On the Custom of Kissing Hands
MR. MORIN, a French academician, has amused himself with collecting several historical notices of this custom. I give a summary, for the benefit of those who have had the honour of kissing his majesty’s hand. It is not those who kiss the royal hand who could write best on the custom.
This custom is not only very ancient, and nearly universal, but has been alike participated by religion and society.
To begin with religion. From the remotest times men saluted the sun, moon, and stars, by kissing the hand. Job assures us that he was never given to this superstition, xxxi. 26. The same honour was rendered to Baa1, Kings i. 18. Other instances might be adduced.
We now pass to Greece. There all foreign superstitions were received. Lucian, after having mentioned various sorts of sacrifices which the rich offered the gods, adds, that the poor adored them by the simpler compliment of kissing their hands. That author gives an anecdote of Demosthenes, which shows this custom. When a prisoner to the soldiers of Antipater, he asked to enter a temple.—When he entered, he touched his mouth with his hands, which the guards took for an act of religion. He did it, however, more securely to swallow the poison he had prepared for such an occasion. He mentions other instances.
From the Greeks it passed to the Romans. Pliny places it amongst those ancient customs of which they were ignorant of the origin or the reason. Persons were treated as atheists, who would not kiss their hands when they entered a temple. When Apuleius mentions Psyche, he says she was so beautiful that they adored her as Venus, in kissing the right hand.
This ceremonial action rendered respectable the earliest institutions of Christianity. It was a custom with the primæval bishops to give their hands to be kissed by the ministers who served at the altar.
This custom, however, as a religious rite, declined with Paganism.
In society our ingenious academician considers the custom of kissing hands as essential to its welfare. It is a mute form, which expresses reconciliation, which entreats favours, or which thanks for those received. It is an universal language, intelligible without an interpreter; which doubtless preceded writing, and perhaps speech itself.
Solomon says of the flatterers and suppliants of his time, that they ceased not to kiss the hands of their patrons, till they had obtained the favours which they solicited. In Homer we see Priam kissing the hands and embracing the knees of Achilles, while he supplicates for the body of Hector.
This custom prevailed in ancient Rome, but it varied. In the first ages of the republic, it seems to have been only practised by inferiors to their superiors:—equals gave their hands and embraced. In the progress of time even the soldiers refused to show this mark of respect to their generals; and their kissing the hand of Cato when he was obliged to quit them was regarded as an extraordinary circumstance, at a period of such refinement. The great respect paid to the tribunes, consuls, and dictators, obliged individuals to live with them in a more distant and respectful manner; and instead of embracing them as they did formerly, they considered themselves as fortunate if allowed to kiss their hands. Under the emperors, kissing hands became an essential duty, even for the great themselves; inferior courtiers were obliged to be content to adore the purple, by kneeling, touching the robe of the emperor by the right hand, and carrying it to the mouth. Even this was thought too free; and at length they saluted the emperor at a distance, by kissing their hands, in the same manner as when they adored their gods.
It is superfluous to trace this custom in every country where it exists. It is practised in every known country, in respect to sovereigns and superiors, even amongst the negroes, and the inhabitants of the New World. Cortez found it established at Mexico, where more than a thousand lords saluted him, in touching the earth with their hands, which they afterwards carried to their mouths.
Thus whether the custom of salutation is practised by kissing the hands of others from respect, or in bringing one’s own to the mouth, it is of all other customs the most universal. Mr. Morin concludes, that this practice is now become too gross a familiarity, and it is considered as a meanness to kiss the hand of those with whom we are in habits of intercourse: and he prettily observes that this custom would be entirely lost, if lovers were not solicitous to preserve it in all its full power.
¶ This article has been very lightly revised from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities.