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The Eye in the Hand  

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   Home > Symbol Literature > The Eye in the Hand

The Eye in the Hand

Frank Adair, M.D.

In the Spring of 1998, I began my sandplay process. Although I had been in Jungian analysis and practicing psychotherapy for over ten years, I had no idea of the deeper experience unfolding in front of me. This paper is that story as told through the exploration of the symbol of the Eye in the Hand. The journey will begin with my first sandplay and my personal experience with the symbol over this last year. What will follow will be an amplification of the symbol from historical, mythical, religious, and cultural points of view. Jungian and sandplay perspectives will then be elaborated followed by a summation where I present the Eye in the Hand as a symbol of the analytical moment.

It was in the first tray in my sandplay process that this symbol came into current consciousness. I had created a man with a bird head in the sand who had a large bladder-like body. He had a distinct eye made with a rock resembling a skull. I called this eye, the eye of death. The image frightened me. I said to my analyst that this bird-man was the great devourer. In fact, I told her that the bladder-like body held many birds that he had eaten. My inclination was to withdraw due to the intensity of my fear since this was not what I expected of sandplay. Nonetheless, I knew the tray was incomplete. I made a hand print in the sand in front of the face of the birdman, in his gaze. I could not decide whether to place the thumb to the right or to the left. It felt like neither was correct so I placed both there as if the hand had two thumbs and showed both sides of the hand. Once this was imprinted in the sand, the tray was complete. I left this first session with mixed feelings of fear, doubt, and exhilaration. The fear was evoked by the frightening image, the doubt was due to my own uncertainty about the effectiveness of this medium of sandplay, and the exhilaration came from the image of the very complex hand set in opposition to this imposing eye of death.

The following day I had a break in my schedule and went to a local store to shop for sandplay figures. On my way to the store I passed a store named Alef Bet Judacia which had a statue of the image I had tried to configure in the sand the day before. It was a small image of a hand with two thumbs. On one side of the image were markings similar to feathers, the words shalom, peace, and salam, and an array of Hebrew characters. On the other side was an image of an eye and the word Jerusalem.

At that moment, though I was in awe of the presence of this symbol in my life on two consecutive days, I had no idea of the significance of this experience or the meaning of what I was touching. I bought it, brought it home, carried it with me for weeks, and knew it would be the subject of my symbol paper.

My analyst encouraged me to avoid reading about sandplay until I finished my process. The ensuing months with this symbol provided me with the experience reflected in the quote by Lauren Cunningham (1996), "The heart of becoming a sandplay therapist is in the experiencing of a personal sandplay process with its cycles of waiting, getting lost, and coming home." I took those words to heart and let the image sink into my being as I continued my process. The synchronicity of the appearance of the image in the sand and then appearing the next day dispelled my doubt and encouraged me onward. I knew I was where I was supposed to be and more importantly, accepted the process as real. It gave me a belief in the reality of the symbol, knowing that the psyche really does exist and that we serve that reality. The gift of this inspiration encouraged me during the periods of my process which were challenging, especially when the sand was still. When I finished the sandplay process, I began my formal study of sandplay and this symbol.

The resonance with this symbol did not end with my process. The image appeared again at my first training experience at the Asilomar sandplay Intensive in the fall. I took the image of the Eye in Hand to the conference and talked about it to the point that people have identified this image with me. I had taken a book with me to the conference containing two essays by Emma Jung(1985) on Animus and Anima. Very early in the essay on animus, I was surprised to read a dream of one of her patients.

There appeared then in a dream a bird-headed monster whose body was just a distended sac or bladder able to take on any form. This monster was said to have been formerly in possession of the man upon whom the animus was projected, and the woman was warned to protect herself against it because it liked to devour people, and if this happened, the person was not killed outright but had to continue living inside the monster.

The bladder form pointed to something still in an initial stage - only the head, the characteristic organ for an animus, was differentiated. It was the head of a creature of the air; for the rest, any shape could arise. The voracity indicated that a need for extension and development existed in this still undifferentiated entity...The wind is in truth the All-Devourer, for when the fire dies out it goes into the wind, when the sun sets, it goes into the wind, when the moon sets, it goes into the wind, when the waters dry up, they go into the wind, for the wind consumes them all.

Reading these words gave me indirect clues about the eye in the hand. It gave me a view of the object from which the symbol was designed to protect. With that in my consciousness, I went to the first presentations of the seminar. I was taken with all the presenters, but was particularly entranced by a presentation by Judy Zapacosta entitled, "Where the Land Meets the Sea". In it she discussed the place where consciousness meet unconsciousness. She showed us a number of slides of the California coastline after the windy winter storms of El Nino. There was apparently a great amount of driftwood dispersed on the shores which local residents and visitors spontaneously shaped into images. One image in particular was stunning to me, almost an identical replica of my image in the sand. Where my hand appeared, in this image there was a feather. During the same conference, Gretchen Hegeman made a presentation that began with a photograph of a modern day painting called the Hands of Creation. This was an image of a raven with wings which were hands containing eyes.

