This gesture accompanies the Birkat Kohanim, or Priestly Blessing, an ancient Jewish custom. The Blessing is administered by members of the Kohanim, or priestly class, usually on holidays. The hands are spread into two “V” shapes, in the form of the Hebrew letter Shin () and symbolizes the light of the Shekhina, or Presence of God.

The blessing itself is taken directly from that given in the Book of Numbers:

“The Lord bless and keep you.
The Lord let His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.”

The resemblance of the gesture to the “Live long and prosper” salute of the Star Trek character Spock is not coincidental. Actor Leonard Nimoy has remarked on several occasions that the gesture was a nod to his Jewish heritage.

Related Symbols:


Heart in Hand

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Pictish symbolThe Celtic dragon and serpent were ancient symbols of fertility, wisdom, and immortality. A hybrid horned dragon/snake figure was connected to the torque collar, a symbol of kingship and status, and to the horned deity Cernunnos. The serpent was related to the dragon, and was connected with healing pools and springs. The Romans observed that the Druids especially revered the serpent for healing, and that they ascribed the same powers to the “serpent’s egg,” a particular sort of egg-shaped stone. A number of old tales feature magical treasure-guarding serpents who reside in wells- a common motif is the horned snake who guards a golden torque, a reference to divine authority.

The dragon represents the untamed forces of nature, and often dwelt deep within the earth or sea. A red protector dragon has been a symbol of Wales for more than a thousand years, and dragons of various sorts featured heavily in late heroic tales, especially those of the exploits of Merlin. After the advent of Christianity, the dragon was more likely to symbolize chaos, and many tales of the saints pit the holy men against rampaging dragons who cause natural disasters, stories in which the dragons are not too subtle analogies of the pagan religions- Christians who came to evangelize the Druids took the sacred serpents as sure signs that the Druids were devil worshipers.

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Pictish carving Serpent capital from the Book of Kells
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One of the best known tales of St Patrick is the driving of the serpents from Ireland, a myth that purports to explain Ireland’s lack of snakes, but also carries overtones of religious conflict. If one views the snakes as the emblems of the Druids, the tale takes on another level of meaning, namely, that the serpents are not animals, but the Pagan way of life. This interpretation is borne out by many other references to battles with dragons or serpents undertaken by the saints, which invariably occur on sites formerly sacred to the Druids. This is not to say such battles necessarily took place at all, but may be poetic license to deal with the embarrassing reality of many a church sited on former Pagan holy grounds, which may have mattered much more as the centuries passed.

More Celtic Symbols

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Mistletoe’s (Old English, “Misseltan,” meaning, “missel twig”) standing as an icon of the winter holiday stems from very ancient beliefs. How did this rather ugly, poisonous plant became so popular?

The answer lies in ancient sun worship, particularly of the Celtic Druids. The mistletoe has several qualities that made it attractive to these tree revering ancient Celts. The Celtic Druids were skilled in herbal medicine and magic; mistletoe was by far the most sacred of their magical plants. It grew amongst the branches of the sacred trees, seemingly without sustenance. Having no roots, and thus no connection to the earth, it was considered the sacred plant of the sun.

A tree that hosted a mistletoe plant was a tree marked as particularly sacred by the gods. With its golden color, and growing high off the ground without roots, it was naturally associated with the sun. Most specifically, it was considered to be the sperm of the solar deity Taranis, the promise of the sun God’s rebirth.

It was believed that mistletoe took on the properties of its host tree (this has much truth to it, as mistletoe feeds on its host tree), containing its essence and power. The most powerful mistletoe, of course, grew on the sacred oak. (The name Druid is believed to be a compound of two words, Dru and Vid, strength and wisdom- oak and mistletoe!)

