Ritual Gestures of Lifting, Extending, and Clasping the Hand(s) in Northwest Semitic Literature and Iconography

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Division of the Humanities in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

By David Michael Calabro

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Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago
Commitee: Dennis Pardee, David Schloen, Michael Silverstein


Four types of ritual hand gestures—raising the hand while making a fist (sometimes with a weapon), raising one hand with open palm, raising both hands with open palms, and clasping hands with another person—are attested in Northwest Semitic textual sources and Levantine iconography from the Bronze Age through the Iron Age. Previous proposals of these gestures’ meanings have had an ad hoc character due to the lack of systematic integration of textual and iconographic evidence. These two types of sources are systematically combined herein through a comparison of contexts in which the gestures occur, together with a comparison of the details of the gestures themselves as reported in the texts and depicted in the iconography. First, examples of the linguistic phrases used to describe these gestures are analyzed according to context. The context-specific “full gesture phrases” resulting from this analysis are then matched by context to form clusters of synonymous phrases. For example, nɔśɔʾ yɔd ʿal “lift up the hand against,” a phrase occurring in the context of execration, is separated out from nɔśɔʾ yɔd lə “lift up the hand to,” a phrase occurring in the context of oath-taking; the former phrase is synonymous with nɔṭɔh yɔd ʿal, “extend the hand against,” which also occurs in the context of execration. Finally, the clusters of phrases are matched with iconographic gestures. This sorting-out allows us to view each gesture in its full range of attestations, which in turn permits relatively secure conclusions as to the meanings of these gestures in ancient Northwest Semitic culture. The gestures function, in a fundamental sense, as dynamic means of shaping the ritual environment to bring about desired ends. For instance, raising one hand with palm outward is a general performative marker that also creates an interaction structure consisting of an agent, an addressee roughly on the same level as the agent, and potentially a heavenly witness; this contrasts with the handclasp, which creates an exclusively two-part interaction characterized by an intimate, kin-like relationship.