Going to Hebrew School in America, you learn all sorts of stuff about the Holy Land. You learn that Jews have lived there on and off since Abraham's time, that Israel was a powerful kingdom under David and Solomon, that the Romans sent seven legions to subdue the zealots on Masada, and that Baron Rothschild helped many courageous Jews to resettle Israel in modern times and make the desert bloom. They tell you that Hebrew was a lost and forgotten language for two thousand years. They do a pretty good job of teaching young American Jews that Israel is a strange place.

Or so you think until your parents decide to move there, and you discover three important things: that the bugs in Israel look like they ran off the set of an Indiana Jones movie; that half the Jews in the Holy Land come from Arab countries; and that Israel really is part of the Middle East, which is not just a strange place, but an unimaginably ancient place where dozens of different cultures have grown and battled, assimilated their enemies, matured into empires and been burned down to the ground by the enemies they didn't assimilate, leaving nothing behind but scattered ruins and the names of their gods.

Nobody tells you this in Hebrew School. Or maybe they mentioned it, but it never really stuck. Nearly all American Jews are Ashkenazis. Our people came from Poland or Germany, and in our minds, that is what all Jews are like. The Jewish faces of my generation were Woody Allen or Barbra Streisand - big Jewish nose under curly Jewish hair (which sometimes turned into the infamous Jewfro) but basically European features. When we imagine King David, we see Michelangelo's David. The zealots of Masada look like the guy from the TV miniseries, not like Arabs. And good Jews adorn their houses with mezuzot and Stars of David, not weird blue hands with gaping golden eyes in their palms like that girl in the Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

But some Jews do. Because the Middle East is ancient. This is not America, where history started two centuries ago and any people who were living there more than five hundred years ago can justifiably call themselves the First Nations. It isn't Western Europe, where all the interesting history started hundreds of years after the birth of Christ and the greatest monuments were built during the Renaissance. This is the cradle of history. The birthplace of Pan. When the Crusaders got here a thousand years ago to fight the heathens, they were already millennia late for the party.

A hundred gods have walked through these places. Their footprints mingle in a dance that spans all of human history from the invention of agriculture to the advent of the Internet. Their faces, powers and domains have intertwined, and their names echo down through generations, crossing bloodlines and cultures.

Monotheism was born here, but there were legions of powerful gods and goddesses here before JehovahGodAllah, and some of them may still be here when He is nothing but a memory. For as H. P. Lovecraft said, "that is not dead which can eternal lie", and many of these ancient gods are not dead, only lying.

Their names are alive. Their amulets are sold in every market. Their powers are invoked on a daily basis and are, as far as anyone could prove, as real or unreal as Yahweh's. But they have gone underground. They have no temples, and few people would admit to worshiping them in this era when monotheism and science are the only acceptable religions. And yet, they are here.

One of my first Israeli friends was a girl named Anat. Everything about Anat was beautiful and fierce, right down to her name. I thought it came from the Bible, since many common Israeli names come from obscure Biblical figures.

I was wrong, but so are many Israelis who give the name to their daughters without pondering its origins. The original Anat wasn't some delicate maiden of Galilee, she was an Ugaritic war goddess. Beautiful and fierce beyond belief, she devastated battlefields around these parts four and a half thousand years ago. She killed other local gods like it was going out of fashion, and might have had relations with Ba'al, but scholars aren't quite sure. There's also a tenuous link to the moon and fertility.

For centuries, and I mean lots of centuries, great warriors all over the Middle East were known as Sons of Anat or Beloved of Anat. The Egyptians, always on the lookout for a strong supernatural ally, took quite a fancy to her, and Ramesses II adopted her as his personal guardian. Apparently there were Jewish mercenaries who worshiped her along with Yahweh later on in history, but Anat is not recorded as a Jewish personal name until the 20th century, when Zionism created a shortage of Jewish names, and some unknown father-to-be leafed through the Bible and saw some ancient hero referred to as Son of Anat.

Echo, echo, echo.

Another one of my friends introduced me to the hamsa, a charm that is popular amongst Sephardic Jews and supposedly has Muslim origins. It is a raised hand with a large, staring eye in the center of its palm. The three middle fingers point straight up or down, and the symmetrical thumb and pinky curl outwards like horns. Traditionally it's either blue or gold, and is often decorated with fishes, moons and flowers, while its obverse may be inscribed with the Traveler's Prayer or another blessing.

It doesn't much look like the sort of thing condoned by the Old Testament. It looks, to be honest, horrifically pagan. It looks like the symbol of an ancient god worshiped by a bloodthirsty cult. And it turns out that's pretty close to what it probably is. But it took me years to find that out, and I still don't know for sure. Because these echoes are so old, no one remembers how they started. Ask three people, you get five answers. Welcome to the Middle East.