(Photo courtesy Judy Zapacosta)

The Hands of Creation by Beau Dick

Somehow the connections were being made - the eye of death, protection, animus energy, the wind, the bird, and that analytical liminal space between conscious and unconscious, where the land meets the sea. Reflecting back, I was being introduced to what Whitmont (1973) called the symbolic approach to the symbol. I was having an experience of something indefinable, intuitive, and imaginative. I was having a feeling sense of something that can be known or conveyed in no other way, since abstract terms do not suffice everywhere.

Objective Study of the Eye in the Hand

At this stage in the process some grounding in what was familiar to me was in order. I needed to define this symbol by means of literal, abstract and more impersonal characterizations. The logical place to go was in the direction of the objective reality of the symbol. The object I bought at the store that day goes by many names depending on the culture of origin. The sales clerk in the store referred to the hand as a "good luck charm". Hamsa (Islam), Hamesh (Hebrew), Humsa (Hindu), Mano Ponderosa (Catholic) and Helping Hand(hoodoo) are all names I have found for this current and ancient symbol used to bless and protect from evil and misfortune. The image itself is quite popular today in many forms such as amulets, talismans, wall plaques, statuary, luminaries, votives, and recurrent images in drawings and paintings. These images are old and still popular apotropaic amulets for protection from the evil eye. The words hamsa and hamesh mean "five" and refer to the digits on the hand. The hand appears both in a two thumbed, bilaterally symmetrical form and in a more natural form in which there is only one thumb. The hand can have the image of an eye or a gemstone in the palm. It can be associated with the crescent in charms. It can be made in any media from silver, gold, pewter, or wood, and can appear in a multitude of sizes. The hand itself can be solid or done in filigree resembling a feather. Most often it is worn around the neck with the fingers facing down. However, it can also be seen as statuary with the fingers facing upward where the image is a desk accessory, bookshelf "knickknack", or wall plaque to protect the home. In many Catholic countries the image is seen in luminaries, votives and prayer cards. A modern variant is the helping hand of hoodoo which is a hand facing to the left or right. The eye in hand is a common item in Israel, Islamic countries, Turkey, India, Latin and South America and the United States (figure 1). All of these images appear to serve the same function: defense from evil.

Figure 1

The Foundations of the Symbol's Use as an Apotropaic

To understand this symbol and how it has appeared throughout history in religious traditions and mythology, we must understand the image against which the hand was designed to protect. As stated before, the eye in the hand is an apotropaic image for protection from the evil eye. The evil eye is believed to harm nursing mothers and their babies, fruit bearing trees, milking animals, and the sperm of men (Elworthy, 1970). The goal in using the amulet is to prevent loss or damage to the forces of generation or generative power.

But where did this originate? How did it evolve? What accounts for its spread throughout the Western World into very diverse religions? The Eye in the Hand is a compound symbol involving the two parts of the body, which combined utilize proportionately more of the brain than other parts of the body. Individually they are vital to the basic functioning in life. United in hand-eye coordination they create a synergy and poetry that are exquisite. The vitality of the symbol of the Eye is illustrated in the mythology of the Egyptian gods, specifically Ra, Hathor and Horus. Yet the definitive answers will not be forthcoming. We can follow some clues which date back to the period just preceding the predynastic period of Egypt (5500-3100 BC). In this time frame we find the transition from primitive nomadic tribes to traditional civilization almost complete (Scott, 1999). The archaeologists trace this development from hunting and migration to settlements arranged around agriculture, domestication of animals, changes in burial practices, and refinement in the use of pottery, metals, architecture and aesthetics. By 4000 BC, what was called the Gerzean period, tomb building began foreshadowing what was to come. Amulets and other ceremonial objects, many of which depict the early animal-form gods, were prolific in the tombs. The increasing focus on the afterlife of this period would grow into the Cult of Osiris and the magnificent burials of the dynasties. Predating this transition were the well-established stories of the gods. Hathor, in particular, had a devoted following by this time in history. Neumann(1991) relates to a statue of a period dated from 800-600 BC wherein the figure sits holding the king Horus. Neumann states:

The Egyptian figure embodies the symbolic richness of a people into whose consciousness the Archetypal Feminine has entered in myth and ritual and in the historical conception of the kingdom. The king, the Great Individual, the god among men and the intermediary between above and below -he too remains the child of the great Mother Goddess, the mother of all gods, who bore him and rebore him and through whom alone he is king. The horns of Hathor, the nurturing cow of heaven, tower over her head, which is adorned by the maternal symbols of the snake and the vulture. She is the throne, sitting upon which he possesses the land of Egypt and with it the earth and its center of fertility. All these symbols, it is true, disclose an enrichment, a complication and specification, of the form-giving archetype.

