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?The Hand, an Illustrated History

by Fred Gettings

Review by Candace D. Barrett

Perhaps the most important contribution made by Fred Gettings in his standard-setting volume The Hand: An Illustrated History of Palmistry is the author's contention that nothing in the human hand can be taken in isolation. This belief permeates every facet of the book. Each line, each mount, must be considered in context of the whole hand. An enlarged Mount of Moon, for instance, may carry one meaning when seen in an intuitive hand with clear lines and lively markings, and signify something entirely different in an earth hand of the complex type. Each marking is seen as a clue rather than a proof of something in itself; with an accumulation of these clues, the greater picture eventually emerges during a reading.

Persistently, in chapter after chapter, Gettings inculcates his reader with this approach. Thus, along with the specific meanings of each palmar crease, mount, the shapes and textures of hands, the prospective palmist is learning the art of "threading".

The varied hand prints on display throughout the text allow a beginning hand analyst to follow along on an exhaustive number of readings. As we examine yet another print and read Gettings' analysis of each, the book becomes a kind of continuing psychological suspense story, a journey of discovery. We begin in the dark with every subject and, with only the hands as evidence, we watch as Gettings fleshes out a portrait of each individual's character in all its complexities, strengths, weaknesses and contradictions.

In his writing, Gettings displays the same integrative approach that he applies to the practice of hand analysis. Each lesson is presented in its historic context as well as in light of modern thought and research. In dividing the hand into its various zones, for instance, he presents the traditional "Three Worlds" interpretation. The fingers represent the high "mental or ideal world"; the upper half of the palm relates to the subject's worldly and emotional life; and the third zone, the lower half of the palm, denotes the lower world (the "Id"). It is typical of Gettings' thoroughness that he does not stop at relating these ancient teachings, but quotes Freud and Julius Spier, and then gives his own findings on the subject. (e.g., In regard to the lower world: "I have observed that a high percentage of neurotics have very long palms - such a palm shape is usually accompanied by an elongated Mount of Moon which protrudes well below the Mound of Venus. It is significant to observe that the hands of many criminals have hand forms with the lower worlds markedly prominent.")

Gettings' work in its thoroughness is fully equal to that of his predecessor, William Benham. In The Hand, however, an attitude of tolerance prevails which is utterly lacking in Benham's Laws of Scientific Hand Reading. An almost priggishly rigid world-view pervades the latter work; any client who wanted to meet with Benham's approval would have been advised to reveal his hands only if they displayed a rational, logical, relatively unemotional nature - woe betide the intuitive, artistic soul with an imagination more developed than his will!

Gettings' philosophy tends to be more along the lines of "vive la difference". An example of this is his discussion of the index finger: "a short finger of Jupiter isaccompanied by a fear of the external world which often prevents its owner from making any headway in life. This does not mean, as traditional palmistry would have it, 'failure in life' - some people, particularly Water types, do not want to make headway in life. The short finger is found most often on self-effacing, perhaps rather timorous individuals, who prefer to take refuge from life in their dreams, hobbies or even in their jobs of work, provided this does not bring them into too close a contact with other people."

In his segments treating hand classification, Gettings' work can be considered revolutionary. His system was the first devised by any major Western hand analyst to break free of the stereotyped, cumbersome, and often unworkable categories promulgated by such past luminaries as Desbarolles, D'Arpentigny and Cheiro. In Gettings' system, each hand (and, by extension, each individual) is dominated by one of only four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. This model not only allows a complexity undreamed of by previous systems, it establishes the individual in his context as a being acted upon by the forces of nature, and a part of nature himself (a logical outgrowth of Gettings' penchant for seeing the larger picture).

Along with his comprehensive treatment of palmistry's mechanics, Gettings addresses the ethical questions that arise in the practice of hand reading. As a warning to hand readers on the dangers of dire predictions, he recounts the story of Heron-Allen, who actually boasted of having accurately forecast a client's death ("I told the subject that a fatal illness would attack him at 37, which would kill him at 41.") Gettings' comment: "It is quite possible that, albeit in good faith, he was the man's executioner."

Likewise, the various possible motives of a would-be palmist are examined. "Perhaps there is a degree of exhibitionismPerhaps there is a craving for power and for dominationa desire to create a sense of mystery - to hide oneself behind a thin and crumbling mask of 'occultism'Perhaps there is a genuine need to contribute something new to human learning." After a period of self-analysis is undertaken by the palmist, Gettings suggests this guideline be used in the readings: "One must practice palmistry in a state of humility, and always with the basic desire to learn more, rather than merely with the desire to impress. In palmistry, at least, tact consideration for other people's sense of reality and, in some cases, silence, can be virtues."

While every aspect of the hand is explored in depth, certain segments are particularly strong; for example, Gettings' discussion of the Simian Line, and his division of its possessors into evolving and descending types. The chapter on dermatoglyphics (fingerprint patterns), however, is comparatively brief - a good jumping-off point for further study, rather than a comprehensive treatment in itself.

Some few of Gettings' assertions are questionable: he states, for instance, that the length of the head line will reveal the breadth of a subject's understanding, with a short line of head usually indicating "a more limited mental range". It might be more accurate to say that a line's length reflects the amount of time spent in the area reflected by the line. In this case, a person with a shorter head line may be quite intelligent, but geared more towards action than study or long periods of reflection.

In the same vein, Gettings makes this puzzling statement, "A double head line, with two lines running parallel, indicates very bad concentration". This insistence that a double line must mean something negative is overly arbitrary; Gettings never considers that a doubled head line may indicate two alternative modes to thought, or even a reinforcement of the subject's powers of concentration.

While Part One of The Hand presents an exhaustive study of the art and practice of palmistry, Part Two gives us hand reading's history. Unfortunately, here Gettings' penchant for detail - one quality that renders the first segment so impressive- becomes overwhelming. At times, the narrative Gettings is trying to recount seems lost in a welter of semi-relevant information. His account of palmistry's evolution from pre-antiquity through the seventeenth century often muddles more than it clarifies (a charge which, ironically, he levels at other historians); and there are more untranslated passages from the original Latin, French and German than the average reader will be able to decipher. (It must be noted, however, that along the way, Gettings does turn up some fascinating anecdotes, such as these instructions to palmists contained in a medieval tome on palmistry: "This sign means that a man must be on his guard with nuns, if he does not wish to die as a result of their love," and "This is the sign of a woman who will be interred alive!")

It is not until Gettings reaches the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and such palmists as D'Arpentigny, Cheiro, Lavatar, and Desbarolles that he finds his voice as an historian. Here, the wealth of detail that has overwhelmed previous chapters is integrated with a fluent narrative, and the historical segments jolt, suddenly and almost shockingly, to life.

Among modern writers on palmistry, Gettings finds only a few worthy of attention: Julius Spier, Ursula Von Mangoldt, Noel Jacquin. Hand reading, says Gettings, is currently in a state of flux, suspended between fixed, predictive, symbol seeking systems of traditional palmistry and an "organic balance" more compatible with present-day belief systems, in which pictures the hand "as a unity of which the details can have significance only in relation to the whole". With the 1965 publication of The Hand: An Illustrated History of Palmistry, Gettings helped usher this new, holistic (and now widely-accepted) model into being.