views updated May 17 2018


TOUCHING . In religious usage touching often implies more than simple physical contact with the hands or other parts of the body. One may confer a touch to heal or assert power, to convey or obtain grace, or to consecrate or constrain a person or object.

Healing Touch

A classic instance of touching is recorded in the first three Gospels. They relate that a woman who had had an issue of blood for twelve years came behind Jesus in a crowd and touched the fringe of his garment. According to Luke, Jesus asked, "Who touched me?" and added, "I perceive that power has gone out from me" (Lk. 8:4546). When the woman saw that she was hidden despite the pressing crowd, she fell down before Jesus and declared that she had been immediately healed. As a charismatic healer, Jesus laid his hands upon sick folk, touched lepers, and put his fingers into the ears of a deaf mute and touched his tongue; he also put his spittle on the eyes of a blind man and twice laid hands on his eyes to effect a cure (Mk. 8:2226).

In the Hebrew scriptures, the prophet Elisha is said to have laid himself upon the corpse of a child and to have put his mouth on the child's mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. The child's flesh became warm, and the prophet got up and then again stretched himself upon the body. Then the child sneezed seven times and opened his eyes (2 Kgs. 4:3435). The prophet Isaiah, after having had a vision of God "high and lifted up," confessed his own sinfulness, whereupon a seraph flew to him with a live coal from the heavenly altar and touched his mouth with it to purge his iniquity (Is. 6:17).

Not only the touch of a sacred person but the touch of anything connected with him could exercise healing power. The New Testament reports that the shadow of Peter was sought by the sick, who were brought into the street to be cured as he passed by (Acts 5:15). And miracles were wrought not only by the hands of Paul but by the clothes that were taken from his body and given to the sick, whereupon diseases and possession by evil spirits went out of them (Acts 19:12).

The disciples of Jesus healed the sick by anointing them with oil (Mk. 6:13), and the elders of the church were instructed to pray for the sick and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord (Jas. 5:1415). From this developed what came to be called the unction of the sick, in some Eastern and Western churches, and extreme unction (a sacrament) in the Roman Catholic church. To the accompaniment of prayer, anointing oil is administered to the eyes, ears, nose, lips, hands, and feet of the sick person "for the health of body and soul." This rite is to be distinguished from the viaticum ("provision for a journey") of Holy Communion, which is administered to those near death.

Although Islam affirms that Muammad was a man and that the one miracle he wrought was the Qurʾān, devotees have credited the Prophet with a healing touch. Al-Bakhārī recorded that when one of Muammad's companions broke his leg, the Prophet passed his hands over the limb, whereupon it seemed as if nothing had ever been wrong with it. A woman brought him her son who was possessed, and Muammad stroked the boy's breast and prayed until the lad vomited and was healed. The Prophet even had power over nature: a palm tree that was one of the pillars of his mosque is said to have shouted out until it almost split, whereupon the Prophet embraced it until it calmed down and was quiet again.

In ancient and preliterate societies, power is attributed to the touch of healers, priests, and shamans. Doctors of the Ndembu of Zambia, for example, encircle a patient's hut and bring medicines of roots and leaves. The patient's chest and shoulders are washed, and then the doctor catches him by the little finger and directs him to a fire to warm himself. Still holding the patient's little finger, the doctor gives him a rattle, and after a while the patient begins to tremble and dance. A helper puts his hands on the patient's shoulders while the doctor places a medicine basket on the patient's head; after further dancing, the patient is led backward into his own hut to rest and recover.

The practice of touching an animal in order to transfer evil to it is illustrated in the Bible. The priest Aaron was instructed to take two goats into the wilderness, one to be sacrificed as a sin offering and the other to be given as a scapegoat to ʿAzaʾzel, a desert demon. The priest placed his hands on the head of the second goat, confessing over it the sins of the people, and sent it off to wander in the wilderness (Lv. 16:710, 21). In West Africa, a mother of twins who had died took a goat by the horns and placed her forehead three times against it in order to transfer her evil to it. Then the animal was sent away to wander outside the village.

In Asia and North America, both medicine men and shamans alike have performed functions of healing by touching. Although the shaman may utilize the curative properties of plants and animals or may massage patients, many illnesses are regarded as spiritual, that is, caused by injury to the soul. Thus the shaman's method is meant to restore the soul, and this he accomplishes by ascending to the heavens or descending to the underworld in a trance. If he perceives the disease to have been caused by a foreign body, visible or invisible, he may extract it by sucking the part of the body that he saw while in a trance, sucking the skin either directly or through a bone or wooden tube. The shaman then dances and afterward may paint magical designs on the patient's body or instruct the patient's family on how this is to be done.

