In part of his ongoing column
"Kheiron" No. 1
A Brief Apology
Most any surviving source, ancient or medieval, that deals with the practice of divination by regard of the lineaments of the hand is given to associate the forefinger with both the liver, and with Jupiter. In the entire body of serious Kheiromantic writing practitioners and scholars have--for centuries--been content simply to repeat this set of associations for fact. Unfortunately even for the late-Renaissance mystics from whom the bulk of that writing comes, the forefinger’s linkage to Jupiter and to the liver is something that can only be stated, but scarcely explained.
Manly P. Hall wrote, in his 1950 volume on the history of the ancient healing arts, “It is well to remember that all myths yield readily to reasonable interpretation.”
Our task is just such a reasonable interpretation. One who is keen to delve into the sea of related symbols that form the forefinger-liver-Jupiter triad, will quickly come to understand that a careful study of language is absolutely necessary. Therefore the inquiry at-hand, into the fundamental aspects of Kheiromancy and its apparent Proto-Indo-European source, will rely at times on assessing issues of comparative etymology. While that sort of study can prove a bit arcane for the lay-reader, however, one is encouraged to physically sound-out the related words put forth in these arguments, and perhaps may be surprised at the ease with which the ear is able to recognize that, which at-first glance confuses the eye.
With some apology made, then, for the occasional density of etymological theorizing, it’s prudent to begin by simply questioning how man of antiquity viewed the liver functionally, and symbolically. That will provide us the ground on which to pursue the liver’s connection to Jupiter, or the sky-deities, and eventually cross onto the wider plain of Proto-Indo-European healing arts, and the forefinger.
Liver and Fire
Ancient doctrine typically identifies the liver with the seat of life in the body. The liver was believed by ancient man to house his in-dwelling fire; his anima, or his soul. Scholars have supplied the term “hepatocentric,” or ‘liver-centered’ to traditions of that sort, in order to contrast them with belief systems that located the soul in the heart, or the head. Hepatocentrism may seem strange to the modern eye at a glance, but the symbolic rationale is straightforward enough. Observation of the human anatomy, even in a rudimentary way, reveals the liver to be a comparatively large organ, and crucially, to be one thoroughly saturated with blood. It follows that the liver is the source of blood in the body. The Anglo-Saxon leech book authored by Bald confirms this line of thinking for the medieval Germanics. In the second book, or Epitome, Bald describes the liver as a crucible which magically transmutes food into blood:
“The liver is the peculiar seat of blood and its increase. … The liver accepts the most foul parts from food and cooking them with its heat, liquefies them at length. From this it makes blood, which first it collects with many pipes, then taken up it is led to four major blood vessels which are tied to the liver with a reservoir.”
A similar idea is represented quite clearly for the Greeks in the Promethean myth. Initially, Prometheus hides the best parts of the sacrificial ox from Zeus, which includes the liver. In doing so, Prometheus arguably steals the ‘inner-fire’ of the offering away from Zeus. His punishment is the continual consumption of his own liver by the eagles of Zeus; the suffering of continual death. Even at the time the Promethean myth is recorded by Hesiod, these analogies between the sky-god, the liver, and the life-giving warmth of blood seem well formed.
The general hepatocentric notion is thus clarified: The liver is viewed as a kind of furnace, which produces and warms the blood by its mystical soul-fire. The blood is then carried throughout the body from that spring or reservoir, and by warming the rest of the body, animates it. If that idea is indeed a Proto-Indo-European one, we would expect to find some elementary overlap between the ideas of blood, life, and warmth in that originating language. In fact, we do.
The word ‘blood’ descends from martial expressions in the Proto-Indo-European, but the Latin for blood sanguinus has a different root in that tongue, *h₁ésh₂r̥. This word meant ‘life-giving,’ and specifically signified patrilineal kinship. There was in the ancient language one more designation for blood: krewh₂. This word gave us the later Greek κρύος (xhruos) “cold”, as well as the Latin crusta, “crust,” or “hard”. Cruelty, crushing, and hrae, “corpse,” or “carcass,” descend as well from this second Proto-Indo-European notion of a lack of warmth.
To simplify, those Pontic-Caspian peoples appear to have distinguished idiomatically between two different types of blood: The “blood-inside” the body, and the “blood-outside.” Blood inside the body is an ancestor of words for bestowing life, and for kinship traced specifically through the father. Blood outside the body gives rise to words for cooling, coldness, hardness or coagulation, and the inanimate corpse.