Old Norse tales of mistletoe’s origin blame the plant for the death of the sun-god Baldur, who is felled by a dart made of mistletoe, the only plant his mother neglected after a prophecy of the god’s death; some versions of the story tell that the plant became a tree-dweller after the wrathful goddess flung it there. druids

Cutting the Mistletoe at the Solstice

When the weather turned cold the leaves dropped from deciduous host trees, revealing the sacred leaves and waxy white berries- a promise of the return of the sun. During the period of the Winter Solstice, branches were harvested with great ceremony and used for a variety of magical and medical purposes- protection from lightning and fire, curing of poisoning, etc. Branches would be cut from the trees on a day sacred to the moon, and sacrifices of livestock offered in return for the precious gift. Belief in the magical powers of mistletoe has long outlived the Druids.

In medieval times, the plant was called allheal, and used medicinally for a variety of ailments, from epilepsy to cancer. Sprigs were hung in stables to protect livestock from the mischief of fairies, and over cradles to protect babes from the vexation of witches. In Scandinavia, its branches were fashioned into dowsing rods to search for treasure. An old English superstition held that as long as a sprig was retained in the home, so would love be retained. It became popular in some households to insure that a fresh sprig was installed in the household every year, and this is probably where the origin of the kissing ritual can be found.

A Druid priestess

A priestess with sickle and crown of mistletoe

The uniquely English tradition involved hanging clumps of the plant in halls and doorways, where it served as a bit of a love charm- and as an ice breaker between interested couples. As the superstition went, one who wasn’t kissed would not be married within that year- an incentive for the romantically inclined to be sure to find themselves underneath a sprig at a convenient moment. According to this same tradition, the plant was burned at the end of the season, to prevent the charm from backfiring and creating enemies rather than friends. As late as the early twentieth century, a sprig of mistletoe was believed to bring dreams of a future husband when placed under the pillow of a hopeful young woman.

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The Shamrock is the ubiquitous symbol of all things Irish. Although today it is usually regarded as a simple good luck charm or a St. Patrick’s day decoration, it is one of the oldest Celtic symbols.

The shamrock is a native species of clover in Ireland. A Catholic legend holds that St. Patrick used it’s three lobes as a device for teaching the Holy trinity. To the Druids who came before, it symbolized a similar “three in one” concept- the three dominions of earth, sky, and sea, the ages of man, and the phases of the moon. In Celtic folklore, the Shamrock is a charm against evil, a belief that has carried over in the modern reliance in the four leafed clover as a good luck charm.

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The Christmas Tree, Decking the Halls

The so-called Christmas Tree is one of the most purely pagan of the modern holiday observances. Modern whitewash attributes the custom of lighted Christmas trees to Protestant reformer Martin Luther, with with a charming tale wherein he glimpses the starry sky between evergreen branches. It’s sweet, but hogwash. (Luther, who railed against excess, doesn’t seem a likely promoter of frivolous decor). The custom of decorating trees in honor of the gods is in fact so old it is specifically prohibited in the Old Testament*- which is why our Jewish friends don’t have Hanukkah trees**)

The Christmas tree, like many Christmas customs, originated in the ancient Roman new year festival of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was celebrated much the same as we do Christmas today. Home decoration was emphasized, and the decorations were the evergreen trees sacred to the sun- pine, holly, etc.

Winged Roman figure bearing a wreathGift giving was also another popular part of Saturnalia festivities- friends and families exchanged gifts of decorated branches, evergreen wreaths, incense, candles, and religious figurines. Caroling, Wassailing, and masked processions were other Saturnalia staples that long outlasted the Roman Empire.

Saturn is still honored at the new year as “father time.” Even the image of the Christmas angel was borrowed from Roman iconology- there were no female angels in Hebrew of Christian scriptures. (wrathful creatures with multitudes of eyes with animal bodies and wings or flaming swords, yes. Kindly feminine angels in flowing dresses, no.)

 

Misseltoe

What about the Mistletoe? Mistletoe was held sacred to the sun to the Norse and the Celts of Europe, whose beliefs about the magical virtues of mistletoe survived into the Christian era. It was for this reason that England’s churches banned its use within their walls.

