Rock hand – Complete history of the hand sign
The Rock hand sign, where did it come from, what is its history, who did it first?
Today the “Rock Hand” is an iconic symbol of unity, passion, and the spirit of rock and metal music culture. But where did the gesture come from and did it always mean “party on dude”?
To understand the history of the rock hand, we have to apply a very wide ranged look into the past of this specific hand sign. And then look at how exactly it arrived in music.
Starting things off: this gesture is old. So, holding one’s hand in the rock horns position is a gesture that is far older than rock music.
Statue of Buddha from the Joseon dynasty flashing the rock hand.
The above statue from Buddha doing the rock hand sign is from Korea and was made in the Joseon dynasty. And I was not able to figure out its dating more precisely then, that is from the Joseon dynasty which was ruling for 500 years. But the Joseon Dynasty in Korea was founded by Yi Seong-gye in July 1392 and replaced by the Korean Empire in October 1897. Therefore, I can say that the rock hand sign of this Buddha definitely predates rock and metal music.
This is a modern statue of Guru Padmasambhava, a tantric Buddhist master from medieval India.
And this is a scroll from Japan which shows hand gestures known as Mudras. And this ink on paper scroll from the 11th–12th century shows the rock hand. So 800 years ago the gesture did not mean “I love rock music” or anything along those lines. And also it did not mean “I praise the devil”, because the Buddhist devil typically has no horns.
This is Mara, so to say the devil of Buddhism, and it has no horns. While the rock horn sign was sometimes thought to be a sign of the devil resembling his horns, we can probably rule out that in its original meaning it had anything to do with the devil, as in its context back then the devil had no horns.
But in order to check if the rock hand sign which was already present in Buddhism is not praise of any horned god, we have to ask if Buddhism has a horned god in general. And I say it in advance: the chances, that the rock hand sign was used in antiquity to was used to praise or greet a horned god seem unlikely. But when we see now for how many purposes the rock horns are used, we see that it would not matter if in ancient times or today also some group greeted the devil with it. But it seems to be unlikely that the gesture was originally invented for greeting any horned god. Yet in LaVeyan Satanism the gesture was used as a greeting and in Wiccan religion the rock hand was used to actually praise a horned god, as Scott Cunningham writes. So yes, actually in modern times a horned god was greeted with the rock hands, but this seems to be not the original meaning, but rather very much seems to be a re-use of an old hand gesture for a new purpose. So that the actual gesture we now call the rock hand sign originally seems to having never had anything to do with either the devil or with any horned god. So was the horned hand used to hail the devil? Maybe at some point somewhere. But if you look at LaVey Satanism, who used the hand sign as a greeting, you find that they, as surprising as it is, do not even believe in the devil. And if you look at neo-paganist Wiccan ideas about their deities, who were praised with the rock hands sign, you find, that the Wiccan belief system (as wrong as I personally consider it to be) also does not actually praise the devil. Because what the Wiccan believe praises is a male deity which is called “the horned god”, which is not the devil. While some neo-paganists themselves seem to think it actually is the devil, from common Wiccan believe it is not. So the horned god, that was hailed with the rock hands, is not the Satan of Christianity. It looks like the same person and so some theories think that christians found the witches to worship a horned god and shaped their image of the devil from this, about which maybe I can offer a better theorie later.
So we have neo-pagans worshiping a god often depicted with an animal face and horns. And worshipers of this deity actually prayed to it with the use of the rock hand. So it is actually true, that a horned god was hailed at some point with the horn gesture, just it was not the devil.
Instead, the rock hand is raised by some people in the religious context to an older concept of god, which to a modern person can easily seem outdated. A god of fertility, helping people with rebirth and growing older over the course of a year in order to be reborn with the rebirth of the new year. Which is classically the kind of nature-magical believe we are so glad to have left behind in the modern forms of the world religions. But some people celebrate that they understand what no one else understands and still hail this god of the seasons, which they do with the rock hand sign.
And since it is deliberately an old form of belief, we find very similar Gods or mystic figures in the religious history of mankind. Where horned gods or demons can be seen for example in the figures of Pan in the Greek mythology, Pashupati in the Indus valley, Naigamesha and Yama in Buddhism and Hinduism. And some of the concepts of those old gods are so surprisingly similar to the Wiccan god, that one might, especially with Yama, believe, that it is the concept of this deity which made it to the Celtic belief system and from there to the Wiccan belief system and is now greeted with the rock finger.
Pan with horns and goat legs was a figure of lust and joy.
