Meaning Of Ancient Hand Signs We Still Use Today

Meaning Of Ancient Hand Signs We Still Use Today

Conny Waters – – Hand signs can be an excellent way to express emotions. People have used hand signs to communicate and insult each other for thousands of years. Many hand signs we use today are deeply rooted in the past.

Meaning Of Ancient Hand Signs We Still Use Today

Many of our most common hand signs were popular in ancient Rome and Greece. Credit: Adobe Stock – Nejron Photo

Over time, as people evolved and civilizations vanished, the meaning of a couple of hand signs has changed, but some remain the same.

Digitus Impudicus – The Offensive Finger

According to historians, the middle finger sign has its roots in ancient Greece, where it was initially used as a sex insult. Historically, it represented the phallus, and ancient Romans liked this sign so much that they started using it. Giving someone the middle finger was an insult in ancient times and still is today.

As time passed, this hand sign became an abusive gesture primarily used to insult or mock someone.

In the ancient Greek play The Clouds, written by playwright Aristophanes, a pupil gives Socrates the middle finger, and he is immediately reprimanded. Socrates tells him he is rude and stupid.

The Roman Emperor Caligula enjoyed insulting and humiliating people by forcing them to kiss his middle finger instead of his hand.

Tacitus (c. 56 A.D. – c. 120 A.D.), one of the greatest Roman historians, wrote digitus impudicus meaning the shameless, indecent, or offensive finger became so famous that even Barbarian tribes started using it.

It is one of the most ancient hand signs known today.

Moutza – Extending Five Fingers

The Moutza sign was used by ancient Greeks to curse someone and send spells harming the individual. The closer the gesture was to a person’s face, the more threatening. Extending five fingers was also a terrible insult similar to the offensive finger. By extending five fingers, one showed a person has five fathers and is a bastard. In the Middle East, this was also an insult.

Different Meanings Of Crossed Fingers

Crossed fingers have been used in Europe for 1,500 years, but the signs have two entirely different meanings.

Meaning Of Ancient Hand Signs We Still Use Today

When ancient Romans showed the thumb up, it was a bad sign meaning death. Credit: Adobe Stock – Elnur

During the Middle Age, it was common in Europe to cross their fingers to represent the cross Jesus Christ bore and seek God’s protection. “During the Roman Persecutions, early Catholics would use it as a symbol to recognize each other and assemble to celebrate Mass without being detected.” 1

In Central and East Europe, people crossed their fingers behind their backs. It indicated they were lying and asked for God’s forgiveness.

In English-speaking countries and Denmark, it is common to cross your fingers to wish someone good luck. It is a sign with different meanings depending on the country.

Pollex – The Thumb

Many think’ pollice verso,’ meaning the turned thumb, was a symbol used by ancient Romans when they wished a gladiator should die, but scholars have reached a different conclusion.

“In the Roman manifestation most familiar to the twentieth century, the thumb was employed by the crowd at the gladiatorial games to indicate whether a defeated fighter should be killed or spared.

The thumb gesture – the sign for death to a fallen gladiator – was not made by pointing the thumbs down toward the ground but toward the sky. In the opposite circumstance, when the fallen gladiator was deemed to have fought with sufficient courage to justify retaining his life, the Roman gestured in a way that resembles a closed fist. ” 2

The ancient Romans also cut off their thumbs for different reasons.

Etruscans Painted The Horn Sign On Tombs

Etruscans frequently painted horn signs on graves to protect the dead from demons.

People in ancient Italy believed the sign of the horns could ward off bad luck and protect against the evil eye. Interestingly, in Hinduism, a similar hand gesture – with the tips of the middle and ring finger touching the thumb- is a yogic gesture believed to rejuvenate the body. In Buddhism, it is used to expel demons.

The Victory Sign

Most associate the classical victory sign with WWII, but this hand gesture is much older. It was used during the Middle Ages as a sign of victory, and it became even more famous when it appeared in the painting known as Religion Saved Spain by Tiziano Vecelli.

The oil canvas produced between 1572 and 1575 commemorating the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 shows a Spanish woman using the V-gesture after the victory over the Ottoman Empire during the naval battle.

Keep in mind that though hand signs can be good to emphasize what is on your mind, certain gestures can get you into trouble. What you consider an innocent hand sign can be an awful insult to a person of a different culture. If you visit a foreign country, think twice before you use hand signs.

Written by Conny Waters – Staff Writer

Updated on November 4, 2022

Copyright © All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of

Expand for references

  1. Billy Ryan – The Catholic Origin of Crossing Your Fingers, UCatholic
  2. Corbeill, Anthony. “Thumbs In Ancient Rome: ‘Pollex’ As Index: Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome42 (1997): 1-21.
  3. Max Nelson. “Insulting Middle-Finger Gestures among Ancient Greeks and Romans.” Phoenix 71, no. 1/2 (2017): 66-88

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