Fortunately for hopeful romantics, the prohibition didn’t stick.

 

St. Nick with demon helperThe pagan Norse Solstice celebration, Yule, gives us both the Yule log and the “Twelve Days” of Christmas. The burning of a tree, a log, or a wheel was a widespread custom in European pagan Solstice ceremonies. The burning of the Yule log is a symbolic sacrifice of the sun’s sacred evergreen, and its sacrifice gave energy to ensure the rebirth of the weakened sun. The celebration of Twelfth Night is also drawn from ancient Yule practices, although the King Cake custom came later, a symbolic recreation of the ancient custom of the sacrificial king- The “Lord of Misrule” who presided over so many Christmas parties was an echo of the seasonal “king” who long ago was sacrificed at the end of the season to ensure plentiful crops and the fertility of both man and livestock.

 

See: The Evolution of the Christmas Tree, Saturnalia- the real “Reason for the Season”

 

The Gnome Tomten

Santa Claus

Santa Claus is something of a syncretic figure, a patchwork of legendary characters. While most accept that Santa is evolved from fourth century Catholic Saint Nicholas of Myra (The name Santa Claus is an Americanization of the Dutch name for Nicholas, “Sinterklaas”), that’s really a bit of a gloss. In truth, traditions of elves, witches, or other supernatural gift-givers pre-existed in European tradition.

The Scandinavian gift-giving gnome Tomten (Also known as Julesvenn, Julnissen, Knecht Ruprecht) contributed the archetypal peaked red hat and associations with reindeer. Tomten was a little more volatile than today’s Santa- he could leave gifts or play tricks depending on the quality of the offerings for him Sometimes, he is portrayed as a demon who whips bad children; in Germany he’s Krampus, a ragged devil figure.

After the advent of Christianity in the North, the cantankerous elf became sidekick to the Saint -Belsnickel, ‘furry Nicholas,’ he being responsible for the distribution of whippings and coal to the naughty children. The Christmas imp was eventually absorbed, leaning only his red cap and sleigh behind. (I suspect he may now be seen working as sidekick to the white witch in the Narnia Books; he is also the close relation of Riumpelstilzkin) (and speaking of evil elves…)

 

Knecht loading his sack with naughty childrenSomehow stories of the generous St. Nicholas (well, mostly so- Nicholas was also reputed to have socked a rival in the jaw over a dispute about the virgin Mary) were muddled with the Scandinavian elf. According to his legend, St. Nicholas was a political activist who championed the poor, prisoners, and children. His association with Christmas giving is almost certainly cover for less acceptable pagan characters.

 

Santa Claus as we visualize him today sprang from the imagination of American political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Santa’s British counterpart, Father Christmas, is a little bit St. Nick and a little bit Father time. Italian children don’t know Santa; they await gifts from Befana, a kindly witch. German children leave shoes out and hope for a small gift from the Kriskind, an angel representing the Christ child (another name for Kriskind is ‘Kris Kringle,’ so referring to Santa by that name creates a sort of Jesus/elf-angel hybrid).

 

Some Invented Legends

 

Candy Canes are the subject of an annual pass-around email, but they were never the special creation of a pious Christian candymaker. When the Christmas tree became popular in Germany, it was commonly decorated with sweets and colored paper. Cane-shaped candy fits over a tree branch. Their popularity with children might have led some to take advantage of their shepherd’s crook shape to teach some religious lessons.

 

Connections are often touted between Santa Claus and the Norse god Odin, usually centered around the coincidence of eight reindeer and the eight legs of Odin’s magical horse. The problem with that similarity is, Santa only had one reindeer companion, until a New York writer upped it to seven, along with inventing the idea of Santa -then portrayed as a tiny elf- slipping down the chimney.) However, there is some connection- early Scandinavian pictograms of Odin often portray him on a reindeer, which is certainly a good way to leave people scratching their heads around the punchbowl..