Here we see Pan making erotic advances on Aphrodite, who threatens to slap him with her sandal, while Eros comes to help her fight Pan off. So we have a goat legged, horned being which is connected to nature-magic, which stands for lust and joy, which are traits, that remind us of two modern religious concepts at the same time: the Wiccan horned god and also the Christian depiction of the devil. The statue is from 100 BC.
Even it is an old deity on this seal from 2600-1900 BC, a horned god with 4 faces (only 3 are seen in the depiction) from the Indus valley, yet the older forms of the rock hand were probably not used to hail this god.
And also this friendly god, which is old enough to fall into the time of the ancient use of the rock hand and has horns, was most likely also not prayed to with the gesture.
This is Yama, who also most probably received no rock hand hail. But in terms of neo-paganist believe and the question of the resemblance between their horned deity and the devil, Yama becomes interesting. As both concepts, that of the horned god in neo-paganism and that of the modern conception of the devil, are based on older concepts. And Yama in a striking way combines similarities to both concepts, as he is horned and has an animal head, which are features that the devil and the horned god share. And also he is like the devil the ruler of the underworld and just as the Wiccan horned god is that leader of the people through the rebirth process. Which gives us another option as that the depiction of the Christian devil was inspired by that Celtic concept of the horned god, but that instead both concepts draw on common older concepts. While in Hinduism and Buddhism this god is friendly and reminds of the necessity to do good deeds in order to reach good things.
So if the rock hand sign, that has accompanied humanity for so long, was never originally invented to greet any horned deities, what was it used for?
This is the complete scroll from Japan, which we saw before with the rock hand on it. And we see, that it is a list of hand gestures called mudras. And mudras are hand gestures that are thought to help the body to create certain effects, like bringing calmness or helping to focus. And in the tradition of these hand postures, the rock hand was integrated. So what specifically is the effect of making the rock hand mudra. Well first off, back then it was not called the rock hand sign, as rock music was not even invented, but instead it was called Apāna Mudrā. And the Apāna Mudrā is a hand gesture commonly used in the practice of yoga and meditation, which is supposed to regulate the flow of the “Apāna Vayu”, which is one of the five vital forces (vayus) in the body according to Ayurvedic and yogic philosophies.
It is supposed to help to dispel negativity, fear, anxiety and depression. Also, it is thought to enhance happiness and contentment. Also, it is said to cultivate inner peace and guide the practitioner towards enlightenment. While, it should be done for 15 minutes or longer.
So is our “we rock” signal, which we show at concerts, actually an ancient meditation hand technique supposed to make us feel happy, regulate a certain energy flow, and help us with finding enlightenment? Not quite, because there are many different gestures and techniques of holding your hand, of which some look quite similar. And during the development of hand gestures, there is never a state in which a hand gesture has a definite form. People keep developing these hand forms over time and do them individually differently, and over time also ascribe new meanings and effects to them. So there is no definite form or meaning to none of the hand gestures we are talking about.
So let us look at the closest we can get to discerning all the gestures that are similar to the rock hand, while keeping in mind, that between different schools of ideas and over the course of history none of the forms that are shown now can be called right or precise or canonical.
This is the rock hand, as I was thought to do it on one of my first rock festivals. Note how the fingers point rather straight up.
This is a side view of the rock hand the way I do. Note how the middle fingers lie close to the palm of my hand, so there is nearly no space between the middle fingers and the palm. And the thumb lies on the middle section of the fingers.
That is another version of the rock hand, which is the way Coven and Dio seem to make it. We come to those two later and their importance for the rock hand history. Note how here the thumb is lying on the lower section of the fingers. And also how the upper fingers are put more sideways.
This is a side view of the Coven/Dio Version of the rock hand. Note how in this version of the gesture, there is a lot of space between the lower fingers and the palm.
This is Apana Mudra, note how the thumb does not cover the lower fingers at all, but instead touches both of them.
This is another version of Apana Mudra you can see from time to time. In this version, the fingers are bend more to the side.
This is a side view of Apana Mudra. Here you can see how the space between the lower fingers and the palm is even bigger than in the images before.
This is Karana Mudra. In this hand technique, the thumb touches only one finger.
Some do the Katrana mudra with the thumb touching the middel finger from below
Sometimes you see the Karana Mudra being done without the thumb even touching the middle finger.
And then there is also people who do the Karana Mudra in a very lose fashion.