Thus, the Feminine, the giver of nourishment, becomes everywhere a revered principle of nature, on which man is dependent in pleasure and pain. It is from this eternal experience of man, who is as helpless in his dependence on nature as the infant in his dependence on his mother, that the mother-child figure is inspired forever anew.

The legends of Hathor, which are prehistoric and predate the dynasties, reflect Hathor as this symbol of life on which the people depend. These legends also bring us into closer proximity to the image of the eye and its significance to the Egyptian people. Hathor is involved in two myths regarding the eye, both yielding properties of this aspect of the symbol. The first was the story of the Eye of Ra, one of the many names given to Hathor, and the second was the story of Osiris and Isis (the later age personification of Hathor) and the Eye of Horus.

The Eye of Ra

There are many legends with different plots regarding this aspect of the eye. Campbell (1990) reviews these and presents what he believes are the most reliable versions. What is common in all of them are the wrathful aspect of the eye, Hathor as the carrier of the eye or personification of the eye, and the transformation of it into Uraeus, the rearing cobra, seen as a headdress of royalty. In the myth, man blasphemed Ra and dared to assume autonomy from Ra. This angered him. He decided to send his eye, representing his authority, down among men in the form of Hathor who took the form of Sekhmet. In this form she was particularly brutal and nearly destroyed all of mankind. In this aspect the Eye of the High God is the Great Goddess of the universe in her terrible aspect. Her appetite for blood could not be appeased and upon return, the High God, Ra, turned the eye into a rearing cobra, which he bound around his forehead to ward off his enemies.

The Eye of Horus

In this second pre-dynastic myth, Hathor(as Isis) and her twin brother, Osiris, are involved in a conflict with their brother Seth. Osiris mistook his brother's wife for his own, and the child of that illicit union was Anubis. Seth was so angered he tricked Osiris into getting into a specially made sarcophagus, sealed it shut and threw it into the sea. Isis searched everywhere in grief and desperation and found Osiris returning him homeward. On the journey home, she lay face to face with her dead spouse and conceived Horus. When they returned home, the goddess hid with the body of her lord in the swamps of the Delta and there gave birth to Horus. Seth, who was seeking to appropriate Isis as his own, came upon them in the swamps. Finding the body of Osiris, he dismembered it into 14 parts and dispersed them far and wide. The now twice bereaved goddess scouted everywhere with the jackal-headed boy Anubis. They found basically all the parts and reassembled them as a mummy through the magic of Anubis in his role as embalming priest.

In the meantime, Horus grew into a splendid youth and overwhelmed his uncle Seth in a battle of revenge. Seth turned himself into a black pig which, when Horus gazed upon him, burned out his left eye. (This myth is one reason given why the Egyptians believed the pig to be abominable and the reason they did not eat it.) Finally, Hathor-Isis took this sacrificed left Eye of Horus and presented it as an offering to the mummy of Osiris. This restored the deity to life, an eternal life, beyond the cycle of death and generation. Osiris was then enthroned forever in the Netherworld where he reigns as lord and judge of the resurrected dead.

In these two myths, we see a changing aspect of the eye. From the authoritative and destructive to the healing and life giving. The former symbolized by the cobra as Uraeus and the latter symbolized by the Udjat, the sound eye of Horus. Several amulets possessing the power of healing and protection from evil grew out of this myth. Besides the udjat, there were also the menat and the tiet (Andrews, 1994).

Udjat amulet, Late period, 712-332 BC -  Menat drawing Tjet drawing

The udjat was the eye many of us associate with Egyptian hieroglyphics. The menat was a necklace worn by the goddess Hathor which had several rows of beads with a crescent shaped front that gathered into a counterweight at the back of the neck. Hathor was also known as the Great Menat. She would use the necklace as a conduit through which she would pass her power. It symbolized the divine powers of healing, joy, life, potency, fertility, birth and rebirth. The tjet resembled the ankh with arms turned down and could be imagined to represent a hand. On this amulet were inscribed portions of the 186th chapter of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. A portion of this reads, "The blood of Isis, the virtue of Isis, the magic power of the Eye, are protecting this the Great One; they prevent any wrong being done to him." Other Western names for this amulet are the Buckle of Isis, the Girdle of Isis, the Belt of Isis, the Tie of Isis, the Knot of Isis and the Blood of Isis. It was almost invariably carved out of red jasper stone. Drawing all these together, one wonders about the image as a representation of menstrual blood. This idea would bring the symbol into the realm of ancient women's folk magic. Bringing the image of the blood into association with the eye is somewhat unexpected. Was it the Eye of Horus to which they referred or the Eye of Isis? Perhaps it is the single eye of the cervix from which both life and blood issue. Thoughts of ancient Sumerian "eye-goddesses" come to mind. There were also amulets representing the vulva which were used against the evil eye (Andrews, 1994). Old Egypt clearly lay well within the realm of ancient evil eye belief and the foundation of these images were within the goddess cults.

