The handshake is one of the most common gestures used by the human race when they meet someone. It has become a commonly acknowledged form of greeting in many cultures and also between different cultures, though there are also forms specific to many cultures practiced locally. Many of us believe that a handshake is a modern custom, something we do in our professional and personal lives when we greet someone or part with them, to congratulate them, to thank them, or after coming to an agreement.
The origins of handshake go way back in human history although its purpose was not that different than it is today. One of the earliest recorded handshakes occurred in the ninth century B.C. when the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III formed an alliance with a Babylonian ruler. Another recording is in the ancient Greek engravings and texts from fifth and fourth centuries B.C.
A handshake, also known as dexiosis, is also found in many Greek steles and reliefs. Reliefs depicting dexiosis, meaning the “joining together of the right hands,” often depict rulers shaking hands with the gods. Several dexiosis reliefs are funerary art carved on gravestones depicting the dead people shaking hands with their spouses or a family member. It is also seen on ancient coins showing the bond between two cities.
It is also believed that the custom originated as a means to convey peaceful intentions between meeting parties. By extending the right hands openly and shaking them, strangers could assure each other that neither is holding a weapon.
There are several theories as to why and how the custom of the handshake came about. A popular theory suggests that it started as a means to show that no harm was intended by extending empty hands to show they weren’t holding any weapons. There are also suggestions that shaking hands would loosen up any weapon hidden under the sleeves. Another theory states that the gesture is equivalent to an oath and their willingness to stay true to it.
The handshake is believed to have been popularized by the 17th century Quakers who started to use it and considered it a more egalitarian gesture than bowing and tipping the hat. By the 1800s, it was often included in etiquette manuals.
According to some historians, the 17th century Quakers preferred a handshake as it puts both parties in equal positions unlike bowing, tipping one’s hat, or kissing the hand and is less grandiose. From there, the gesture became more and more common and began to replace the old gestures of greeting. During the Victorian era, there were several guidelines describing exactly how a handshake should be performed: firm, but not strong with violent shaking which was considered offensive. Now, the handshake has become an all-pervading custom that is familiar to probably every single person in the world.