The Karana Mudra in Buddhist tradition is said to help to get rid of negativity, anxiety, fear and depression. And also the Karana Mudra is thought to enhance feelings of happiness and contentment. On many Buddha statues, he is shown doing this gesture. Just as Apana Mudra also this gesture is also believed, to bring inner peace and guide towards enlightenment. Furthermore, this hand gesture is thought to remove obstacles, which put it closer to a hand gesture, called Malocchio which is traditionally used in Italy, about which we will talk in a moment, because it plays a part in the introduction of the rock hand into music culture.
But first we look at another hand gesture which looks similar, but from its origins has nothing to do with the rock hand sign. And that is a hand sign that is said to have been invented in 1906 by people were not able to hear. As those people use a sign language to show letters with their hands in order to communicate.
And by combining these three letters to one hand gesture showing all three letters at once, they invented a new sign.
This is the sign showing the three letters I L and Y at the same time to say I love you. The sign can also mean “I really like you” or “I appreciate you”. So you can also use it as a sign of friendship or respect.
This is Apana Vayu Mudra. It has not much to do with the rock hand, but we list it here for completion. It is also one of the yoga hand positions for creating some effect in the body. And this gesture is also used today for different purposes. For example, an insane far right Turkish group uses it as their sign of the wolf. But also in schools in Europe and North America this sign was used for a while to signal to the pupils to be quiet, while in this context it was called the “quiet fox”.
Now how did this ancient hand gesture get into music, to be now used by many people at rock festivals.
First we have to see that before the rock hand sign entered the music and concert culture it entered the world of sports. And that happened in the United States around the football team of the University of Texas, called the Texas Longhorns. Because in 1955 Harley Clark was hanging out with his colleagues Tom Butts and Henry K. Pitts. While those two were casting shadows at the wall of the student union. And Harley Clark thought about introducing the rock hand as a sign, with which the audience could then cheer for the Texas Longhorns football team. And being in charge of the cheerleading, he thought students the sign, so they could do it at the next football match. And it worked so well that already the next day at the football match the crowd in the audience was doing the rock hand gesture. Whereas the version of the rock hand that fans use to cheer for the Longhorns is the Coven/Dio Form that you see above in the images.
And because that all happened in 1955, this means, that when the sign started entering rock concert culture about ten years later there was already the phenomenon of whole audiences doing the sign in order to cheer.
Marlon Brando does the gesture in a film in 1955 while singing. So technically, the seems to be the first person to be photographed while doing the rock hand in a musical context. But he is not singing a heavy metal song, and he does the rock hand sign to indicate “snake eyes” which is a losing dice roll in craps.
So it seems reasonable to not count his use of the devil horns as a sign of rock n roll.
Marlon Brando doing the gesture at 3:40.
So to understand how the rock hand sign became connected to music we look at the first people who did it in a musical context, but people who did it in a way that was not as specific as doing it and saying “snake eyes”, because then it could catch on as a general greeting. And there we find, that there are actually musicians who are proven to having shown this hand gesture very early in the context of music, because there are photos of them doing it.
The first musicians who are shown early on photos doing the rock hand sign are John Lennon, Esther “Jinx” Dawson and her bandmates of the Band Coven, and Ronnie James Dio.
While the first time the rock horns appeared on an album cover was the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine Album from 1969, where a comic version of John Lennon does the sign. While it is just a drawn comic version, Lennon is reported to be shown on many pictures from 1967 to be doing the gesture.
Now in the same year in 1969 also the band Coven released an album, which was called Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls, and is commonly referred to only as Witchcraft. And on that album, the band members do the Rock hand sign.
On the album cover, you can see how in 1969 the band members of Coven do the rock hand sign. And the woman in the middle, the singer of that band later did the rock hands on many occasions and on many pictures.
The woman lying in the middle is Lead vocalist Jinx Dawson.
While the lead singer Jinx Dawson tells us, that she has been doing the sign since 1967 in the context of music, which is the same date as John Lennon is reported to have been doing the horns gesture.
While as I said at this point, it was already common for more than ten years for large audiences at the Texas Longhorn college football games to show the horns sign in order to cheer. So the first musician, that shows this gesture on the photo of a cover of a record is a painted John Lennon on the cover of Yellow Submarine, but coven used it on a cover in the same year. Now what made Coven and John Lennon do the horns sign, what was the intended message. While it remains unclear for John Lennon, we can at least guess why Coven did the metal horns.