Ichor and Water
Common turns of phrase like a weak-liver, or a pale liver; ‘lily-livered’ are all descriptions of poor constitution, bad health, or a general weakness with the inner-fire. As it happens, liver, lieber, and life are all cognates. In Latin the liver was iecur, and its root *hyḗkʷ-r̥, is thought by scholars to refer to the liver as well. One will note the unmistakable phonetic similarity between *hyḗkʷ-r̥ and the Greek term for the divine substance that flowed through the veins of the gods in place of blood; ἰχώρ (ixor) “ichor”. The etymology of ixor is, however, entirely unknown. *hyḗkʷ-r̥ is also the root of the term “Hepatic”, or the Greek ἧπαρ (ipar), which signifies the liver. It does seem tenable that ichor would come out of the same confluence of related terms for the liver, for blood, and for life--being the divine counterpart for blood.
Aristotle, among others, echoes what seems to be a very ancient line of thinking--connecting water with the divine blood of the gods, only later to acquire the oft-repeated characteristics of honey and nectar. He writes that the cicada was thought to be immortal like the gods, because it had no blood and instead subsisted on dew. Countless mythological traditions pertaining to the ‘divine water’ stand now just outside the door, but before we pass through, we ought to take a moment to recognize a linguistic relation between water and the liver. As we will see, the connection between blood and ichor for the ancients appears to descend from a shared watery quality, and a warming quality, both generally associated with vitality.
Water has its Proto-Indo-European root in wódr̥, or *wed, which translates directly to “wet,” and does not interact with phonemes that we associate with blood, or the liver. It’s considered active rather than passive, in the same way that “ignite” is active, but “fire” is passive. However, fascinatingly, there is a passive counterpart-root for water as well, that more nearly means a body of water; a reservoir of water, or a river. This root has produced dozens of words with synonymous meanings in descendant languages. The word is h₂ep-, and the similarity between this phoneme and the liver-related prefix in “hepatic” or “hep-“ or the Greek ipar is quite striking.
All of which is to suggest: A symbolic convergence, preserved in the language, between the liver, blood, water, and ichor. Its origin is a general idea that vitality is a function of warmth and wateriness, as opposed to the cold, inert dryness that consumes the body after the soul has departed. At the very least the postulate should be advanced that the word “ichor,” which has no yet-accepted etymology, is in fact clearly descended from--and cognate with--the root *hyḗkʷ-r̥ and it’s related form yókʷr̥. If that should prove to be true, “ichor” then shares its root with the Latin and the Greek words for the liver: iecur, and ipar.
And so we come to understand a kind of far-ancient, qualitative wateriness lies at the root both the immortal blood of the gods, and the mortal blood of men. From there, hepatocentrism does not lay far downstream at all.
Our suspicion finds some more purchase in Onians’ encyclopedic work, “Origins of European Thought.” He notes that in the Homeric literature we see that θυμός (thumos)--which is that mortal volition--is an emanation of the blood, and is “destroyed on death.” ‘Thumos-shattering’ is a famous Homeric death idiom. The aforementioned concept of two-bloodedness; the Proto-Indo-European differentiation between living blood inside the body, and lifeless blood outside, is reflected in the obverse pair of thumos and βροτός (vrotos) “gore.” Thumos being the living blood, and vrotos the lifeless, shed blood; the shattered thumos.
To linger a moment on the relation of ichor to water, recall the root h₂ep-. Onians points out that ichor is “perhaps related to αἰών (aion), or the liquid of the immortal life-soul and to the water of life.” The original, watery character of ichor is perhaps retained still, in the Promethean myth--where drops of ichor fall from Prometheus’s wounds and cause plants to spring up from the ground where they land.
At this juncture, one is inclined to point out countless funerary traditions concerning water--in the general sense that, in death, the body evidently dried up and wasted away to rot and dust. Libations of all types seem to contain the symbolic thread of offering moisture as sustenance to the god, for one reason or another, and similarly do we see for example the Minoan “kainag” rites, or Boeotian grave reliefs depicting the hero holding the cup--or the grail; the vessel for the water of everlasting life. The Babylonians designated one as the ‘pourer of water’ in funerary rituals--usually the closest kin of the departed. An old Babylonian curse reads:
“May the gods deprive him of an heir and a pourer of water.”