In Japan, Nakayama Miki (17781884), founder of the Tenrikyō religion, sought to heal sick people by giving them food or one of her belongings. As the numbers of her followers increased, she prepared amulets to give them. Relatives of the sick consulted her and brought with them some of the afflicted one's clothes. She took them in her hands and breathed on them, and it was said that recovery followed at once. Miki also distributed to her disciples pieces of paper on which she had breathed, and when the demand on her became too great she granted this power of breath to her chosen disciples.

Touches of Power or Reverence

According to the Laws of Manu, a Hindu high-caste student must clasp the feet of his teacher both at the beginning and at the end of each lesson in the Vedas, crossing his hands so that he touches the left foot with his left hand and the right foot with his right hand. Similarly, he should touch the feet of his teacher's wife and the wife of his teacher's brother, if she is of the same caste (Manu 2.72, 132, 217).

Down to modern times, the physical presence of a teacher or guru has been treasured above books or learning, since true knowledge, power, and even divinity come through him. Sometimes the guru sits before his disciple in silence, and the latter squats with eyes closed. The guru may eventually touch the disciple's forehead or gaze into his eyes, and thus power is felt to pass from one to the other.

In daily religious practice, a devout Hindu asks pardon from the earth for touching it with his feet as he rises from bed. When he is ready for worship, he invokes his god by nyāsa, "placing" or "fixing" the presence of the divinity in his body by holding the right hand successively in front of the mouth, eyes, ears, nostrils, top of the head, forearms, navel, and back. The touching is accompanied by recitation of a mantra, a scriptural text, and prayers that the gods who protect different parts of the body may each take up his special place. Nyāsa is also performed on images to install the gods within them. With bunches of sacred grass, the breast of the image is touched to install Brahma, the hand is touched to install Indra, the feet for Viu, and other parts for the appropriate gods.

In Sri Lanka, Buddhists perform comparable rites. In the presence of a superior, one joins the hands in reverence, bows or kneels, and even touches the ground with the forehead or touches the feet of the person saluted. Similar reverence is accorded images of the Buddha and other holy figures. The "eye festival," which is held on completion of an image of the Buddha, is an elaborate ritual performed to ensure that the gaze of the image does not fall directly on the craftsman who paints in the eyes. He looks into a mirror to see the eyes as he paints them, thus avoiding the dangerous gaze; afterward he is led blindfolded from the room, and the covering is removed only when his eyes will fall on something harmless, such as water.

In Buddhist myth and imagery occurs the symbolic gesture (mudrā ) of the Buddha "touching the ground" (Bhūmiśparsa Mudrā). There are several versions of this event. In one version, the Buddha at the point of attaining perfection was warned that he would be attacked by demons. So he pointed to the ground with his finger and called on the gods of the earth to rise up and kill the demons. In another version, the demon king Māra claimed the Buddha's throne and summoned his troops as witnesses. The Buddha then touched the earth as his witness, and it proclaimed his right to the throne. Yet other accounts call this symbolic gesture the mudrā of the defeat of Māra, or touching the earth to oblige its gods to swear eternal fealty. Touching the ground has the meaning of repressing evil and also of calling the earth to witness. The five fingers of the left hand hold the Buddha's robe at the level of the breast, and with the right hand five fingers touch or press the earth. In Buddhist imagery, this gesture is a distinctive sign of the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni, whereas other gestures in images and pictures are common to several Buddhas.

An Islamic tradition, from al-Bukhārī, says that once, when there was only a little food, Muammad blessed it until there was enough for a great multitude. This is similar to the gospel accounts of Jesus praying, blessing, and breaking five loaves of bread for five thousand people. Another Islamic narrative says that once, when the followers of Muammad were thirsty, he put his hand into a bucket and water gushed out from between his fingers like a spring. One follower said that the Prophet came to him in a dream and kissed his cheek, so that when he awoke the house was full of scent.

In Christianity, laying on of hands is said to communicate power. The Gospels record that parents brought children to Jesus in order that he might touch them. He brushed aside the protective barrier formed by the disciples and, taking the children in his arms, "he blessed them, laying his hands upon them" (Mk. 10:16). The Gospels record that the first Christian apostles chose deacons to help in secondary duties, laid hands on them, and prayed, whereupon the deacons became filled with power. Peter and John laid their hands on converts so that they would receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:6). The magician Simon tried to buy this power so that the Spirit might also descend on those on whom he laid his hands (Acts 8:1819). Paul and Barnabas had hands laid on them for success in a special mission, but a warning to Timothy to "lay hands suddenly on no man" shows that care was needed in such dedication.

