The Handshake: Ancient Greek Gesture May Fade Away in Post-Coronavirus Era



Hera (left) shakes hands with Athena. Acropolis Museum, Athens

Out of all the gestures of greeting used today around the globe, the handshake is the most widely used. The first nearly-universal way of greeting someone, which was first portrayed in the arts of ancient Greece, has been suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The first known artistic portrayals of the handshake in the history of mankind date back to the 5th century BC in ancient Greece.

The oldest indication of the handshake as a gesture of greeting is an Ancient Greek sculpture, specifically one found on a funerary naiskos from the grave of Agathon and Sosykrates.

Dating from approximately the fifth century BC, the relief sculpture, showing three figures, is exhibited at the entrance Cloister of the Kerameikos Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Another sculpture from the same century, on a gravestone, depicts two soldiers shaking hands. This latter stone is in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Additionally, the base of a column at the Acropolis Museum in Athens shows Hera, the wife of Zeus, shaking hands with Athena, the goddess of wisdom.

Sculpture on the gravestone of Agathon and Sosykrates. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

References to handshakes can also be found in Homer’s Iliad, which dates to roughly the year 800 BC. The gesture is described in that work variously as a symbol of agreement or oath, an offer of comfort to the bereaved, or as a pledge of trust.

Significantly, a handshake in ancient Greece meant that the two parties were equals: Gods shook hands with gods, warriors shook hands between them, and athletes shook hands as a sign of acknowledging respect for their rivals.

This became a pattern of behavior throughout the western world — and it still applies today. State leaders in most of the world today shake hands, athletes shake the hands of their opponents before a game, colleagues shake hands routinely as a gesture of greeting, respect and trust. Overall, a handshake indicates that there is a level of comfort between the two parties.

A handshake also seals a business deal. A warm, sincere handshake indicates that a person can be trusted. A firm handshake also usually symbolizes that a person means exactly what they say.

Dexiosis on Attic Lekythos, 5th century BC. Photo source: Wikipedia

The gesture became common in the artwork of ancient Greeks, who called the handshake δεξίωσις (dexiosis). This term literally means offering the other person one’s right hand — the “good” hand — to make friendly contact.

Some historians even believe that the practice of shaking hands goes back to the times of cavemen, originating as a gesture of peace by demonstrating that the hand holds no weapon.

Today, the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be making the gesture a thing of the past. In the post-coronavirus era, at least for a while, people will likely develop new, safer ways to greet one another. They will certainly be touchless gestures that will lack the warmth, the friendliness and the comfort of the handshake.

Hopefully, these more sanitized, sterile practices will not last for too long.

We can only hope that new medications, or a safe vaccine, will make Covid-19 a thing of the past — and not the ancient practice of the handshake.