Liver and Sky
In moving to understand the relationship between the liver and Jupiter, we’ll begin by examining the practices of the Haruspicies of Etruria. The Etruscan haruspex no-doubt inherited his craft from a lineage extending back to Babylonia in one way or another. In fact the art of divining omens and portents from comparing the liver of a sacrificial animal to the sky is well-documented among the Babylonians. It’s not particularly difficult to understand the magical mechanism of extispicy: Just as food, consumed, is transmuted to blood by the liver and becomes a part of man and his will, so does the sacrifice offered to the god sustain, and integrate with the divine will. The haruspex then, studying the liver, is studying a sacred object which has been consumed by, and assimilated into the godhead.
The Etruscans give us a clue as to the liver-sky connection in the form of a tradition whereby lightning strikes in certain areas of the horizon were ‘read,’ against the liver. The character of the portent was down to the position, at least, of the bolt of lightning using the liver as a guide analogous to the sky.
The question of why, however--why the liver was identified with the sky god, specifically--is more murky. There must be some analogizing train of thought from which the sympathy between the two is the obvious conclusion.
Returning to the original root word in the Proto-Indo-European for the blood-within, we again find our footing. That root, *h₁ésh₂r̥, denotes kinship. It signifies fatherly blood; the idea, called agnation, that familial relation was exclusive to the patrilineal line is characteristic of the Pontic-Caspian peoples and their Indo-European descendants. Notions of blood-relatives; being ‘of the same blood,’ so on and so forth, come down to us from the agnatic idea. Agnatic traditions provide a natural, mystical connectivity between the vivifying function of the liver and the divine sky-father, Dyeus Patir.
Utilizing the liver to divine the will of Jupiter (extispicy, haruspicy) is a later, divinatory application, then, of the ancient agnatic idea. We do in fact see that extispicy was a practice attributed to the Scythians--but more in due course.
William Edward Hearn describes the theory of agnation among the Proto-Indo-Europeans, at some length, in his 1887 book on the household. He writes that the mother was, in all likelihood, not considered “of the son’s blood,” pointing to the Hellenic episode in which Orestes was tried for killing his mother Klytemnestra--who murdered his father Agamemnon. While on the one hand, Orestes was honor-bound to avenge the death of his father, on the other, it was considered a grave transgression to kill one’s own family member. Orestes argued, successfully, that while Klytemnestra was his mother, she was not of his blood; not like his father. Therefore, she was not his family and the vengeance he exacted for Agamemnon was just. Hearn writes:
“--A male was the first founder of the house. His descendants have “the nature of the same blood” as he. They, in common, possess the same principle of life. The life-spark, so to speak, has been once kindled, and its identity, in all its transmissions, must be preserved. But the father is the life-giver. He alone transmits the life-spark which, from his father, he received. The daughter receives, indeed, the principle of life, but she cannot transmit it. She can, at most, be the medium of transmitting another, quite different life-spark. None but males possess this capacity of transmission. None but males, therefore, could maintain the identity of the original life-principle, or could perform the worship of which that principle was the center.”
Conceiving of the blood as both vivifying--animating; mortifying--and as being transmitted exclusively by the father, results in a clear poetic analogy between the warming, animating lake of blood in the body, its alchemical production in the liver-furnace, and the divine father or “kindler” of that spark in the sky--Dyeus Patir--who occasions to lash out at the earth with miraculous fire in the form of lightning. Is it any wonder then, that the Etrurians attempted to glean some insight into the divine temperament, by studying the fire in the sky against the source of agnation in the body?
To rightly uncover the role of the forefinger in the liver-sky tradition, we now turn our attention back to the Hellenes; to the mythological people called the Idaean Daktyloi. The Dakytloi (or, “fingers”) are one of a number of different names for what are essentially progenitor tribes--or fathering races--among the Hellenes. The Cretan name for them was Kourites (or Curetes). The name Kourites bears a clear resemblance to the root word koryos; the Proto-Indo-European initiatory cult of warmaking youths--from where comes the word for a young man in the Greek as well: Kouros. The Kourybantes, the Cabieri, and the Rhodian Telchines are all considered somewhat interchangeable for those incoming, settling progenitor tribes: The Daktyloi. Siculus, for example, states that the Cabieri of Samothrace were those same Idaean Daktyloi of Crete.
Pausanias explicitly suggests that they are of “Hyperborean” ancestry. He says, concerning the origin of the Olympic Games:
“The most learned antiquaries of Elis say that Kronos was the first king of heaven, and that in his honor a temple was set up in Olympia by the men of that age, who were named the Golden Race. When Zeus was born, Rhea entrusted the guardianship of her son to the Daktyloi of Ida, who are the same as those called Kourites. They came from Cretan Ida … Heracles, being the eldest, matched his brothers in a running race, and crowned the victor with a laurel of wild olives … which is said to have been introduced to Greece by Heracles from the land of Hyperboreans, men living beyond the home of the northern wind. Olen was the first to say that from those Hyperboreans Achaea came to Delos.”
