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SALUTATIONS are more or less formally ordered expressions acknowledging the presence of another. They occur generally upon meeting but also upon departure from the person met. Salutations include an enormous variety of oral and ritual forms that differ significantly in length and elaborateness and that express a range of emotions from kindness to humility or dread. Among these are bows, prostrations, ritual attack and defense, the firing of arms, the baring of the head, the clasping of hands, embracing, weeping, kissing, and smelling, as well as the utterance of short to very lengthy verbal prescriptions. The form of salutation appropriate in one civilization is very often offensive or ludicrous in another, and in any particular civilization the salutation varies with context. Most research on salutations has attempted to account for the relative elaborateness or simplicity of traditional greetings by seeing the relation of these to other aspects of religion and culture.

Ceremonial Greetings

While the salutation has been largely neglected in the study of religion and culture, it has been observed that salutations between equals tend to be brief and simple while those offered to sovereigns by their subjects or to higher ranking persons by lower ranking persons tend to be more ceremonious. Early visitors to such regions as Melanesia, Thailand, and parts of Africa reported that visitors to a chief approached him crawling on hands and knees. Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian sculptures show the lowly prostrations of subject kinds before a conquering monarch. Subjects, advisers, even the wives of kings of ancient Israel (1 Sm. 24:8; 2 Sm. 24:20; 1 Kgs. 1:23, 1:31) did obeisance to them with face to the ground, as did ancient personalities to God, his emissary, or his prophet (Gn. 17:3, 18:2; 2 Kgs. 1:13). In the Hindu tradition, the person of inferior caste is expected to salute his superior, but the superior is not to acknowledge the greeting. On the other hand, as the historian Herodotus (485?425? bce) observes, in the ancient Near East the kiss was common between equals, a form of greeting that Paul recommends among the brethren of the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 16:20).

The above observations, of themselves, help little toward an understanding of ceremonial greetings involving the reception of visitors whose status may not be known. An early European traveler to Pemba, an island off the coast of Tanzania, observed that the otherwise friendly king ordered his musketeers to fire their arms upon his arrival in order to expel evil spirits. An early visitor to Africa reported being received with what he called war dances. Among the Maori of New Zealand, ritualized combat was performed at the arrival of visitors. In the Tonga Islands near Fiji, presents were offered to new arrivals as well as to natives who had been away. At the same time, the newcomer could be challenged by anyone to a mock fight that the rules of protocol forbade him to decline.

Material such as this evoked the view that the stranger, like the divine king, chief, or priest, was regarded as being replete with magical power that could discharge itself upon anyone with whom he came in contact. Just as taboo acts performed with respect to the king were designed to preserve his contagious spiritual force, the formalized greetings offered to strangers, according to James G. Frazer, were precautionary observationsan elementary dictate of savage prudenceintended to guard against the stranger's possibly baneful influence. Because such magical influence could infect anyone who traveled to strange and distant lands, the same observations would naturally accompany the arrival of a villager who had been traveling a distance from his home. Acknowledging this insight, Arnold van Gennep, in 1909, drew the conclusion that ceremonial greetings to strangers are rites of incorporation intended to reinforce the social cohesion of the group to whom the stranger is introduced. The length of greeting, then, understandably varies according to the extent to which the person arriving is a stranger.

These conclusions, however, do little to explain the lengthy and elaborate greeting ceremonies between persons of equal status who may even be acquainted. In ancient China such a ceremony began with the arrival of the visitor, carrying, in winter, a freshly killed pheasant, in summer, a dried one, held up by both hands, with the bird's head facing left. The visitor begins: "I have desired an interview for some time, but have had no justification for asking for it; but now his honor So-and-so orders me to an interview." To this the host replies: "The gentleman who introduced us has ordered me to grant you an interview. But you, sir, are demeaning yourself by coming. I pray your honor to return home, and I shall hasten to present myself before you." The guest replies: "I cannot bring disgrace on you by obeying this command. Be good enough to end by granting me this interview." This ceremony (which continues for several similar self-deprecating exchanges, accompanied by specified bows, and ends finally with the reception of the guest and the gift) is described in The Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial (c. 100 bce), one of three ancient Chinese texts that deal with the subject of li, known to be the warp and woof of heaven and earth and consisting of the rules of propriety and politeness according to which all human relationships ought to be governed. The foundation of li, according to the Confucian tradition, is the heart that is willing to defer.