 

*Well, maybe not. After all, the Hanukkah menorah is, in a sense, a representation of the Tree of Life.

 

**See Jeremiah 10:3

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The three best known symbols unofficially used to represent the Baha’i faith: the nine pointed star, symbolizing spiritual completion:

The ring stone symbol, so called because it is worn on rings by many believers:

The three horizontal lines represent the three basics of Baha’i belief- the world of God, the World of God’s manifestation, and the world of man. The vertical bar represents the connection of these worlds, and the stars flanking the glyph represent the Báb and Bahá’u'lláh, the founders and prophets of the faith.

The “symbol of the Greatest Name:”

This symbol is a phrase, “Yá Bahá’u'l-Abhá,” or “Glory of Glories,” rendered in traditional Islamic* calligraphy. “Baha,” or glory, is also found in the name of Bahá’u'lláh. It is called the “Greatest Name,” after the expectation in Islam that the most sacred, hundredth name of god, which is known only in paradise.

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verginaA distinct eight, twelve, or sixteen rayed figure, Called the sun of Vergina.  It is so named for a stunning example found on a larnax (coffin) in the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great and a notable member of the Argead Dynasty.  The motif itself is ubiquitous in Greek and Macedonian art.  It is most likely a solar symbol, being found in temple art depicting the sun God Helios.

Other notable examples of the motif have been found at Eleusis and at the Temple of Nemesis.

Since the discovery of the Tomb in Vergina, the sun emblem has made its way onto a number of Greek and Macedonian coins, flags, and other objects as a symbol of cultural identity.

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Vergina sun from Eleusis

 

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On an ancient coin from Crete

 

 

Related symbols:

sborjgali2Hecate's wheel

 

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borjgaliThe borjgali appears on Georgian money and official documents and is a pervasive symbol of national pride. It consists of an ancient, seven-winged solar wheel, often shown rising from a symbolic tree of life. 

The solar wheel is similar to wheels found throughout Europe, especially in Norse and Iberian art.  Similar symbols are found in Armenian stonework.

 borjgali2

In modern usage, the tree’s upward-reaching branches purportedly symbolize hope; the lower branches, the past.

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Norse sun wheel

 

Borjgali on Georgian coin
Borjgali on Georgian coin

 

Related symbols:

sverginasyggdrasil

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Untitled-3The fourteenth letter of the Arabic alphabet, nun (nuun) equivalent to the Hebrew  or Phoenician nun. The letter in all three alphabets is derived from a pictogram of a fish or serpent.

Of some significance of late because of its use by the militant Jihadist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)  in Iraq.  The nun stands in for “Nasara,” or Nazarene, and is at the time of this writing being used to mark the homes of Christians in Mosul.  In a mimicry of  the relatively tolerant practices* of the Ottoman Caliphate, Christians whose homes have been marked have been given an ultimatum to convert, pay a steep ‘tax,’ or flee.

The symbol has been taken up by Western Christians in solidarity with their Iraqi coreligionists.

*While certainly tolerant by 16th century standards, these strictures are clearly in violation of human rights in modern times.

 

Related symbols:

Allah

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The Farohar or faravahar is both an emblem of the Zoroastrian religion and of Persian identity.  Faravahar means “to choose.” The Faravahar is descended from the Egyptian winged disk, a symbol of divine kingship. It once represented the Assyrian sun god Shamash, and may have represented the corona of a solar eclipse.

In the modern Zoroastrian faith, it represents the human soul.

The faravahar has several parts, which are given particular meaning by modern Zoroastrians:

  • A winged disk- the three layers of feathers represent the three pillars of the Zoroastrian faith: good words, good thoughts, good deeds. The ring represents eternity.
  • Two streamers, representing the duality of good and evil- left and right, respectively.
  • The head of a man, facing left-representing the prophet Zoroaster, and the choice to live a morally upright life.