Other Hyperborean associations will become apparent shortly. The Daktyloi Idaioi--or Kourites--are so-called for their settlement on Crete, on the slopes of Mt. Ida; that is, “The Fingers of Ida.” In fact, the name Cretan is derived from Kourites, meaning the descendants thereof. According to the mythological canon the Daktyloi Idaioi brought to Crete, from Hyperborea, knowledge of healing, of song, and of metalworking. Iron was said to have first been carried out of the bosom of Ida by the Daktyloi. We are reminded in-passing of ample associations in the textual record that identify the art of metallurgy with the Pontic-Caspian peoples. As for song, the poetic “Dactylic” meter is named for the Dakytloi as well.
What of healing? Pausanias records that the Daktyloi were five in number--though sometimes they are recounted as three when explicitly described as metallurgists, or ten, where the five brothers are wedded to five sisters. For the five male Daktyloi, their names are typically given as Herakles the thumb, Paianios the forefinger, Epimedes the middle finger, Iasos the ring-finger, and Idas the little finger. We will of course limit the scope of our attention to Paianios.
Unraveling the meaning encoded in the name of the Daktyl Paianios proves challenging. The earliest traditions of healing for the Greeks surround a handful of figures. They are the old god Paian, the centaur Kheiron--literally, “the hand”--and the hero Asklepios. Apollo is typically involved in some honorary or assistive capacity. It’s worth noting that Paion (or Paean) is given by Homer to be the name of a place in a far-northern region, in Thrace, in the Axios river valley. These Paionians would likely have been taken for the same Hyperborean stock, which Pausanias attributed to the Daktyloi Idaioi. Homer makes mention of the “Paionians” as allies of the Trojans. Scholars still debate the particulars.
We can already begin to see it take shape, that the Greek term commonly employed for a healer, or physician--a “Paian”--was lent to the practitioners of healing arts from that older god Paian, whose name was then eventually reduced to an epithet as his function was subsumed by the newer cults, but whose origins lay in the north--having come down through Thrace in successive migrations, preserved in the myths of the “Hyperborean” Daktyloi. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of temples to various healing gods; to Apollo and Asklepios incorporated sacred, natural springs. The poet Krates recounts visiting a hot spring, where a sort of hospital called a “Paioneion” was located.
Germane to those older associations is the assimilation of the hands with the magical art of healing. Some trace of this symbolic continuity lingers in the myth of the Daktyloi with the forefinger, thus lending him the name “Paianios.” To draw the most basic connection between these healing traditions and the liver, it can be simply said that one’s health and longevity must obviously have been viewed as a function of the health and strength of the liver.
One familiar with the esoteric traditions of Indo-European apothecaries may take pause here, however, and raise a question. The medical function is typically ascribed not to the forefinger, but to the ring-finger. The Romans called this digit the medicus, for a number of reasons. Which daktyl, then, is rightly integrated symbolically with the healing arts--the forefinger or the ring-finger?
In truth, all five Daktyloi have been associated with one curative function or another at some point. What we find upon rigorous interrogation of these themes, names, and records, is a general Indo-European sense that the hand is a tremendously important focus of the healer. With his hands does the physician presume to engage in the divine, curative work, which the body undertakes as a matter of natural inclination. Just as Eliade described the smith (metallurgy being a Daktylic tradition, bear in mind) as “intervening” in the gods’ work of divine embryology by transmuting, and transforming ores in the fire; just as I have elsewhere explained, the architect engages in a divine proportional construction--proportion emanating from the hands’ function in measurement--so too does the physician-seer involve himself in the study of the natural laws of the body; of the house of the soul; and intercede--he directs some degree of its function toward a curative purpose. The notion of the healing touch, or a “healing blow” is, for the Greeks, then at least as old as the teacher of Asklepios--the centaur Kheiron, for his eponymous “hands of healing.”
Kheiron was, naturally, the son of Kronos--who, recall Pausanias called the “first king of heaven,” and to whom an altar was set up at Olympia by the Hyperboreans. This would make him a half-brother of Zeus. As a related aside, the operative word χειρουργός (kheirourgos) most nearly translates to ‘surgery,’ and suggests an active, invasive work on the ill or wounded. Kheiron was also the mentor of a number of heroic characters including Iason the Argonaut--who shares his name with the third Daktyl, or medicus finger. Though we can set aside the ring-finger for a later study, some slight effort spent here in comparing the name Iason to Paianios is useful to buttress the forefinger’s linkage to the liver.