Greetings Prescribed by Law

The context that determines the relative length and elaborateness of the salutation evidently reflects the view of reality perpetuated by the tradition in which it occurs. For example, an ancient formulation of Hindu law, the pastamba Dharmasūtra (c. 500 bce), provides that every day and after any absence, a student is to salute his parents, his grandparents, and his teachers with a kneeling embrace of the feet. The same salutation is to be observed for elder siblings in order of their seniority. Upon meeting an officiating priest, a father-in-law, or an uncle (even one younger than himself), the student is to offer this salutation or the salutation normally prescribed for his caste. Brāhmana s are to salute by extending their right hand on a level with their eye; katriya s by extending the hand on a level with their breast; vaiśya s by extending it on a level with their waist. Śūdra s are to salute bending forward, their joined hands held low. These salutations are performed standing with shoes off, with empty hands, and with head uncovered. On the other hand, in a state of impurity students are to salute no one. They is not to salute anyone who is impure, and the impure person is not to return a salute.

Greetings as Tools of Spiritual Achievement

The salutations prescribed in this system of laws reflect not only the social system that they support but attitudes underlying the social system. In ancient India, the salutation is an act productive of merit toward earthly weal, heavenly bliss, and final liberation. The person of high caste, especially the teacher, is regarded as replete with vital power, the result of the accumulated merit of present and former lives. The higher the age and caste, the greater the store of power. The higher the vital power of the person one salutes the greater the merit achieved. In this respect, a brāhmana of ten years and a katriya of one hundred stand to each other as parent to child, the ten-year-old brahmana as the parent. Another text, the Laws of Manu (c. 200 bce), states that the vital airs of a young person mount upward to leave the body when an elder approaches. By rising to meet and salute the elder, the vital powers are recovered.

The powers achieved through the merit of worthy acts, however, must constantly be guarded against depletion, since they are inclined to flow, as it were, downhill from the person of higher prestige to the person of lower prestige. A salutation to a lower-caste person or an unclean person, the acknowledgment of his salute, or an unnecessary conversation with him, can result in the loss of vital force. If conversation with a lower-caste person is necessary, one must assume a posture of psychic neutrality in order to prevent such dissipation of power. Hindu salutations also reflect the fear of the evil eye, whose untoward effects can be invited even by a careless word. In traditional Hindu society, one does not comment upon another's pleasing appearance, the attractiveness of his or her children, even the pleasantness of the day. Whatever is offhandedly declared to be good is likely to attract inauspicious elements, tempting disaster. Against this, meticulous precautions are taken.

In contrast, the salutations found in the early Buddhist tradition reflect the elevation of spiritual achievement above hereditary status and an absence of occult concerns. "No brahman is a brahman by birth; no outcaste is an outcaste by birth." This shift is neatly expressed in the story of the meeting of the Buddha with the five ascetics with whom he had spent the years prior to his enlightenment. Upon seeing the Buddha walking toward them, the five agreed not to rise in salutation, because he had abandoned his former vows and given up ascetic practice. Yet as he approached, they involuntarily rose, and in spite of their resolution they greeted him and offered the customary refreshments, although in addressing him they employed his family name. To this the Buddha responded that he was indifferent as to whether he was treated with respect, but that it was rude and careless so to address a person (i. e., by his family name) who looks with equal kindness upon all living beings: Buddhas bring salvation to the world, therefore they ought to be treated with the respect that children pay to their fathers (Aśvaghoa, Buddhacarita, vv. 1229ff.). In Theravāda Buddhist countries, the act of prostration before the image of the Buddha or the pagoda (his principal symbol) is an integral part of worship. To perform this act the worshiper kneels, places his clasped hands to his forehead, and three times touches his forehead to the ground. Similar acts are performed by a layperson upon coming into the presence of a monk, by younger monks in the presence of their senior, by young children when they meet their parents, and by adults when on prescribed holy days they visit their parents' homes to pay them special respect.