Commission to service by laying on hands, especially in the ordained ministry of the church, has continued through the ages. It is practiced by nonepiscopal and free churches as well as by those that claim an unbroken apostolic and episcopal succession transmitted through this sacred touch. In the Church of England, the ordination of priests by the episcopal touch gives power as well as office, as reflected in these words from the traditional Book of Common Prayer: "Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands." In the consecration of a bishop, other bishops lay hands on his head and exhort him to "stir up the grace of God which is given thee by this imposition of our hands." At the investiture of a high-caste Hindu, the candidate passes from low or neutral status to that of a "twice-born." The central rite is the Upanayana, the "donning of the sacred thread," nowadays confined usually to boys, although in former times girls also were invested with this symbol of rebirth. While the preceptor recites appropriate texts, the candidate, facing the sun, slips the cotton threads over his head and across his breast. The teacher puts his right hand on the right side of the boy, alternately touching the candidate's shoulder and his own breast while exhorting obedience and unity of mind. The teacher then takes the boy's right hand into his own and asks him his "old name"; he then gives him a "new name" (which is uttered only at this ceremony). When the candidate is finally considered ceremonially pure, he performs nyāsa, touching his own head, eyes, nostrils, hands, arms, limbs, and other parts of his body to purify them all. The third finger of the right hand is considered the most auspicious, and, with it, the newly "twice-born" man touches some of the ashes of the sacred fire that is burning nearby and puts them on his forehead, throat, and right shoulder and over his heart. Then he is blessed and bows to his teacher and all his elders.

Not only prophets and healers but secular rulers have been credited with a potent touch, thereby expressing the divinity that "doth hedge a king." European kings touched their subjects who suffered from scrofula, also called "the king's evil," a swelling of the glands that supposedly was cured by the royal touch. French kings had done this since ancient times, and the custom was introduced to England in the eleventh century by the saintly Edward the Confessor. In the late fifteenth century, Henry VII, perhaps to encourage support for his claim to the throne, instituted a ceremony for touching persons suffering from scrofula and presented the afflicted with gold coins; in the seventeenth century, Charles I distributed silver pieces for the sufferers to touch. From then until 1719, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer contained an office called At the Healing, in which the monarch laid hands on the assembled infirm persons and put gold or silver about their necks while a chaplain recited the following prayer: "God give a blessing to this work, and grant that these sick persons on whom the king lays his hands may recover." The practice of royal touching to gain popular support reached its peak in England under Charles II, who reigned from 1660 to 1685. Charles touched nearly one hundred thousand people. According to Thomas Macaulay, "in 1684, the throng was such that six or seven of the sick were trampled to death." A short time later, William III called the practice "a silly superstition," though his wife and coregent, Mary II, continued it. Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714, was the last British monarch to practice royal touching. James Boswell recorded in his biography of Samuel Johnson that the infant Johnson had been taken to be touched by Queen Anne because he had a disfigured face, "his mother yielding to the superstitious notion, which, it is wonderful to think prevailed so long in this country, as to the virtue of the regal touch." Queen Anne's touch, however, had no effect on the young Johnson, and Boswell teased him that "his mother had not carried him far enough, she should have taken him to Rome." A practice comparable to the royal healing touch is the washing of feet performed on Maundy Thursday by notable people in imitation of Christ's washing his disciples' feet. The practice took its name from the Latin mandatum, the translation of the "new commandment" that is given in John 13:34. Popes, bishops, and kings practiced the ablution; the pope would wash the feet of his cardinals or, in modern times, the feet of selected poor men. In England, kings did such washing until the reign of James II in the late seventeenth century. Specially minted "Maundy money" is still distributed by the monarch to certain old people during a religious ceremony that takes place at a different cathedral in England each year on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter.

Power in the royal touch, look, or presence is attested in many places. In the Laws of Manu the presence of the king, like the sun, is said to burn eyes and hearts, and nobody on earth can even gaze on him; even an infant king is a deity in human form. The monarch's responsibilities are great, and he must conquer his own senses if he is to require obedience from others. The king rules by the rod but must do no bodily injury unjustly. If he fights his foes in battle, he must not strike with poisonous weapons or smite one who surrenders. His highest duty is to protect his subjects and gratify with a kindly reception all who come to see him.