This idea is further substantiated when we examine the alternative names for the amulets. The Jewish amulet is known as the Hand of Miriam and the Islamic amulet is known as the Hand of Fatimah. Perhaps as these traditions evolved and patriarchal law took hold, these amulets had to become associated with women associated yet subjugated to these new systems. A closer look at Miriam may give us a link from the ancient myths and practices of the Egyptians directly into Jewish folklore. According to Boss (1991), Miriam was linked directly with the Egyptian ruling class and was the sister of Moses. It was Miriam who watched the basket of the baby Moses as it floated on the river and into the pharoah's domain and it was Miriam who insured that Moses would be cared for by Hebrew women. She stood by Moses throughout the plagues. In Exodus (Sublett, 1999) she is described as a prophetess and the sister of Aaron. When the miracles of the Exodus occurred, she led other women into singing, dancing and making music with instruments in celebration. Throughout the Old Testament there are references to people breaking into song and dance in the Egyptian style and this practice was condemned as idolatry. It was in this form of music and celebration that the Hebrews encouraged Aaron to make the golden calf, which brought on the wrath of Yahweh. The presence of the golden calf reminds us of Hathor's image as a heavenly cow (Bleeker, 1973). Once again, residual influences of Egypt impact the practices and new laws brought down from Sinai by Moses. Moses condemned the playing of instruments, singing, and dancing in any form of worship. Perhaps Miriam's "status" as an outspoken prophetess in the singing and dancing associate her substantively with the goddess cult. Of these things we cannot be sure and there is much debate among biblical scholars about this issue. Nonetheless, Miriam is associated with the apotropaic amulets, which have persisted to the present day in Jewish folklore. The assertion is that the amulet is a remnant of goddess worship which was transferred out of the realm of Hathor-Isis into the realm of a human female. There is no association that can be found between the Hamesh and Judaic religious practice. It only remains in the social and folklore traditions.

The Islamic form of the amulet, the Hamsa, also takes on the name of the Hand of Fatimah. There are references to a moon goddess named Fatimah in pre-Islamic Arabia(Ali, 1999). Once again we have links to the ancient Mother Goddess. Her name here means the creatress, the source of the sun, the tree of paradise, the moon and fate. According to legend, she existed from the beginning of the material world. Neumann (1991) speaks of this goddess of fate as the "goddess of time". He says further:

That is why she is a moon goddess, for moon and night sky are the visible manifestations of the temporal process in the cosmos, and the moon, not the sun, is the true chronometer of the primordial era. From menstruation, with its supposed relation to the moon, pregnancy, and beyond, the woman is regulated by and dependent on time; so it is she who determines time - to a far greater extent than the male...

The other association with the Hamsa is Fatimah, the daughter of the Messenger of Allah. Ali(1999) has reported that she had nine names including: the Righteous, the Blessed, the Pure, the Unblemished, the one content with Allah's pleasure, the one pleasing to Allah, the one spoken to by angels, and the Luminous. She was said to be sinless. There is also a persistent belief that remains in the prophetic tradition that she never menstruated. She was considered a pure virgin. Herein she attains the holiness and place of distinction like the virgin Mary in Christianity. In both the Goddess of Fate and the daughter of Mohammed, we have associations to the feminine deity and, once again, the original goddess is supplanted by a human female who is valued by the patriarchal system.

The White Tara

The eye in the hand takes on a deeper meaning in the form of the White Tara. Campbell(1990) states that she is often referred to as the Mother of all the Buddhas. She represents the motherly aspect of compassion. Her seven eyes(three on her face, one on the palm of each hand, and one on the sole of each foot) symbolize the vigilance of her compassion. Often shown seated in the meditation posture, her right hand is in the gesture of supreme generosity, the boon-bestowing posture according to Campbell. Her left hand holds the lotus of compassion with the mudra of the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). It is said she brings the devotee long life and protects against all dangers. Campbell goes further that Tara is a Buddhist savior who is said to be the "personification of a tear of divine compassion." The popularity is reflected in this statement:

The worship of the goddess Tara is one of the most widespread of Tibetan cults, undifferentiated by sect, education, class or position. From the highest to the lowest, the Tibetans find with this goddess a personal and enduring relationship unmatched by any other single deity, even among those of their gods more potent in appearance or more profound in symbolic association (Beyer, 1978).

It is said she guards and protects her people from the cradle to beyond the grave, and her devotees cry out to her in their distress and share with her their joys.

