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How Long Have Humans Been Shaking Hands?

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Have we seen the demise of the handshake? With the spread of COVID-19, hundreds of millions of people around the world began avoiding physical contact, including handshakes. Even an authority, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is turned off by the whole thing. On an April 2020 Wall Street Journal podcast, he said: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands again, to be honest with you.”

Fist bumps, slight blows, elbow boops, and mere nods are all well and good. But handshakes have been a near-universally accepted greeting ritual forever, it seems. When did the whole hand-shaking ritual get started, anyway? The answer — like so many in these oh-so uncertain times — seems to be, “It depends.” It depends on what kind of handshake you mean.

Handshakes Of The Hatchet-Burying, Deal-Making, Settlement-Confirming, Loyalty-Committing Variety

A throne during the days of Assyria’s ancient ruler Shalmaneser III in the 9th Century BC seems to depict two people shaking hands. Just grab your copy of Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age, and you can read all about it. Historians believe Shalmaneser III was sealing an alliance by shaking hands with a ruler of Babylon.

Homer’s epic poems The Illiad and Odyssey were written in the 8th Century BC, although that’s not a universally held view (but that’s a different story). Homer’s poems include references to handshakes between people making oaths and pledges and trying to demonstrate trust.

In the 4th Century BC, funerary art — that’s art that shows up on tombstones, grave markers, vessels for holding ashes, etc. — sometimes pictured the deceased shaking hands with a family member. That handshake wasn’t a hello, so much as a symbol for an eternal bond between the world of the living and the dead.

For one more ancient example of handshaking, take a closer look at your ancient coins. Some of them featured pairs of hands in a handshake. Historians suggest that the image was intended to symbolize friendship and loyalty.

The Modern “Hi, How Are You, Nice To Meet You,” Or “Hey, Great Meeting, Let’s Do This Again Soon,” Version 

By the 19th Century, the handshake had become so common that it was being looked down on as a somewhat inappropriate gesture that only friends should engage in. At least, that’s the case according to “A Cultural History of Gesture,” published by the University of Groningen. Clearly a lot had changed since ancient times. The earliest references to handshakes in the modern sense — as a form of greeting — are dated to the 16th and 17th Centuries. 

A 16th Century German translation of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel may refer to handshaking as a form of greeting.  Having said that, an English translation of the same text — originally written in French — refers to “a thousand caresses, a thousand embraces, a thousand good-days” That may not be the same thing at all. 

By the 17th Century, though, the existence of the handshake as a form of greeting seems well-established. By then, Quakers were using a handclasp as a form of greeting. It was a more democratic and egalitarian method compared to bowing or hat-tipping. 

The trend seems to have been firmly entrenched by the 1800s when etiquette guidebooks included instructions on how handshakes should go. That’s not to say everyone loved the notion of handshaking. An 1884 edition of The American Magazine reported the creation of a French group to abolish the “vulgar English innovation” of “le shake-hands.” Clearly, they failed.

Even as handshaking came to be a more casual greeting tradition, it has remained a symbol of agreement, reconciliation, and accord, too. It even shows up in (more recent) historical photos.

Will COVID-19 bring an end to this millennia-long and evolving tradition of handshaking for one reason or another? It remains to be seen. For the time being, though, let’s temporarily return to the pre-Quaker days and bow our heads or tip our hats instead. Just to avoid transmitting any viruses, you know. 

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