In its oldest recorded use, a handshake signified the conferring of power from a god to an earthly ruler. This is reflected in the Egyptian verb “to give,” the hieroglyph for which was a picture of an extended hand. In Babylonia, around 1800 B.C., it was required that the king grasp the hands of a statue of Marduk, the civilization’s chief deity. The act, which took place annually during the New Year’s festival, served to transfer authority to the potentate for an additional year. So persuasive was the ceremony that when the Assyrians defeated and occupied Babylonia, subsequent Assyrian kings felt compelled to adopt the ritual, lest they offend a major heavenly being. It is this aspect of the handshake that Michelangelo so magnificently depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The handshake once symbolized the transferral of authority from a god to a king. A fifteenth-century woodcut combines the musical tones “so” and “la” with Latin words to form Sola fides sufficit, suggesting good faith is conveyed through a handshake. Folklore offers an earlier, more speculative origin of the handshake: An ancient villager who chanced to meet a man he didn’t recognize reacted automatically by reaching for his dagger. The stranger did likewise, and the two spent time cautiously circling each other. If both became satisfied that the situation called for a parley instead of a fight to the death, daggers were reinserted into their sheaths, and right hands—the weapon hands—were extended as a token of goodwill. This is also offered as the reason why women, who throughout history were never the bearers of weapons, never developed the custom of the handshake.
Other customs of greeting have ancient origins: The gentlemanly practice of tipping one’s hat goes back in principle to ancient Assyrian times, when captives were required to strip naked to demonstrate subjugation to their conquerors. The
Greeks required new servants to strip from the waist up. Removing an article of clothing became a standard act of respect. Romans approached a holy shrine only after taking their sandals off. And a person of low rank removed his shoes before entering a superior’s home—a custom the Japanese have brought, somewhat modified, into modern times.
In England, women took off their gloves when presented to royalty. In fact, two other gestures, one male, one female, are remnants of acts of subjugation or respect: the bow and the curtsy; the latter was at one time a full genuflection. By the Middle Ages in Europe, the symbol of serfdom to a feudal lord was restricted to baring the head. The implicit message was the same as in earlier days: “I am your obedient servant.” So persuasive was the gesture that the Christian Church adopted it, requiring that men remove their hats on entering a church. Eventually, it became standard etiquette for a man to show respect for an equal by merely tipping his hat.