Ceramic palmistry hand
Materials: glazed ceramic, transfer printed
Dimensions: 18 centimeters high
Place acquired: street market, Shepherd’s Bush, London
Place of manufacture: not known
This ceramic hand is really just a dressing-table ornament. I found it on a market stall, and with its crackle glaze and cursive type, it looks as though it might be old. But it is modern, and mass-produced. In itself it’s not all that interesting, but it alludes to fortune-telling through palmistry, which is much more interesting.
Palmistry, the studying of the palm of a person’s hand in order to foresee that person’s future, is just one of very many fortune telling techniques. Astrology, tarot cards, crystal balls are just a few others that spring to mind, but across the world there must be literally thousands of similar systems using different methods, all with the urgent and tantalising aim of seeing into one’s future and perhaps gaining advantage or wisdom as a result.
It’s a fair guess that fortune-telling, in one form or another, must be one of the oldest belief systems. But at the heart of it lies a kind of logical paradox. To read the future you have to believe, to some degree at least, in a deterministic universe where events are mapped out according to a pre-existing plan. But the very reason for wanting to see into the future is to exert some personal agency in what will happen to you; to manipulate it, change it. In other words, to exercise some degree of free will. The two ideas don’t quite fit together. But it is in the very cracks between these two ideas that fortune-telling finds its strength. In its most skillful form it becomes a highly intuitive form of therapy whereby the reader picks up the anxieties and issues that concern the subject and opens the way for discussion, reflection and advice. Pre-destiny is the starting point, but free will is the outcome. A person’s hand, generically similar to all human hands and yet completely unique, is a perfect starting point for this type of empathetic reading, and palmistry exploits this well.
Certainly within cultures formed by the main monotheistic religions fortune-telling now has more the status of a folk belief existing outside the teachings of religion. The fortune-teller is often expected to be slightly outside mainstream society as a result. This could explain the ‘gypsy’ image connected with much fortune telling in western popular culture.