Today I wished to translate an opinion article by the well-known Cultural Editor Maria Thermou of the eminent Greek newspaper To Vima. I read the first paragraph and although I wished to continue to read and conclude the read, I decided to stop and wonder through books, indexes and dictionaries for one word: σφάκελος. According to T the term’s “interpretation is clear since σφάκελοι was in antiquity a form of curse, which in a diluted form is been used in modern era” as the gesture of insult in modern Greek μούντζες (moutzes) and / or φάσκελα (faskela).
The finding by T sounds with the first read quite impressive. Is it possible that the modern day Greek gesture of the ‘open hand palm’, known as μούντζα and / or φάσκελο is indeed derived from an ancient Greek curse gesture? I do not believe so. Please find below my exact translation of the first paragraph as seen in To Vima by T.
The marble relief may not be of highly technique, but its depiction is of great importance: a young man standing is been “confronted” with two...moutzes (sfakelous in ancient Greek, the new faskela). And its interpretation is clear since sfakela was in antiquity a form of curse, which in a diluted form is been used in modern era. The relief, within several more of the same themes, will be exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum from September 24th entitled “Wizards, spells and amulets: Magic in the ancient and Christian world,” as part of European Heritage Day.
The problem with the above interpretation is its used semantic reasoning. I cannot accept the confusion of two different terms and their meaning into one, which is obviously a modern misuse and misunderstanding of the ancient Greek language. The modern term moutza is indeed interpreted as faskela, however the one is of Byzantine origin and the other an ancient Greek word. To understand more clearly this modern confusion let us evaluate both terms separately.
Moutza according to Giannoulelli and Moysiadis is been derived by the Persian muzh which means dull, however in the Byzantine era was used as blackness or black dirt. There was a reason why the moutza has been to refer a hand palm gesture covered in black dirt: Byzantines used it for apprehend through their punishment of criminals. It is obviously a violent and offensive gesture and it seems that in Byzantium, as well as, today has no metaphysical use whatsoever.
Moreover, the term faskela (plural) or faskelo (singular) according to Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott (LSJ) is generally used for gangrene, mortification, or, of bones. There is only one reference which uses a derivative term σφάκηλος (or φάκηλος) as ‘the middle figure’ as stated in LSJ by an unpublished papyrus of the British Museum (PLond.inéd.). It is very difficult without the actual document available to accept an interpretation that the σφάκηλος or φάκηλος is been used as a gesture at all. The same can be said for the term in question: φάσκελα. All, therefore, references in literature use the above word within a medical terminology and nothing more of that.
What can be said for the relief that depicts the young man with the open hand palms or in ancient Greek παλάμη? My interpretation is as follows. According to LSJ it can be metaphorically means, cunning, art, device, either in good or bad sense (Thgn.624, cf. Hdt.8.19; esp. of the gods, θεοῦ σὺν παλάμᾳ, θεῶν παλάμαι, παλάμαις Διός, by their arts, Pi.O.10(11).21, P.1.48, N. 10.65; “ὦ παλάμαι θεῶν” S.Ph.177 (lyr.); πυκνότατος παλάμαις, of Sisyphus, Pi.O.13.52, cf. A.Pr.167 (lyr.), etc.; “παντοίας πλέκειν παλάμας” Ar.V.645.) and indeed the hand palm is a gesture used in phylakteria as "a defensive gesture against the evil eye" (see Georg Luck, Arcana mundi: magic and the occult in the Greek and Roman worlds, 2006, pp.19).
Conclusively, I do not believe that the modern day offensive gesture of moutza / faskela has nothing to do with the ancient gesture of open hand palm which is accepted to be, on the contrary of T’s opinion, a defensive gesture against evil.