West African kings often wore beaded veils over their faces, a practice that seems to be very ancient, from the evidence of bronze masks with holes for veils. To look directly at a king's face or to receive his unveiled gaze were considered equally dangerous. For the monarch to point at or touch a commoner might be seen as either a mark of favor or of danger.

In China, the physical obligations of a king were detailed by the Confucian scholar Tung Chung-shu, who stated that the monarch must personally grasp a plow handle and plow a furrow, pluck mulberries and feed silkworms, and break new ground to increase the supply of grain. As the representative of Heaven, the king formally touched the plow or sickle to initiate the harvest. In Japan, to this day the emperor cuts the first rice of the harvest. Photographs in public newspapers show him dressed in shirt, suspenders, and trousers, harvesting rice. The rice he has cut is sent to the central Shinto shrines at Ise.

Kissing and Handshaking

Kissing is a form of close touching, a sign of reverence as well as of greeting or affection. It is performed on human beings and objects alike. The Bible's report that the prophet Elijah was assured that there were in Israel seven thousand people who had not kissed the god Baal indicates that the Canaanite and Phoenician custom of kissing the images of their gods was being practiced by the Israelites. The prophet Hosea also spoke despairingly of the Israelites kissing silver idols of calves. The Greeks and Romans also kissed images of their gods, and early Christians were persecuted for refusing to make such homage.

The ancient Hebrews kissed the floor of the Temple. Jews still kiss the scroll of the Torah when they are about to read it, and they kiss any holy book if it has been accidentally dropped. When the Torah scrolls are taken around the synagogue in procession, worshipers touch them and then place their hands on their own breasts. When a Jew puts on a prayer shawl, he kisses it, and upon entering or leaving a room, Jews may kiss or touch a mezuzah, the miniature container holding several verses of scripture that is affixed to a doorpost. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, worshipers handle and kiss pieces of paper on which they write prayers and that they then put into cracks in the wall.

In the celebration of the Mass, Roman Catholic priests kiss the altar and the corporal cloth on which the sacred elements are laid. A priest also kisses the cross on a stole before he puts it on. In both Eastern and Western churches, ritual kissing is also performed with relics and with books of the gospel, crosses, candles, palm branches, vestments, and utensils of the liturgy. In British courts, oaths are sworn by taking the Bible or another holy book in ungloved hands; formerly the book was kissed.

Images and icons are popular objects of the kiss. In Saint Peter's Church in Rome, the toe of a statue of the apostle has been partly worn away by the kisses of devotees. In Ireland, the kissing of the Blarney Stone is a modern tourist attraction that may look back to prehistoric times. Part of the ritual of the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca is kissing the Black Stone, which is set in the wall of the Kaʾbah. Because the crowds are vast, some pilgrims use long sticks to touch the stone, or from a distance they simulate a gesture of touching and afterward pass their hands over their faces while praising God and his prophet. In the opposite corner of the Kaʾbah is another stone, which it was the Prophet's custom to touch. When the crowd prevents a pilgrim from touching it, he says a prayer for blessing and forgiveness. Followers of the late shah of Iran may still be observed kissing his portrait, and the same gesture of reverence is offered to pictures of his rival, the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Second Psalm (2:11) exhorts Israelite worshipers to "kiss [the Lord's] feet," no doubt an act of homage. This carried over to the kissing of kings' and popes' feet. In India, to kiss the feet or take the dust of the feet upon one's own head is a sign of submission and reverence. A farewell kiss to the dead is an old practice, one that was sometimes forbidden. It is still practiced in an attenuated form by touching the coffin.

In the Islamic world, kissing the shoulder, the foot, or, especially, the hand of a holy man is believed to communicate spiritual benefit. The water in which saints have washed their hands confers grace, and schoolboys may drink the water they have used to wash the board on which they write passages from the Qurʾān, in order that they may learn the text more easily. The saliva of a holy man is said to have medicinal value, and schoolboys are thought to learn their lessons better when their teachers spit into their mouths.

The kiss of peace became a distinctive Christian ritual: both Paul and Peter exhorted their readers to "salute one another with a holy kiss," but by the time of Tertullian, in the second century, it was ruled that men should kiss only men and women should kiss only women, to prevent suggestions of scandal. The kiss had a sacramental value. It was an outward sign of spiritual union or blessing: bishops were given a kiss at their consecration and kings at their coronation. The practice of the kiss of peace has been revived in modern times, either by shaking hands and uttering a phrase of peace or, for the less reserved, by giving a holy kiss.