Over and against all of this, the salutations prescribed in the Muslim tradition reflect a belief in the sovereignty of God and the equality of all humanity. The Qurʾān commands: "When you are greeted with a salutation, reply with a better one, or at least return it" (surah 4:86). In the Islamic world the usual greeting is "Al-salām ʿalaykum" ("Peace be upon you"). The appropriate reply is "Wa-ʿalaykum al-salām" ("And upon you be peace"); or to this may be added "Wa-rah-mat Allāh wa-barakātuhu" ("And God's mercy and blessings"). This, according to Islamic tradition, is the greeting with which Adam was commanded to greet a group of angels when he was created. His and their reply was to be the greeting for all of his descendents. The adīth specifies particular situations in which the salutation ought to be offered and who is to initiate it. The younger person should greet the older person. The person riding should salute the person walking. The person passing should salute the person sitting. The smaller group should greet the larger group. Regardless of the circumstances, the greeting remains the same. While forms of the peace greeting are found in other documents of the ancient Near East (e.g., Gn. 43:23, Jgs. 19:20, 1 Sm. 25:6, 1 Chr. 12:18), it is significant that in this tradition the act of prostration to the ground, also found in the ancient Near East, is reserved for the worship of God.

Salutations, then, seem to express and perpetuate values and sentiments about the person greeted that are appropriate to the conception of reality of the culture or tradition in which they occur and serve to preserve such sentiments and values from subversion, thereby supporting the solidarity and continuity of the culture or tradition in question. Even when it is not explicit in the prescribed words of greeting, the sentiment that is communicated in traditional salutations is often of a religious nature. To an outsider, "Al-salām ʿalaykum" uttered by a Muslim may not express any specifically religious idea. To another Muslim, however, the relation of peace, as earthly well-being, to submission to God is understood. In Nuer Religion (London, 1956), E. E. Evans-Pritchard observes that the most common greeting among the Nuer people of eastern Sudan is a phrase that translates as "Have you slept?" What he thinks is implied, however, is something like "Are you at ease?" This interpretation is confirmed by the question that follows, "Are you well?" implying "Are you at peace?" That this is understood to be related to the peace that comes from God is implied by the further question, "Have you prayed?" and the next, "Does smoke rise from your hearth?" which is to say, "Is everything well at home?" A final question sometimes asked is "Has it dawned?" implying "Is it well for you?" When the answers are affirmative they convey the picture of easy sleep, contentment, prayer, a person at peace with God, his neighbor, and himself.

Secularization of Salutations

It has also been observed that salutations tend to be longer and more elaborate in ancient, primitive, and traditional societies, shorter and simpler in modern industrial civilization. Salutations reflect the processes of cultural interpenetration and secularization occurring in many parts of the world at the present time. Words and gestures of salutation are perhaps among the most commonly borrowed of customs. In India, the gesture of touching the breast, the lips, and the forehead with the fingertips, as well as the bow with the right hand over the breast, are forms of the Muslim salām greeting introduced to India during the Mughal empire (15261857), from which influence came also the custom of the close embrace. It is interesting that the salām, which is normally used among Muslims to greet fellow believers, but not the infidel, is sometimes used by Hindus as a form of greeting for strangers. In India, as well as in Buddhist countries, the Muslim world, and elsewhere where Western influence has been felt, the handshake is growing in acceptance despite opposition, although in rural areas it remains less adopted. Among the most striking evidence of Western influence is the recent spread of the use of the greeting card for the exchange of good wishes on occasions that would once have required a visit. This phenomenon, which suddenly grew to a grand scale in England and America in the middle of the twentieth century, is now being employed for the exchange of greetings at Jewish holidays and also on the occasion of the great annual Islamic festivals. In general, where cultural borrowing occurs, it is the simpler, shorter, and less ceremonious custom that is appropriated by persons outside the tradition, and in the exchange the more subtle religious sentiments are likely to be lost.