What does the hamsa stand for? The most common explanation is that it's the Hand of God with His all-seeing eye. To a devout Jew, the five fingers might represent the Five Books of the Torah; to a Muslim, the Five Pillars of Islam. Some people with a scholarly bent will tell you that Muslims call the hamsa the Hand of Fatima, and don't adorn it with an eye. But out on the street, many Muslims call a hamsa a hamsa, and if it has an eye, so much the better. Because no matter what pseudo-symbolic meanings people cook up for the hamsa, what it really represents to most of the people who keep one on their keychains or dangling from the rearview mirror is protection from the Evil Eye.

They're not kidding about it, either. Some of your younger hipsters might use the hamsa as an affectation, but many people in the Middle East, particularly the older generations, are dead serious about taking all the supernatural insurance they can get. They knock on wood, they always say "God willing" when talking about their hopes and plans, and lots of them have their doorways and window frames painted bright blue for the exact same reason the hamsa is traditionally blue. Blue is supposed to reflect the gaze of the Evil Eye.

Attempts to rationalize the hamsa into an acceptable role in Jewish or Muslim orthodoxy all break down quickly. The "Hand and Eye of God" concept, which seems to make superficial sense, fails catastrophically under religious examination, for the Ten Commandments, the cornerstone of Judaism and Islam, explicitly forbid making images or representations of God, who in any case is not personified in either religion and doesn't have or need eyes or hands.

The so-called Muslim name for the hamsa, Hand of Fatima, offers the first clue to the amulet's possible origin. The most famous Fatima these days is Fatima Zahra, the daughter of Mohammad, and most people who call a hamsa a Hand of Fatima are thinking of her. This isn't necessarily a true association, though. Fatima Zahra was not the first Fatima. The name Fatima means "she who weans", and before Mohammed's daughter there was a Fatima who was a local moon goddess.

Moons, remember, are common decorations for the hamsa.

And before Fatima, there was another moon goddess named Tanit, who was one of the patron goddesses of Carthage. She was a consort of Ba'al and was linked to fertility and, you guessed it, war.

Now wait a minute. That sounds familiar. Ba'al, war, fertility, moon. Wasn't that what you said about Anat? That's right, Watson. Tanit is a later version of Anat. And interestingly enough, Tanit was represented by an ankh-like female form with arms outstretched and palms lifted to each side. It would be an exaggeration to say that it resembles a hamsa, but it's possible to imagine the hamsa developing from the woman.

Mind you, there's no conclusive evidence that it did. But it seems like a possibility, especially since some versions of the Tanit symbol include a horizontal moon over the top, enclosing the “woman's head” part of the symbol and making the whole upper half look like an eye.

And what about the fishes we find on many hamsas? Christian symbols, you might think. Or possibly emblems of Dagon, the fish god? But really, the fish has been used as a symbol and a good luck charm by Muslims, Jews and Christians, but it predates all three religions. (You knew I was going to say that, didn't you?) And it isn't the symbol of Dagon.

(Dagon was a real god, and his name, too, echoes throughout the Middle East. But the idea that he was a fish god is a relatively recent interpretation, perpetuated in Net culture by the influence of H. P. Lovecraft and based mostly on the fact that "Dag" means "fish" in Hebrew. Most of the linguistic and archaeological evidence points to Dagon being a god of fertility. "Dag" may mean fish in Hebrew, but a closer match, "dagan", means "grain" in Hebrew.)

Rather, the fish has been used as the symbol of several older goddesses, including Atargatis (who had the body of a fish), Isis (rotated 90 degrees, it becomes her vagina) and Aphrodite. Aphrodite, in case you didn't know, was born out of sea foam. And some people say that the cult of Aphrodite was born out of the cult of Astarte. And who was Astarte?

The Wiccans in the audience probably know where this is going, and I expect they're laughing now, because Astarte was a Phoenician goddess of fertility, sexuality and war who was worshiped in Phoenicia, Ugarit and Egypt. She was often worshiped along with Anat or Tanit. She is sort of a sister goddess to Ishtar, Isis, Aphrodite and possibly our shy friend Fatima.

It's very, very possible that the hamsa, so-called Hand of God, is really the Hand of a Goddess. Or, indeed, of several Goddesses. And that every time a East Jerusalem cab driver touches the charm on his keychain before starting his engine, every time an Iraqi Jewish mother tells her son “hamsa aleicha”, every time a Christian tourist buys one of these enduring symbols of Judaism and Islam as a souvenir, they are perpetuating the covert worship of the last surviving remnants of pantheons that all three of these upstart religions have tried to destroy many times over. I can't tell you how much I cherish this thought.

I wish I could say I had conclusively proved this - pull out an Indiana Jones solution to the mystery, as it were, tell you "this statuette unearthed at Ras Shamra is clearly an intermediate form between the Tanit symbol and today's hamsa, while that tiny motif is indicative of influence from the cult of Aphrodite" - but I can't really say any such thing. When you're dealing with living traditions this old there are few irrefutable proofs. Archaeological evidence can barely substantiate the existence of major temples, cities and entire nations from the time periods we're talking about, and the origins of magical traditions and superstitions are rarely documented until long after the fact.

But then, when did we ever require proof of the handiwork – or hands – of the gods?

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