According to the Encyclopedia Mythica (1999), Tara had her roots in India in Hindu mythology. In the myth, Soma, the moon, lusted after and abducted Tara and impregnated her. Their child was named Budha, who became the planet Mercury. She was an important aspect of the Mother Goddess and took on the aspects of most female deities. She had many colors and can be gentle or dangerous, depending on her hue. If she was white or green, she was loving and tender, but if she was red, yellow or blue, it was best to stay out of her way. The Tibetans were so taken with her that they sought to relate their own origin to Tara at any price (Beyer, 1978). One of the earliest pre-Buddhist myths said that the Tibetans were the descendants of the union between a rock ogress and a monkey. By the 13th and 14th centuries, the writings of the Tibetans reflected the evolution of this myth. The monkey became the Bodhisattiva, an incarnation of the Avalokitesvara, and the rock ogress became an incarnation of Tara, linking the Tibetan people fully to the divine. It is fascinating that both the Avalokitesvara and Tara are often depicted as having a thousand faces, a thousand arms, a thousand legs, and a thousand eyes.

I believe that in this worship of Tara, particularly in the matriarchal Tibetan culture, we return to the highest form of spiritual transformation through womanhood. Neumann (1990) states that on the lower plane Tara is a protectress and redemptress and on the higher plane she is the one who leads the world beyond the darkness of bondage. She is "the force of the center, which, within the cycle of life and death, presses toward consciousness and knowledge, transformation and illumination." Neumann (1990) goes further to state:

The Archetypal Feminine in man unfolds like mankind itself. At the beginning stands the primeval goddess, resting the materiality of her elementary character, knowing nothing but the secret of her womb; at the end is Tara, in her left hand the opening lotus blossom of psychic flowering, her right hand held out toward the world in a gesture of giving. Her eyes are half closed and in her meditation she turns toward the outward as well as the inner world; an eternal image of the redeeming female spirit. Both together form the unity of the Great Goddess who, in the totality of her unfolding, fills the world from its lowest elementary phase to its supreme spiritual transformation.

So our journey has taken us from Hathor with open worship of the earth mother to the repression of the feminine spirit hidden in simple folklore within patriarchal systems. Now, with the addition of Tara, we transcend to a new level of consciousness.

The Many Eyed Seraph

The Catholic Church had its own images of transcendental beings possessing the numinous eye. In Spain, there is a fresco from the twelfth century done by the Master of Pedret. It is described as follows(Elder, 1996):

Between the windows of the apse end of a Christian church, two angelic beings, of the order of seraphs, appear in a dramatic scene. Although the fresco is severely damaged, the angels are the best preserved: painted in Byzantine style, frontally posed, they are a conjunction of human male and some strange bird. Their noble heads, with serious expression and numbus of light are visible as are the human hands and barely visible feet; each figure bears six large brown wings trimmed in gray and white which stand out with particular beauty against a dark green background. These six wings arrange themselves in three pairs. One pair rises above the head, crosses, and is surrounded by the letters SCS (an abbreviation of "sanctus", Latin for "holy") repeated three times; another pair of wings drops from the shoulders to cover the body and crosses at the legs; yet another spreads out on either side - creating a fourfold design - to support the seraphs suspended in flight. Significantly, the upper and lower pairs of wings bear eyes, and each human palm bears an eye. At the bottom left of the scene, the prophet Isaiah is on his knees bowing and receives at his mouth a burning coal held in a pair of tongs by a seraph. At the bottom right, another bowing prophet - perhaps Ezekiel - is shown two strange pairs of wheels surmounted by fire.

This fresco is a portrait of a vision held by Isaiah. He was in the temple at Jerusalem, probably performing the duties of a priest, when suddenly he was swept up by a vision into a heavenly temple complete with the throne room and altar. Isaiah knew that his lips were unclean. These celestial beings were a special class of super beings thought of as lesser gods (Psalm 82:1), sons of God (Psalm 29:1) and ultimately messengers. Isaiah was the only person in the Bible who claims to have seen that class of angel called a seraph. They also sang as one of their major tasks and praised the high God. The Hebrew word for seraph means "the burning one" and so it is appropriate that the seraph is associated with the burning coal experienced by Isaiah and the fiery wheels of Ezekiel. In the vision of Isaiah there were no eyes, but in the visions of Ezekiel (chapters 1-10), there were burning wheels with rims full of eyes. The artist also probably knew of the the Book of Revelation where cherubs bear six wings full of eyes all round and within (Revelation 4:6-8).