Related Symbols:

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hathorAn Egyptian hieroglyph representing the headdress of Hathor, a multifaceted goddess of the love, beauty, and fertility.  The headdress consists of a sun disk surrounded by horns, the emblem of Hathor’s cow-goddess aspect.  

Hathor is equivalent to the Roman Venus and the Greek Aphrodite.  She is associated with the Milky Way, and the souls of Egyptian women judged to be worthy were identified with her.

As with the emblem of Venus, Hathor’s sign was often represented as or fashioned into a mirror.

Related Symbols:
TyetFeather of Ma'atMenat

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The Heart in Hand, an image of a heart in an open palm, is an easily recognizable symbol in the North Eastern US. This cheerful, welcoming image originated with the Shakers and is found on crafts, signs, and even cookies. The symbol is a pictoral reminder of the words of Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shaker sect, who promoted a simple life of hard work and spirituality, “Put you hands to work, and your hearts to God.” The image is typical of the Shaker attitude, and implies also a loving welcome.

A heart in hand has also been in use for about a hundred years as a symbol of the Order of Odd Fellows, an early Fraternal Order. These commonly display three linked rings representing friendship, love, and truth. A similar symbol used in Masonry represents charity.

Related Resources:

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The image at right represents the Keys of St. Peter, an emblem of the Catholic Church which represents the divine authority invested in the apostle Peter before the death of Christ. As such, they are emblems of papal authority in the Catholic church.

A symbol that appears frequently in Christian art and in the arms of the Popes, the crossed keys were formerly an emblem of the Roman God Janus and the Mithraic Zurvan, both gods of time and keepers of doorways, and removers of obstacles.

It is this symbolism that led to the folk legend of Peter as the bureaucratic keeper of the “pearly gates”of heaven.


St. Peter receiving the Keys


Zurvan with the “Keys of Time”


The keys as an emblem of Papal authority

Related Symbols:

Chi-roMenat

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receA slavic solar cross, fashioned after a design found on and Iron Age burial urn in Poland.  Dubbed rece Boga, or “hands of god,” the symbol has been adopted as a symbol of Polish national pride and an emblem of Slavic Neopaganism.

The design below is derived from an urn unearthed in 1936 at Lodz; the urn was an artifact of the Przeworsk culture, used to inter cremated remains.  It is similar in many ways to other Iron age funerary artifacts, and as many of these are also marked with variations of the swastika, and related to the god Odin and his counterparts. Similar symbols and burial customs, wherein cremated remains were interred underground in pottery urns, were widespread throughout Europe.

At the time of discovery, the symbol was used in Nazi propaganda, but today is almost exclusively used to denote allegiance to Slavic Neopagan beliefs.

Przeworsk burial urn
Przeworsk burial urn, from which the rece boga is derived

 

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vegvisirThe Vegvisir or runic compass is a Viking rune stave, a magical device used to aid in sea navigation. According to a number of legends, this apotropaic (protective) symbol was inscribed on seagoing vessels to insure their safe return. The most common depiction of the rune comes from the 17th century Galdrabók, and Icelandic grimoire.

Today, it is most commonly paired with the aegishjalmer, used as a symbol of spiritual guidance and an emblem of identification by Asatru believers.  The most well-known example is worn as a tattoo by the Icelandic pop singer Bjork.

 

Related Symbols:
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The Triple Horn of Odin is a stylized emblem of the Norse God Odin. This symbol consists of three interlocked drinking horns, and is commonly worn or displayed as a sign of commitment to the modern Asatru faith. The horns figure in the mythological stories of Odin and are recalled in traditional Norse toasting rituals. Most stories involve the God’s quest for the Odhroerir, a magical mead brewed from the blood of the wise god Kvasir. 

The tales vary, but typically, Odin uses his wits and magic to procure the the brew over three days time; the three horns reflect the three draughts of the magical mead. Below is an image of the pre-Christian monument called the Larbro stone. 