The effect of secularization upon salutations is evident in the presence in modern greetings of the relic of a religious sentiment. The Namaskāra, perhaps the most general of salutations in India in the early twenty-first century, was originally a śūdra salute. The two open hands held together accompanied by the word "Namas" or "Namaste" was originally an exclamation of homage meant for the deity. Likewise, in modern European salutations like the French "Adieu" (lit., "to God"), the Spanish "Adios" (from "Vaya con Dios," meaning "Go with God"), the remains of the religious sentiment, now barely intended, can still be seen. In others, like the French "Bonjour" and "Au revoir" or the German "Auf Wiedersehen" and "Guten Morgen," the relic is perhaps more deeply submerged. In English the word good-bye is taken by most etymologists as a derivative of "God be wi' ye" (i. e., "God be with you"), which appears in Shakespeare as "God buy you" (Twelfth Night 4.2). Likewise, "Good morning" is taken as a short form of "God be with you this morning," or "God give you a good morning." In general, the secularization process abbreviates the originally religious salutation as the religious conception within it is no longer seriously intended. As scholarship has focused upon those aspects of religion that pertain to the more enduring of institutions and social structures, salutations have been far from the center of attention. With increasing interest in aspects of religion that pertain to social and cultural change, these eminently changeable cultural forms may prove to be an important subject of research.


An impressive record of greeting ceremonies in primitive societies as first seen by modern Western observers is found in James G. Frazer's monumental work The Golden Bough, 3d ed., rev. & enl., vol. 3 (London, 1911), chap. 3, now recognized as deficient in its theories. Relevant greeting ceremonies of China are found in two texts of classical Chinese literature: The I-Li, or, The Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial, 2 vols., translated by John Steele (London, 1917), and Li Chi: Book of Rites, 2 vols., translated by James Legge (Oxford, 1885). The latter constitutes volumes 27 and 28 of the series "Sacred Books of the East," edited by F. Max Müller (Oxford, 18791910). Noah Edward Fehl's Li, Rites and Propriety in Literature and Life: A Perspective for a Cultural History of Ancient China (Hong Kong, 1971) is an excellent study of the nature of li. Justus Doolittle discusses everyday greeting customs in modern China in The Social Life of the Chinese, with Some Account of Their Religious, Governmental, Educational, and Business Customs and Opinions, 2 vols. (New York, 1868). Hindu salutations are prescribed in a number of ancient texts, several of which are collected in The Sacred Laws of the Aryas, "The Sacred Books of the East," vols. 2 and 14, translated by Georg Bühler (Oxford, 18791882). Traditional greeting customs and their changing contemporary forms in India are discussed in The Hindu World: An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism by George Benjamin Walker (New York, 1968), pp. 341ff. Buddhist rules of etiquette are found in The Vinaya Texts, translated by T. W. Rhys Davids and Hermann Oldenberg, "Sacred Books of the East," vols. 13, 17, and 20 (Oxford, 18811885). The relation of Buddhist ritual salutations to their social and cultural context is explored in Melford E. Spiro's Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes, 2d ed. (Berkeley, 1982), chaps. 811. A concise discussion of greeting customs in the Jewish tradition is found in "Greetings," in The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, edited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder (New York, 1966). For the Muslim tradition, see Thomas P. Hughes's "Salutations," in A Dictionary of Islam (Delhi, 1973).

George Alfred James (1987 and 2005)