Palmistry are found in the Old Testament and the Koran.

“And it shall be to you as a sign upon the hand…”
-Exodus 13:9

“God put his seal upon man’s hand so that man might know his work”
-Job 37:7

“The hand is the outside part of the brain.”

Aristotle believed the parts of the body could be read to reveal each person’s inner character. One of the oldest surviving essays on palmistry is by Aristotle (384-322 BCE); unfortunately only a fragment of this essay has come down to us. The essay was translated into English in 1738, when it was published in London along with other works of the great philosopher under the title Aristotle’s Masterpiece.

Palmistry lore describes how Aristotle found a book on palmistry during his travels in Egypt, on an altar dedicated to Hermes. He sent this book to his student Alexander the Great, who made enthusiastic use of it. Whether this is true we can never know, but it does suggest that palmistry was practiced in ancient Egypt. What better place to find a treatise on palmistry than one the alter of Hermes, the god of knowledge, learning, and communication?

There is very little surviving literature on palmistry from ancient Greece, but it was know that historic figures such as Hippocrates, Homer, Plate, and Alexander the Great valued the hand as a locus of divination and character analysis.

The Crusaders returning from the Middle East brought many of the Islamic arts to Europe, including Palmistry. Another important source for knowledge was the nomadic Gypsies, who migrated from India in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They made palmistry available to the common folk of Europe– it was the Gypsies who kept the tradition alive during the Middle Ages, when the Christian Church opposed all forms of divination.

This is perhaps the most important turning point in the decline of Palm Reading credibility: condemnation from the Catholic Church: literally burned thousands of years of recorded information on the art of hand reading. From there, practicing palmistry was thought to be witchcraft. Les we all remember what happened to witches in Europe during this era…

However, during the Middle Ages the legendary physician and father of homeopathy Paracelsus (1493-1541) was considered the first modern palmist. He used the information on the palm for both self-knowledge and the diagnosing of disease.

In the early twentieth century an American doctor, William Benham, brought palmistry into the modern age. Benham became acquainted with palmistry at the age of thirteen and remained fascinated with it all his life. He devoted a lifetime of observation to clarifying the indications found on the hand. He earned a medical degree to further his study of palmistry and spent time as a railroad doctor. In his travels across America he visited many hospitals and prisons so the he might study the hands of patients and inmates. In 1900 he published The Laws of Scientific Hand Reading, “the most competent hand analyst in the world.”

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Published by sisterpalm

My name is Miriam. I am a Palm Reader & Clairvoyant from Austin, Texas. For over decade I've been studying hand reading & other divinatory arts, offering palm readings both over Zoom and in-person. Sister Palm was created from a passion to make palm readings modernly accessible as a form of self-discovery.

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