Because modern forms of Witchcraft are used to using the Indian hand gestures called mudras for supporting magic practices. So the rock hand sign can easily be used in the context of Witchcraft magic, where we could assume, that it has similar meanings, as it has in Buddhist tradition, which in the context of witchcraft might be suggested as being used for cleansing the atmosphere.
And also in the typical modern form of witchcraft the Wiccan belief system, which already exist when Coven created their album, the sign of the horns is used to greet one of the Wiccan deities the horned god, which, as we said earlier, is not the devil.
Now, “Coven” means “a meeting of witches and magicians”. And if we look at the image above from the album “Witchcraft”, and see a lot of people dressed in black robes with a flipped cross and a naked woman lying on an altar with a scull and a goblet on her, we can say, that this is showing or at least visualizing a ritual of witchcraft. So when on this image and also on the album outside people are doing the rock hand sign it can safely be assumed, that they do it in the context of witchcraft. Which in this case would then mean either the effort of magically putting a good atmosphere to the ritual, or greeting or invoking the horned god. While of course we have to strongly consider, that the album images are more of an advertising in order to give the band more flair, instead of being an actual ceremony of witchcraft, yet we have to conclude, that probably the sign still is in the images in its function as being a hand gesture of witchcraft.
Well as Jinx lets us know in an interview that she likes the rock hand to be something that everybody does at concerts, so we also can safely assume that to the band members the sign does not seem to have a secret cultish meaning, so that nobody outside the circle should do it. So we can quite safely conclude, that the band members did the sign not with complete cultish intention, not actually performing it as a ritualistic piece of nature-magic. Whereas as Jinx says the knowledge of the ideas of witchcraft, with which she grew up, to her are a legitimate friendly take on religion. And so it is not too strange, when she freely uses its symbols in a casual, friendly manner. But also in one interview she says, that she rather thought of the use of the sign with its meaning it has in free masonry, as a secret greeting.
Much later than in 1979 ten years after the Coven album, Ronnie James Dio started to use the sign on the stage of his rock concerts with the band Black Sabbath.
Even though the name Black Sabbath points into the direction of witches cults, Dio tells us, that he knew the sign from his grandmother who used it to ward off curses. He refers to one other traditional use of the rock hand, which is called Maloik or Malocchio in which the hand gesture can either block a curse or send out a curse. Whereas, inside this tradition, the rock hand gesture is formed in the way the first two hand images show it. Which is my usual way of doing the rock hands and the Coven/Dio version. Ronnie James Dio also lets us know that Ozzy Osbourne the first singer of the band showed a peace sign on concerts, and so he also wanted to have a gesture to show to the audience and picked the sign he knew from his grandmother.
The Malocchio, the evil eye gesture, is done in both versions of the rock hand we saw earlier.
While pretty much all forms of rock hand gesture shown above can nowadays be seen at all sorts of music festivals and concerts.
The CARFINGER Rock Hand Sticker
This car sticker is a rock hand. And that means, that the sticker shows a rock gesture. And therefor if you like rock music and want to equip your car, your can put this car sticker to it. And this rock gesture Carfinger is not like all the other car stickers out there, because it is attached to the windshield wiper. And because of this attachment, you can let this gesture show to the people in traffic behind you simply by flipping a switch. And that is exactly what the original Car Finger is about. And if you do not listen to rock and roll or heavy music, then still this windshield wiper sticker is a cool gift for a friend. As with the original series by Car Finger, you can be sure to get a great quality. So with this little rock present for a driver, you have a nice little gadget for their vehicle. And we can call it a gadget because it moves at the tapping of a button. So don’t hesitate and get this little thing and with it buy one of the best presents.
And you might also want to check out the shop, in which we show all the other stickers, which are not only all attached to the windshield wiper, but also can all be put to the same attachment. Which makes it that you can interchange the stickers easily. So maybe one day you want to use this hand gesture and another day you want to use one of the others. And with this sticker, you can simply change between the options.
Images under the Creative commons 1 license:
- Japan scroll of mudras and image section. The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick, and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1975
- Aphrodite, Pan and Eros by Jebulon.
- Shiva Pashupat 2600-1900BC Indus Valley. Public domain 70 years.
- Yama picture by Daderot.
- Hook em Horns image by Enoch Lai. General Public domain.
Images under the Creative commons 2 license:
- Golden Buddha image taken by pressapochista.
- Mara taken by Dharma from Sadao, Thailand.
Images under the Creative Commons 4 license:
- Guru Padmasambhava is a photography by Subhrajyoti07
Naigamesha. Gift of the Ernest Erickson Foundation, Inc.