The specific meaning of Παιάν (Paian) and its etymology is uncertain. Ἰάσων (Iason) on the other hand, literally means “I heal.” Iason is derived from the word ἰάομαι (iaomai), “I cure, I repair.” This root word is also of uncertain provenance. However, it has been suggested cautiously by scholars that iaomai has for its source the Proto-Indo-European *mey-, a word, which most nearly meant something like “to strengthen.” In the context of healing magic, such an etymology of course follows naturally. There is also a connotation with movement native to this far-ancient word, preserved in its Sanskrit derivation इषण्यति (iṣaṇyati), meaning literally “to pour out,” “to stream forth,” and idiomatically, to impel, incite, urge; to deliver a speech. In other words, things very much related traditional gestures with the forefinger.
For its role in signifying command or adjudication, the Romans called the raised forefinger the “iudex,” or judging gesture--wherefore comes our name, index finger. One last observation to add to the mix is that scholars frequently compare iaomai, again--of uncertain origin--to the word ἰαίνω (iaino). This similar word carries with it the meanings “heating,” “warming,” and “melting,” and corresponds arguably to that aforementioned word in Sanskrit--pouring forth, sending out, and oration. It’s the oratory aspect that closes the circle back round to Paian.
The Hellenic word usually denotes a practitioner of the healing profession. But, it held another meaning. A “Paian” is a traditional type of song or chant, usually dedicated to the Apollo Paian, or Apollo the healer. Recall that the Daktyloi brought song and poetic meter to Greece from Hyperborea. On these grounds the suggestion is carefully advanced, that the names Paian and Iason both have their roots in the same soil.
The most compelling structure from which Paian descended is *παιάϝων (paiawon), meaning one who heals through magic, or more literally, a strike or a blow with the hand. There seems to have occurred, across migration of the Pontic-Caspian peoples and their tongue--over time, a divergence of meanings that were originally bound up in a more closely-related sympathetic rationale.
Perhaps the best way to clarify what’s been said, if only to draw more sharply into relief the way that these symbols come together in tandem, the reader will forgive us some small, illustrative speculation. We might catch a glimpse of a magical healing tradition, springing from these peoples whom the Hellenes called Hyperboreans. The practice appears to have consisted, symbolically, of warming, heating, and melting (as in the vivifying transmutation that occurs in the liver), and of the pouring-forth of vital water--thereby staving off the “cold dryness” of death. There was evidently an oral or vocational portion of this practice; of chanting and incantation. The Hyperborean healing incantation, if some tradition existed, was arguably intended to beseech the sky father, whose dominion in the body was the seat of life; to let flow the healthy blood-inside, to let flair the agnatic life-spark from which, like a bolt of lightning, the sky-father himself is the ultimate source.
After evoking the deity in some form perhaps, the laying-on of hands, or a healing touch (or even a surgical “blow”) might have occurred. One wonders what specific role the forefinger could have played the process; if the Greeks’ naming both the first and the third Daktyl for healing functions is an echo of their ritual function.
Abaris the Hyperborean
A final note on the Hyperborean aspects of the matter is to be found in the Greek school of traveling soothsayers called the ἰατρόμαντις (iatromantis). That name descends from iaomai, like the Daktyl Iason--“I heal.” One of the most prominent iatromantioi was named Abaris the Hyperborean. Being well-known for his miraculous healing magic, the Greeks called him a priest of Apollo.
Abaris is said to have fled his Hyperborean homeland to escape a plague, and it was for that reason he came so far as Greece. He was known for his Scythian dress, for practicing extispicy, for carrying a sacred arrow (atop which Ponticus claimed he traveled by flight), and for subsisting without ever eating.
The chariot, of course, was an invention of these “Hyperboean” peoples, and it is worth noting that in its earliest form, the chariot was outfitted with two soldiers: A driver, and an archer. Similarly, among the Greeks, the Cretans were typically attributed the invention of the bow and arrow; the Cretans, who were fathered by the Kabieri, or “Hyperborean” Daktyloi. Plato called Abaris a Thracian (recall the northerly, Homeric Paian of Thrace), who’s magical medicinal practice was conducted with “epodai,” or by means of incantation.
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