All Thumbs and Poison Fingers

Superstition has always attributed numerous different qualities to the fingers. Many of these beliefs are still commonly held or referred to in jest. Long fingers were thought to predestine a child not only to artistic pursuits, but also to being a spendthrift; a forefinger longer than the middle finger was believed to point to dishonesty; a crooked little finger was seen as a sign of wealth to come, whereas those with bent fingers were thought burdened with an ill-tempered nature; anyone born with extra fingers was believed predetermined for a life of good luck. 

In various cultures, the fingers are decorated, a practice traditionally carried out for auspicious, magical, and medical purposes. The ancient Egyptians used henna more than 5,000 years ago to stain the fingers and toes of pharaohs before mummification as protection aiding the soul in the afterlife. Similarly, fingers were tattooed to protect against evil spirits causing diseases such as gout and arthritis, as well as joint sprains. Many mummies found in China, South America, and Egypt attest to this custom. 

In the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries, a temporary art form called mehendi is still practised. Mehendi constitutes intricate designs made with henna on women’s fingers and hands. The fingers of traditional brides in these countries are beautifully decorated, and the bride has good reason to look after her henna artwork, as she is not expected to partake in any housework until the colour has worn off.

Various gestures can be made with the fingers to avoid bad luck and protect against evil. People still ‘cross fingers’ for luck; ‘point a finger’ to accuse, ‘hold thumbs’ to ensure good fortune, form a pair of ‘horns’ with the forefingers to ward off bad luck, ‘give the two’s-up’ or make a ‘fig’ to show contempt. These are all examples of magic gestures that once had the same function as magic words and magic objects. Many such curious finger signs are still observed, although the original meaning behind these observances has been lost. 

Each finger of the hand is held to have specific functions and characteristics. The forefinger or second finger is generally known as the index finger because it is used for pointing. In the past, this finger was referred to as the ‘witch’s finger’, as it was used to cast spells when pointing at unfortunates. Because this finger was considered venomous, it was also known as the ‘poison finger’. Therefore, it was never to be used in applying medications and ointments, as this was believed to have unpleasant consequences. 

The middle or long-finger was known by several names in the past: medius, medicus, impudicus, and infamis. Popularly, it has always been known as the ‘medical finger’, and medications were only to be applied with this finger. Although most references collaborate this, it is a contentious issue, as one or two sources specify the fourth or ring finger as the only healing finger and all others as poisonous. Most, however, name the third finger as the medicus and have the physicians of old mixing their potions and medicines only with this finger. It was firmly believed that no venom could stick on the middle finger. Not only was it seen as a healing finger, but also one used for insult. The middle finger when thrust out with the other fingers closed, has always expressed the utmost contempt and derision because of the belief that this finger was connected to the genitals by a specific vein, hence the finger was also called impudicus and infamis, that is, the audacious or detestable.

The fourth finger of the hand, on which the wedding ring is worn, has always been considered lucky. It was believed that a vein, known in Latin as the vena amoris, connected this finger directly to the heart, from where it was thought love emanated. Hence, the fourth finger was generally referred to as the heart finger, but also called annularis or ring finger by the Romans and gold finger by the Anglo-Saxons. 

The little finger or ‘little man’ was also called the ‘ear finger’ – in many cultures, it is customary to specifically grow the nails on these fingers in order to justify the appellation. Superstitious belief regards this finger as the clever one, hence the saying: ‘My little finger told me so’, meaning ‘I know this, although you did not expect me to’. 

The thumb has always been regarded as a symbol of power and is generally known as a luckbringer. The thumb of someone who had died violently was especially a prized object in many European countries. In this context, German philologist and historian Jacob Grimm writes in Teutonic Mythology, his monumental collection of customs and traditions: ‘A thief’s thumb on your person, or among your wares, makes them go fast’.196 Similar is this gruesome advice: ‘A hanged man’s finger hung in the cask makes the beer sell fast’.197

The thumb as an emblem of power is clearly indicated by the various gestures made specifically with this digit. By simply holding the thumb towards any suspicious person or object or folding it under the other four fingers, in other words, holding thumbs, it was believed that evil and approaching danger could be averted. To the modern Westerner, the thumb also symbolises clumsiness, hence describing those awkward with their hands as ‘all thumbs’. There is another gesture we make with our thumbs. Generally, we interpret the thumbs up sign as upbeat with a distinctly positive connotation. Its origin seems to be from an old English symbol of agreement, dating from medieval times, where a business deal was sealed by the parties involved simply by licking the thumbs, holding them up, and then smudging them together – if only business were that simple in modern times! This custom still resonates when we enthusiastically give a venture the ‘thumbs up’. However, curiously, the thumbs up sign has exactly the opposite meaning in the Middle East, West Africa, and some eastern European countries. In these cultures, the gesture is distinctly derogatory, silently voicing great displeasure. 


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