 

The symbol above the rider’s head is the triple horn:

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Related Symbols:
Sleipnir
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Also known as: Hrungnir’s heart, heart of the slain, Heart of Vala, borromean triangles

The emblem at left found on old Norse stone carvings and funerary stelés, is sometimes called “Hrungnir’s heart,” after the legendary giant of the Eddas. It is best known as the Valknut, or “knot of the slain,” and it has been found on stone carvings as a funerary motif, where it probably signified the afterlife. The emblem is often found in art depicting the God Odin, where it may represent the gods power over death. The valknut can be drawn unicursally (in one stroke), making it a popular talisman of protection against spirits.

The Valknut’s three interlocking shapes are suggestive of related Celtic symbols of motherhood and rebirth- it may have been a goddess symbol at some point in history. The nine points suggest rebirth, pregnancy, and cycles of reincarnation. The number nine also suggestive of the Nine Worlds (and the nine fates) of Norse mythology. Their interwoven shape suggests the belief of the interrelatedness of the three realms of earth, hel, and the heavens, and the nine domains they encompass.

The symbol’s nine points have an obvious correlation with childbirth; the placement of the symbol on funeral monuments mark it as a sign of rebirth of reincarnation. The Valknut is also an important symbol to many followers of the Asatru religion, who often wear it as a symbol of the faith. A variation called an “open” valknut, due to the looser, non-unicursal design:

Another, less common version of the Valknut, called a triceps, resembles a cut-away triangle, or a triangle formed of three diamonds (three ‘othala’ runes interwoven):

Triceps

The triceps was used into the middle ages as a magical sign of protection.  The othala rune signifies the home and one’s ancestors.

valknut3 vikingsymbolshorntriskele


More valknuts
Related Symbols:
Nine worldsJormunganderTriqueta
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This Mjolnir, or Thor’s Hammer, is an ancient Norse symbol, a stylized representation of the legendary magical weapon of the Norse God Thor. “Mjolnir” means “lightning,” and symbolized the God’s power over Thunder and Lightning. The Hammer Mjolnir was said to always return after it had been thrown.

The Thor’s Hammer amulet was worn frequently by believers as a symbol of protection- a practice so popular it continued even after most of the Norse population had converted to Christianity. In modern times, is often used as an emblem of recognition for members of the Asatru faith, and as a symbol of Norse heritage.

A later form of the Mjolnir is called the Wolf’s Cross, or Dragon’s Cross, and was associated with early Norse Christianity:

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Related Symbols:
Gungnir
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The monstrance is the ceremonial vessel used in during the Roman Catholic Mass to display the consecrated communion host. Although the monstrance has taken many shapes during the period of its use, it typically, takes the shape of a solar cross, with a clear central area made of glass or crystal. The host is usually placed in a small crescent shaped holder within the crystal, called a lunette due to its moon-like shape.

Upon the death of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican televised broadcast only an empty monstrance while preparing to announce the Pontiff’s passing.


An ornate Monstrance or Ostensorium

Related Symbols:
Chi-ro

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sglossaryprayinghandsThe clasped hands prayer gesture is ubiquitous in Christianity. The hands are clasped together and held before the heart; it is a symbol of submission and sincerity.

This particular posture became associated with praying around the ninth century, it probably originated as a secular gesture of humility and submission, such as one would adopt before a superior.

The identical gesture is known as the anjali mudra (offering gesture) in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, a sign of greeting, respect, and veneration. The anjali mudra is used while praying, and also as a gesture of respect toward others, an acknowledgement of their inner divinity.

Symbolically, two hands clasped represents the coming together of opposites, or a commingling of forces. Magically, the hands are the terminus of the body’s polar energy sources, and can be used to channel and direct these energies.

glossarypraying glossaryanjali

Albrecht Durer’s famous sketch 

Anjali Mudra

Related Symbols:

NidstangMudra

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