Scholars generally agree that angels belong to that class of intermediate beings that appear in a religious tradition when the divine realm becomes transcendent, far beyond the human. In many ways they operate in the same way as the Bodhisattvas. With the multiplicity of eyes in the seraph, they remind us of the 1000-eyed Bodhisattvas. Psychologically then, they perform the same function. Jung (1977) says, "If angels are anything at all, they are personified transmitters of unconscious contents that are seeking expression" (CW 13.108). The seraphs in particular would represent "fiery" archetypal energies with much affect, insisting upon becoming conscious. Psychologically, we encounter these messengers as dreams, visions, and fantasies as well as highly charged projections. Even Isaiah had to have a taste of this fire if he was to be purified. The unclean mixture or confusion of ego and Self was to be sorted out. Like Isaiah, only a humble attitude chastened by the fires of transformation can endure the scrutiny of the many-eyed objective psyche.

The Eye in the Hand in the Americas

It is widely accepted that the native Americans arrived from Asia on dry land across what is today the Bering Strait. These migrations came in waves and developed culturally in various ways depending on the environments in which they settled. Joseph Campbell in Mythic Image (1990) draws on the similarities in the artifacts of Middle America with those of Asia. He speaks of the similarities as arguments against "independent development" of the symbols. Regardless of the origin, the symbol of the eye in the hand is found in the artifacts and mythology of the North and Middle American peoples. A select few of these will be described, placed in cultural context and discussed from archetypal perspectives.

Links to Shamanism- The Yup'ik Masks and the Modoc Legend of Kumush

1920's Mask of Human Hand with Eye Finger Masks as Hands           

Angalkut (shaman) with Hand Masks

The Yup'ik Indians are the Eskimos of Western Alaska. They are described by Ann Fienup-Riordan(1996) as members of the larger family of Inuit cultures extending from Prince William Sound on the Pacific coast of Alaska to the Bering Strait, and from there six-thousand miles north and east along Canada's Arctic coast into Labrador and Greenland. Within this culture, there has been a long tradition of mask making which is described as abundant and imaginative. The masks differ in size and shape and reflect the great tolerance of multiple perspectives among the people. The cultural use of the masks were as stage props which were seen as special and yet not sacred in and of themselves. They were worn in dances wherein the masked performers transcended themselves in the eyes of the audience. In this trance, the shaman always wore hand masks over his hands which served to transform his experience. Some masks were believed to actually imbue the dancers with the spirits they represented. Although the masks were usually destroyed after use, many of these masks, particularly of the 19th and early 20th century have been preserved by anthropologists and local historians. The masks appeared to serve as vehicles for experiencing and influencing the beings the people relied upon. Among them were face, hand and finger masks with representations of a hand containing an eye. For the Yupek Eskimos, the hand protected the shaman on his journey.              

The Modoc Indians of Oregon and California have a myth of Kumush who was an "old man of the ancients"(Kunesh, 1998). Kumush is depicted as a masked being with hands containing eyes with the elements of the shaman and creation linked to him. He descended with his daughter to the underground realm of spirits, and having spent six days and six nights there, decided to return and bring some of the shades with him. He collected the bones in a big basket, and set off, but was balked twice by the long and steep climb out of the netherworld. Every time he fell, the bag opened and the bones leapt out, taking flesh as the spirits whose bones they were, shouting and singing. The third time he shouted angrily to the spirits to remain quiet and he managed the climb out of the underworld, bringing the spirits with him, including those that begot the tribe of the Modocs. Then he finished his arrangement of the world, traveled along the sun's road and built for himself and his daughter a house in the middle of the sky, where they still live today. We see a similar theme in the artwork of present day Kwakwaka'wakw artist Beau Dick in the image of the raven with hands containing eyes as wings. The name of this work is "The Hands of Creation" reminiscent of the creation legend of the Great Raven.

Coming Home

When I saw the Eye in the Hand in my first sandplay, I believed that this image had somehow emerged from the collective unconscious. As I researched this symbol I discovered it existed in the region of my birth and upbringing. I was born in Gadsden, Alabama and my father introduced me to the many artifacts and history of the American Indians of the Southeast throughout my childhood. I had completely forgotten that, as part of that teaching, he had taken me to the Moundville, Alabama excavations at four years of age. I must have seen the motif of the eye in the hand and buried the image in my own unconscious until it reemerged in my sandplay. With the discovery of the sun disc and gorget in this research, I had indeed come home in my process with this symbol of the Mississippian Indian culture.

According to Walthall (1994), a major change in prehistoric Indian culture began to take place just prior to AD 1000. These Indians had been living in the Middle South for over 10,000 years and the emerging Mississippian culture represented a major transformation. Impressive civic-ceremonial centers were produced in Moundville, Alabama, Etowah in Georgia, Spiro in Oklahoma and Cahokia in Illinois. In terms of influence, ceremonialism, technology, architecture, population density and overall richness, the Mississippian development was unparalleled in prehistoric North America. With the appearance of this culture came distinctive pottery with crushed shell in clay and the construction, on or around a central plaza, of large earthen pyramids which served as platforms for temples, houses of the elite, and council buildings. These Mississippian mounds present the greatest sources of the artifacts of this culture. The mounds served as raised platforms for structures built of timber, mud and thatch. High status burials and human offerings were also at times placed within them. According to Fundaburk and Foreman(1985), there are many similarities between Mexican pyramids and these temple mounds.