The shaking of hands may also transfer grace or mark privilege. In Morocco, when equals meet they may join hands in salutation, and then each person will kiss his own hand. Among the West African Ashanti, during intervals of dancing, priests walk around the circle of spectators, and each places his right hand between the extended palms of the person saluted. The right hand is usually considered the proper or fortunate one, and the Ashanti may refuse to take a gift or even the payment of a debt from the left hand of the giver. In Latin, the word for left is sinister, and the Greeks euphemistically called the left the "well-named" side in order to avert bad luck. Shaking with the left hand, or with a finger bent back, is practiced by special societies and copied by Freemasons and Boy Scouts.

Touching Prohibited

On the negative side, the prohibition against touching may be as important as the act itself. Usually it serves to save a person from contamination. When Moses brought the Israelites to Mount Sinai, he alone went up into the presence of God. Although the people were sanctified by ritual washing, they were exhorted not to touch the mountain or its border, for "whosoever touches the mount shall surely be put to death" (Ex. 19:12). The elaborate regulations described in Leviticus include many prohibitions against touching objects and people that were deemed sacred or dangerous. Touching any unclean thing would bring guilt and pollution and would require purgation by the presentation of a sin offering and an atonement effected by a priest. Touching a dead body was considered particularly dangerous, and there are repeated warnings against such action. The power of blood was always perilous, and touching a menstruating woman or anything she sat on required washing and the presentation of a sin offering. Because blood was considered the life or soul, prohibitions against its consumption were imposed on Jews, and this rule was extended to Muslims as well.

The Bible also strictly forbade touching to harm, or even to suggest disrespect for, a sacred object or person. When Uzzah put out his hand to steady the Ark, "God smote him" (2 Sm. 6:7). The Bible records God's command, "touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm," a sentiment echoed in the vicar of Bray's damnation of those who "touch the Lord's anointed"a reference to the execution of Charles I. An example of reverential and perhaps numinous prohibition against touching is found in the words of the risen Christ to Mary: "Touch me not" (Jn. 20:17). There are many other examples of religious figures who kept themselves from being touched. When Nakayama Miki felt herself to be filled with divinity and chosen for a special mission, she separated herself from the common people. She ordered that a separate fire and separate vessels be used to cook her food, and she wore only red robes to show that she was not an ordinary person. This emphasized the numinous value of the amulets that she gave to her faithful, since she claimed to be the mediatrix between God and men, saying, "I must be set aside and live in a special and separate room."

See Also

Blood; Kashrut; Power; Scapegoat; Tenrikyō.


Among the countless books on Christian teaching and life that may be consulted on themes related to touching, special reference may be made to A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by Alan Richardson and John Bowden (London, 1983), and to the oft-reprinted Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross (Oxford, 1957). See also Touching by Ashley Montagu (New York, 1971). Islamic rituals of pilgrimage and prayers are described by Ahmad Kamal in The Sacred Journey (New York, 1961). Victor Turner describes "religious processes" among the Ndembu of Zambia in The Drums of Affliction (Oxford, 1968), and Henry van Straelen's The Religion of Divine Wisdom (Tokyo, 1954) gives an account of the history and rituals of Tenrikyō. The Rites of the Twice-Born (1920; reprint, New Delhi, 1971) by Margaret S. Stevenson is probably still the most detailed and readable account of Indian high-caste life and practices. Mudra (New York, 1960) by E. Dale Saunders is an illustrated study of symbolic gestures in Buddhist sculpture. A valuable study of the rites and symbols associated with kissing is The Kiss Sacred and Profane: An Interpretive History of Kiss Symbolism and Related Religio-Erotic Themes (Berkeley, Calif., 1969) by Nicholas J. Perella. Shamanic activities in a variety of cultures are described at length by Mircea Eliade in Shamanism, rev. & enl. ed. (New York, 1964), and perhaps the most exhaustive account of particular Islamic customs is to be found in Edward Westermarck's Ritual and Belief in Morocco, 2 vols. (1926; reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1968).

Geoffrey Parrinder (1987)


views updated May 11 2018

touch·ing / ˈtəching/ • adj. arousing strong feelings of sympathy, appreciation, or gratitude: your loyalty is very touching a touching reconciliation scene.• prep. concerning; about: evidence touching the facts of Roger's case.DERIVATIVES: touch·ing·ly adv.touch·ing·ness n.


views updated May 21 2018

touching prep. concerning, relating to XIV. — (O)F. touchant, prp. of touch(i)er touch.