Other important traits of the Mississippian culture include the use of the bow, arrows tipped with small triangular stone points, floodplain agriculture based upon the cultivation of corn, beans and squash, religious ceremonialism connected with agricultural production and centered around a fire-sun deity, long-distance trade, increased territoriality and warfare, and the emergence of highly organized chiefdoms. Ritual and ceremony were very important to the Moundville life. A man named James Howard (Walthall, 1994) made a detailed study of a great number of decorated and exotic objects. He believes that the life was centered around a fire-sun deity and revolved around the annual cycle of the maize crop. He concluded that the focal time of the year was the Busk or Green Corn ceremony in mid-summer.

On the basis of these religiously inspired artifacts, the major design elements found at Moundville can be divided into two categories: motifs, often in abstract form, and representations of animals which are usually naturalistic. One of the most common motifs and the subject of this paper is the eye in the hand. According to Walthall (1994), this is found on ceramic vessels, stone discs, and on a copper gorget at Moundville. The palm side of the hand faces the viewer and the joints and fingernails are indicated, creating an impossible representation which incorporates features of both sides of the hand. The eye, usually a simple oval containing a small circular pupil, is centered in the palm. This dual motif is thought to symbolize the hand and eye of the creator.

Stone Disc Palette

This beautiful disc has been identified as a paint palette, since it is heavily stained with pigments. It was probably used by prehistoric Indians for ceremonial painting of ritual objects and the human body. Approximately 40 of these were found. This one has a human hand and wrist pointing upward. The hand appears to be both sides of the hand. On the hand is the outline of what appears to be a human eye. There are two entwined and knotted rattle snakes. The heads are not entirely reptile, the tongues are not forked, and each serpent head has a small triangular ear and horn. Archaeologists do not agree on the meaning, but do associate it with supernatural power and divinity (Walthall, 1994).

Hand and Eye Gorget

This has been identified as a medallion, an ornamental collar or a throat armor. One is immediately taken with it's similarity to the Hamsa amulet. It is also interesting that it had a red color much like the Tjet amulet representing the blood of Isis. (The figure at the left shows it in its correct position. The figure to the right is for illustration of detail.) The original artifact is in Moundville and is made of red shale. It dates between 1250 and 1550 AD. It is assumed this was also used in religious ritual. Again, the hand was a powerful shamanistic symbol and with the eye represented the hand and eye of the Creator.

Recalling the motif of the "eye in the palm" of the compassionate Bodhisattvas, Joseph Campbell(1990) has written this about the stone disc palette:

Interpreted in Oriental terms, its central sign would be said to represent the "fear banishing gesture" of a Bodhisattva hand showing on its palm the compassionate Eye of Mercy, pierced by the sight of the sorrows of this world. The framing pair of rattlesnakes, like those of the Aztec Calendar Stone, would then symbolize the maya power binding us to this vortex of rebirths, and the opposed knots would stand for the two doors, east and west, of the ascent and descent, appearances and disappearances, of all things in the endless round. Furthermore, the fact that the eye is at the center of the composition would suggest, according to this reading, that compassion is the ultimate sustaining and moving power of the universe, transcending and overcoming its pain. And finally, the fact that the hand is represented as though viewed simultaneously from back and front would say that this Bodhisattva power unites opposites.

Our picture depicts the dual aspects of psychic life which have been projected, since ancient times, as metaphysical realms. On the one hand, there is ordered consciousness symbolized by the regular appearance of the sun's "blazing eye;" on the other hand, there is the unconscious, a chaotic region of animal instincts, symbolized as "serpentine monsters" capable indeed of wrapping themselves around the ego and dragging it into its depths. Yet the American Indian projection is so naive, so pure, that it also preserves the fact, that the unconscious is full of novelty and is a creative reality which can be harmonized with the structures of conscious living. That has been achieved aesthetically in our artifact. The image of a "hand" at the center, however, reminds us that this beautiful piece was made by human hands and hints at the requirement of human effort if we are ever to unite the opposites within ourselves. Should what we say here be more than intuition, should it also be rooted in the facts of the psyche and in the requirement to withdraw projections, then sensation has also been served. Serving opposite functions and honoring the larger duality of the conscious and unconscious psyche is, then, the modest modern equivalent of the prayers, offerings, and correct ethical behavior of the Mound Builders.

The Moundville artifacts and Joseph Campbell's words bring this symbol home, both to Alabama and to the meaning of this symbol in the experience of our patients and in our work as therapists. Leaving home and venturing into the world becomes a living metaphor full of projections from our inner psychic life. In this metaphor, coming home then becomes a withdrawal of these projections with a personal recognition of what Campbell calls the larger duality of the conscious and unconscious within ourselves. This recognition occurs in the analytical moment. Marie-Louise von Franz(1982) speaks of this as "Insight" and relates it to the symbol of the eye. She states,

[This moment of insight]... depends on the archetype of the Self, of inner wholeness, which controls the equilibrium of the whole psyche and corrects the ego attitude through dreams. Another, inner subject watches us in dreams; it sees us as too anxious, too reckless, too immoral, or too anything else that seems to be a deviation from the norm of wholeness......At first this eye from the Beyond sees us; then through this eye we see ourselves and God or the unfalsified reality. Jung says:

The mandala is indeed an Žeye,' the structure of which symbolizes the centre of order in the unconscious....The eye may well stand for consciousness...looking into its own background." At the same time it is also the Self, looking at us.

This inner Self has been likened to God or to God within us. It has been called the light of nature that creates our dreams. Whatever "it" is called will involve some degree of projection limiting meaning. Somehow the eye as symbol captures the pivotal point between the opposites, between the conscious and unconscious - where "the land meets the sea."

The hand adds richness to the symbol. Amman describes the hands as follows:

The hands can build the bridge between our inner world and the external world...The hands are the mediators between spirit and matter, between an inner image and an actual creation. By handling, the existing energies become visible.

The hands take up the unconscious flow, make it visible and touchable in the sand, thereby calling forth an inner picture of process. In each case, however, the hands form the bridge between the psychic-mental world and material reality.

The hands of the analysands bring motifs and forms into the sand which are foreign to their consciousness (Amaan, 1991).

Later in her book, she says of one of her patients, "...her hands had their own awareness...her hands gave form to her unconscious knowledge, in the sand." Jung makes comment of this in The Transcendent Function ( CW 8). He speaks of those people "whose hands have the knack of giving expression to the contents of the unconscious." Later in the work where he describes the need to clarify dream content, he writes, "This can be done by drawing, painting or modeling. Often the hands know how to solve a riddle with which the intellect has wrestled in vain. By shaping it one goes on dreaming the dream in greater detail in the waking state." Thus, the hand can be an organ of sight yielding knowledge of an object that may be hidden from the intellect. In the analytical moment, the patient experiences the liminal space where the world of opposites becomes visible and transcendence becomes possible.

The therapist witnesses this process with the eye of his own experience of the Self from his own sandplay process and analysis. Marie Louise von Franz (1991) states, "He that knows God in himself in this way will also know his brother." The eye of the therapist is therefore a knowing eye which can collect the images of the patient in that analytical moment, empathize with his feelings, and recognize co-transference. The hand of the therapist represents the container, the temenos, the free and protected space, which can hold the process of the patient without judgment or interpretation. Perhaps this is why the symbol is so popular among sandplay therapists and others. It remains alive in the culture and continues to manifest as evidenced by its popularity on the internet (figure 2).

Figure 2


The circle is now complete. I have been on a journey with this symbol which reflects my macrodevelopment and microdevelopment. Throughout the journey, I have been learning the way of the symbol. My initial sandplay and introduction to the Eye in the Hand led me to the Egyptian mythology of Hathor, with organic, undifferentiated wholeness - The Great Mother. With initiative and differentiation, I watched this symbol change as it was influenced by the masculine and integrated into a system of patriarchal order. Herein, external authority, rules and regulations, systems of meaning, hierarchies of value and theories of truth eclipsed the broader perspective of the symbol. What followed was the reemergence of the dynamic feminine in Tara and the altered states of the shaman taking me to creation and transformation. With the withdrawal of projection, I embraced the liminality and potential space accepting my individuation. Coming home, I returned to a realization of wholeness and authority in the Self. Knowing this, I am capable of holding the symbol and can mirror this process for others in the analytical moment. The cycle begins again. The circle becomes a spiral upward as I continue in the process of knowing the Self by working the symbols that enthrall me!


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I wish to mention a number of people who have helped me on this journey. In particular, I want to express my love and appreciation to Ann Ratcliffe, for introducing me to sandplay, and to June Matthews, for accompanying me in my sandplay process and continuing to mentor me on this exciting path. In addition, I want to thank Gretchen Hegeman, Kate Amatruda and Lucia Chambers for their guidance in the preparation of this paper. Finally, I wish to thank my partner, Allen Bodine, for his love, patience, and understanding during the gestation and birth of this paper.

Also, please note, that all graphical representations in this paper have either been used with permission by the owner or the representations are free, public domain graphics taken from the internet. Where possible, the origin of these graphics has been noted and credit given. None of these graphics other than the one used on the first page of the paper are images generated or created by me.

April, 1999, all rights reserved.

Frank Adair, MD, is in practice in Redwood City, CA.


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